Julian Assange, WikiLeaks founder, pleads guilty after striking deal with US

WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange has pleaded guilty to a single felony charge, securing his freedom and concluding a drawn-out legal saga that raised divisive questions about press freedom and national security.

Assange was charged after publishing U.S. military secrets and entered a deal with the Justice Department Wednesday morning. 

He arrived at court in Saipan, the capital of the Northern Mariana Islands, a U.S. commonwealth in the Pacific, and entered the building without answering any questions. 

Addressing the court, Assange said that he believed the Espionage Act under which he was charged contradicted First Amendment rights but that he accepted that encouraging sources to provide classified information for publication can be unlawful.

He answered basic questions from U.S. District Judge Ramona Manglona, an appointee of former President Barack Obama, and appeared to listen intently as terms of the deal were discussed. As a condition of his plea, he will be required to destroy information that was provided to WikiLeaks.

Though the deal with prosecutors required him to admit guilt to a single felony count, it would also permit him to return to his native Australia without spending any time in an American prison. He had been jailed in the United Kingdom for the last five years, fighting extradition to the United States on an Espionage Act indictment that could have carried a lengthy prison sentence in the event of a conviction. 

FILE - WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange arrives at the US Federal Courthouse in the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands in Saipan, Northern Mariana Islands, on June 26, 2024, ahead of his court hearing.  (YUICHI YAMAZAKI/AFP via Getty Images)

The abrupt conclusion enables both sides to claim a degree of victory, with the Justice Department able to resolve without trial a case that raised thorny legal issues and that might never have reached a jury at all given the plodding pace of the extradition process. Meanwhile, Assange’s wife, Stella, told the BBC that she was "elated" at the news as her husband flew on a chartered jet to Saipan en route to walking free.

Assange on Monday left the London prison, where he has spent the last five years, after being granted bail during a secret hearing last week. He boarded a plane that landed hours later in Bangkok to refuel before taking off again toward Saipan. A video posted by WikiLeaks on X, showed Assange staring intently out the window at the blue sky as the plane headed toward the island.

"Imagine. From over 5 years in a small cell in a maximum security prison. Nearly 14 years detained in the U.K. To this," WikiLeaks wrote.

The Associated Press contributed to this report. This story was reported from Los Angeles.