WASHINGTON — Federal prosecutors are weighing whether to bring criminal charges against members of the WikiLeaks organization, taking a second look at a 2010 leak of diplomatic cables and military documents and investigating whether the group bears criminal responsibility for the more recent revelation of sensitive CIA cyber-tools, according to people familiar with the case.
The Justice Department under President Barack Obama decided not to charge WikiLeaks for revealing some of the government’s most sensitive secrets — concluding that doing so would be akin to prosecuting a news organization for publishing classified information. Justice Department leadership under President Donald Trump, though, has indicated to prosecutors it is open to taking another look at the case, which the Obama administration did not formally close.
It is not clear whether prosecutors are also looking at WikiLeaks’ role last year in publishing emails from the Democratic National Committee and the account of Hillary Clinton campaign chairman John Podesta, which U.S. officials have said were hacked by the Russian government. Officials have said individuals “one step” removed from the Kremlin passed the stolen messages to WikiLeaks as part of a broader Russian plot to influence the 2016 presidential election.
Prosecutors in recent weeks have been drafting a memo that contemplates charges against members of the WikiLeaks organization, possibly including conspiracy, theft of government property or violating the Espionage Act, officials said. The memo, though, is not complete, and any charges against members of WikiLeaks, including founder Julian Assange, would need approval from the highest levels of the Justice Department.
Barry Pollack, an attorney for Assange, said Justice Department officials had not discussed with him or Assange the status of any investigation, despite his requests that they do so. He said there was “no legitimate basis for the Department of Justice to treat WikiLeaks differently than it treats other journalists.”
“The fact of the matter is — however frustrating it might be to whoever looks bad when information is published — WikiLeaks is a publisher, and they are publishing truthful information that is in the public’s interest,” Pollack said. “Democracy thrives because there are independent journalists reporting on what it is that the government is doing.”
Pollack noted that the Obama administration was “no shrinking violet when it came to pursuing reporters and journalists,” a reference to the Obama Justice Department’s repeated attempts to prosecute leakers. Pollack said he hoped “this administration will be more respectful, not less respectful, of the First Amendment than the prior administration was.”
Prosecutors are trying to determine the extent to which WikiLeaks encouraged or directed sources to engage in illegal activity.
The FBI and the Justice Department declined to comment for this article.