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Assange plea came after warning that U.S. would lose extradition fight

On April 4, a Justice Department attorney in Europe sent a dire message to colleagues back home: Their five-year battle to bring Julian Assange from Britain to the United States to stand trial for publishing hundreds of thousands of secret diplomatic and military files was likely to fail.

If a deal was not made with the WikiLeaks founder before a U.K. court’s April 16 deadline to provide assurances related to free speech, they would lose all their leverage and possibly their British attorneys, who increasingly saw the case as unwinnable.

“The urgency here has now reached a critical point,” the Justice Department trial attorney wrote, in an email reviewed by The Washington Post. “The case will head to appeal and we will lose.”

For months, according to multiple people familiar with the case, the U.S. trial team attorneys had been pushing senior officials at the Justice Department to approve a deal that would have involved Assange pleading guilty to multiple misdemeanors, which he could do remotely, rather than in the Virginia court where he had been charged in 2018. A WikiLeaks representative would then appear in court and plead guilty to a felony on behalf of the nonprofit organization.

But top officials in the Justice Department did not act on the idea.

“Time is short and my understanding is that the present plea proposal is currently on the [deputy attorney general’s] desk,” another member of the trial team emailed to leaders at the Justice Department’s counterintelligence and export control unit on April 4.

Forced into action, the United States managed to stave off Assange’s appeal for two more months. In the end, the plea agreement allowed Assange to return home to Australia after he admitted on a remote Western Pacific island to a felony violation of the Espionage Act.

The near-collapse of his prosecution for the 2010 and 2011 exposures of American actions overseas was troubled from beginning to end by the implications for free-speech rights at home and by fraught interactions with foreign courts. And it fractured an already contentious relationship between prosecutors on the case, who had been pushing for a plea deal for the past year, and senior officials in the Justice Department who held out for a felony conviction for Assange.

This account is based on interviews with eight people familiar with the negotiations who spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe sensitive conversations.

The Justice Department declined to comment. “We don’t discuss internal deliberations,” Attorney General Merrick Garland said at a news conference Thursday. “The Justice Department reaches resolution in plea matters when the Justice Department believes it can reach a resolution that serves in the best interests of the United States.”

The Assange case had challenged U.S. government officials across three administrations since WikiLeaks published reams of documents revealing U.S. military and diplomatic secrets in 2010. The leaks prompted a long-running internal Justice Department debate about whether to charge Assange or whether his organization’s actions — which included accepting leaked government documents and publishing them — were similar enough to traditional newsgathering that a prosecution would violate First Amendment protections for press freedoms. Ultimately, he was indicted in 2018 and arrested in Britain, where he had since 2012 taken shelter in the Ecuadorian Embassy as a fugitive from allegations of sexual assault in Sweden.

In December 2023, attorneys in the Justice Department working on the Assange case alerted superiors to a milestone that had just passed. Assange had spent more time fighting extradition from a London prison than he would probably be sentenced to had he come to the United States and pleaded guilty. While Assange and his supporters frequently suggested he was facing life in prison or even the death penalty, the government lawyers involved in the case had worked out that his recommended punishment would be about 55 months. It was time to resolve the case, they argued.

Discussions of a plea with Assange’s legal team had been underway since August. Assange had two nonnegotiable demands. One was that he would not set foot in the continental United States, where he was convinced he would be charged with new crimes or shipped to military prison at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba. Second was that if he pleaded guilty, his sentence would not exceed time already served in London’s Belmarsh Prison.

Assange’s lawyers proposed he admit to misdemeanors for mishandling classified material, which unlike a felony plea could be handled remotely by video. (The crime is a felony now, but it was classified as a misdemeanor at the time of the leaks.) Prosecutors were open to that if a…

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