The new charges put more pressure on Mr Assange, whom the U.S. is trying to extradite from the UK., and could have broad implications for First Amendment free-press protections in the US.
The decision to bring espionage charges—which have been rarely used against people outside the U.S. government—quickly reignited the debate over whether pursuing Mr Assange for publishing classified information could lead to other cases against journalists who receive government secrets.
The charges follow Mr Assange’s April arrest by British authorities. He was forcibly removed from the Ecuadorean Embassy in London as the U.S. unsealed a 2018 indictment charging him with conspiring to hack a military computer. Mr Assange had been living under asylum in the embassy for nearly seven years.
An attorney for Mr Assange, Barry Pollack, said Mr Assange was being charged for “encouraging sources to provide him truthful information and for publishing that information.”
Thursday’s indictment didn’t contain substantially new information about Mr Assange’s effort to obtain classified government secrets from a former army-intelligence analyst that wasn’t already revealed in April’s charges or the analyst’s 2013 court-martial.
Instead, it focused on describing troves of documents Mr Assange received and delineated how Mr Assange has published classified State Department memos that disclosed the names of people in Afghanistan, Iraq, China, Syria and elsewhere who had confidentially provided information to the U.S. government. The indictment highlighted the potential risk for harm to those sources.
Journalists often receive sensitive government information, and sometimes work with government agencies to delay publication or withhold specific details if the disclosures could disrupt major operations.
In a briefing with reporters, Justice Department officials sought to differentiate Mr Assange’s work from that of traditional reporters. They signalled that they will argue that, because Mr Assange is accused of soliciting the material and knew it would jeopardize lives, he isn’t a journalist.
“Some say that Assange is a journalist and that he should be immune from prosecution,” said John Demers, the assistant attorney general for national security. “But Julian Assange is no journalist. This is made plain by the totality of his conduct alleged in the indictment.”
The charges come as Swedish authorities have reopened an investigation into rape allegations against Mr Assange, and also have taken steps to seek his removal from the UK.
Mr Assange denies those allegations.
The new U.S. indictment charges Mr Assange with 17 new counts of conspiring to receive, obtaining and disclosing classified information, and largely covers actions around 2010.
WikiLeaks has long been viewed by U.S. intelligence officials as less of a journalistic outfit and more of a “hostile intelligence service,” as then-Central Intelligence Agency Director Mike Pompeo called the group in 2017.