With typically dramatic flair, major liberal-leaning media outlets began breathlessly reporting that WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange was found Thursday to be in violation of the Espionage Act for “publishing U.S. secrets” as The Daily Beast’s headline proclaimed, and it was a dark first for the U.S.
In a stunning escalation of the Trump administration’s war on the press, the Justice Department has indicted WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange for revealing government secrets under the Espionage Act. It’s the first time a publisher has been charged under the World War I-era law.
The indictment charges Assange with 16 counts of receiving or disclosing material leaked by then-Army intelligence analyst Chelsea Manning in 2009 and 2010. The charges invoke broad provisions of the Espionage Act that make it a crime to disclose or retain any defense information knowing it “could be used to injure” the U.S. The act has no exception for reporters or publishers, but prior administrations have balked at invoking the law against journalists for fear of colliding with the First Amendment.
While The Daily Beast contends Assange is a publisher, the DOJ takes a very different view of the man who has spent the last 7 years living in the Ecuadorian embassy under asylum and who was arguably one of the major players in shifting perceptions — intentionally or not — about the 2016 U.S. presidential elections.
John Demers, head of the DOJ’s National Security Division, quickly separated the “work” of Assange and WikiLeaks from true journalism in a briefing with reporters announcing the new indictment. He cited as proof the organization’s willingness to publish the names of U.S. government sources and said those decisions endangered lives in China, Iran, and Syria.
“The department takes seriously the role of journalists in our democracy and we thank you for it,” Demers told journalists. “It has not and never has been the department’s policy to target them for reporting. But Julian Assange is no journalist.”
Assange was recently booted from his embassy asylum and now sits in a U.K. jail for jumping bail in a Swedish rape investigation. The U.S. is seeking his extradition.
According to The Daily Beast, WikiLeaks trove of leaked documents includes “250,000 State Department cables, 90,000 Army field reports from Afghanistan and 400,000 from Iraq, and 800 detainee assessment briefs from Guantanamo Bay. Assange released most of that material without redaction, and the new indictment claims that the U.S. sources identified in the leaks were put in harm’s way as a result.”
The Espionage Act violation is listed in the indictment as part of his work with Manning, who was recently returned to jail for refusing to testify in a grand jury investigation against WikiLeaks. Assange is charged with two counts of conspiracy for attempting to violate the Espionage Act and the anti-hacking Computer Fraud and Abuse Act.
Edward Snowden — who has his two of his own counts alleging violations of the Espionage Act and is currently under asylum protection in Russia — took to social media to condemn the DOJ’s decision to name Assange a dangerous hacker rather than a publisher.
The Department of Justice just declared war––not on Wikileaks, but on journalism itself. This is no longer about Julian Assange: This case will decide the future of media. https://t.co/a5WHmTCDpg
— Edward Snowden (@Snowden) May 23, 2019
There is evidence to suggest that the DOJ is interested in pursuing Assange’s unwillingness to redact his obtained information for any reason, and that the DOJ is using the Assange indictment to signal a focus on plugging leaks and identifying what defines a journalistic outfit, according to The Daily Beast.