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Assange legal case could hang on contradiction

Julian Assange denies knowing Bradley Manning, but earlier chat logs appear to show the Army private had a source "relationship" with WikiLeaks editor.

Declan McCullagh Former Senior Writer
Declan McCullagh is the chief political correspondent for CNET. You can e-mail him or follow him on Twitter as declanm. Declan previously was a reporter for Time and the Washington bureau chief for Wired and wrote the Taking Liberties section and Other People's Money column for CBS News' Web site.
Declan McCullagh
3 min read

A contradiction emerged today over WikiLeaks' relationship with one of its suspected sources, a dispute that could influence whether Julian Assange ultimately faces conspiracy charges in the United States.

The WikiLeaks editor who was released from a London prison yesterday denied knowing Bradley Manning, the Army private who is behind held in a military brig in Quantico, Va., on charges that include leaking classified material.

"I had never heard of the name Bradley Manning before it was published in the press," Assange told ABC News today. "WikiLeaks' technology [was] designed from the very beginning to make sure that we never know the identities or names of people submitting us material."

That contradicts a chat log that appears to show Manning's conversations before his arrest--and before his name ever appeared in the media--in which he described having a close relationship with Assange as a confidential source.

Manning reportedly told ex-hacker Adrian Lamo that he had "developed a relationship with Assange" over many months, according to transcripts posted by BoingBoing and Wired.com over the summer. Lamo told CNET that the transcripts were accurate, but that he doesn't have the computer equipment on which it was saved because the FBI had taken it.

The details are crucial. Federal prosecutors are reportedly exploring filing conspiracy charges against Assange on the theory that he collaborated with Manning on transferring secret documents obtained from the Army's internal computer network. (That would allow them to avoid charging him under the Espionage Act.)

Sweden is seeking Assange's extradition from the U.K. to question him about alleged sex offenses. Assange was released on bail of 200,000 British pounds, or about $316,000, and he will be under strict limits on his movements until a hearing on January 11.

The U.S. appears to be intent on pursuing a parallel indictment, though no charges have become official. A State Department spokesman today said "the investigation into the leak of classified cables is ongoing" but would not provide details. (One lawyer for Assange said early this week that a grand jury in Virginia had been convened, but another said yesterday that was only a rumor.)

Here's one excerpt from the published logs that appears to show that when asked for unreleased information, Manning refused, saying he'd have to check with Assange:

(1:51:14 PM) Adrian Lamo: Anything unreleased?
(1:51:25 PM) Bradley Manning: i'd have to ask assange
(1:51:53 PM) Bradley Manning: i zerofilled the original
(1:51:54 PM) Adrian Lamo: why do you answer to him?
(1:52:29 PM) Bradley Manning: i dont... i just want the material out there... i dont want to be a part of it

This isn't the first time that Assange may have misstated facts, or perhaps even lied, in an attempt to protect a source. In July, he denied having classified State Department cables, saying that if he did, "we would have released them."

Four months later, WikiLeaks began slowly publishing the State Department dispatches. Approximately 1,618 of 251,000 have been released so far.