WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange is free. His future in publishing government secrets is unclear

WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange gestures after landing at RAAF air base Fairbairn in Canberra, Australia, on Wednesday. He returned to his homeland hours after pleading guilty to obtaining and publishing U.S. military secrets in a deal with Justice Department prosecutors that concludes a 14-year legal saga. (Rick Rycroft/The Associated Press - image credit)

Julian Assange is a hero to many and a traitor to others. Supporters of the WikiLeaks founder and publisher view him as an investigative journalist who exposed damning information governments wanted to keep hidden, while critics see him as a threat to national security. His newest title, however, is free man.

His 14-year-long legal saga to avoid extradition to the U.S., to face espionage charges over the publication of troves of classified intelligence files in 2010, has come to an end.

Assange pleaded guilty Tuesday in a U.S. federal court in Saipan, the capital of the Northern Mariana Islands, to a single felony charge of conspiring to unlawfully obtain and disseminate classified national defence information.

But it's unclear if or when he'll return to his life's work — and whether or not WikiLeaks will once again become a clearinghouse for whistleblowers revealing state and military secrets — given the toll the ordeal has had on him.

He will always be a defender of human rights, said his wife, Stella Assange, but she told reporters Wednesday evening in the Australian capital of Canberra, that the 52-year-old needs to recuperate.

"You have to understand what he's been through," she said. "He needs time."

She asked that people give them space and privacy "so that our family can be a family before he can speak again at a time of his choosing."

WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange kisses his wife Stella Assange as he arrives at Canberra Airport on June 26, 2024 in Canberra, Australia. Julian Assange, the WikiLeaks founder, returned to his native Australia as a free man, after attending the U.S. District Court for the Northern Mariana Islands in Saipan on Wednesday. Following his guilty plea to a felony charge under the Espionage Act, Assange was sentenced to time served and subsequently released, allowing him to walk free after years of incarceration and intense lobbying for his release from across the political spectrum. Family, supporters and politicians welcomed his release and return, with Australia's Prime Minister Anthony Albanese saying the case "had dragged on for too long." Assange's case has been a lightning rod for debates about press freedom and national security, with his supporters hailing him as a whistleblower who exposed government wrongdoing, while critics accused him of recklessly endangering lives by publishing classified information. His release marks the end of a tumultuous legal saga that spanned over a decade, involving allegations of sexual assault in Sweden, asylum in the Ecuadorian embassy in London, and a protracted battle against extradition to the United States.

Assange kisses his wife, Stella, as he arrives at Canberra Airport on Wednesday. Family, supporters and politicians welcomed his release and return, with Australia's Prime Minister Anthony Albanese saying the case 'had dragged on for too long.' (Roni Bintang/Getty Images)

The plea deal meant he was sentenced to the time he'd already served in the U.K. and was free to go.

Assange spent the past five years locked up in England's Belmarsh high-security prison, confined to his cell for 23 hours a day, as he fought extradition to be tried on 18 charges under the U.S. Espionage Act — charges that could've seen him sentenced to 175 years in prison if he'd been convicted.

Before that, he spent seven years living inside the Ecuadorian embassy in London, where he was granted political asylum after courts in England ruled he should be extradited to Sweden as part of a rape investigation that was eventually dropped in 2017.

Negative impact on Assange, Wikileaks

Assange's U.S. legal adviser, Barry Pollack, says he's not under any sort of restrictions or gag orders as part of the plea deal.

But James Turk, the director of the Centre for Free Expression at Toronto Metropolitan University, has doubts about Assange's future in publishing sensitive information.

"I think the process had a major negative impact on him that might make it hard for him to play much of an active role as either a journalist or a publisher in future," he told CBC News.

Assange, who founded WikiLeaks in 2006, rose to fame in 2010 when his organization began publishing some 700,000 classified documents and diplomatic cables released by U.S. military whistleblower Chelsea Manning.

Many of the documents related to the conduct of the U.S. military during the Afghanistan and Iraq wars, documents revealing that the civilian death tolls in the two U.S.-led wars were much higher than were being reported and details about the detainment of U.S. prisoners in Guantánamo Bay, Cuba.

LONDON, ENGLAND - APRIL 11: Julian Assange gestures to the media from a police vehicle on his arrival at Westminster Magistrates court on April 11, 2019 in London, England.  After weeks of speculation Wikileaks founder Julian Assange was arrested by Scotland Yard Police Officers inside the Ecuadorian Embassy in Central London this morning. Ecuador's President, Lenin Moreno, withdrew Assange's Asylum after seven years citing repeated violations to international conventions. (Photo by Jack Taylor/Getty Images)

Assange gestures to the media from a police vehicle on his arrival at London's Westminster Magistrates court in April 2019, after Scotland Yard Police Officers arrested him inside the Ecuadorian embassy, where he'd been living since 2012. (Jack Taylor/Getty Images)

Manning also leaked a video, which WikiLeaks titled Collateral Murder, showing U.S. troops fatally shooting a dozen Iraqi civilians, including two Reuters news agency employees, from two Apache helicopters in Baghdad in July 2007.

Manning was arrested in May 2010 and later convicted of 20 charges under the Espionage Act. She was sentenced to 35 years in prison, but former U.S. president Barack Obama commuted her sentence in 2017 in his final days in office.

In the years that followed, WikiLeaks also released leaked Democratic Party emails from National Security Agency intercepts and tens of thousands of internal emails that were hacked from Sony Pictures.

But WikiLeaks hasn't published anything on its website since 2021 and hasn't released any original documents since 2019.

Assange, in a 2023 interview with The Nation from inside Belmarsh prison, said the organization was unable to publish leaks due to his imprisonment, U.S. government surveillance and restrictions on the organization's funding.

WATCH | Assange, wife reunite in Australia after 14-year legal saga ends:

U.S. gov't remains critical of Assange

The U.S. State Department said Wednesday that Assange and the 2010 WikiLeaks releases not only harmed the ability of diplomats to build relationships abroad, but also put lives at risk.

His legal team disputed the accusation that WikiLeaks put people in peril.

"There's no evidence of any actual harm and that's exactly what the U.S. government acknowledged in court today in Saipan," Jennifer Robinson, Assange's Australian legal adviser, said in Canberra.

Brig-Gen. Robert Carr, a senior U.S. counter-intelligence official who led a review of the impact of the WikiLeaks cables and testified at Manning's sentencing hearing in 2013, said he uncovered no examples of anyone being killed as a result of the leaks.

The people who were actually harmed in all of this, said Turk, were the two who brought secretive information to light — Assange and Manning — while those who committed potential war crimes, as revealed in the leaks, have faced no consequences.

Activists marking five years since the arrest of Wikileaks founder Julian Assange demonstrate outside Belmarsh Prison in London, Sunday, April 14, 2024. U.S. President Joe Biden said last week that he is considering a request from Australia to drop the decade-long U.S. push to prosecute Assange for publishing a trove of American classified documents. Assange is currently fighting extradition to the U.S. from Belmarsh, where he is being held.

Activists demonstrated outside London's Belmarsh prison on April 14 to mark five years since Assange's arrest. He spent five years in the high-security prison where he was confined to his cell for 23 hours a day. (David Cliff/The Associated Press)

Press freedom at risk

Press freedom advocates applauded Assange's release, but warned that even the plea deal has repercussions for journalists and news outlets.

The very fact that he was charged under the Espionage Act — a law dating back to the First World War but that has never been used to prosecute a journalist or publisher — puts a chill on journalists working with classified documents, said Trevor Timm, the executive director of the Freedom of the Press Foundation.

"I think that we've avoided the worst case scenario," he said in an interview from Washington, D.C., explaining that had Assange gone to trial in the U.S., the case likely would have gone through appeals and ultimately wound up before the Supreme Court, where a legal precedent could have been set.

That, Timm said, might have allowed "overzealous prosecutors who have an axe to grind against the media" to go after organizations like The New York Times and The Washington Post, which he noted have long histories of publishing leaks of secretive material.

Journalists covering national security and other sensitive areas of governance speak with confidential sources and encounter classified information on a daily basis for their reporting, he explained.

That's something news organizations might think twice about moving forward, he said, if the threat of prosecution under the Espionage Act is looming over them.

WATCH | Assange travels to Saipan to enter plea in U.S. espionage case: