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The latest on Julian Assange's plea deal

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Julian Assange has reached a deal with the U.S. government. The WikiLeaks founder is expected to plead guilty to a single criminal count of conspiring to obtain and disclose information related to the national defense. He'll enter that plea in U.S. federal court in the Northern Mariana Islands in the Pacific Ocean. And this would end a long-running legal saga for Assange over his exposure of U.S. national security secrets. NPR justice correspondent Ryan Lucas is here in the studio to talk about the case and the impact of WikiLeaks over the years. Hey, Ryan.

RYAN LUCAS, BYLINE: Hey there.

SHAPIRO: So Assange was indicted years ago on these charges of espionage and computer misuse. And prosecutors said he was responsible for one of the largest disclosures of classified information in U.S. history. What exactly did he disclose?

LUCAS: Well, the heart of the Justice Department's case against Assange is this huge trove of classified documents that WikiLeaks got from then-U.S. military private, Chelsea Manning. These were secret reports about the wars in Iraq, the war in Afghanistan. There were hundreds of thousands of U.S. State Department cables. There were also documents about detainees held at the U.S. military prison at Guantanamo Bay.

The State Department cables, I have to say, I have used myself in my own reporting. But there's a video from the Iraq war files that WikiLeaks published that the organization's supporters often point to as a positive impact of WikiLeaks. It's a grainy black-and-white video of a U.S. helicopter attack in Baghdad in 2007. Here's a bit of what it sounds like. And just a warning - there is the sound of gunfire here.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Come on. Let us shoot.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: You're engaged.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: 18K, clear.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Come on.

(SOUNDBITE OF GUN FIRING)

LUCAS: Now, that attack killed around a dozen people, including two Reuters journalists. And for some Americans, that video influenced how they viewed the war in Iraq and U.S. involvement there.

SHAPIRO: So WikiLeaks has its defenders and also its critics. I mean, the site may be best known for its involvement in the 2016 U.S. presidential election between Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton. Does that come up in the criminal case against Assange?

LUCAS: Well, you're talking about the WikiLeaks publication of Democratic emails ahead of the 2016 presidential election. These are emails that U.S. officials say were hacked by Russia's intelligence services and that WikiLeaks served as a cutout of sorts to hide Russia's hand. And the idea, according to U.S. officials, behind this hack-and-release operation was to interfere in the U.S. election, to hurt Hillary Clinton's chances and to help Donald Trump's. And, of course, Trump ended up winning that election.

None of that was part of the criminal case against Assange, but it's certainly part of why American officials and national security folks in particular have such sharp views about Assange and WikiLeaks. I still remember a speech that Mike Pompeo gave in 2017 soon after he took over as CIA director early on in the Trump administration. Here's how Pompeo described WikiLeaks.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MIKE POMPEO: It's time to call out WikiLeaks for what it really is - a non-state hostile intelligence service often abetted by state actors like Russia.

LUCAS: Pompeo said WikiLeaks puts lives and U.S. national security at risk. And a lot of folks in national security circles feel that exact way. That said, there are a lot of people who support Assange and WikiLeaks and thinks that it's been a positive force for transparency and holding governments accountable.

SHAPIRO: From a First Amendment perspective, many people were concerned that the Justice Department's case against Assange posed a threat to press freedom. Now that the case is not going to trial, does that assessment change?

LUCAS: Well, you're right. There was a lot of concern from free press organizations, First Amendment groups about the potential impact of this prosecution on journalism in the U.S., fears that it could set a precedent for charging journalists with national security crimes.

Someone who had talked publicly about those exact concerns is Jameel Jaffer. He's the head of the Knight First Amendment Institute at Columbia University. He said he doesn't think Assange should have been charged in the first place, but he also said this.

JAMEEL JAFFER: The plea deal is itself a kind of political precedent that a future administration could point to and that other countries could point to. But I also think that at this particular point in time, this is probably the best resolution we could have hoped for.

LUCAS: You know, on the other side, a former Justice Department official who was involved in the case told our colleague Carrie Johnson that this result feels kind of hollow. Assange did spend years at Britain's Belmarsh prison, wasn't let off entirely from these crimes. He'll be a felon, and officials said that's something. What's clear now is that with this deal, Assange will be free to return to Australia to his family, and we'll have to see what he does next.

SHAPIRO: NPR's Ryan Lucas. Thanks.

LUCAS: Thank you. 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.

Ryan Lucas covers the Justice Department for NPR.