WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange finds himself more legal trouble today as federal prosecutors have charged him with 17 new counts. Among them is an espionage charge for publishing classified information — the first such indictment ever handed down against a non-government employee by the U.S. Justice Department.
The new charges under the Espionage Act already are rankling some, including the ACLU and Citizenfour subject and Moscow reisdent Edward Snowden, on constitutional grounds. To that end, WikiLeaks responded to the indictments by tweeting: “This is madness. It is the end of national security journalism and the first amendment.”
A Virginia grand jury found that Assange unlawfully got then-Army Pvt. Chelsea Manning to obtain classified documents that included the names of sources who provided information to U.S. officials. Today’s charges are in addition to the single count against Assange that he worked with Manning to learn a password used by the Defense Department.
“Today the government charged Julian Assange under the Espionage Act for encouraging sources to provide him truthful information and for publishing that information,” Assange’s attorney Barry J Pollack said in a statement. “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 been taken by the U.S. government.”
The DOJ, however, made it clear during a news birefing today that it does not consider what Assange does as journalism. “The department takes seriously the role of journalists in our democracy,” John Demers, Assistant Attorney General for National Security, told reporters today.
After forcibly being removed from the Ecuadorian embassy in London last month, Assange is being held by British authorities for jumping bail. U.S. Justice Department officials believe he had a role in “one of the largest compromises of classified information in the history of the United States.”