The FBI has reopened an investigation into Australian journalist Julian Assange, according to front-page reporting from the Sydney Morning Herald.
The news that the FBI is taking fresh investigative steps came as a surprise to Assange’s legal team, given that the U.S. filed charges against the WikiLeaks founder more than three years ago and is involved in an ongoing extradition process from a maximum security prison in the United Kingdom so that he can stand trial in the United States.
Assange is charged under the Espionage Act with obtaining, possessing, and publishing classified information that exposed U.S. war crimes in Iraq and Afghanistan, crimes that themselves have gone unpunished.
The Morning Herald reporting also comes amid heightened hopes in Australia that a resolution to the case, which has raised serious press freedom issues in the U.S. and abroad, was near at hand. The country’s ruling party has spoken in defense of Assange, as has the nation’s opposition party leader. In early May, a cross-party delegation of influential Australian lawmakers met with the U.S. Ambassador Caroline Kennedy, urging that a deal be struck to return Assange to Australia before U.S.-Australian relations were harmed further by the prosecution.
The U.S. has otherwise complicated its relationship with Australia in recent weeks even as it seeks closer ties in order to compete with China in the region. Australia spent weeks preparing for Joe Biden to make a major visit to the nation in May, only to see him cancel the trip at the last minute to fly back from Japan to continue with debt ceiling negotiations. And this week, the U.S. also warned Australia that some of its military units may be ineligible to cooperate with U.S. forces due to their own alleged war crimes in Australia. It is not lost on the Australian public that Assange is being prosecuted for uncovering and publishing evidence of U.S. war crimes.
In May, the Morning Herald reported, the FBI requested an interview with Andrew O’Hagan, who was brought on more than 10 years ago to work as a ghostwriter on Assange’s autobiography. The FBI may have thought he would be cooperative because O’Hagan’s relationship with Assange soured; O’Hagan publicly criticized Assange as narcissistic and difficult to work with and published an unauthorized version in the London Review of Books instead. But O’Hagan told the Morning Herald he was not willing to participate in his prosecution. “I might have differences with Julian, but I utterly oppose all efforts to silence him,” he said.
In 2010 and 2011, in conjunction with major papers around the world, WikiLeaks published leaked documents and videos related to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, evidence of war crimes, and other documents that exposed corruption on a grand scale. The disclosures helped trigger the Arab Spring, popular revolts against dictators across the Middle East and North Africa.
The Obama administration considered prosecuting Assange but decided they couldn’t overcome “the New York Times problem”: They couldn’t figure out, in other words, how to prosecute him but not the Times.
The case is now under the zealous guidance of Gordon Kromberg, a federal prosecutor in the Eastern District of Virginia, though the reopening of the investigation suggests the government has doubts that its case will hold up in court.
A coalition of major newspapers around the world has urged the Biden administration to drop charges against Assange. Yahoo News reported that the Trump administration considered ways to kidnap or assassinate the journalist.
The U.S. State Department was not immediately able to comment.
Update: June 1, 2023, 12:25 p.m.
The original headline of this story said the FBI has reopened a case “against Assange,” though the precise target of the FBI’s new investigation is not publicly known. The FBI relayed to O’Hagan that it wanted to interview him about his participation in Assange’s autobiography.