What to know about WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange and the guilty plea that freed him

WASHINGTON (AP) — The guilty plea by WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange brings a stunning conclusion to an international saga of the quixotic hacker who exposed government secrets.

The deal reached with the U.S. Justice Department came after Assange spent 12 years either in self-exile or a British prison.

He pleaded guilty to conspiring to unlawfully obtain and disseminate classified information relating to the national defense of the United States. The deal required him to admit guilt but also permitted him to return to Australia without any time in an American prison.

A look at Assange, the case and the latest developments:

Who is Julian Assange?

An Australian editor and publisher, he is best known for having founded the anti-secrecy website WikiLeaks, which gained massive attention — and notoriety — for the 2010 release of almost half a million documents relating to the U.S. wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

His activism made him a cause célèbre among press freedom advocates who said his work in exposing U.S. military misconduct in foreign countries made his activities indistinguishable from what traditional journalists are expected to do as part of their jobs.

But those same actions put him in the crosshairs of American prosecutors, who released an indictment in 2019 that accused Assange — holed up at the time in the Ecuadorian Embassy in London — of conspiring with an Army private to illegally obtain and publish sensitive government records.

“Julian Assange is no journalist,” John Demers, the then-top Justice Department national security official, said at the time. “No responsible actor, journalist or otherwise, would purposely publish the names of individuals he or she knew to be confidential human sources in war zones, exposing them to the gravest of dangers.”

What is WikiLeaks?

Assange founded WikiLeaks in 2006 as a place to post confidential documents exposing corruption and revealing secret government workings behind warfare and spying.

It has gone well beyond that, though, in publishing everything from Church of Scientology records to Sarah Palin’s emails to a membership list of the far-right British National Party.

It released more than 570,000 pages of messages sent on Sept. 11, 2001, that showed users frantically trying to reach loved ones near the World Trade Center or warning them not to go downtown after hijacked jets struck the towers.

In 2008, a federal judge in San Francisco briefly shuttered the site after a Swiss bank accused it of posting stolen account information. The judge reversed the decision just over a week later after protests by free-speech advocates and news media organizations.

The site — and Assange — became best known in 2010 with the release of the classified U.S. military information, including chilling footage from an Apache helicopter showing people being gunned down in Baghdad as American airmen can be heard laughing about the “dead bastards.” Two Reuters journalists were among the dead and the wounded included children.

What is Assange accused of?

The Trump administration’s Justice Department accused Assange of directing former Army intelligence analyst Chelsea Manning in one of the largest compromises of classified information in U.S. history.

The charges relate to WikiLeaks’ publication of thousands of leaked military and diplomatic documents, with prosecutors accusing Assange of helping Manning steal classified diplomatic cables that they say endangered national security and of conspiring together to crack a Defense Department password.

Reports from the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq published by Assange included the names of Afghans and Iraqis who provided information to American and coalition forces, prosecutors said, while the diplomatic cables he released exposed journalists, religious leaders, human rights advocates and dissidents in repressive countries.

Manning was sentenced to 35 years in prison after being convicted of violating the Espionage Act and other offenses for leaking classified government and military documents to WikiLeaks. President Barack Obama commuted her sentence in 2017, allowing her release after about seven years behind bars.

Why wasn’t he already in U.S. custody?

Assange has spent the last five years in a British high-security prison, fighting to avoid extradition to the U.S. and winning favorable court rulings that have delayed any transfer across the Atlantic.

He was evicted in April 2019 from the Ecuadorian Embassy in London, where he had sought refuge seven years earlier amid an investigation by Swedish authorities into claims of sexual misconduct that he has long denied and that was later dropped. The South American nation revoked the political asylum following the charges by the U.S. government.

Despite his arrest and imprisonment by British authorities, extradition efforts by the U.S. had stalled before the plea deal.

A U.K. judge rejected the U.S. extradition request in 2021 because Assange was likely to kill himself if held under harsh U.S. prison conditions. Higher courts overturned that decision after getting assurances from the U.S. about his treatment. The British government signed an extradition order in June 2022.

Then, last month, two High Court judges ruled that Assange can mount a new appeal based on arguments about whether he will receive free-speech protections or be at a disadvantage because he is not a U.S. citizen.

What will the deal require?

Assange's guilty plea involved a felony charge under the Espionage Act of conspiring to unlawfully obtain and disseminate classified information relating to the national defense of the United States, according to a Justice Department letter filed in federal court.

The hearing took place Wednesday morning in a U.S. district court in Saipan, the largest island in the Northern Mariana Islands. The U.S. commonwealth in the Pacific is relatively close to Assange’s native Australia and accommodated his desire to avoid entering the continental United States.

The judge sentenced him to the five years he’d already spent behind bars in the United Kingdom fighting extradition and avoids a lengthy prison sentence in the event of a conviction.

Assange signaled a begrudging contentment with the resolution, saying in court that though he believed the Espionage Act contradicted the First Amendment, he accepted the consequences of soliciting classified information from sources for publication.

Is the case connected to the 2016 presidential election?

It's not, but beyond his interactions with Manning, Assange is well-known for the role WikiLeaks played in the 2016 presidential election, when it released a massive tranche of Democratic emails that federal prosecutors say were stolen by Russian intelligence operatives.

The goal, officials have said, was to harm the electoral effort of Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton and boost her Republican challenger Donald Trump, who famously said during the campaign: “WikiLeaks, I love WikiLeaks.”

Assange was not charged as part of special counsel Robert Mueller's investigation into ties between the Trump campaign and Russia. But the investigation nonetheless painted an unflattering role of WikiLeaks in advancing what prosecutors say was a brazen campaign of Russian election interference.

Assange denied in a Fox News interview that aired in January 2017 that Russians were the source of the hacked emails, though those denials are challenged by a 2018 indictment by Mueller of 12 Russian military intelligence officers.

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AP reporter Brian Melley in London contributed to this report.

Eric Tucker, The Associated Press