Watch CBS News

WikiLeaks' Julian Assange returns to Australia a free man after pleading guilty to publishing U.S. secrets

Assange pleads guilty to violating Espionage Act
Julian Assange pleads guilty to publishing U.S. secrets 02:29

Washington — WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange pleaded guilty Wednesday to a single felony charge for publishing U.S. military secrets as part of a deal with the Justice Department that secured his freedom and concluded a drawn-out legal saga that raised divisive questions about press freedom and national security. 

Assange's guilty plea was accepted by U.S. District Judge Ramona Manglona in a federal courthouse in the Northern Mariana Islands, a U.S. commonwealth in the Pacific. He was sentenced to time served, and quickly boarded a flight to return to his home country of Australia. 

Assange touched down in Australia early Wednesday evening local time, a free man, raising his fist as he walked off the plane in the capital city of Canberra before embracing his waiting wife Stella Assange and his father John Shipton.

WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange hugs his wife Stella Assange after arriving at Canberra Airport in Canberra, Australia, June 26, 2024, after he pleaded guilty at a U.S. court in Saipan to a single count of conspiracy to obtain and disseminate U.S. national defense information. WILLIAM WEST/AFP/Getty

The guilty plea resolved Assange's outstanding legal matters with the U.S. government. Justice Department prosecutors recommended a prison sentence of 62 months as part of the plea agreement, CBS News has learned, but he won't spend any time in U.S. custody because, under the plea agreement, he got credit for the approximately five years he spent in a U.K. prison fighting extradition to the U.S.

In a letter to the federal judge on Monday, the Justice Department said Assange had opposed traveling to the continental U.S. to enter the guilty plea.

Who is Julian Assange?

Assange, an Australian national, was indicted in 2019 by a federal grand jury in Virginia with more than a dozen charges that alleged he illegally obtained and disseminated classified information about America's wars in Afghanistan and Iraq on his WikiLeaks site. Prosecutors at the time accused him of recruiting individuals to "hack into computers and/or illegally obtain and disclose classified information."

WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange looks out a plane's window
WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange looks out a plane window as he approaches Bangkok airport for a layover, according to the post by Wikileaks on X, in this picture released to social media on June 25, 2024.  Wikileaks via X/via REUTERS

He pleaded guilty on Wednesday to a charge of conspiracy to obtain and disclose national defense information.

His attorney earlier declined to comment, but in a statement posted on social media Tuesday, WikiLeaks said Assange was granted bail by a U.K. court on Monday and then boarded a plane at London's Stansted Airport and left the U.K. 

Noting that the deal had "not yet been formally finalized," WikiLeaks said it would provide more information when it could.

"After more than five years in a 2x3 metre cell, isolated 23 hours a day, he will soon reunite with his wife Stella Assange, and their children, who have only known their father from behind bars," the organization said.

"Julian is free!!!!" Stella Assange said in her own message posted on social media, in which she shared a video showing Assange arriving at Stansted and boarding a plane. "Words cannot express our immense gratitude to YOU- yes YOU, who have all mobilised for years and years to make this come true."

What did Julian Assange do?

One of Assange's best-known recruits, U.S. Army intelligence analyst Chelsea Manning, was convicted of the 2010 leak of hundreds of thousands of sensitive military records to WikiLeaks in what officials said was one the largest disclosures of secret government records in history. Manning was sentenced to 35 years in prison and in 2017, former President Barack Obama commuted her sentence.

Assange was accused of working with Manning to figure out the password on a Defense Department computer system that stored the sensitive records about the Iraq and Afghanistan wars as well as hundreds of Guantanamo Bay detainee assessment briefs.

Federal prosecutors also accused Assange of publishing the names of "persons throughout the world who provided information to the U.S. government in circumstances in which they could reasonably expect that their identities would be kept confidential." 

Assange previously denied all wrongdoing. He and his supporters argued the charges should never have been filed because he was acting as a journalist in reporting on government actions.

How long was Julian Assange imprisoned?

Assange was placed in British custody in 2019. He launched a yearslong legal effort to resist extradition to the U.S. to face federal charges. The guilty plea brings an end to the intercontinental court fight. 

In May, the WikiLeaks founder won his bid to appeal his extradition to the U.S. on espionage charges after a British court asked the U.S. government earlier this year to ensure that Assange would be granted free speech protections under the U.S. Constitution and that he would not be given the death penalty if convicted on espionage charges. 

President Biden said in April he was "considering" a request from Australia to allow Assange to return to his native country, which called for the U.S. to drop the case against him. 

Assange has faced legal troubles for more than a decade, beginning in 2010 when a Swedish prosecutor issued an arrest warrant related to rape and sexual assault allegations by two women, which Assange denied. As he faced extradition to Sweden, he sought political asylum at the Ecuadorian Embassy in London, where he lived for seven years until he was evicted in 2019. 

Swedish prosecutors dropped their investigation into Assange in 2017 and an international arrest warrant against him was withdrawn, but he was still wanted by British police for skipping bail when he entered the embassy. 

By early 2019, Ecuador became irritated with its London houseguest, accusing him of smearing his feces on the walls and attacking its guards. 

"He exhausted our patience and pushed our tolerance to the limit," Lenin Moreno, who was Ecuador's president at the time, said. Moreno accused Assange of being "an informational terrorist" by selectively releasing information "according to his ideological commitments."  

At the request of the U.S. government, British police arrested Assange on April 11, 2019, at the embassy after Ecuador ended his asylum. By then, he was facing charges in the U.S. related to the 2010 leak.

WikiLeaks was a key player in the 2016 presidential election, publishing thousands of emails from Hillary Clinton's campaign and the Democratic National Committee that had been stolen by Russian government hackers. WikiLeaks and Assange are mentioned hundreds of times in special counsel Robert Mueller's 448-page report on Russian interference in the 2016 election, though they were not charged for the 2016 conduct. 

Priscilla Saldana contributed reporting.

View CBS News In
CBS News App Open
Chrome Safari Continue
Be the first to know
Get browser notifications for breaking news, live events, and exclusive reporting.