WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange was indicted Tuesday on 17 counts of violating the rarely invoked Espionage Act for the 2010 procurement and publication of classified documents nicked by former Army Private and intelligence officer Chelsea Manning.
The charges leveled against Assange, seen as courageous whistleblower by proponents and a criminal by critics, have raised concerns about the sanctity of First Amendment protections. They accuse Assange of soliciting classified and sensitive information, egging on Manning, who used her top secret clearance to obtain documents that showed U.S. actions during the Afghanistan and Iraq wars as well as the treatment of detainees at Guantanamo.
Assange also spurred Manning to continue to steal documents and helped her “crack a password hash to a military computer,” the indictment said. By the time Assange entered into a password-cracking agreement with Manning, he “knew, understood, and fully anticipated that Manning was taking and illegally providing WikiLeaks with classified records containing national defense information of the United States that she was obtaining from classified databases.”
Manning eventually pleaded guilty to 10 of 22 charges against her and served seven years in prison before President Obama commuted her sentence.
The latest round of indictments supersedes a previous charge unsealed against Assange in April on conspiracy to conduct computer intrusion on the United States. The Wikileaks founder was arrested and forcibly removed by U.K. special police from the embassy where he’d been holed up for seven years.
The WikiLeaks founder sought asylum in the
embassy to avoid being picked up by the U.S. for the Manning initiative and by
the Swedish government, which wanted to question him as part
of investigation into the rape of teen-aged girl.
Assange and WikiLeaks became a focal point of the 2016 election after the site released thousands of emails stolen by Russian operatives from the Democratic National Committee (DNC) and other Democratic interests. The emails were leaked in a steady stream in 2016 and were widely seen damaging to Hillary Clinton.
The indictments against Assange do not relate to his actions during the 2016 election, though.
By invoking the Espionage Act for the publication of classified information, the Justice Department stoked concerns that the case would open the door for government to prosecute journalists who publish classified information or data the government doesn’t agree with.
But John Demers, who heads up the agency’s national security division, told reporters that Assange is “no journalist” and was being fingered for conspiring to obtain classified information.
“No responsible actor, journalist or otherwise, would purposefully publish the names of individuals he or she knew to be confidential human sources in a war zone, exposing them to the gravest of dangers,” Demers said. “The department takes seriously the role of journalists in our democracy and we thank you for it. It is not and has never been the department’s policy to target them for reporting.”
Manning, who has been in custody for more than 90 days, after refusing to testify against Assange, said, “I continue to accept full and sole responsibility for those disclosures in 2010. It's telling that the government appears to have already obtained this indictment before my contempt hearing last week. This administration describes the press as the opposition party and an enemy of the people.”
She accused the government of using “the law as a sword, and have shown their willingness to bring the full power of the state against the very institution intended to shield us from such excesses.”