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WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange enters into a plea deal with the U.S. government

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

The United States is ending its pursuit of WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange.

A MARTÍNEZ, HOST:

Yeah, this case has been going on for so long that if you had a baby during the year that Assange published classified U.S. documents, in 2010, that baby would be a teenager now. Now, for most of that time, the U.S. has been trying to extradite Assange from the U.K. If a plea deal goes as expected, he'll be sentenced to time already served. His mother said in a statement that she was grateful that her son's, quote, "ordeal" is finally coming to an end.

INSKEEP: NPR justice correspondent Carrie Johnson has covered this case for years and years and years. Hi there, Carrie.

CARRIE JOHNSON, BYLINE: Good morning, Steve.

INSKEEP: OK, so it's a plea deal, so I can just ask - what's the deal?

JOHNSON: Assange has agreed to plead guilty to one charge, conspiracy to obtain and disclose information related to the national defense. And he's likely to enter that plea in the case in a U.S. federal court in the Northern Mariana Islands later this week. It's happening there because he did not want to set foot in the continental United States. Under the terms of the deal, he'd serve about five years in prison. He's already served that much time in the United Kingdom, in the Belmarsh prison, where he's been waiting out extradition proceedings.

INSKEEP: OK. This, I'm remembering, was a case that outraged a lot of Americans, particularly Americans in the government, Americans who were named in many of the documents that he published. What kind of data are we talking about here?

JOHNSON: The indictment from Virginia accused Julian Assange of working with military private Chelsea Manning to get records related to the war in Iraq and the war in Afghanistan. Assange also published hundreds of thousands of sensitive cables from the State Department. Prosecutors and intelligence analysts said Assange failed to black out the names of American informants, and they said that put American lives and foreign lives at risk.

INSKEEP: OK, and if that's the case, why would the United States finally make a deal?

JOHNSON: Well, Australian leaders had really been lobbying the White House for years now. They pointed out that then-President Obama shortened the prison sentence for Chelsea Manning, and the Assange case just kept dragging on for years. Julian Assange is a native Australian. He's expected to go back there after his court proceeding ends, and President Biden actually got a question about this back in April at a news conference. Biden said at the time he was considering the request from Australia to send Assange home.

INSKEEP: OK, and of course, the United States wants to be very close allies with Australia, so they had a little bit of leverage here, but what are some of the reactions?

JOHNSON: Well, WikiLeaks put out a statement on social media saying it had published groundbreaking stories of corruption and human rights abuses, for which Julian Assange paid a high price. He's soon expected to reunite with his wife and children. It's worth noting that while he has few fans in the Justice Department or the State Department here, human rights groups and media groups have been vocal supporters of his. They've been arguing these charges against Assange could have broad implications, and it could allow a future Justice Department to charge journalists with crimes for publishing national security secrets. The Obama DOJ never filed charges against Julian Assange. It was the Trump Justice Department that finally took that step.

INSKEEP: I'm just reminded of the debates over this man's case and the question of whether he was a journalist who was just publishing stuff he was given or whether he should be treated more like a spy.

JOHNSON: Yeah, and that debate may end soon with this plea, but it may not be the end of this kind of bizarre saga that started with a run-in with Swedish authorities, led to him holing up in an embassy in London for seven years and now finally potentially returning home to Australia.

INSKEEP: Carrie, thanks for the insights. Really appreciate it.

JOHNSON: My pleasure.

INSKEEP: That's NPR's Carrie Johnson. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Carrie Johnson
Carrie Johnson is a justice correspondent for the Washington Desk.
Steve Inskeep
Steve Inskeep is a host of NPR's Morning Edition, as well as NPR's morning news podcast Up First.