The US Department of Justice has hit WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange with 17 charges related to illegally obtaining, receiving and disclosing classified information related to the national defense. He is charged with violating the Espionage Act.
The conspiracy to commit computer intrusion charge revealed in April, when Assange was arrested in London after having been carried out of Ecuador’s Embassy following the country’s asylum revocation, has been incorporated in this batch of charges.
US government vs. the First Amendment?
In a statement released along with the indictment, US Attorney G. Zachary Terwilliger for the Eastern District of Virginia said that Assange has not been charged for passively obtaining or receiving classified information or for publishing classified documents.
“Instead, the United States has only charged Assange for publishing a narrow set of classified documents in which Assange also allegedly published the un-redacted names of innocent people who risked their safety and freedom to provide information to the United States and its allies.”
Assistant Attorney General for National Security John C. Demers claims that Julian Assange is not a journalist.
“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. And this is just what the superseding indictment charges Julian Assange with doing,” he added.
But many journalists and freedom of the press advocates consider this to be an attack on the First Amendment.
“For the first time in the history of our country, the government has brought criminal charges under the Espionage Act against a publisher for the publication of truthful information,” the American Civil Liberties Union noted.
“These charges are an extraordinary escalation of the Trump administration’s attacks on journalism, establishing a dangerous precedent that can be used to target all news organizations that hold the government accountable by publishing its secrets.”
Bruce Brown, executive director Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, said that “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.”
WikiLeaks editor-in-chief Kristinn Hrafnsson noted that “with the indictment, the ‘leader of the free world’ dismisses the First Amendment — hailed as a model of press freedom around the world — and launches a blatant extraterritorial assault outside its borders, attacking basic principles of democracy in Europe and the rest of the world.”
WikiLeaks also >pointed outWhat now?
Assange is still in the UK, under arrest because he skipped bail instead of surrendering to a UK court.
Apart from the US, Sweden also seeks Assange’s extradition as he is being investigated for sexual misconduct and rape. It now remains to be seen which extradition request will be honored first.
Daniel Ellsberg, a former US military analyst who released the Pentagon papers in 1971, said that he doesn’t expect Assange to be in the US very quickly, “unless the UK, with their special friendship, just ships him off very quickly, instead of to Sweden.”
“But the challenge is on as of now, right now. Every journalist in the country now knows for the first time that she or he is subject to prosecution for doing their job as journalists,” he told The Real News Network.
“That eliminates the First Amendment freedom of the press, which is the cornerstone of our American democracy and of this republic. So […] there should be an immediate concern not just for journalists over here and publishers, but for everyone who wants this country to remain a democratic republic.”
Chelsea Manning has refused to testify before the grand jury in this case.