Julian Assange, the founder of WikiLeaks, has agreed to plead guilty to a single felony count of illegally obtaining and disclosing U.S. defense secrets. According to news reports, the Justice Department will recommend to a U.S. district court for the Northern Mariana Islands that Assange be released to Australia, his country of citizenship, given the more-than five years he has already served at Belmarsh Prison in the United Kingdom. A video circulating on social media shows Assange boarding a plane after his release from Belmarsh yesterday, and a Justice Department letter indicates that the district court has scheduled a hearing regarding the plea for Wednesday morning.

For Assange, the deal ends what the New York Times describes as a “long and bitter standoff with the United States.” Assange has been held in severe conditions at Belmarsh for more than five years; before that he was effectively imprisoned for seven years at the Ecuadorian Embassy in London, where he’d sought refuge amid fears – justified, as it turned out – that the United States intended to seek his extradition. I visited Assange at the Embassy in 2014 and saw firsthand the conditions in which he was living: He was confined to a small conference room and intimately supervised by armed guards; a speaker on the windowsill was blasting white noise meant to frustrate surveillance; and the Embassy itself was surrounded by trenchcoated men biding their time in unmarked cars, presumably representatives of a cross-section of the world’s intelligence agencies. It was clear to me then that Assange had already paid a heavy price for publishing government secrets. Almost a decade later, he and his supporters will be deeply relieved if his tribulations are coming to an end.

The Biden administration will be thrilled to close this case, too. It was the Trump administration, remember, that filed the indictment; while the Obama administration had considered charging Assange under the Espionage Act, it ultimately demurred because of concerns about the implications for press freedom. Those concerns were well-founded. It’s largely forgotten that, at the time the Obama administration was considering indicting Assange, some prominent legislators were pressuring it to indict major newspapers as well for printing some of the same secrets that WikiLeaks had published.

It’s doubtful that Biden administration officials, many of them holdovers from the Obama administration, were ever very enthusiastic about the case. But having inherited the file, they actively pursued Assange’s extradition for three years, and so the case now belongs to them as much as it does to the Trump administration. Press freedom and human rights groups – including the Knight Institute – repeatedly criticized the administration for pursuing the case, arguing that the prosecution of Assange for publishing government secrets was impossible to reconcile with the administration’s stated commitment to press freedom. When the administration announced new rules limiting the use of subpoenas against the press, the announcement was complicated by its continuing pursuit of Assange. The administration will surely be relieved to step beyond such an obvious contradiction.

But this doesn’t mean the plea deal is a big win for press freedom. It’s true that the deal averts the possibility of a judicial ruling endorsing the government’s broadest statutory and constitutional arguments – in particular, the argument that the solicitation and publication of government secrets is both prohibited by the Espionage Act and unprotected by the First Amendment. That kind of ruling would have been a true catastrophe for national security journalism, whether or not Assange himself is properly considered a journalist, as I explained in expert testimony submitted to the U.K. magistrate’s court.

At the same time, the logic of the deal is that Assange will have served five years in prison for activities that journalists engage in every day, and that we absolutely need them to engage in. In this respect the case establishes a terrible precedent, even if it’s not one the courts have fully endorsed. (It’s worth asking why the Justice Department required Assange to plead guilty to an Espionage Act charge, rather than to a charge under the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act, which would have raised far fewer press freedom concerns.) Assange and Biden are closing a chapter, certainly. But the case will have a legacy for press freedom, and for the public’s right to know. As I told Reuters, the case will cast a long shadow over the most important kinds of journalism, not just in the United States but around the world.

IMAGE: Freedom of the Press news headline on a copy of the U.S. Constitution. (Photo via Getty Images)