US Charges Assange Over Classified Info05/24 06:35
WASHINGTON (AP) -- In a case with significant First Amendment implications,
the U.S. filed new charges Thursday against WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange,
accusing him of violating the Espionage Act by publishing secret documents
containing the names of confidential military and diplomatic sources.
The Justice Department's 18-count superseding indictment alleges that
Assange directed former Army intelligence analyst Chelsea Manning in one of the
largest compromises of classified information in U.S. history. It says the
WikiLeaks founder, currently in custody in London , damaged national security
by publishing documents that harmed the U.S. and its allies and aided its
The case comes amid a Justice Department crackdown on national security
leaks and raised immediate fear among news media advocates that Assange's
actions --- including soliciting and publishing classified information --- are
indistinguishable from what traditional journalists do on a daily basis. Those
concerns led the Obama administration Justice Department to balk at bringing
charges for similar conduct.
Assange's lawyer, Barry Pollack, said Thursday that the "unprecedented
charges" against his client imperil "all journalists in their endeavor to
inform the public about actions that have been taken by the U.S. government."
The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press called the case a "dire
threat" to media freedom, and the American Civil Liberties Union said it was
the first time in history a publisher was charged for disclosing truthful
But Justice Department officials sought to make clear that they believed
Assange's actions weren't protected under the law, though they declined to
discuss the policy discussions that led to the indictment. The new Espionage
Act charges go far beyond an initial indictment against Assange made public
last month that accused him simply of conspiring with Manning to crack a
Defense Department computer password.
"Julian Assange is no journalist," said Assistant Attorney General John
Demers, the Justice Department's top national security official. "No
responsible actor, journalist or otherwise, would purposely publish the names
of individuals he or she knew to be confidential human sources in war zones,
exposing them to the gravest of dangers."
Zachary Terwilliger, the U.S. Attorney in Alexandria, Virginia, where the
case was brought, said Assange was charged with illegally soliciting classified
information and not simply publishing it. He said that while the indictment
alleges that he published hundreds of thousands of documents, it charges him
with disclosing only a "narrow set of documents" related to the identities of
Prosecutors sought throughout the document to make a distinction between
what Assange did as the founder and "public face" of WikiLeaks and the work of
They noted, for example, that he promoted his site to a convention of
European hackers and published a list of the classified information he sought
as "The Most Wanted Leaks of 2009." They described how Assange worked with
Manning to improperly access Defense Department computers to gain access to
thousands of pages of material and encouraged her as she delved through
databases for information.
Prosecutors also say the danger wasn't just to the U.S. government, but to
people who worked with it.
Reports from the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq published by Assange included
the names of Afghans and Iraqis who provided information to American and
coalition forces, while the diplomatic cables he released exposed journalists,
religious leaders, human rights advocates and dissidents in repressive
Assange said in an August 2010 interview that it was "regrettable" that
sources disclosed by WikiLeaks could be harmed, the indictment says. Later,
after a State Department legal adviser informed him of the risk to "countless
innocent individuals" compromised by the leaks, Assange said he would work with
mainstream news organizations to redact the names of individuals. WikiLeaks did
hide some names but then published 250,000 cables a year later without hiding
the identities of people named in the papers.
Justice Department officials mulled charges for Assange following the
documents' 2010 publication, but were unsure a case would hold up in court and
were concerned it could be hard to justify prosecuting him for acts similar to
those of a conventional journalist.
The posture changed in the Trump administration, with former Attorney
General Jeff Sessions in 2017 calling Assange's arrest a priority. Attorney
General William Barr paused for several seconds at his confirmation hearing
when asked if his Justice Department would ever jail journalists, finally
saying there were scenarios when he could envision it as a last resort.
A senior Justice Department official, who spoke on condition of anonymity
Thursday to discuss the case, said it had been "looked at by a number of
prosecutors" and that prosecutors reached the point "where we believed we had
assembled the best case that we could and we presented it to the grand jury."
First Amendment aside, the indictment poses a secondary ethical question for
journalists. News organizations around the world widely used the Manning
material, which provided previously unavailable information about the
Guantanamo Bay detention center, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and
international diplomacy. Many reporters found the documents that he released
"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 taken by the U.S.
government," said Pollack, Assange's lawyer.
WikiLeaks played a central role in special counsel Robert Mueller's
investigation into possible coordination between the Trump campaign and Russia,
having published before the 2016 presidential election Democratic emails that
were hacked by Russian intelligence officers. The allegations in Thursday's
indictment are entirely separate from that episode.
Assange, 47, is in custody in London after being evicted from the Ecuadorian
Embassy in April. He has said he would fight any effort to extradite him to the
Manning, who was convicted in military court for providing classified
documents to WikiLeaks, is currently in a northern Virginia jail on a civil
contempt charge. Manning spent two months in the Alexandria Detention Center
beginning in March after she refused to testify to a grand jury investigating
Manning has said she believes prosecutors want to question her about the
same conduct for which she was convicted at her court-martial. She served seven
years of a 35-year military sentence before receiving a commutation from
then-President Barack Obama.