A federal grand jury has returned indictments against WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange on 18 charges brought by the Justice Department related to his role in obtaining, receiving and disclosing national defense information in a "conspiracy" with leaker Chelsea Manning, a move Free Speech organizations say could chill investigative reporting.
It was a superceding indictment, with 17 new charges added to the single count Justice initially charged.
"Assange, having unauthorized possession of State Department cables, classified up to the SECRET level, containing the names of individuals, who risked their safety and freedom by providing information to the United States and our allies, communicated the documents containing names of those sources to all the world by publishing them on the internet," the indictment said.
The counts are: Conspiracy to Receive National Defense Information (count 1); Obtaining National Defense Information (counts 2-4); Obtaining National Defense Information (counts 5-8); Disclosure of National Defense Information (9-11): Disclosure of National Defense Information (12-14): Disclosure of National Defense Information (15-17); Conspiracy to Commit Computer Intrusion (18).
“I continue to accept full and sole responsibility for those disclosures in 2010,” said Manning. “It's telling that the government appears to have already obtained this indictment before my contempt hearing last week. This administration describes the press as the opposition party and an enemy of the people.
“Today, they use the law as a sword, and have shown their willingness to bring the full power of the state against the very institution intended to shield us from such excesses.”
"The indictment of Julian Assange under the Espionage Act for publishing classified information is an attack on the First Amendment and a threat to all journalists everywhere who publish information that governments would like to keep secret," said Committee to Protect Journalists executive director Joel Simon. "Press freedom in the United States and around the world is imperiled by this prosecution."
"Our concerns in relation to this unprecedented indictment center on its grave implications for a free press," said Suzanne Nossel, CEO of First Amendment defenders PEN America. "Whether Assange is a journalist or WikiLeaks qualifies as a press outlet is immaterial to the counts set out here. 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. By bringing charges under the Espionage Act for actions that include receiving and publishing information and documents, the Department of Justice is setting a dangerous precedent that could be wielded against journalists and used to quash methods that are at the heart of the workings of a free press in a democracy."
Assange was arrested in London in April.
He had been living in asylum at the Ecuadorian Embassy in London since 2012, but that asylum was rescinded.