A Wish From All Sides to Move On Gives Freedom to Julian Assange

As negotiations to end the long legal brawl between Julian Assange, the WikiLeaks founder, and the United States reached a critical point this spring, prosecutors presented his lawyers with a choice so madcap that a person involved thought it sounded like a line from a Monty Python movie.

“Guam or Saipan?”

It was no joke. His path to freedom, he was told, would pass through one of the two American-held islands in the blue expanse of the Pacific Ocean.

Mr. Assange, who feared being imprisoned for the rest of his life in the United States, had long insisted on one condition for any plea deal: that he never set foot in the country. The U.S. government, in turn, had demanded that Mr. Assange plead guilty to a felony for violating the Espionage Act, which required him to appear before a federal judge.

In April, a lawyer with the Justice Department’s national security division broke the impasse with a sly workaround: How about an American courtroom that wasn’t actually inside mainland America?

Mr. Assange, worn down by five years of confinement in a London prison — where he spent 23 hours a day in his cell — quickly recognized that the deal was the best he had ever been offered. The two sides settled on Saipan, in the Northern Mariana Islands in the Pacific, 6,000 miles from the U.S. West Coast and about 2,200 miles from his native Australia.

This long, strange trip brought to an end an even longer, stranger legal trip that began after Mr. Assange — an ambitious hacker-activist who took on the U.S. national security and political establishments — became alternately celebrated and reviled for revealing state secrets in the 2010s.

Those included material about American military activity in Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as confidential cables shared among diplomats. During the 2016 presidential campaign, WikiLeaks released thousands of emails stolen from the Democratic National Committee, leading to revelations that embarrassed the party and Hillary Clinton’s campaign.

Yet the negotiations that led to Mr. Assange’s release were surprisingly amicable and efficient, because both sides acted out of a mutual desire to end a stalemate that had left Mr. Assange in limbo and the department mired in a protracted extradition fight, according to eight people with knowledge of the talks.

The calendar was a major catalyst. By late 2023, senior officials at the Justice Department had concluded that Mr. Assange, now 52, had already served a sentence significantly longer than what many people convicted of similar crimes had served (He had been held in confinement 62 months by the time of his release).

Although he had been charged with 18 counts under the Espionage Act, and faced up to hundreds of years in prison, Mr. Assange, if extradited, tried and convicted, most likely would have been sentenced to about four years if his sentences were stacked concurrently, his legal team calculated in a court document.

Department officials were eager to be rid of the troublesome, time-consuming case, which had made some Assange prosecutors the targets of WikiLeaks’ supporters. One senior official said that another factor in the negotiations was “Assange fatigue.”

Moreover, some officials appointed under President Biden were never entirely comfortable with the Trump administration’s decision to charge Mr. Assange with activities that skirted the line between espionage and legitimate disclosures made in the public interest, current and former officials said.

A Justice Department spokeswoman had no comment. Attorney General Merrick B. Garland told reporters on Thursday that the deal served the “best interests” of the country.

By early 2024, leaders in Australia, including Kevin Rudd, the ambassador to the United States, and Prime Minister Anthony Albanese, began pressuring their American counterparts to reach a deal — not so much out of solidarity with Mr. Assange, or support for his actions, but because he had spent so much time in captivity.

“The Australian government has consistently said that Mr. Assange’s case has dragged on for too long, and that there is nothing to be gained by his continued incarceration,” Mr. Albanese wrote on X on the day of his release. “We want him brought home to Australia.”

On April 11, the fifth anniversary of Mr. Assange’s incarceration, President Biden told reporters at the White House that the United States was “considering” Australia’s request to return him to his home. Nonetheless, U.S. officials said the White House played no role in resolving the case.

Mr. Assange was desperate to go home. He has been experiencing health problems, his wife Stella told reporters, and Mr. Assange had talked candidly over the years about his bouts of serious depression. Even had he been in perfect health, the toll of spending nearly 14 years pent up in London was an enormous strain. He lived first as an exile inside the Ecuadorean Embassy, in an effort to evade Swedish authorities investigating him for sexual assault, and the later five of those years in Belmarsh Prison.

One of Mr. Assange’s lawyers, Jennifer Robinson, told an Australian TV interviewer she believed that the Australian pressure campaign, coupled with a positive recent ruling in his extradition case, had created a shift in talks with the Justice Department starting six months ago.

Late last year, Mr. Assange’s Washington-based legal team, led by trial lawyer Barry Pollack, submitted proposals in which Mr. Assange would plead guilty to misdemeanor charges, from a site outside the United States, and be sentenced to time served.

Mr. Pollack also suggested that the government charge WikiLeaks, and not its founder, with a felony for obtaining and disseminating sensitive intelligence documents Mr. Assange obtained from Chelsea Manning, a former U.S. Army intelligence analyst 15 years ago.

The offer appealed to some prosectors within the department, who were eager for an exit ramp. But after a short period of internal discussions, senior officials rejected that approach, drafting a somewhat tougher counteroffer: Mr. Assange would plead to a single felony count, conspiracy to obtain and disseminate national defense information, a more serious offense that encompassed his interactions with Ms. Manning.

Free speech groups believe that the agreement represents a setback for press freedoms, but Mr. Assange did not appear to have a problem, conceptually, with admitting to a felony on those grounds.

Instead, his initial refusal to plead guilty to a felony was rooted in his reluctance to appear in an American courtroom, out of fear of being detained indefinitely or physically attacked in the United States, Ms. Robinson said in the TV interview.

He made “a rational choice,” she added.

In May, a court in London ruled, on narrow grounds, that Mr. Assange could appeal his extradition to the United States. That decision offered him the promise of eventual victory, but left him in indefinite confinement until then.

Nick Vamos, the former head of extradition for the Crown Prosecution Service, which is responsible for bringing criminal cases in England and Wales, believes the ruling might have “triggered” an acceleration of the plea deal.

But negotiations for Mr. Assange’s release seem to have been well along by then. The Justice Department had floated its Saipan plan before the ruling, U.S. officials said.

By June, all that remained was arranging the complex legal and transportational logistics.

Australia’s government put up the $520,000 needed to charter a private jet to ferry Mr. Assange from London to Saipan, and then back home. His team is appealing to supporters on social media to crowdsource the reimbursement.

Then there was the matter of coordinating his release with British authorities, who quietly convened a bail hearing a few days before he was scheduled to take off on his flight to freedom on June 24.

Mr. Assange had a second ironclad demand, which came into play as the saga neared its finale: No matter what would happen in Saipan, he intended to walk out of court a free man.

Justice Department officials saw little possibility that the judge in the case, Ramona V. Manglona, would scuttle the deal. So they had agreed, as part of the earlier negotiations, to allow him to leave for Australia even if she rejected the agreement.

It wasn’t a problem. Judge Manglona accepted the deal without complaint, and wished him “peace” and a happy birthday on July 3, when he will turn 53.

Mr. Assange mounted one, modest final protest — within the constraints imposed upon him by the terms of the deal.

He told the court he believed he had been “working as a journalist” when interacting with Ms. Manning — but took pains to add that he now accepted that his actions had been “a violation” of U.S. law.

Matthew McKenzie, one of the lead prosecutors in the case, agreed to disagree.

“We reject those sentiments, but accept that he believes them,” he replied.

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