WASHINGTON - U.S. prosecutors Thursday announced new criminal charges under the Espionage Act against jailed WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange over his alleged role in what they termed "one of the largest compromises of classified information" in U.S. history.
The charges are not related to WikiLeaks' alleged role in disseminating stolen Democratic emails during the 2016 U.S. presidential elections.
An 18-count superseding indictment returned by a federal grand jury in the Eastern District of Virginia accuses Assange of working with former Army specialist Chelsea Manning to obtain and publish on WikiLeaks hundreds of thousands of highly sensitive U.S. government reports about the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq as well as the Guantanamo Bay prison.
The documents, many of them classified as secret, contained the names of journalists, dissidents and other human sources that provided information to U.S. forces in Afghanistan and Iraq, as well as to U.S. diplomats around the world.
Warned in 2010
Assange, prosecutors allege, knew that disseminating the names endangered the human sources and that he continued to do so even after a warning by the State Department in late 2010.
Assange was charged last year with one count of conspiracy to commit computer intrusion in connection with working with Manning. The indictment was unsealed in April after Assange was expelled from Ecuadorian embassy in London, where he'd taken refuge in 2012, and arrested by British police.
He remains in jail on charges of violating his bail conditions and faces possible extradition to the U.S. and Sweden.
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The new charges against Assange include conspiracy to obtain and disclose national defense information as well as obtaining and disclosing national defense information. The conspiracy charge carries a maximum of five years in prison. Each new count carries a maximum of 10 years in prison.
Assange has long maintained that he's being targeted for his work as a journalist.
"This is madness," WikiLeaks tweeted after the charges were announced. "It is the end of national security journalism and the First Amendment."
Press and government transparency advocates have come to Assange's defense, arguing that prosecuting Assange could endanger others who publish classified information.
But U.S. law enforcement officials were quick to emphasize that they don't see Assange's work as journalism.
"The department takes seriously the role of journalists in our democracy and we thank you for it," Assistant Attorney General for National Security John Demers told reporters. "It has not and never has been the department's policy to target them for reporting. Julian Assange is no journalist."
'Complicity in illegal acts'
U.S. Attorney Zach Terwilliger stressed that Assange is only charged for his "complicity in illegal acts" and for "publishing a narrow set of classified documents" that contained names of confidential human sources.
"Assange is not charged simply because he is a publisher," Terwilliger told reporters.
Assange, a 47-year-old Australian computer programmer and activist, founded WikiLeaks in 2006 as "an intelligence agency of the people."
To obtain secret documents to publish, he "repeatedly encouraged sources with access to classified information to steal and provide it to WikiLeaks to disclose," prosecutors wrote in the indictment.
Manning, an intelligence specialist based in Iraq, responded to Assange's call by stealing and providing to him databases containing about 90,000 Afghanistan war reports, 400,000 reports about the Iraq war, 800 Guantanamo Bay detainee assessment briefs, and 250,000 U.S. Department of State cables, according to the indictment.
Manning served seven years in a military prison for her role in the WikiLeaks disclosures before then-President Barack Obama commuted the remainder of her 35-year sentence shortly before he left office in January 2017.
She spent 62 days in federal jail earlier this year on civil contempt charges after she refused to answer questions to the federal grand jury investigating WikiLeaks. Last week, a federal judge ordered her back to jail.
The charges against Assange predate by several years allegations that the anti-secrecy website published tens of thousands of Democratic documents stolen by Russian agents during the 2016 election.