Assange Indicted Under Espionage Act, Raising First Amendment Issues

Assange Indicted Under Espionage Act, Raising First Amendment Issues

WASHINGTON — Julian Assange, the WikiLeaks leader, has been indicted on 17 counts of violating the Espionage Act for his role in obtaining and publishing secret military and diplomatic documents in 2010, the Justice Department announced on Thursday — a novel case that raises profound First Amendment issues. The new charges were part of an expanded indictment obtained by the Trump administration that significantly raised the stakes of the legal case against Mr. Assange, who is already fighting extradition proceedings in London based on an earlier hacking-related count brought by federal prosecutors in Northern Virginia. The charges are the latest twist in a career in which Mr. Assange has morphed from a crusader for radical transparency to fugitive from a Swedish sexual assault investigation, to tool of Russia’s election interference, to criminal defendant in the United States. Mr. Assange vaulted to global fame nearly a decade ago as a champion of openness about what governments secretly do. But with this indictment, he has become the target for a case that could open the door to criminalizing activities that are crucial to American investigative journalists who write about national security matters. The case has nothing to do with Russia’s election interference in 2016, when Mr. Assange’s organization published Democratic emails stolen by Russia as part of its covert efforts to help elect President Trump. Instead, it focuses on Mr. Assange’s role in the leak of hundreds of thousands of State Department cables and military files by the former Army intelligence analyst Chelsea Manning. Justice Department officials did not explain why they decided to charge Mr. Assange under the Espionage Act — a step also debated within the Obama administration but ultimately not taken. Although the indictment could establish a precedent that deems actions related to obtaining, and in some cases publishing, state secrets to be criminal, the officials sought to minimize the implications for press freedoms. They noted that most of the new charges were related to obtaining the secret document archives, as opposed to publishing them. In the counts that deemed the publication of the files a crime, prosecutors focused on a handful of documents revealing the names of people who provided information to the United States in dangerous places like war zones. “Some say that Assange is a journalist and that he should be immune from prosecution for these actions,” John Demers, the head of the Justice Department’s National Security Division, said at a briefing with reporters. “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.” But Mr. Assange, he said, was “no journalist.” Mr. Demers accused him of conspiring with Ms. Manning 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,” he said.
Now, those of us who've supported #Wikileaks and #Assange since 2010 are all saying, “we told you so.” They were right all along. I tried posting this last month, only to end up in the spam filter, so now here it is.