The US Justice Department has filed 17 new charges against WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, who is currently facing extradition from the UK, under the Espionage Act for his role in unlawfully encouraging, receiving and publishing national defence information in concert with former American Army intelligence analyst Chelsea Manning.
Traditionally, the Justice Department has prosecuted government officials who leak classified information, but Thursday’s announcement that a federal grand jury had returned a fresh indictment against the distributor of sensitive documents marked the latest move by President Donald Trump’s administration to crack down on unauthorized disclosure of classified information and press freedoms, CNN reported.
The new 18-count indictment handed down in the Eastern District of Virginia alleges that Assange actively solicited classified information, provoking Manning to obtain thousands of pages of classified material and providing the former with diplomatic State Department cables, Iraq war-related significant activity reports and information related to Guantanamo Bay detainees.
In April, prosecutors in Virginia revealed that Assange had been charged with a single count of conspiracy to commit computer intrusion related to helping Manning obtain access to Defence Department computers in 2010.
WikiLeaks responded to the news of the superseding indictment Thursday in a tweet, saying: “This is madness. It is the end of national security journalism and the First Amendment.”
Barry Pollack, an attorney for Assange, said : “These unprecedented charges demonstrate the gravity of the threat the criminal prosecution of Julian Assange poses to all journalists in their endeavour to inform the public about actions that have been taken by the US government.”
Meanwhile, Assistant Attorney General John Demers, who heads the department’s national security division, said: “Julian Assange is no journalist.”
The Justice Department’s move on Thursday came within a window for the US to submit its formal request outlining all legal charges that Assange would face if he was transferred to the US, CNN reported.
It came also after a top Swedish prosecutor said earlier this month that Sweden would re-open a rape investigation into Assange, which was suspended in 2017. Assange has denied any wrongdoing.
Hours after his removal last month from refuge in the Ecuadorian Embassy in London, the US indicted Assange for helping Manning access Defence Department computers in 2010 in an effort to disclose secret government documents.
Manning was found guilty in 2013 of charges including espionage for leaking secret military files to Wikileaks, but her sentence was commuted.
She is currently back in jail after refusing to testify.