WASHINGTON — The United States has charged WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange of conspiring to hack a computer as part of the 2010 release of reams of secret American documents, according to an indictment unsealed Thursday, putting him just one flight away from being in American custody after years of seclusion in the Ecuadorean embassy in London.
The single charge, conspiracy to commit computer intrusion, was filed a year earlier, in March 2018, and stems from what prosecutors said was his agreement to break a password to a classified United States government computer. It carries a penalty of up to five years in prison and is significant in that it is not an espionage charge, a detail that will come as a relief to press freedom advocates. The United States government had considered until at least last year charging him with an espionage-related offense.
Mr. Assange, 47, has been living at the Ecuadorean Embassy in London since 2012. British authorities arrested him on Thursday, heavily bearded and disheveled. A dramatic video showed him shackled and being carried out of the embassy and forced into a police van. He was detained partly in connection with an American extradition warrant after he was evicted by the Ecuadoreans.
Mr. Assange has been in the sights of the United States government since his organization’s 2010 disclosures. Most recently, Mr. Assange has been under attack for his organization’s release during the 2016 presidential campaign of thousands of emails stolen from the computer systems of the Democratic National Committee, leading to a series of revelations that embarrassed the party and Hillary Clinton’s campaign. United States investigators have said that the systems were hacked by Russian agents; the conspiracy charge against Mr. Assange unsealed Thursday is not related to the special counsel’s investigation into Russia’s election influence.
Mr. Assange will have the right to contest the United States extradition request in British courts. Most people who fight extradition requests argue that the case is politically motivated rather than driven by legitimate legal concerns.
In 2010 WikiLeaks released American files that documented the killing of civilians and journalists and the abuse of detainees by forces of the United States and other countries, airing officials’ unvarnished, often unflattering views of allies and of American actions.
An Army private, Bradley Manning — now known as Chelsea Manning — was convicted of leaking that collection of files and was sentenced to 35 years in prison. President Barack Obama commuted the sentence after Ms. Manning had served almost seven years.
American prosecutors said that in March 2010 Mr. Assange agreed to help Ms. Manning crack a password on a Defense Department computer to reach restricted classified government documents and communications. Ms. Manning had access to the computers as part of her job as an intelligence analyst. Prosecutors said there were communications that showed that Mr. Assange encouraged Ms. Manning to get more information.
“After this upload, that’s all I really have got left,” Ms. Manning said to Mr. Assange on March 7, 2010, according to the indictment. Mr. Assange replied, “curious eyes never run dry in my experience.”
Barry J. Pollack, a lawyer for Mr. Assange, accused the United States of conducting what he said was “an unprecedented effort by the United States seeking to extradite a foreign journalist to face criminal charges for publishing truthful information.”
Mr. Assange has long asserted that WikiLeaks is a journalistic organization, promoting the need for government transparency, a position that has been the subject of debate among national security officials and press freedom advocates.
In 2013, Mr. Assange tried to help Edward J. Snowden, the former government contractor who released National Security Agency documents in 2013 and is now living in exile in Russia. At the time, a WikiLeaks activist accompanied Mr. Snowden to Moscow, and Mr. Assange said Mr. Snowden’s troubles were similar to his own.
American investigators have linked the 2016 WikiLeaks disclosures to efforts by the Trump campaign to damage Mrs. Clinton. The special counsel appointed to investigate Russia’s election interference did not file any charges against Mr. Assange and did not find that the Trump campaign colluded or coordinated with Russia. Mr. Trump praised WikiLeaks during the presidential campaign for releasing the damaging Democratic emails.
Mr. Assange has made no secret of his intent to damage Mrs. Clinton, but he has insisted that he did not get the emails from Russia.
The United States Justice Department accidentally disclosed the charge against Mr. Assange in November.
Mr. Assange’s initial arrest on Thursday arose from something much more innocuous: He faces a charge in a British court of jumping bail, and the Metropolitan Police said in a statement that Mr. Assange had been arrested by officers at the embassy on a warrant issued by Westminster Magistrates’ Court in 2012, for failing to surrender to the court. A British judge found him guilty of skipping out on bail.
Mr. Assange took refuge in the embassy in June 2012 to avoid extradition to Sweden, where he faced questions about sexual assault allegations. He has asserted that the accusations against him are false, and has said that the Swedish authorities intend to extradite him to the United States.
Sweden rescinded its arrest warrant for Mr. Assange in 2017, but prosecutors have stressed that the case has not been closed and could resume.
Ecuador’s relations with Britain, the United States and other countries have suffered because of the high-profile guest.
President Lenín Moreno of Ecuador, who became the country’s president in 2017, had looked for a face-saving way to get out of the arrangement. On Thursday in a Twitter post, he said that his country had decided to stop sheltering Mr. Assange after “his repeated violations to international conventions and daily-life protocols,” a decision that cleared the way for the British authorities to detain him.
The relationship between Mr. Assange and Ecuador has been rocky, even as it offered him refuge and even citizenship, and WikiLeaks said last Friday that Ecuador “already has an agreement with the U.K. for his arrest” and predicted that Mr. Assange would be expelled from the embassy “within ‘hours to days.’”
Mr. Moreno, in a video statement, said that Mr. Assange had exhausted the patience of his hosts, outlining of litany of grievances: the installation of electronic interference equipment, the blocking of security cameras, and attacks on guards.
“Finally two days ago, WikiLeaks, the organization of Mr. Assange, threatened the government of Ecuador,” Mr. Moreno said, an apparent reference to allegations from the organization that Mr. Assange had been subject to a spying operation. “My government has nothing to fear and doesn’t act under threat.”
In his video, Mr. Moreno singled out the recent release by WikiLeaks of information about the Vatican as evidence that Mr. Assange had continued to work with WikiLeaks to violate “the rule of nonintervention in the internal affairs of other states.”
Alan Duncan, the minister responsible for Europe and the Americas at Britain’s Foreign Office, said in a statement that the arrest had followed “extensive dialogue” between the two countries.
In December 2017, Ecuador gave Mr. Assange citizenship, and was preparing to appoint him to a diplomatic post in Russia, but the British government made clear that if he left the embassy, he would not have diplomatic immunity.
The Ecuadorean government said in March last year that it had cut off Mr. Assange’s internet access, saying that he had violated an agreement to stop commenting on, or trying to influence, the politics of other countries. The government also imposed other restrictions, limiting his visitors and requiring him to clean his bathroom and look after his cat.
He sued the Ecuadorean government in October, claiming that it was violating his rights.