Julian Assange is unlikely to face prosecution in the United States, anonymous Justice Department officials told the Washington Post in a report published Monday.
For three years, a federal grand jury in northern Virginia has been probing WikiLeaks' release of files from former Army private first class Chelsea Manning. Assange has been holed up in the Ecuadorian embassy in London for more than a year, claiming that he fears extradition to the U.S. from Sweden, where he faces separate sexual assault allegations.
Press freedom advocates had criticized the investigation into Assange for threatening the ability of all news organizations -- not just WikiLeaks -- to publish sensitive government material.
According to the Post, the Justice Department realized it had a "'New York Times problem.' If the Justice Department indicted Assange, it would also have to prosecute the New York Times and other news organizations and writers who published classified material."
Nevertheless, the words of anonymous Justice Department officials are unlikely to comfort Assange and his lawyers, who have said that they will be satisfied with nothing less than an on-the-record statement taking prosecution for offenses like Espionage Act violations off the table.
According to the Post, "officials said that although Assange published classified documents, he did not leak them, something they said significantly affects their legal analysis."
That conclusion seems to be at odds with the one reached by military prosecutors during Manning's trial. There, Assange was treated as a virtual co-conspirator, with prosecutors alleging that Manning took part in WikiLeaks' editing process for the "collateral murder" video of an Apache helicopter attack in Iraq, and that Assange attempted to help her browse a classified government network anonymously.
Earlier this month Attorney General Eric Holder also told the Post that another man who has published sensitive government files -- Glenn Greenwald -- is unlikely to face prosecution for reporting on leaks from former NSA contractor Edward Snowden. Holder's assertion there included a significant caveat that the anonymous government officials also made about Assange: Neither would be prosecuted as long as no evidence of more direct involvement in leaks comes to light.