The Justice Department has filed 17 new criminal charges against WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange. The charges follow a much more limited indictment unsealed in April, when Assange was charged with violating the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act. According to the indictment, he’s now facing several counts of obtaining and disclosing national defense information without authorization, relating to what the Justice Department calls “one of the largest compromises of classified information in the history of the United States.”
Assange was arrested last month after being expelled from the Ecuadorian Embassy in London, where he sought asylum in 2012. UK courts sentenced him to nearly a year in prison for breaching bail conditions, and he began fighting US attempts at extradition over his initial CFAA charge, which involved allegedly conspiring to crack a password with whistleblower Chelsea Manning. The new charges are far more serious, with each count carrying a maximum sentence of 10 years in prison. Assange is also facing a recently reopened rape allegation in Sweden.
The Justice Department claims that “Assange conspired with Manning; obtained from Manning and aided and abetted her in obtaining classified information … attempted to receive classified information having reason to believe that such materials would be obtained, taken, made, and disposed of by a person contrary to law; and aided and abetted Manning in communicating classified documents to Assange.”
WikiLeaks tweeted soon after news of Assange’s indictment was made public. “This is madness,” says the tweet. “It is the end of national security journalism and the First Amendment.”
It’s unclear how the new indictment affects Manning, who provided Assange with much of WikiLeaks’ most explosive material — and was jailed last week after refusing to testify in a grand jury hearing about WikiLeaks and Assange.
This indictment will raise serious questions about the First Amendment and WikiLeaks’ role in the journalistic ecosystem. Critics argue that Assange shouldn’t be afforded the protections of a traditional journalist, but groups like the American Civil Liberties Union have warned that charges against Assange could open the door to prosecuting other outlets that publish leaked documents.
“For the first time in the history of our country, the government has brought criminal charges against a publisher for the publication of truthful information. This is an extraordinary escalation of the Trump administration’s attacks on journalism, and a direct assault on the First Amendment,” wrote the ACLU in a statement today. “It establishes a dangerous precedent that can be used to target all news organizations that hold the government accountable by publishing its secrets. And it is equally dangerous for US journalists who uncover the secrets of other nations. If the US can prosecute a foreign publisher for violating our secrecy laws, there’s nothing preventing China, or Russia, from doing the same.”
A representative for Assange did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Update 5:15PM ET: Added tweet from WikiLeaks and statement from ACLU.