Ben Sasse, Senate Republican, asks Justice Department to clarify its stance on Julian Assange

The Republican chair of the Senate Judiciary Oversight Subcommittee asked the Trump administration on Thursday to clarify its position on WikiLeaks publisher Julian Assange following the release this week of details concerning the CIA’s previously unreported hacking powers.

Sen. Ben Sasse of Nebraska raised two question in his afternoon letter to Attorney General Jeff Sessions: “Does the Department of Justice believe Julian Assange has broken the law, and is the Department aggressively pursuing his detention and prosecution?”

Mr. Assange held a press conference hours earlier in London to discuss his website’s publication Tuesday of material allegedly obtained from the CIA’s elite hacking division, the Center for Cyber Intelligence, including information concerning the agency’s stockpiling of sophisticated cyberweapons. Mr. Sasse issued a statement afterwards demanding the publisher’s incarceration, prompting reporters to ask for President Trump’s position during Thursday afternoon’s White House press briefing.

“I think the U.S. government has had a position on Julian Assange — a position in the past — and I don’t see anything that has changed that,” White House press secretary Sean Spicer told reporters. “He has compromised in the past — and undermined our national security — and I think I’ll leave it up to the Department of Justice to further comment on their disposition of him.”

Mr. Sasse wrote afterwards that it was “amazing” for him to hear the White House decline to comment given the publisher’s “history of recklessly endangering the lives of Americans through his illegal disclosures,” and urged the attorney general’s prompt response with respect to the DOJ’s stance on Mr. Assange, the subject of a separate but related federal probe initiated during the Obama administration following WikiLeaks‘ publication of classified State and Defense Department documents in 2010.

Army Pvt. Chelsea Manning was convicted of espionage, theft and other charges in 2013 after she admittedly acquired that material from government computers and provided it to WikiLeaks, but military prosecutors struggled unsuccessfully throughout her court-martial to demonstrate that Mr. Assange directed her actions.

The Justice Department has failed so far to criminally indict Mr. Assange over his website’s past publications, but acknowledged last year that WikiLeaks continues to remain the subject of lengthy federal investigation. A Democratic National Committee breach that provided fodder for WikiLeaks prior to President Trump’s election, meanwhile, is currently under FBI investigation as well.

Absent charges, however, the senator’s insistence that Mr. Assange be arrested and incarcerated for his publication was quick to draw fire from transparency advocates who considered his request to be potentially unconstitutional, rekindling concerns raised during Manning’s trial amid efforts to portray WikiLeaks as something other than a journalistic enterprise.

“This would be an incredibly dangerous precedent that would endanger the First Amendment and all news orgs—whether you like WikiLeaks or not,” tweeted Trevor Timm, the executive director of the Freedom of the Press Foundation, a free speech advocacy group.

Nonetheless, the Trump administration’s response is of particular interest in light of the president having previously praised WikiLeaks over its publication of illegally obtained Democratic National Committee documents during last year’s White House race.

“I love WikiLeaks!” Mr. Trump repeatedly pronounced on the campaign trail last year as blowback from the DNC breach disrupted Democratic contender Hillary Clinton’s presidential ambitions.

Prior to Mr. Trump’s election, Mr. Sessions called WikiLeaks‘ publication of hacked DNC emails a “smoking gun” in the White House race.

The CIA has declined to discuss the authenticity of the latest WikiLeaks release, and representatives for the anti-secrecy website did not immediately respond to The Washington Times’ request for comment Thursday concerning the senator’s letter. The Justice Department did not immediately weigh in publicly with regards to Mr. Sasse’s request. 

 

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