Julian Assange arrested in London as US awaits his extradition

The WikiLeaks founder faces charges in the US tied to his alleged role in a massive leak of classified information.

Katie Collins Senior European Correspondent
Katie a UK-based news reporter and features writer. Officially, she is CNET's European correspondent, covering tech policy and Big Tech in the EU and UK. Unofficially, she serves as CNET's Taylor Swift correspondent. You can also find her writing about tech for good, ethics and human rights, the climate crisis, robots, travel and digital culture. She was once described a "living synth" by London's Evening Standard for having a microchip injected into her hand.
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Alfred Ng was a senior reporter for CNET News. He was raised in Brooklyn and previously worked on the New York Daily News's social media and breaking news teams.
Katie Collins
Alfred Ng
5 min read
Julian Assange Arrested In London

Wikileaks founder Julian Assange sits in a police van following his arrest Thursday.

Getty Images

WikiLeaks founder  Julian Assange  was taken into custody by London's Metropolitan Police on Thursday at the Ecuadorian Embassy, where he's been living for almost seven years.

Sporting a thick beard, Assange was whisked across London to Westminster Magistrate's Court, where he was found guilty of breaching bail. That charge carries a possible prison sentence of up to 12 months.

Having now left the sanctuary of the embassy, Assange could also be extradited to the US. The 47-year-old faces charges stemming from his alleged role in what the US Justice Department calls "one of the largest compromises of classified information in the history of the United States." The Justice Department said Thursday that the arrest was pursuant to an extradition treaty between the US and the UK.

The arrest took place inside the embassy after Ecuador withdrew asylum, police said in a statement. UK Home Secretary Sajid Javid tweeted to confirm Assange's arrest. "No one is above the law," he said.

The only footage of Assange's arrest appears to have been captured by Russian government-funded news outlet RT.

WikiLeaks described the turn of events as a travesty of justice.

"Ecuador has illegally terminated Assange political asylum in violation of international law," WikiLeaks said on Twitter.

The arrest comes only days after UN special rapporteur on torture Nils Melzer warned that expelling Assange from the embassy could leave him vulnerable and "expose him to a real risk of serious violations of his human rights."

Assange started living in the Ecuadorian Embassy in 2012 to avoid extradition to Sweden over sexual assault charges. Those charges have since been dropped, but Assange was still wanted in the UK for skipping bail in 2012. He has remained in the embassy out of fear of being extradited to the US on separate charges.

What the US says

On Thursday, the Justice Department unsealed court documents, dating back to March 2018, in connection with a federal charge of "conspiracy to commit computer intrusion for agreeing to break a password to a classified US government computer." The indictment alleges that, in March 2010, Assange conspired in the endeavor with Chelsea Manning, a former intelligence analyst in the US Army, to access a Defense Department network.

The Justice Department alleges that Assange encouraged Manning to provide him with classified records. During one exchange, the DOJ alleges, Manning told Assange "after this upload, that's all I really have got left,"  and Assange replied by saying, "curious eyes never run dry in my experience."

If convicted, Assange would face a maximum penalty of five years in prison, the Justice Department said Thursday.

Watch this: After Julian Assange's arrest, the US DoJ piles on

WikiLeaks and Assange have been under scrutiny since the highly publicized 2010 leak of diplomatic cables and military documents.

In the first decade after its 2006 launch, WikiLeaks released -- by its own count -- more than 10 million secret documents. The leaks ranged from a video showing an American Apache helicopter in the Iraq War shooting and killing two journalists in 2007 to emails from the Democratic National Committee and Hillary Clinton campaign chairman John Podesta during the 2016 presidential race.

The Justice Department under President Barack Obama declined to press charges for revealing secrets, concluding that WikiLeaks was working in a capacity akin to journalism. But the case was never formally closed, and the Justice Department under President Donald Trump signaled a willingness to take another look at the case.

Sen. Mark Warner, vice chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, said he hopes that Assange will be extradited quickly to the US. 

"Julian Assange has long professed high ideals and moral superiority," Warner, a Democrat from Virginia, said in a statement. "Unfortunately, whatever his intentions when he started WikiLeaks, what he's really become is a direct participant in Russian efforts to undermine the West and a dedicated accomplice in efforts to undermine American security."

Fighting against extradition

At a press conference outside the London courthouse, Assange's attorneys said that they would fight extradition to the US. They dismissed the US charges related to hacking allegations and said that Assange's arrest was an attack on journalism. 

"It is quite obvious that the US authorities have picked just one element of what they've been working on for a long time," Kristinn Hrafnsson, WikiLeaks' editor-in-chief, said at the conference. "There is no assurance that there would not be additional charges when he is on US soil."

A judge said that Assange will return to court on June 12 for extradition matters, which his attorneys and supporters will continue to fight. Outside the courthouse, protesters were chanting, "there's only one condition, no extradition."

Assange's attorney Jen Robinson said he had a message for the public. 

"I've just been with Mr. Assange in the police cells, he wants to thank all of his supporters for their ongoing support, and he said, 'I told you so,'" Robinson said.

In a statement on Twitter, Robinson said she had confirmation that Assange's arrest was "not just for breach of bail conditions but also in relation to a US extradition request."

An early warning that Assange would be evicted from the embassy came in a thread of tweets from the official WikiLeaks account a week ago. The organization claimed to have details about Assange's imminent release from a high-level source within Ecuador.

Soon after the tweets were sent, activists supporting Assange turned out with banners and tents in support of his freedom. Following the protesters came the police, who many assumed were there to arrest Assange as he left the embassy.

In a video statement posted to Twitter on Thursday, President of Ecuador Lenín Moreno said the country was withdrawing asylum due to Assange's "discourteous and aggressive behavior."

'Hopefully he will now face justice'

Sen. Richard Burr, the Senate Intelligence Committee's chair, said in a statement that Assange and WikiLeaks had been working with the "Russian intelligence services for years." 

"Mr. Assange engaged in a conspiracy to steal classified information, putting millions of lives at risk all over the world," Burr, a Republican from North Carolina, said. "Hopefully he will now face justice."

President Donald Trump stepped back from previous remarks about WikiLeaks. During his presidential campaign, Trump made several comments about the site. At an October 2016 rally, for instance, he said, "I love WikiLeaks."

At a press conference Thursday, a reporter asked the commander-in-chief if he still felt that love. 

"I know nothing about WikiLeaks," Trump said. "It's not my thing." He added that he'd be leaving the handling of the case to the Justice Department. "I've been seeing what's happened with Assange, and that will be a determination from the attorney general."

CNET's Richard Trenholm contributed to this report.

Originally published April 11 at 2:45 a.m. PT.
Updates, 6:31 a.m.: Adds information from the US Justice Department; 7:15 a.m.: Includes result of Assange's court appearance; 7:30 a.m.: Adds comment from Sen. Mark Warner; 8:18 a.m.: Adds remarks from Assange's lawyers; 9:07 a.m.: Includes additional details; 9:36 a.m.: Adds comments from Sen. Richard Burr; 10:01 a.m.: Includes remarks from Trump.