The US Justice Department unveiled 17 new criminal charges against WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange on Thursday, saying he unlawfully published the names of classified sources and conspired with and assisted former Army intelligence analyst Chelsea Manning in obtaining access to classified information.
The superseding indictment comes a little more than a month after the Justice Department unsealed a narrower criminal case against Assange.
Assange was initially charged with conspiring with Manning to gain access to a government computer as part of a 2010 leak by WikiLeaks of hundreds of thousands of US military reports about the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.
The case presents immediate questions about media freedom, including whether the Justice Department is charging Assange for actions – such as soliciting and publishing classified information – that ordinarily journalists do as a matter of course.
A lawyer for Assange said the “unprecedented charges” against his client threaten all journalists looking to inform the public about actions taken the US government.
Barry Pollack said the indictment charges Assange with “encouraging sources to provide him truthful information and for publishing that information”.
US officials said Thursday they believe Assange strayed far outside First Amendment protections.
WikiLeaks describes itself as specialising in the publication of “censored or otherwise restricted official materials involving war, spying and corruption”.
Assange is now fighting extradition to the United States, after Ecuador in April revoked his seven-year asylum in the country’s London embassy. He was arrested that day, April 11, by British police as he left the embassy.
He is currently serving a 50-week sentence in a London jail for skipping bail when he fled to the Ecuadorean embassy in 2012.
The decision to charge Assange with espionage crimes is notable and unusual. Most cases involving the theft of classified information have targeted government employees, like Manning, and not the people who publish the information itself.
The Justice Department’s quick turn-around with the filing of a more substantial indictment against Assange is not surprising. Under extradition rules, the US had only a 60-day window from the date of Assange’s arrest in London to add more charges. After that, foreign governments do not generally accept superseding charges.
Earlier this month, Manning was ordered back to jail for refusing to testify to a grand jury.
US District Judge Anthony Trenga ordered her to remain jailed either until she agrees to testify or until the grand jury’s term expires in 18 months. He also imposed fines that will kick in at $500 a day after 30 days and $1,000 a day after 60 days.
Manning already spent two months in jail for refusing a previous subpoena to testify to a grand jury investigating WikiLeaks. She was released last week when that grand jury’s term expired, but prosecutors quickly hit her with a new subpoena to testify to a new grand jury.
Manning has offered multiple reasons for refusing to testify, but fundamentally says she considers the whole grand jury process to be unacceptable.