The Saipan surprise: How delicate talks led to the unlikely end of Julian Assange's 12-year saga

Assange's release in the unlikely location of Saipan, the capital of the Northern Mariana Islands, concluded a polarising legal saga that spanned three presidential administrations and multiple continents.
WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange gestures after landing at RAAF air base Fairbairn in Canberra, Australia, June 26 2024.
WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange gestures after landing at RAAF air base Fairbairn in Canberra, Australia, June 26 2024.Photo | AP

WASHINGTON: About a year and a half ago, a lawyer for Julian Assange presented federal prosecutors in Virginia with a longshot request: Dismiss the case against the WikiLeaks founder.

It was a bold ask given that Assange had published hundreds of thousands of secret documents and was arguably the highest-profile detainee in the world facing a US government extradition request. By that point, the Justice Department had been engaged in a protracted fight in British courts to send him to the United States for trial.

Yet from that request, recounted by a person familiar with the matter, were the seeds that led to Wednesday's unthinkable moment: Assange stepping out of a US courthouse on a remote Western Pacific island, beginning his journey home after being holed up in self-exile and prison for a dozen years.

"How does it feel to be a free man, Mr. Assange?" someone shouted.

He smiled and nodded and kept walking. There was another flight to catch to take him home to Australia.

The plea deal unfolded against the backdrop of a plodding extradition process that produced no guarantee the self-styled free speech advocate would ever be transferred for prosecution and a recognition by US officials of the more than five years he'd already served in a British prison.

By the end, a series of proposals and counterproposals were made to resolve points of division: the Justice Department's desire for a felony guilty plea and Assange's refusal to step foot in the continental US, where he envisioned any number of potential cataclysmic scenarios for himself.

The agreement also included safety valves that would ensure Assange's liberty in Australia in the unlikely event a judge rejected it at the last minute.

This report is based on interviews with people familiar with the negotiations and overall case who spoke with The Associated Press on condition of anonymity to discuss the process, as well as a review of court records.

Assange's release in the unlikely location of Saipan, the capital of the Northern Mariana Islands, concluded a polarising legal saga that spanned three presidential administrations and multiple continents.

It would have been unthinkable five years ago.

That's when the Justice Department unsealed charges as British authorities hauled a bearded and shouting Assange from the Ecuadorian Embassy, where he'd been holed up for the prior seven years. Assange took refuge in 2012 after being released on bail while facing extradition to Sweden in a sexual assault investigation that was later dropped.

He remained there, fearing arrest and extradition to the U.S. in connection with the receipt and publication by WikiLeaks of hundreds of thousands of war logs and diplomatic cables that American prosecutors say he conspired with Army intelligence analyst Chelsea Manning to illegally obtain.

At the time of his indictment, Assange was perhaps better known for WikiLeaks' involvement in the 2016 US presidential contest, when the secret-spilling website released tranches of damaging emails about Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton that were stolen by Russian military intelligence officers in what officials said was brazen election interference by Moscow.

The releases prompted Trump to memorably proclaim during the campaign: "WikiLeaks, I love WikiLeaks."

The view was different inside the Justice Department that Trump would soon lead. Attorney General Jeff Sessions in 2017 called the arrest of Assange a priority amid a crackdown on leaks of classified information.

The crime at issue wasn't the hack-and-dump election interference but the diplomatic cables from years earlier. The Obama administration had had extensive debate about charging Assange but did not pursue an indictment under the Espionage Act—which criminalises the mishandling of national defence information—in part over concerns it could be viewed as an attack on journalism.

But the Justice Department in the Trump administration took a different tack. The existence of a criminal case was inadvertently revealed by a filing error in 2018. The first narrowly tailored charge to be unsealed months later was a computer intrusion count that accused him of conspiring with Manning to crack a password that gave her higher-level access to classified computer networks.

Within weeks, the department disclosed 17 other counts that accused him of violating the Espionage Act by obtaining and disseminating the secret records.

Prosecutors say he crossed the line by soliciting the hacking of computer networks for classified information and by indiscriminately publishing secrets, including the unredacted names of sources who provided information to US military forces.

Assange's supporters have for years maintained that he provided an invaluable public service by exposing military misconduct in America's foreign wars, much the same way journalists are tasked with doing.

The case wasn't easy legally. It also had logistical complications.

With Assange jailed in London's Belmarsh prison, the Justice Department tried, fitfully, to secure his extradition—a multi-step process involving judges who, along with Assange, sought assurances that he could attempt to defend himself by invoking the First Amendment protections enjoyed in America.

With the prospects for Assange's transfer in the balance, his team saw the presence of a more press-friendly attorney general, Merrick Garland, as a potential opening to try for a resolution in the case.

About a year and a half ago, in the first substantive communications between the two sides, an Assange lawyer made a presentation to Justice Department prosecutors in Virginia, seeking the indictment's dismissal. The prosecutors listened, and though the idea was unworkable, returned months later with a counteroffer: Would Assange consider a guilty plea?

The Assange team responded that it was open to exploring that possibility but had two lines in the sand about what a resolution would need to entail. He would not accept any additional prison time, nor set foot on US soil given the anxieties shared by him and his supporters about what the American government might do to him.

Assange's lawyers broached the idea of a misdemeanour plea, which, under federal court rules, could be entered remotely without Assange having to travel to America.

When that idea couldn't cross the finish line, the two sides discussed the possibility of WikiLeaks as an organisation pleading guilty to a felony and Assange to a misdemeanour, said one of the people, describing an overall effort by both sides "to get to yes."

The negotiations were largely held with prosecutors in the Eastern District of Virginia, where the case was charged, but then in the final months with Justice Department national security officials.

Department officials who wanted an Assange felony plea ultimately signaled respect for his core demands by floating a concept in which he could enter the deal outside the 50 states, avoid additional prison and be released from custody in Britain, the person said.

That "concept then led to several weeks of serious back-and-forth," said the person. There were a limited number of locations that fit that criteria—Guam is one—but Saipan was selected.

"The Justice Department reaches a resolution in plea matters when the Justice Department believes it can reach a resolution that serves the best interests of the United States. That's what we've done here," Garland said at an unrelated news conference Thursday when asked why the department resolved the case.

From the Justice Department's perspective, the more than five years he spent in a high-security British prison was in line, or potentially even greater than, a sentence he might have received in the US.

All the while, the extradition process was strained and slow-moving.

In March, a British court ruled that Assange could not be extradited unless U.S. authorities guaranteed he wouldn't get the death penalty and could use the same free-speech defence as a US citizen would.

The U.S. provided those assurances. But Assange's lawyers accepted only that he wouldn't face capital punishment and said the assurance that Assange could "raise and seek to rely upon" the First Amendment fell short of the protections he deserved. Last month, a court held that he could appeal his extradition order after judges said the US had given "blatantly inadequate" assurances.

Importantly, built into the plea deal was a set of contingencies in the event the judge did not approve it. That included a condition permitting Assange to withdraw from the deal and return home to Australia, as the two sides had a limited window to try to negotiate a new result to achieve the same outcome. And if the judge insisted on detaining him, the Justice Department agreed to dismiss the Saipan charge.

Behind the scenes, Australian officials were agitating for his release, with the government asking the Justice Department in an April letter to consider a plea deal to end the case, one person familiar with the matter said. President Joe Biden told reporters that month that his administration was "considering" dropping the case. A White House official this week said the White House had nothing to do with the plea agreement.

The deal with the US was reached on June 19, according to London's High Court, one of many behind-the-scenes actions that led to Assange's freedom.

That same day, his wife, Stella Assange, stood in front of a camera outside Belmarsh prison and recorded a video in which said she expected her husband to soon be at the end of his ordeal.

"This period of our lives, I'm confident now, has come to an end," she said.

The video was not released until almost a week later, when Assange was in the air on his way to Saipan and after word of the plea deal had gotten out.

"If you're seeing this, it means he is out," WikiLeaks editor-in-chief Kristinn Hrafnsson said in the same video.

On Wednesday morning, Saipan—a rural Pacific island, the theater of a World War II battle between the US and Japan and, more recently, a scuba diving destination with lush golf courses—became the unlikely site of a history-making coda to a sensational case.

After a marathon flight from London to Bangkok to the final destination, Assange arrived Wednesday morning at the island's grand federal courthouse. Opened four years ago, it boasts towering pillars and impressive seaside views.

The white-haired Assange strode into the courthouse wearing a dark suit with a gold-colored tie loosened at the neck. Inside the courtroom, he appeared relaxed, donning glasses as he perused documents and cracking an occasional joke. When the judge asked if he was satisfied with the plea conditions, he replied, "It might depend on the outcome," sparking laughter in the courtroom.

After the plea, the judge pronounced him a "free man" and Assange headed home to Australia, where he was reunited with his wife and father, John Shipton, who earlier in the week told the Australian Broadcasting Corporation that "doing cartwheels is a good expression of the joy that one feels."

He said his son would now be able "to walk up and down the beach and feel the sand through his toes in winter, that lovely chill, and be able to learn how to be patient and play with your children for a couple of hours. All of the great beauty of ordinary life."

Assange's future in Australia remains uncertain. He avoided the media at a news conference Thursday, where his wife suggested he was looking forward to smaller pleasures.

"Julian plans to swim in the ocean every day," she said. "He plans to sleep in a real bed. He plans to taste real food, and he plans to enjoy his freedom."

WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange gestures after landing at RAAF air base Fairbairn in Canberra, Australia, June 26 2024.
A look at Julian Assange and how the long-jailed WikiLeaks founder is now on the verge of freedom

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