The U.S Department of Justice does not have to disclose details about any criminal case involving WikiLeaks publisher Julian Assange, a federal judge ruled Wednesday.
Ruling from Alexandria, Virginia, U.S. District Court Judge Leonie M. Brinkema issued a 10-page ruling denying an effort to uncover information about the government’s assumed case against Mr. Assange, a 47-year-old Australian who has been living in the Ecuadorian Embassy in London since 2012.
The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, a nonprofit based in D.C., mounted the effort late last year after federal prosecutors wrote in an unrelated court case that Mr. Assange has been charged under seal. The Justice Department said the filing was a mistake and has refused to confirm or deny whether the government is actively investigating Mr. Assange, prompting the Reporters Committee to file a lawsuit seeking the unsealing of related court records.
“Until there is a sufficiently certain disclosure that charges have in fact been filed, the Committee’s common law and First Amendment claims are premature,” the judge wrote in her order denying the request. “To hold otherwise would mean that any member of the public or press-by demanding access to judicial records based on little more than speculation-could effectively force the Government to admit or deny that charges had been filed.”
“Permitting such fishing expeditions would require courts to sort through endless factual permutations giving rise to varying degrees of uncertainty. Courts cannot perform the delicate balancing required by the First Amendment and common law doctrines under such uncertain circumstances,” added Judge Brinkema, a Clinton appointee.
A spokesperson for the U.S. Attorney’s Office in the Eastern District of Virginia declined to comment when reached by The Washington Times.
“We’re disappointed the court concluded that our motion to unseal was premature,” said Katie Townsend, a legal director for the Reporters Committee. “Even though the court did not reach the merits of our motion, it did rightly recognize that there is a First Amendment and common law right of access to the types of court records at issue here. The disclosure of the nature of the charges against Assange are a matter of public interest and should be made public.”
The Justice Department acknowledged opening an investigation into WikiLeaks in 2010 following its publication of classified U.S. military and diplomatic document, and prosecutors have previous pursued charges against the website’s suspected and convicted sources. That government has refused to say if Mr. Assange has been personally charged, however, notwithstanding The Associated Press and other outlets recently confirming the existence of a sealed indictment against him.
“Generally, if the public court record/docket does not contain charges against a particular individual, there are two possibilities: 1) the person is not charged; or 2) the person is charged under seal,” U.S. Attorney Gordon Kromberg argued for the government in a previous court filing. “In either event, the government is not required to publicly acknowledge which of those two possibilities happens to be the case with respect to any individual.”
“The DoJ also confirmed in November to AP & Washington Post that it indicted our publisher,” a representative for WikiLeaks told The Washington Times on Wednesday. “The behavior of its officials are transparent and the judge should haul them back into court and charge them with contempt.”
Ecuador granted Mr. Assange political asylum and citizenship in 2012 and 2017, respectively, providing the WikiLeaks publisher with multiple degrees of protection from potential U.S. prosecution. He risks being arrested if he exits the embassy, however, which he fears would lend to being extradited abroad to face felonies related to leaking state secrets.
WikiLeaks has remained active during Mr. Assange’s residency at the embassy, notably dumping internal Democratic National Committee emails at the height of the 2016 U.S. presidential race.
More recently, federal prosecutors alleged in a criminal indictment unsealed last Friday that a senior member of President Trump’s election campaign was directed during the race to contact Roger Stone, a Republican strategist who claimed to be in contact with Mr. Assange, about forthcoming WikiLeaks releases prior to their publication.
Mr. Stone, 64, has denied wrongdoing.