One minute, Seamus Hughes was reading the book Dragons Love Tacos to his son. A few minutes later, after putting him to bed, Hughes was back on his computer, stumbling on what could be one of the most closely guarded secrets within the U.S. government: The Justice Department may be preparing criminal charges against WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange.
Hughes, who calls himself "a court records nerd," made the discovery on Thursday while sifting through papers filed over the summer with the Eastern District Court of Virginia. As deputy director of the Program on Extremism at George Washington University, Hughes helps sort through thousands of terrorism records each year, and "for this case," he says, "I was looking at a completely different filing."
"The reason I was looking at it was because an individual was charged with enticing a minor, but the prosecutor was a national security prosecutor," Hughes said in an interview Friday with NPR's Lakshmi Singh.
The filing had been sitting in his inbox for three days. It discussed the need to keep records in the case under seal and argued that "due to the sophistication of the defendant and the publicity surrounding the case, no other procedure is likely to keep confidential the fact that Assange has been charged."
The line triggered his memory. Hughes said he had recently read a Wall Street Journal report about the U.S. prosecuting Assange.
"I thought I'd make a joke about how you can get it cheaper if you looked at court records as opposed to buying it from the Wall Street Journal," he said, so he posted an image of the document on Twitter and wrote: "You guys should read EDVA court filings more, cheaper than a Journal subscription."
By Friday morning, the Twitter post had hundreds of retweets and thousands of likes. "I look at my wife, I say, 'I think something happened last night,' and then we get The Washington Post that morning and the front page is all of this, and The New York Times and everybody else after that, and I thought to myself, 'It's going to be one of those Fridays I guess.' "
As NPR's Carrie Johnson and Colin Dwyer reported, it remains unclear whether any charges against Assange have been filed. If they have, it's also unclear whether they relate to special counsel Robert Mueller's investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election or to the past release of sensitive government information by WikiLeaks.
Prosecutors in Virginia have called the filing an error. "That was not the intended name for this filing," Joshua Stueve, a spokesman for the U.S. Attorney's Office for the Eastern District of Virginia, told The New York Times.
Hughes said the "accidental revelation" he found in the court papers is most likely the result of human error – an accidental case of cut and paste.
"It looks like it's the same prosecutor that's looking at both those cases. You know, these prosecutors are overworked, they've got an immense workload and things get missed on these things, and I think this is just one of those honest mistakes."
Hughes said he feels for the attorney who made the error, adding that in retrospect, he might have taken a different approach.
"Looking back, I probably would have called DOJ last night if I realized what I had and asked for a comment and gone from there, kind of through the quasi journalistic stuff, but I didn't realize what it was when I was looking at it really," he said.
He said the discovery has also prompted him to rethink his research approach.
"Unseal motions are kind of very boring," said Hughes, referring to the type of record he had been reading when he made the discovery. "They're two to three pages; it says the same exact thing every time. The judge just signs it and moves on, right? Now, I'm not going to be the guy who looks at it really quickly and closes it."
LAKSHMI SINGH, HOST:
By now, you've probably heard about the court filing that mistakenly includes this quote - "keep confidential the fact that Assange has been charged." That, of course, is a reference to WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, the transparency advocate who published mounds of sensitive materials without government authorization. And its appearance in a completely unrelated document suggests that prosecutors could be preparing charges against him. Well, since Assange has been on the radar of special counsel Robert Mueller's investigation into Russia's election interference and possible collusion with Trump associates, this accidental revelation could signal an advance in the Russia probe.
Seamus Hughes was the one who spotted the reference to Assange in the court documents. He's deputy director of the Program on Extremism at George Washington University. He joins us from our Washington, D.C., studios.
Thanks for coming in.
SEAMUS HUGHES: Thanks for having me.
SINGH: Well, Mr. Hughes, first (laughter), how does someone just stumble across this? Walk us through what you were actually looking for.
HUGHES: Yeah. So at the Program on Extremism, we look at terrorism cases in the U.S. And so we do a lot of work on PACER, which the Federal Records repository. We go through about 15,000 pages of terrorism records. I was looking at a completely different filing because an individual was charged with enticing a minor. But the prosecutor was a national security prosecutor. They filed a motion to use FISA, and the detention memo talked about terrorism. So you wrap these all together and say, OK, I'm interested in this case. And so I saw it a few days ago when I first pulled the case.
And then I saw a Wall Street Journal piece talking about the U.S. prosecuting Assange. So it kind of triggered my memory. I said, I remember that name in that filing. And so I'd just finished reading "Dragons Love Tacos" to my kid, and I put him down to bed, and I said, I should just pull that document and see what it says. And there it goes.
SINGH: And so what did you find when you pulled it out? I mean, this is the kind of thing that you tend to sort of skim over until there's something that captivates you.
HUGHES: That's exactly what I did. I skimmed over it the first couple days. The reason why I went back to it was because they had a mention about extradition and other things that weren't part of the terrorism case. So the red flags were flying on that. And I just thought, you know, it looks like this was just a misfiling, but it also gives us a window into what DOJ was doing.
SINGH: What's the connection between Assange and the actual case that you were looking at?
HUGHES: It doesn't appear there's any connection whatsoever. You know, it looks like it's the same prosecutor that's looking at both those cases. It's exactly what you and I would do when we're writing documents, right? If you're doing the same document a thousand times, you just, you know, have a template, and you just plug and play your names. You know, these prosecutors are overworked. They've got an immense workload. And I think this is just one of those honest mistakes.
SINGH: So you posted a screenshot (laughter) on Twitter, and I'm thinking you must be either freaking out or really excited about this. Like, oh, my god. Who am I going to tell this to? Who's the first person?
HUGHES: Yeah. None of those things, actually. No. I just thought it was a thing. I mean, I thought it was just one of those interesting things. I was actually - I had seen the Wall Street Journal reporters who had written those pieces recently, and I thought I'd make a joke about how, you know, you'd get it cheaper if you looked at court records as opposed to buying it from the Wall Street Journal. And I just kind of chided them on Twitter. You know, I go to sleep, and I wake up, and it's, you know, thousands of retweets. I had no idea what was going on. And, you know, looking back, I probably would have called DOJ and asked for a comment and gone from there - kind of do the quasi-journalistic stuff. But I didn't realize what it was when I was looking at it, really.
SINGH: But does it change the way that you research, that you read? You no longer comb through something or sort of scan.
HUGHES: Yeah, no. I'm no longer just quickly scanning through an unseal motion. Unseal motions are very boring. They're two to three pages. Like, it says the same exact thing every time. The judge just signs it and moves on, right? Now I'm not going to be the guy who looks at it really quickly and closes it.
SINGH: Seamus Hughes - he's the deputy director of the Program on Extremism at George Washington University.
Thank you so much for joining us, Mr. Hughes.
HUGHES: Thanks for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.