On Thursday, federal prosecutors accused WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange of violating the Espionage Act of 1917, a highly controversial law long viewed as dangerous by civil libertarians. Assange is being charged with an 18-count indictment for "alleged complicity in illegal acts," by the Department of Justice, including the alleged assistance he gave to Chelsea Manning. The charges were made by a grand jury in Northern Virginia. The DOJ had previously indicted Assange only on one count of conspiracy to commit computer intrusion.
These charges raise significant questions about the limits of the First Amendment, and what protections the news media and publishers of classified information have under it. The Justice Department is apparently taking the position that Assange is not a journalist, although it does not dispute that he is a publisher.
According to NPR, U.S. Attorney Zach Terwilliger said, "The United States has only charged Assange with publishing a narrow set of classified documents. Assange is not charged simply because he is a publisher."
John Demers, the assistant attorney general for national security, asserted that Assange “no journalist,” according to the Washington Post. He added that Assange had engaged in “explicit solicitation of classified information.”
WikiLeaks tweeted shortly after the new charges were announced, calling the verdict “madness.”
“It is the end of national security journalism and the first amendment," WikeLeaks said on Twitter.
Edward Snowden, the NSA whistleblower now living in Russia. said that this case will decide the future of journalism in the United States.
“The Department of Justice just declared war,” Snowden tweeted. “Not on Wikileaks, but on journalism itself. This is no longer about Julian Assange: This case will decide the future of media.”
In a series of tweets late on Thursday, the ACLU described these charges as "a direct assault on the First Amendment" and "an extraordinary escalation of the Trump administration's attacks on journalism."
Jeremy Scahill, co-founder of The Intercept, agreed. “This is about attacking journalism and the public's right to information about war crimes done in their name with their dollars,” Scahill wrote on Twitter.
Suzanne Nossel, Chief Executive Officer of PEN America, said in a statement that this "unprecedented indictment" could have "grave implications for a free press."
"Whether Assange is a journalist or WikiLeaks qualifies as a press outlet is immaterial to the counts set out here," Nossel said. "The indictment encompasses a series of activities — including encouraging sources verbally and in writing to leak information and receiving and publishing such information — that media outlets routinely undertake as part of their role to hold government to account."
Assange is currently in jail in London, where he was arrested in April after he was expelled from the Ecuadorian embassy. A British judge sentenced him for 50 weeks for failing to report to a police station in June 2012 when he faced extradition to Sweden on rape charges unrelated to his release of classified information.
The U.S. government has until June 22 to deliver its case for extradition to authorities in the United Kingdom. The process could take years. Earlier this week, Swedish authorities filed a request for a detention order against Assange on the sexual assault charges, which remain under investigation.