Judge Skeptical That Media Has Right to Know If Assange Was Charged

(Bloomberg) -- A U.S. judge expressed skepticism that the news media has a right to know whether WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange has been charged by the Justice Department.

Sealing indictments is a valid way for the government to protect ongoing investigations, U.S. District Judge Leonie Brinkema said Tuesday in Alexandria, Virginia, in response to a request by the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press. She gave the group a week to report back to the court on previous cases in which a member of the public was granted such a request.

The Assange case came to light this month after a prosecutor inadvertently filed a document in an unrelated case that said “no other procedure is likely to keep confidential the fact that Assange has been charged.” The Assange reference was made in error and the government said it accepts full responsibility for it.

Prosecutors said in a Nov. 26 filing that if a record of charges isn’t publicly available, that means the person hasn’t been charged or the case is under seal.

“In either event, the government is not required to publicly acknowledge which of those two possibilities happens to be the case with respect to any individual,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Gordon Kromberg wrote in a filing in federal court in Alexandria, Virginia.

WikiLeaks published about 44,000 emails stolen from the Democratic National Committee right before the July 2016 Democratic convention. U.S. intelligence agencies have said that Russian hackers were responsible for the theft. Special Counsel Robert Mueller has secured charges against the Russians as he has investigated possible links between WikiLeaks and Donald Trump’s presidential campaign.

On Tuesday, the Guardian newspaper reported that Assange met secretly with Paul Manafort, Trump’s onetime campaign chairman, in 2013 and 2015 and in the spring of 2016. The newspaper, which cited unnamed people, said the meetings took place in the Ecuadorian embassy in London, where Assange has been living since 2012 to avoid facing charges in the U.K., Sweden and the U.S.

Manafort is awaiting sentencing after a jury convicted him of bank and tax fraud. On Monday, Mueller accused Manafort of lying to investigators after striking a plea deal with the government, which could expose him to a lengthy prison sentence.

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