The Justice Department is preparing to file charges against members of WikiLeaks, including its founder, Julian Assange, according to news reports.
The charges would be for the group’s release in 2010 of classified cables stolen by Army private Chelsea Manning, as well as for a release in March of classified documents stolen from the CIA, The Washington Post and CNN reported on Thursday.
Those documents revealed highly sensitive blueprints used by U.S. spies against foreign adversaries.
The Obama administration had refused to prosecute anyone affiliated with WikiLeaks, which calls itself an “anti-secrecy” group. The administration said it considered WikiLeaks to be a journalism organization. President Obama also commuted Manning’s 35-year prison sentence.
According to The Post, it is not known whether Justice Department officials are also weighing charges against WikiLeaks for its release last year of emails stolen from the Democratic National Committee and Hillary Clinton campaign.
Federal officials have determined that those emails were stolen by groups affiliated with the Russian government. Assange, who is living in exile in the Ecuadorian embassy in London, has denied that WikiLeaks is working for or with the Kremlin.
WikiLeaks’ critics have disputed that claim, noting that the group has yet to release damning information about the Russian government.
According to The Post, Justice Department lawyers began drafting a memo deliberating charges against WikiLeaks members within the past several weeks. The charges could include “conspiracy, theft of government property or violating the Espionage Act,” The Post reported.
CNN reported that the shift on WikiLeaks and Assange is the result of new evidence showing that the group helped Edward Snowden, the former National Security Agency contractor who stole classified documents and gave them to reporters.
The news comes a week after CIA Director Mike Pompeo issued a surprising rebuke of WikiLeaks.
Pompeo said during a speech that it was “time to call out WikiLeaks for what it really is: a non-state, hostile intelligence service often abetted by state actors, like Russia.”
“They have pretended that America’s First Amendment freedoms shield them from justice. They may have believed that, but they are wrong,” said Pompeo.
Barry Pollack, an attorney for Assange, told The Post that DOJ lawyers have not discussed its plans with him.
He also asserted that there was “no legitimate basis for the Department of Justice to treat WikiLeaks differently than it treats other journalists.”
If American authorities do seek Assange’s arrest, it is unclear how successful they will be.Ecuador’s newly elected president has said he will allow Assange to remain at the embassy in London. An Australian citizen, Assange has been granted sanctuary in the embassy. He is wanted for questioning in Sweden for a sexual assault case.