WASHINGTON – A federal judge has declined to force the Justice Department to unseal an apparent criminal charge against WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange.
The ruling on Wednesday came after the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press asked U.S. District Judge Leonie Brinkema to force the Justice Department to release documents relating to the case after a mishap in documents for an unrelated case last year revealed that “Assange has been charged,” and was being targeted for arrest and extradition.
The Justice Department refused to confirm or deny whether the person, whose name wasn’t redacted in error, was Assange. The department admitted it made a mistake but argued that members of the public were merely using guesswork and speculation. Documents, the government argued, should not be made public until an arrest was made.
The filing last year noted the “sophistication of the defendant” and stressed that the filings and charges “need to remain sealed until Assange is arrested.”
Assange’s first name isn’t listed in the documents. The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press argued that the mistake aired the government’s plans to arrest Assange and the case for secrecy was no longer needed. The organization pushed for documents pertaining to the charges and the case be released to the public.
But Brinkema sided with the Justice Department, explaining in an opinion that “demanding access to judicial records based on little more than speculation-could effectively force the Government to admit or deny that charges had been filed” and set a bad precedent.
“Permitting such fishing expeditions would require courts to sort through endless factual permutations giving rise to varying degrees of uncertainty,” Brinkema wrote in her opinion. “Courts cannot perform the delicate balancing required by the First Amendment and common law doctrines under such uncertain circumstances.”
Assange currently lives in the Ecuadorian embassy in London, where he took refuge in 2012 to avoid extradition to Sweden for questioning on rape allegations. The investigation was dropped last year, but Assange still faces charges in Britain for skipping bail.
The Australian national has decided to remain in the embassy out of fear that the United States would immediately seek his arrest and extradition over the leaking of classified documents to WikiLeaks by then-U.S. Army soldier Chelsea Manning.
WikiLeaks is also the focus of the investigation by special counsel Robert Mueller into Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. presidential elections by distributing hacked materials.