The United States Department of Justice has announced that it is filing 17 new charges against Wikileaks founder Julian Assange, over various counts of espionage. The new charges will prosecute Assange for violating the US Espionage Act for publishing and circulating classified material regarding US war crimes in Afghanistan, Iraq and elsewhere.
The charges against Assange together carry a total maximum prison sentence of 175 years, which the US federal prosecutors are pursuing in his indictment. In a tweet, the official handle of Wikileaks stated that “this is madness. It is the end of national security journalism and the first amendment.”
Much like everything else related to the federal investigation against Wikileaks and the leaks of classified cables, the indictment is unprecedented in US legal history for an espionage prosecution against a publisher. The new charges would prosecute Assange for the publication of various classified documents and data, which raises questions of civil liberties and the zealously protected First Amendment Freedom of the press.
The charges include, among other things, the accusation that Assange has “repeatedly encouraged sources with access to classified information to steal and provide it to Wikileaks to disclose”. The ‘sources’ here specifically refer to Chelsea Manning, a former intelligence analyst for the US Army, who leaked troves of the classified documents and official cables to Assange between 2010 and 2011. Assange published these classified cables as sets of digital dumps on Wikileaks, most prominent of which were the Iraq War Logs and the Afghan War Diary.
Assange’s prosecution has raised concerns from across the political divide. This is the very first time that the government is prosecuting a publisher for the very act of publishing under the Espionage Act. In past cases of espionage only the act of leaking by a government official was prosecuted and not the publisher.
Talking to MSNBC in a interview about the recent escalation of the Wikileaks prosecution by the Trump Administration, Jameel Jaffer of the Knight First Amendment Institute at the Columbia University said “it really does cross a new frontier.” He added that “this is really what free speech and free press advocates have been worrying about.”
The BBC reported a comment by Assistant Attorney General John Demers, who represents the Justice Department, in response to concerns over the rights of journalists and publishers, and stated that Assange was “no journalist”.
Journalists and free press advocates do not concur to such characterization though. Glenn Greenwald of the Intercept, who published leaks of classified documents from the National Security Agency by the former CIA contractor Edward Snowden, pulled no punches in condemning the indictment.
In a tweet Greenwald said “all those who spent the last 2+ years proclaiming to be so very concerned about attacks on a free press will now have to decide whether they really meant it, or whether – due to feelings about Assange – they will cheer the Trump Administration’s frontal assault on press freedom.” He added that “anyone cheering the Trump Administration’s indictment of Assange under *espionage* laws is an enemy of a free press, no matter how many vapid and empty tweets they’ve posted over the last 2 years pretending otherwise.”
UN Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Opinion and Expression, David Kaye, also echoed this sentiment. “Regardless of what you think about Wikileaks or Julian Assange, an espionage act prosecution can only turn out badly for press freedom in this country”, said Kaye in a tweet.
American Civil Liberties Union’s Speech, Privacy and Technology Project director Ben Wizner, also commented on the unprecedented nature of the prosecution: “This is an extraordinary escalation of the Trump administration’s attacks on journalism, and a direct assault on the First Amendment. It establishes a dangerous precedent that can be used to target all news organizations that hold the government accountable by publishing its secrets.”