Julian Assange's arrest on Thursday in the Ecuadorean Embassy in London opens the next chapter in the saga of the WikiLeaks founder: An expected extradition fight over a pending criminal prosecution in the United States.

It's also likely to trigger a debate over press freedom and call attention to unresolved questions about Assange's role in the release of stolen Democratic emails leading up to the 2016 presidential election, part of special counsel Robert Mueller's recently concluded investigation into ties between the Trump campaign and Russia.

Some takeaways from his arrest:

The charges in the US

Assange, for now at least, faces a single count of computer intrusion conspiracy.


He's accused of conspiring in 2010 with Chelsea Manning, then a US Army intelligence analyst who leaked troves of classified material to WikiLeaks, to crack a password that would give her higher-level access to classified computer networks.

Prosecutors say Assange and Manning tried to conceal Manning's role as a source by deleting chat logs and removing usernames from sensitive records that were shared. They used a special folder to transmit classified and national defence information, the indictment says. Assange ultimately requested more information related to the password, telling Manning that while he had tried to crack it, he "had no luck so far".

Press freedom implications

Assange and his supporters say he's a journalist who deserves legal protections for publishing stolen material. But the indictment doesn't really have to do with whether Assange is a journalist.

The allegations don't relate to the publication of classified information but focus on his attempts to obtain the material in what prosecutors say was an illegal manner.

That distinction could be vital in the US Government's case and complicate Assange's efforts to cast the prosecution as infringing on press freedom. Justice Department media guidelines are meant to protect journalists from prosecution for doing their jobs, which has historically included the publication of classified information. But the protections don't easily extend to journalists or others who themselves break the law to obtain information or who solicit others to do so, as the Government alleges.

"The act of coaching" someone how to steal information, as alleged in the indictment, "is a step too far", said Ryan Fayhee, a former Justice Department prosecutor who specialised in counterintelligence cases.

Assange may well have grounds to argue that, unlike Manning or government officials or contractors, he had no obligation to safeguard American secrets.

But his publication of stolen Democratic emails during the 2016 campaign and reliance for them on a foreign adversary like Russia may undermine any defence claim that he's motivated by a public good.


What happens next?

Assange is expected to fight extradition to the US, a process that could stretch out for years.

He has a top-notch legal team, many devoted supporters and the legal issues in the US case may prove complex.

Assuming he is eventually brought to the US, Assange would face charges in the Eastern District of Virginia, just outside Washington. The office has considerable experience in national security prosecutions involving accused terrorists and spies and other high-profile matters, like the case against former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort.

Justice Department officials could easily supplement their indictment with a new one with more serious charges. Manning was jailed last month after she refused to testify before a grand jury in Virginia, suggesting that prosecutors' work related to Assange is not done.

Ecuador's President, Lenin Moreno, said he had secured a guarantee from the United Kingdom that Assange wouldn't be extradited to a country where he could face a death penalty. That's likely a reassurance to Assange's supporters, but the charge he currently faces carries just a five-year maximum penalty.

The Espionage Act can carry the death penalty for people who deliver national defence information to foreign nations, but that charge was not brought against Assange in the current indictment. There's no allegation Assange disclosed American secrets to a foreign power with the goal of harming the US.


Connection to Mueller's Russia investigation

On its face, the charges have nothing to do with Mueller's probe. The indictment was brought not by Mueller and his team but rather by prosecutors in Virginia and the Justice Department's national security division.

There is no allegation in the indictment of any involvement in Russian election interference,

co-ordination with Russian hackers or interactions with Trump campaign associates. That's striking since Assange and WikiLeaks have surfaced, albeit obliquely and not by name, in multiple criminal cases brought by Mueller.

Reaction in the US

President Donald Trump declared that "I know nothing about WikiLeaks" after Assange was hauled out of the Ecuadorean Embassy. That was a stark contrast to how candidate Trump showered praise on Assange's hacking organisation night after night during the final weeks of the 2016 presidential campaign, often cheering the release of damaging emails from Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton's campaign manager, John Podesta. Asked yesterday about Assange's arrest, Trump said at the White House: "It's not my thing. I know there is something having to do with Julian Assange."

Clinton said yesterday that Assange needs to "answer for what he has done". "The bottom line is that he has to answer for what he has done, at least as it has been charged," she said.

- AP