A federal grand jury has indicted Wikileaks founder Julian Assange on 17 counts of violating the Espionage Act.
The superseding indictment released Thursday expands upon an earlier indictment of Assange for allegedly conspiring to hack U.S. government computers.
The new charges relate to WikiLeaks’ publishing of material obtained by Chelsea Manning, who gave the Assange reams of internal military and State Department documents.
After spending years in the Ecuadorian embassy in London, Assange was evicted and arrested on a U.S. extradition warrant in April related to one charge regarding conspiracy to hack.
The new indictment – which charges him for his publishing activity – raises fundamental First Amendment questions.
The indictment accuses Assange and WikiLeaks of having “repeatedly sought, obtained, and disseminated information that the United States classified due to the serious risk that unauthorized disclosure could harm the national security of the United States.” Prosecutors go on to say that Assange “designed Wikileaks to focus on information, restricted from public disclosure by law, precisely because of the value of that information.”
WikiLeaks itself is not charged.
The indictment alleges messages between Manning and Assange where they discuss a “shared philosophy” aimed at, in the government’s words, “subvert[ing] lawful measures imposed by the United States government to safeguard and secure classified information, in order to disclose that information to the public and inspire others with access to do the same.”
In one such message, Manning allegedly tells Assange “”i told you before, government/organizations cant control information… the harder they try, the more violently the information wants to get out.”
Prosecutors go on to cite tweets from WikiLeaks as evidence of the the alleged conspiracy’s objective to “subvert lawful restrictions on classified information and publicly disseminate it.”
As one paragraph in the indictment reads: “On August 20, 2010, for instance, WikiLeaks tweeted that it had distributed an encrypted “‘insurance’ file” to over 100,000 people and referred to the file and the people who downloaded it as ‘our big guns in defeating prior restraint.’”
Prosecutors take pains to illustrate the harm allegedly caused to U.S. government sources by WikiLeaks’s publishing of State Department cables and documents from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
“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 charging document reads.
The counts that relate to Assange’s publishing activity hew closely to this alleged harm to sources.
In a count having to do with WikiLeaks’s publishing of State Department cables, for example, prosecutors write that “ASSANGE, having unauthorized possession of State Department cables, classified up to the SECRET level, containing the names of individuals, who risked their safety and freedom by providing information to the United States and our allies, communicated the documents containing names of those sources to all the world by publishing them on the Internet.”
Under President Obama, the Justice Department reportedly declined to charge Assange under the Espionage Act. According to a 2013 Washington Post report, that decision came in part because law enforcement officials believed they could not bring charges against Assange without prosecuting traditional news organizations and journalists who also published classified information.
The Trump Administration’s decision to charge Assange for attracting – and then publishing – classified material is expected to provoke blowback on First Amendment grounds.
Multiple news outlets cited Assistant Attorney General for National Security John Demers as saying in an interview accompanying the indictment’s release that, “the department takes seriously the role of journalists in our democracy and we thank you for it. It has not and never has been the department’s policy to target them for reporting. But Julian Assange is no journalist.”
Read the indictment here: