US extradition of Julian Assange was signalled since the early Trump days

The decision to seek the extradition of Julian Assange marked a dramatic new approach to the founder of WikiLeaks by the US government, a shift that was signaled in the early days of the Trump administration.

President Barack Obama's Justice Department had extensive internal debates about whether to charge Assange amid concerns the case might not hold up in court and would be viewed as an attack on journalism by an administration already taking heat for leak prosecutions.

But senior Trump administration officials seemed to make it clear early on that they held a different view, dialing up the rhetoric on the anti-secrecy organisation shortly after it made damaging disclosures about the CIA's cyberespionage tools.

"WikiLeaks walks like a hostile intelligence service and talks like a hostile intelligence service," former CIA Director Mike Pompeo said in April 2017 in his first public speech as head of the agency.

"Assange and his ilk," Pompeo said, seek "personal self-aggrandisement through the destruction of Western values."

A week after the CIA director's speech, then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions said the arrest of Assange was a priority, part of a broader Justice Department crackdown on leakers.

"We've already begun to step up our efforts, and whenever a case can be made, we will seek to put some people in jail," he said.

Pompeo, now secretary of state, declined Friday to discuss the issue, citing the now-active legal pursuit of Assange following his removal a day earlier by British authorities from the Ecuadorian Embassy in London.

The administration won't say why they decided now to charge Assange with a single count of computer intrusion conspiracy that dates to 2010.

Back then, WikiLeaks is alleged to have helped Chelsea Manning, then a US Army intelligence analyst, crack a password that gave her higher-level access to classified computer networks.

Nor will they say whether the Obama administration had the same evidence that forms the basis of the indictment, or whether Assange will face additional counts if he is extradited to the United States.

But a US official, speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss internal and legal matters, traced the genesis of the indictment to what's known as the "Vault 7 leak" in 2017, when WikiLeaks released thousands of pages of documents revealing details about CIA tools for breaking into targeted computers, cellphones and consumer electronics.

A former CIA software engineer was charged with violating the Espionage Act by providing the information to WikiLeaks and is to go on trial later this year in New York. And the leak was a tipping point in deciding to pursue Assange, the official said.

"Vault 7 was the nail in the coffin, so to speak," the official said.

It ended years of ambivalence about what to do about Assange, who was hailed by many when WikiLeaks published hundreds of thousands of State Department cables and US military documents, including many that revealed previously unknown facts about the wars

in Iraq and Afghanistan and the detainees held at the US base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

Julian Assange gestures as he arrives at Westminster Magistrates' Court in London, after the WikiLeaks founder was arrested by officers from the Metropolitan Police Thursday April 11, 2019. Source: Associated Press