After almost seven years of investigations, US prosecutors could be prepared to move ahead with charging the anti-secrecy group WikiLeaks and its founder Julian Assange, according to US media reports.
Possible charges could include conspiracy, theft of government property and violating the Espionage Act, which prohibits interference with US military operations and aiding of US enemies.
While pursuing any charges would require the approval from high-ranking Justice Department officials, Attorney General Jeff Sessions told reporters Thursday that it would be a priority to arrest Assange, who for the past five years has lived in the Ecuadorian Embassy in London to avoid extradition to Sweden, where he would face questioning in a sexual assault case.
The Justice Department, Sessions said, was stepping up in its efforts to prosecute those leaking state secrets to the media.
"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," Sessions said. Last month, WikiLeaks released a trove of some 8,000 documents revealing what it said were the CIA's secret cyber-espionage tools used for breaking into computers and cell phones.
Following the leak, CIA Director Mike Pompeo denounced WikiLeaks as a "hostile intelligence service" and a threat to US national security.
WikiLeaks defends 'truthful information'
Assange's attorney, Barry Pollack, said US prosecutors had not given any notice of their progress but stressed that the Depart of Justice "should not be treating the publication of truthful information as a reason for a criminal investigation."
"Democracy has always depended on journalists being able to inform the public of what their government is doing," Pollack added.
Responding to reports that the US was ready to press charges, WikiLeaks reposted a piece written by Assange earlier this month in the "Washington Post" newspaper. "WikiLeaks' sole interest is expressing constitutionally protected truths, which I remain convinced is the cornerstone of the United States' remarkable liberty, success and greatness," Assange wrote.
WikiLeaks and Assange rose to prominence in 2010 after the site published thousands of pages of classified war logs revealing the grim reality of the US wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.
Trump's change in tone
Should US prosecutors go ahead with charging WikiLeaks and Assange, it would mark a major U-turn from US President Donald Trump's previous praise for the organization.
While still a candidate, Trump appeared buoyed by WikiLeaks' disclosure of private emails belonging to Hillary Clinton's campaign manager, John Podesta. The Republican even encouraged to the group to publish more hacked material from the Clinton campaign.
Some six months later, President Trump expressed "extreme concern" about the CIA security breach that led to its hacking operations being leaked.
According to the "Washington Post," it remains unclear whether prosecutors are looking at the Podesta case as part of their investigation.
dm/sms (AP, dpa)