Justice Department officials on Thursday announced 17 additional felony charges against WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, a move that was met with near-universal outcry from press freedom groups.
A grand jury in Alexandria, Va., returned the superseding indictment charging Assange with conspiring with former Army intelligence officer Chelsea Manning to obtain, receive and disclose “national defense information,” in violation of the Espionage Act.
He is also charged with publishing a select range of the classified documents that revealed the names of low-level, local sources utilized by the U.S. government, including Afghan and Iraqi nationals, as well as journalists, human rights activists, and religious leaders.
“These alleged actions disclosed our sensitive classified information in a manner that made it available to every terrorist group, hostile foreign intelligence service and opposing military,” said John Demers, the assistant attorney general for DOJ’s national security division.
“Documents relating to these disclosures were even found in the Osama bin Laden compound. This release made our adversaries stronger and more knowledgeable, and the United States less secure.”
The charges against Assange over the publication of those materials set the stage for a debate on whether individuals should be punished for releasing classified materials, and whether such charges could have a chilling effect on publishers who get their hands on top-secret documents.
Demers sought to get ahead of suggestions that the U.S. is charging Assange for publishing information, declaring that the WikiLeaks founder is “no journalist.”
“Some say Julian Assange is a journalist and that he is immune from prosecution for these actions. The department takes seriously the role of journalists in our democracy,” said Demers. “Julian Assange is no journalist.”
But Barry Pollack, an attorney representing Assange in the United States, said in an emailed statement that Assange was charged “under the Espionage Act for encouraging sources to provide him truthful information and for publishing that information.”
“The fig leaf that this is merely about alleged computer hacking has been removed. These unprecedented charges demonstrate the gravity of the threat the criminal prosecution of Julian Assange poses to all journalists in their endeavor to inform the public about actions that have taken by the U.S. government,” Pollack wrote.
WikiLeaks published hundreds of thousands of documents obtained from Manning, including information on Guantanamo Bay detainees, classified State Department cables and Afghanistan and Iraq War combat guidelines.
The organization called the latest charges “madness,” tweeting that superseding indictment marks “the end of national security journalism and the first amendment.”
Press freedom groups almost immediately decried the charges as an attack on the First Amendment, and warned that they set a dangerous precedent for publishers and journalists.
The Committee to Protect Journalists resurfaced on Twitter its past warnings against such charges, including its call to reform the Espionage Act to stop the law from being used to prosecute reporters and whistleblowers.
The ACLU labeled the charges “an extraordinary escalation of the Trump administration’s attacks on journalism, and a direct assault on the First Amendment.”
And whistleblower Edward Snowden called the charges a declaration of war by the Justice Department “not on Wikileaks, but on journalism itself.”
The charges will also likely to fuel the current battle to extradite Assange to the United States, a move the WikiLeaks founder is trying to fend off. He was arrested in London earlier this year on a conspiracy charge at the request of U.S. authorities, following his eviction from the Ecuadorian Embassy where he had sought refuge for several years.
Sweden is also seeking to extradite Assange to the country, where he is facing an allegation of rape.
The latest indictment also answers the question of why Manning has been summoned before grand juries investigating WikiLeaks twice this year in the Eastern District of Virginia.
She is currently incarcerated for the second time this year after a judge again ordered her to be held in contempt over her refusal to cooperate.
Manning pleaded guilty in 2013 to leaking classified information, and was sentenced to 35 years – a record sentence for a leaking conviction. Former President Barack Obama commuted Manning’s sentence in 2017.
The indictment unveiled on Thursday alleges that, starting in 2009 and continuing until Manning’s arrest in 2010, Assange “encouraged Manning to steal classified documents from the United States and unlawfully disclose that information to WikiLeaks.”
The document features conversations between Manning and Assange, including those over classified assessment briefs on Guantanamo Bay detainees that Manning shared with WikiLeaks.
After Manning, then-an Army intelligence analyst, indicated that she didn’t have any more documents to share, Assange replied “curious eyes never run dry in my experience.” That quote was included in a previously unsealed indictment against Assange.
“Assange intended his statement to encourage Manning to continue her theft of classified documents from the United States and to continue the unlawful disclosure of those documents to Assange and WikiLeaks,” the document reads.
Manning later provided Assange with classified documents on rules of engagement for Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as classified State Department cables.
After Manning’s arrest in May 2010, Assange allegedly continued to publish classified documents he received from the analyst, such as reports that “included names of local Afghans and Iraqis who had provided information to U.S. and coalition forces.”
Some of the classified State Department cables also included the names of confidential U.S. sources across the world.
“By publishing these documents without redacting the human sources’ names or other identifying information, Assange created a grave and imminent risk that the innocent people he named would suffer serious physical harm and/or arbitrary detention,” the document reads.
The indictment also states that Assange was warned by the State Department that releasing the names of informants could endanger those sources, and while he redacted some of the names, others were still released.
WikiLeaks was also at the center of concerns over Russian interference in the 2016 election, after it published damaging hacked Democratic emails in the run-up to the election. Neither Assange nor WikiLeaks have been charged in relation to the publication of those documents.
Source: The Hill