The U.S. Department of Justice indicted Julian Assange under the Espionage Act Thursday in a serious escalation of the Trump administration’s war on the press.
The 18-count indictment charges Assange with several crimes, namely unlawfully obtaining and disclosing national defense information. The charges revolve around Assange’s interaction with former Army intelligence analyst Chelsea Manning, who shared hundreds of thousands of classified documents with WikiLeaks in 2010 that offered unvarnished windows into the U.S. wars in Afghanistan and Iraq and treatment of prisoners in Guantanamo Bay.
The indictment alleges that Assange went beyond normal reporting techniques and effectively aided Manning in her alleged attempts to steal cables from Pentagon computer systems.
“Assange was knowingly receiving such classified records from Manning for the purpose of publicly disclosing them on the WikiLeaks website,” the indictment reads.
The new charges come several weeks after British authorities hauled the WikiLeaks co-founder out of the Ecuadorian embassy in London in connection with an extradition request by Sweden for a previous sexual assault charge. At the time, U.S. authorities also filed an extradition request for Assange after U.S. prosecutors slapped him with conspiracy charges related to his interactions with Manning. Thursday’s indictments charge Assange with 17 additional charges.
“This is madness,” WikiLeaks tweeted in response to the indictment. “It is the end of national security journalism and the First Amendment.”
A "dire threat to journalists"
When U.S. prosecutors initially indicted Assange, press freedom advocates breathed a sigh of relief. They had long feared that Assange would be charged under the 1917 Espionage Act, a law initially designed to curtail speech damaging to the U.S. government.
The Obama and Trump administrations have gone after an unprecedented number of national security leakers under the century-old law. But Obama’s Justice Department never went so far as to charge the WikiLeaks co-founder — who occupies a grey area between hacker and journalist — under the Espionage Act.
“I think the Obama administration acted wisely in not indicting Mr. Assange, with respect to this very conduct of which he is now accused,” First Amendment lawyer Floyd Abrams told VICE News. “While I have often voiced significant criticism of Assange for what I consider his frequent misbehavior, the indictment today does raise serious First Amendment issues for journalists who cover national security, national defense, intelligence activities and the like.”
"Assange was knowingly receiving such classified records from Manning for the purpose of publicly disclosing them on the WikiLeaks website."
Indicting a publisher or journalist under the Espionage Act could have far-reaching consequences for other media outlets that report on classified material. And in the lead-up to Thursday’s indictment, as Assange sat in a London jail, his allies and opponents had already begun sparring over his standing as a publisher. Several civil liberties and press groups classified the indictment as a danger to the freedom of speech and journalism.
The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) called the charges against Assange "a direct assault on the First Amendment."
"It establishes a dangerous precedent that can be used to target all news organizations that hold the government accountable by publishing its secrets," the ACLU's statement continued.
Bruce Brown, the executive director of the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, also described the indictment a "dire threat to journalists" — regardless of how the government classifies Assange.
“Any government use of the Espionage Act to criminalize the receipt and publication of classified information poses a dire threat to journalists seeking to publish such information in the public interest, irrespective of the Justice Department’s assertion that Assange is not a journalist," he said in a statement.
And Trevor Timm, executive director of the Freedom of the Press Foundation, called the charges against Assange "the most significant and terrifying threat to the First Amendment in the 21st century."
"The Trump administration is moving to explicitly criminalize national security journalism, and if this prosecution proceeds, dozens of reporters at the New York Times, Washington Post and elsewhere would also be in danger," he said in a statement.
But the government already seems aware of the discussion over Assange’s classification. Speaking to reporters on Thursday, U.S. officials repeatedly argued that the WikiLeaks co-founder is not a journalist.
“Assange is not charged simply because he is a publisher," said Zach Terwilliger, the assistant U.S. attorney in the Eastern District of Virginia, according to Politico.
The indictment recounts how, in November 2009, WikiLeaks posted a list of “Most Wanted Leaks,” organized by country.
Assange asked for a variety of information, including an unclassified but non-public CIA database dubbed “Intellipedia.” The group also requested military and intelligence documents, including rules of engagement for the U.S. military serving in Iraq and Afghanistan, interrogation procedures at the U.S. prison in Guantanamo Bay, CIA interrogation videos, and information about certain weapons systems.
The same month, Manning “responded to Assange’s solicitation of classified information” for the most wanted leaks, according to the indictment. While still at the Pentagon, she searched a classified network search engine known as “Intelink” for phrases corresponding to the pieces of information Assange was looking for.
Later, Assange encouraged Manning to “continue her theft of classified documents,” and offered to help crack a password, though didn’t succeed, the indictment alleges.
The indictment also alleges the documents Manning later published in 2010 contained names of journalists, religious leaders, human rights activists and political dissidents “living in repressive regimes” who had “reported to the United States the abuses of their own government.”
By publishing those documents without redacting names, Assange “created a grave and imminent risk that the innocent people he named would suffer serious physical harm and/or arbitrary detention,” prosecutors wrote.
Cover image: A supporter of Julian Assange, with a poster of the WikiLeaks founder, joins other protesters to block a major road in front of Westminster Magistrates Court in London, Thursday, May 2, 2019. WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange is facing court over a U.S. request to extradite him for alleged computer hacking. (AP Photo/Frank Augstein)