The case against Julian Assange is serious — but smaller and shakier than some people feared

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WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange was arrested today after Ecuador’s UK embassy revoked his asylum status, ending a stay of more than six years. The US Department of Justice revealed that Assange is charged with one count of violating the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act (CFAA). It’s a far less aggressive charge than many people feared Assange would face — but one that could still be ominous news for the free press.

The US government’s case against Assange has remained mysterious for years. In theory, he could have faced accusations of stealing government property or violating the Espionage Act by publishing leaked documents from whistleblower Chelsea Manning. This would have immediately raised huge questions about the First Amendment. “Any prosecution by the United States of Mr. Assange for Wikileaks’ publishing operations would be unprecedented and unconstitutional, and would open the door to criminal investigations of other news organizations,” warned the American Civil Liberties Union after Assange’s arrest.

But the indictment is comparatively modest. It claims Assange tried (seemingly unsuccessfully) to crack a password that would have helped Manning cover her tracks, thus conspiring to get secret government files without authorization. He faces up to five years in jail — which is