The US Department of Justice has indicted WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange on 17 counts of violating the US Espionage Act for his role in seeking and publishing classified materials from former US Army analyst Chelsea Manning in 2010.
The new indictment has dramatically transformed the case against Assange, who was arrested in London last month and indicted by the US on one count of conspiracy to commit computer intrusion. Prosecutors allege that Assange worked with Manning to hack a password on a Department of Defense computer to access classified government documents.
But now federal prosecutors are accusing Assange of having “repeatedly sought, obtained, and disseminated information that the United States classified due to serious risk that unauthorized disclosure could harm the national security of the United States,” according to the indictment.
The indictment refers to material published starting in 2010 on WikiLeaks that included military documents and secret State Department cables. All were provided by Manning, who was charged and sentenced for stealing the information. (She served seven years of her 35-year sentence, after President Barack Obama commuted her sentence at the end of his second term.)
The new charges against Assange are already being interpreted as a potential test of the First Amendment, and of journalists’ and news organizations’ ability to publish information based on leaks of classified information.
WikiLeaks, in responding to the latest indictment of their founder, tweeted that this “is the end of national security journalism and the first amendment.”
John Demers, head of the Justice Department’s national security division, told reporters on Thursday that this indictment isn’t a warning shot to journalists. “The department takes seriously the role of journalists in our democracy and we thank you for it,” he said, according to BuzzFeed. “It has not and never has been the department’s policy to target them for reporting.”
“But,” he added, “Julian Assange is no journalist.”
That question — whether Assange qualifies as a “journalist” in the eyes of the law (and other journalists) is protected by the First Amendment — will be at the core of the debate over Assange and free speech.
Assange was already facing extradition to the US from the United Kingdom, and it’s unclear how these additional charges might change his circumstances. Assange is already fighting the extradition order. Assange faces up to 10 years in prison for each count of violating the Espionage Act.
Read the full indictment here.
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