WikiLeaks’ Julian Assange was indicted on 17 new counts of violating the Espionage Act, the Justice Department announced Thursday. The move by the Trump administration substantially raises the legal stakes in the U.S. government’s yearslong standoff with the man who until six weeks ago had been holed up at the Ecuadoran Embassy in London in an effort to avoid extradition. The new charges are part of an expanded indictment of the WikiLeaks founder in response to his 2010 publishing of classified military and diplomatic documents leaked to the group by Chelsea Manning.
In addition to unrelated charges in Sweden, Assange was previously fighting extradition to the U.S. on a single conspiracy count for hacking. The government’s case against Assange, however, just got far more severe, and the indictment accuses him of being complicit with Manning in what was the biggest breach of classified material in U.S. history. Manning passed more than 700,000 documents, videos, diplomatic cables, and battlefield accounts to WikiLeaks and was given a 35-year military prison sentence that was ultimately commuted by President Barack Obama. The previous conspiracy charge carried a maximum five years in prison, but each new Espionage Act violation could mean an additional 10 years in prison for each charge.
There are significant First Amendment implications wrapped up in Assange’s indictment, implications that had given the Obama administration pause in its legal pursuit of Assange. The Trump Justice Department, however, played down the constitutional implications of the new charges, the New York Times notes, by stressing the indictment largely centered on how Assange solicited the classified material, not his publishing of it. “The three charges that squarely addressed Mr. Assange’s publication of government secrets were focused on a handful of files that contained the names of people who had provided information to the United States in dangerous places like the Afghanistan and Iraq war zones, and authoritarian states like China, Iran, and Syria,” the Times reports. “But the officials would not engage with questions about how the actions they said were felonies by Mr. Assange differed from ordinary investigative journalism. Notably, The New York Times, among many other news organizations, obtained precisely the same archives of documents from WikiLeaks, without authorization from the government.”
“Justice Department officials could not immediately point to a successful prosecution of a case comparable to the charges filed against Assange,” the Washington Post reports.
“The Espionage Act was originally written during World War I to target spies and traitors, and has been used intermittently since, including when the government prosecuted the source of the so-called Pentagon Papers during the Vietnam War.”