The Department of Justice is reportedly considering criminal charges against WikiLeaks and its founder Julian Assange for their roles in several leaks dating back to 2010, multiple news outlets reported on Thursday.
WikiLeaks was one of several publications that published sensitive military files obtained from a former US Army intelligence analyst several years ago — and more recently dumped thousands of documents that it said detailed the hacking tools and techniques used by the CIA for foreign espionage in what appeared to be the largest leak of CIA documents in history.
Potential charges against WikiLeaks include conspiracy, theft of government property, or violating the Espionage Act, according to The Washington Post and CNN.
It was unclear whether the memo, still in the early stages, was drafted to pursue charges for the organization's role in leaks that damaged the Democratic Party during the 2016 presidential election.
In 2010, WikiLeaks made available to the public thousands of classified cables and documents from the military and the State Department. However, during President Barack Obama's tenure, the Justice Department decided to forgo charging WikiLeaks, reasoning that it would be too difficult and similar to prosecuting a news organizations that published classified information, The Post reported. With Donald Trump's administration headed by the recently-appointed Attorney General Jeff Sessions, prosecutors were taking the opportunity to reconsider the previous administration's verdict.
In the more recent leak in March, top-secret files were published — allegedly by way of a CIA employee or contractor who operated a tool normally used by the spy agency to infiltrate various electronic devices, from smartphones to smart televisions and computers.
T housands of top-secret files and were leaked after the infiltrator used an "attack code" — which could be used to infiltrate products from companies like Apple, Google, Samsung, and Microsoft — to "gain unauthorized access to computers and smartphones," especially if software updates meant to patch its vulnerabilities weren't available. The breach has since been referred to as "Vault 7" by WikiLeaks.
CIA spokeswoman Heather Fritz Horniak delivered a stern rebuke against WikiLeaks for their part in Vault 7.
"The American public should be deeply troubled by any WikiLeaks disclosure designed to damage the intelligence community’s ability to protect America against terrorists and other adversaries," Horniak said. "Such disclosures not only jeopardize US personnel and operations, but also equip our adversaries with tools and information to do us harm.
Representatives for WikiLeaks — who claim that the DOJ had not discussed the matters with them despite requests — remain steadfast in their belief that "no legitimate basis" for the Department of Justice to treat WikiLeaks differently than it treats other journalists," The Post reported.
"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," said Barry J. Pollack, Assange's attorney. "Democracy thrives because there are independent journalists reporting on what it is that the government is doing."
Pollack also added that he wished the new administration would be " more respectful, not less respectful of the First Amendment than the prior administration was."