A garden-variety court filing has mistakenly revealed US government efforts to criminally charge Julian Assange in an embarrassing episode for federal prosecutors in their nearly decade-long battle with the WikiLeaks founder.
In a court filing unsealed last week, prosecutors in the Eastern District of Virginia included two explicit references to charges against Assange while asking a judge to keep a case about coercion and enticement of a minor under wraps.
"Another procedure short of sealing will not adequately protect the needs of law enforcement at this time because, due to the sophistication of the defendant and the publicity surrounding the case, no other procedure is likely to keep confidential the fact that Assange has been charged," prosecutors wrote in the August 22 filing that was later unsealed on November 8, sitting undetected for days on the public docket.
"The complaint, supporting affidavit, and arrest warrant, as well as this motion and the proposed order, would need to remain sealed until Assange is arrested in connection with the charges in the criminal complaint and can therefore no longer evade or avoid arrest and extradition in this matter," prosecutors added in the filing.
Federal prosecutors regularly reuse motions as templates for court filings, but the inclusion of such a high-profile name in a sealed criminal case, in this instance, amounted to a significant blunder.
WikiLeaks has been a focus of special counsel Robert Mueller's investigation of any links between President Donald Trump associates and Russian efforts to interfere in the 2016 presidential election. WikiLeaks posted thousands of emails stolen from Democrats by Russian agents during the election. The Justice Department investigation of Assange and WikiLeaks dates to at least 2010, when the site posted thousands of files stolen by the former US Army intelligence analyst now known as Chelsea Manning.
The puzzling substitution of Assange's name was first discovered and highlighted on Twitter by Seamus Hughes, deputy director of the program on extremism at George Washington University, after The Wall Street Journal reported the Justice Department was preparing to prosecute Assange.
Soon after, WikiLeaks tweeted about the filing, saying, "US Department of Justice 'accidentally' reveals existence of sealed charges (or a draft for them) against WikiLeak's publisher Julian Assange in apparent cut-and-paste error in an unrelated case."
Joshua Stueve, a spokesman for the Eastern District of Virginia, said "the court filing was made in error" and called the mention of Assange an "administrative error" after a court hearing on the related criminal case Friday morning. He said that the case where Assange was inadvertently included had nothing to do with WikiLeaks.
The Washington Post reported Thursday night that Assange has, in fact, been charged, citing the inadvertent court disclosure as well as people familiar with the matter, but precisely what criminal charges he faces remains unclear.
"The news that criminal charges have apparently been filed against Mr. Assange is even more troubling than the haphazard manner in which that information has been revealed," Barry Pollack, an attorney for Assange in the United States, told CNN. "The government bringing criminal charges against someone for publishing truthful information is a dangerous path for a democracy to take."
CNN reported in April 2017 that US authorities prepared charges to seek Assange's arrest, citing US officials familiar with the matter. But no charges were ever announced, and Assange remained holed up in the Ecuadorean embassy where he has been for years.
Since then, Assange's status has remained in question but his welcome in the embassy and by the government of Ecuador has worn thin.