Cybersecurity

Assange arrested, charged with hacking in 2010 Manning leaks

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The Justice Department unsealed an indictment against Julian Assange on April 11, charging the WikiLeaks founder with conspiring to crack a password to access classified information on U.S. government systems.

Assange was ejected from the Ecuadorian embassy in London April 10 and was arrested by British authorities. Assange is facing charges in the United Kingdom and is expected to face extradition to the United States -- a process that could take months or even years.

According to the grand jury indictment, Assange is being charged with violating the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act (CFAA) for attempting to help then-U.S. Army soldier and intelligence analyst Cpl. Bradley Manning in March 2010 to crack a portion of a password stored as a hash-file on a Defense Department computer that would have allowed Manning to access the Secret Internet Protocol Network under an assumed name.

In the attempt to get access to the password, Manning used a Linux-based operating system to bypass administrator privileges, according to the indictment. The charges do not specify whether that attempt was successful.

Manning had already passed hundreds of thousands of classified files to Assange and WikiLeaks by then, but the document said that Assange told Manning in chat logs that he had tried to crack the password but had "no luck so far."

Prosecutors note that "such a measure would have made it more difficult for investigators to identify Manning as the source of disclosures of classified information."

Manning -- now Chelsea Manning -- pled guilty to 10 criminal counts related to the disclosures in 2013, but had her sentence commuted by President Barack Obama in 2017. However, since March 8, 2019, she has been confined to an Alexandria, Va., jail on charges of contempt for refusing to testify in grand jury proceedings regarding WikiLeaks.

While U.S. officials and critics have publicly claimed the Manning disclosures -- including thousands of confidential State Department cables -- caused untold damage to national security, a 2011 report from a DOD task force charged with assessing the fallout from the leaks found that they had a much more limited impact.

The case has kicked off a larger debate about whether the government's pursuit of Assange could have broader implications for freedom of the press.

Carrie DeCell, a staff attorney at the Knight First Amendment Institute, told FCW that while Assange wouldn't be legally protected as a journalist for attempting to help a source break into DOD computer systems, the government citing the deletion of chat logs and other activities that are routinely used by journalists to protect the identity of their sources as underlying evidence of a criminal conspiracy appear to go "beyond" the narrow CFAA allegations listed in the indictment.

"The language in that part of the indictment certainly does seem to sweep in everyday journalism practices, [such as] protecting source identities and encouraging sources to reveal information to journalists," DeCell said.

About the Author

Derek B. Johnson is a senior staff writer at FCW, covering governmentwide IT policy, cybersecurity and a range of other federal technology issues.

Prior to joining FCW, Johnson was a freelance technology journalist. His work has appeared in The Washington Post, GoodCall News, Foreign Policy Journal, Washington Technology, Elevation DC, Connection Newspapers and The Maryland Gazette.

Johnson has a Bachelor's degree in journalism from Hofstra University and a Master's degree in public policy from George Mason University. He can be contacted at djohnson@fcw.com, or follow him on Twitter @derekdoestech.

Click here for previous articles by Johnson.


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