Lawyers representing the founder of WikiLeaks learned that US government had issued an indictment against Julian Assange by reading about it in the press, a court heard today.
The indictment, which has yet to be served on the WikiLeaks founder, introduces allegations that he conspired with hackers to encourage them to break into computer systems to obtain material to publish on WikiLeaks.
The indictment, published on 24 June by the US Department of Justice, aims to “broaden the scope” of an existing conspiracy charge against Assange under the US Computer Fraud and Abuse Act by introducing examples of Assange’s alleged collusion with hackers.
The move by the US government to introduce claims against Assange at a late stage in his extradition process caught both defence and prosecution lawyers by surprise.
Mark Summers QC, representing Assange, told the judge, Vanessa Baraister, that the indictment, issued by a federal grand jury in the Eastern District of Virginia, could disrupt the extradition proceedings against Assange.
“We are, to say the least, surprised at the timing of this development. We are surprised that we and you are hearing about it in the way we are, that is to say through the press and not through its service in these proceedings,” he said.
“We are concerned that it has obvious capacity to derail the hearing date depending on its content.”
Fresh hacking conspiracy claims
The indictment does not add additional counts to an 18-count indictment issued against Assange in May 2019.
But according to the US Department of Justice, the indictment “broadens the scope” of the conspiracy charge against Assange that he recruited and agreed with hackers to commit computer intrusions to benefit WikiLeaks.
It follows an earlier charge that Assange conspired with army intelligence analyst Chelsea Manning to crack a “password hash” to a classified US Department of Defense computer, which Assange denies.
A federal grand jury claims in the indictment that Assange sought to recruit hackers at conferences in Europe and Asia to provide WikiLeaks with classified information, including military secrets.
The indictment alleges that since the early days of WikiLeaks, Assange – who described himself as a “famous hacker in Australia” – has spoken at hacking conferences to encourage others to hack to obtain information for WikiLeaks.
Assange allegedly told the Hacking At Random conference that WikiLeaks had obtained non-public documents form the Congressional Research Service by exploiting a “small vulnerability” inside the document distribution systems of the US Congress.
He is alleged to have said “this is what any one of you would find if you were actually looking”.
In 2010, Assange is alleged to have gained access to a government computer system of an unnamed Nato country, widely understood to be Finland.
And in 2012, Assange communicated directly with a leader of the hacking group LulzSec, who was secretly an FBI informer, and provided a list of targets for LulzSec to hack.
In one case, Assange is alleged to have asked the head of LulzSec to look for mail, documents, databases and PDFs for WikiLeaks.
The indictment also alleges WikiLeaks obtained and published emails from a data breach committed against an American intelligence consulting company – widely identified as Stratfor – by hackers affiliated with the hacking groups Anonymous and LulzSec.
Joel Smith, representing the US, said that both the defence and the prosecution were still considering the impact that the superseding indictment would have on the case.
Summers said the appropriate response was to respond to it, once the defence had been served with the indictment.
Assange unable to attend due to health issues
Summers told the court that Assange was unable to attend the hearing by video link from prison because of health reasons.
Baraister said she had been given information from staff at Belmarsh, not stating that Assange was unwell, but that that he would not attend court this morning.
“The law requires Mr Assange to be brought before court at prescribed intervals. Remand in his absence can be made, but the court needs to be satisfied that his non-attendance is by reason of illness,” she said.
Summers said that there are medical issues surrounding Assange’s attendance in an unventilated video room and that Belmarsh is aware of those issues.
The court heard that a medical expert for the US had difficulties assessing Assange over the telephone.
Previous attempts by the expert to visit Assange in Belmarsh failed because of Covid-19.
Baraister said the extradition case would almost certainly be heard at the Central Criminal Court – the Old Bailey – on 7 September.
If convicted, he faces a maximum penalty of 10 years in prison on each count except for conspiracy to commit computer intrusion, for which he faces a maximum penalty of five years in prison, the US Department of Justice said.
A case management hearing will take place on 27 July.
Additional research by Laura Middag Alvarez.