'Julian Assange Is No Journalist': WikiLeaks Founder Indicted on 17 New Charges Under Espionage Act By U.S.

WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange gestures from the window of a prison van as he is driven out of Southwark Crown Court in London on May 1, 2019, after having been sentenced to 50 weeks in prison for breaching his bail conditions in 2012. The U.S. Justice Department on Thursday indicted Assange on 17 new counts under the Espionage Act. Daniel Leal-Olivas/AFP/Getty Images

The U.S. Department of Justice on Thursday indicted WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange on 17 new charges under the Espionage Act for his alleged role in unlawfully obtaining and disclosing classified national defense materials from ex-Army intelligence analyst Chelsea Manning

The decision came after Assange was arrested in April at the Ecuadorian Embassy in London and charged by the U.S. government with one count of conspiracy to commit computer intrusion in relation to a 2010 WikiLeaks mass release of classified American military reports about the Afghanistan and Iraq wars.

Federal prosecutors accused Assange of assisting Manning in obtaining and publishing classified materials. The Australian national "repeatedly sought, obtained, and disseminated information that the United States classified due to serious risk that unauthorized disclosure could harm the national security of the United States," the indictment said.

The move has been widely considered unusual, as most cases involving stealing and disseminating classified information have focused on the government employees responsible for the leaks, rather than the publishers. The indictment of Assange has raised questions about the scope of the First Amendment and the line to be struck between maintaining government secrets and press freedom.

However, the U.S. government attempted Thursday to distinguish Assange from a traditional journalist or publisher because of his dealings with Manning. Prosecutors allege that the 47-year-old agreed to assist the former Army intelligence analyst with cracking a password that they had hoped would help them remain undetected.

John Demers, the Department of Justice Assistant Attorney General for National Security, told reporters after the charges were announced on Thursday that "the department takes seriously the role of journalists in our democracy and we thank you for it. It has not and never has been the department's policy to target them for reporting."

"But Julian Assange is no journalist," he added.

Manning was charged and sentenced to 35 years in prison after WikiLeaks published military information and classified State Department cables starting from 2010 that she provided. She served seven years before former President Barack Obama commuted her sentence prior to leaving the White House.

Assange is currently serving a 50-week prison sentence in London for skipping bail and is also battling an extradition to the U.S. He faces a maximum of five years in prison if convicted of the conspiracy charge levied against him last month and a potential ten-year prison sentence for each of the charges today under the Espionage Act.

In response to the charges on Thursday, WikiLeaks tweeted that "this is madness. It is the end of national security journalism and the first amendment."

Barry Pollack, an attorney for Assange, called the charges "unprecedented" and argued it threatened all reporters in a statement to Buzzfeed.

"Today the government charged Julian Assange under the Espionage Act for encouraging sources to provide him truthful information and for publishing that information," Pollack said. "The fig leaf that this is merely about alleged computer hacking has been removed. These unprecedented charges demonstrate the gravity of the threat the criminal prosecution of Julian Assange poses to all journalists in their endeavor to inform the public about actions that have taken by the U.S. government."