US charges Julian Assange with violating the Espionage Act

The Wikileaks founder faces 17 new charges, each carrying a maximum 10-year sentence.

Alfred Ng Senior Reporter / CNET News
Alfred Ng was a senior reporter for CNET News. He was raised in Brooklyn and previously worked on the New York Daily News's social media and breaking news teams.
Alfred Ng
3 min read
Julian Assange gestures from a prison van in London

WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange gestures from a prison van as he's driven into Southwark Crown Court in London on May 1.

Daniel Leal-olivas / AFP/Getty Images

The Justice Department has announced 17 new charges against Julian Assange, raising the stakes in a showdown over government secrets and the limits of journalism. 

The WikiLeaks founder is facing potential extradition to the United States after he was arrested in April in London. The new charges are tied to the Espionage Act, as well as an alleged attempt to crack a password to a classified US government computer.

Those charges including unlawfully obtaining and disclosing classified documents, the Justice Department said Thursday. The department called it "one of the largest compromises of classified information in the history of the United States."

"Some say that Assange is a journalist and that he should be immune from prosecution," John Demers, the Justice Department's assistant attorney general for national security, said in a press call. "Julian Assange is no journalist. This is made plain by the totality of his actions listed in the indictment."

Those actions include WikiLeaks releasing sensitive information like operatives' names to the public. A Justice Department official said that the names released endangered people working in Iran, China and Syria.

"Assange was warned by the State Department to not release the names, and he did so, nevertheless," the official said. 

NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden weighed in on the charges, saying in a tweet that "the Department of Justice just declared war ... on journalism itself."

The charges could set a precedent for the government to challenge journalists who base articles on classified information. Prosecutors say that Assange crossed the line beyond what journalists do, but the charges in the indictment describe actions that news publications take, like publishing classified documents.

The charges were filed in the Eastern District of Virginia. It's still not certain if the UK will extradite Assange to the US. Each charge carries a maximum 10-year sentence, the Justice Department said. Assange faces a total of 18 charges under the Espionage Act.

In April, the Justice Department charged Assange with one count of conspiracy to commit computer intrusion, after he allegedly agreed to crack a password for a classified US government computer. Court documents allege that in  2010, Assange communicated with Chelsea Manning (then known as Bradley Manning), at that time an intelligence analyst in the US Army.

Assange and WikiLeaks, which launched in 2006, have been under scrutiny since the highly publicized 2010 leak of diplomatic cables and military documents.

In the first decade after its 2006 launch, WikiLeaks released -- by its own count -- more than 10 million secret documents. The leaks ranged from a video showing an American Apache helicopter in the Iraq War shooting and killing two journalists in 2007 to emails from the Democratic National Committee and Hillary Clinton campaign chairman John Podesta during the 2016 presidential race.

Under the Obama administration, the Justice Department declined to press charges against Assange, noting that WikiLeaks' work could be considered journalism. Under the charges unsealed on Thursday, however, prosecutors are arguing that Assange violated the Espionage Act by continuing to solicit classified information and attempting to steal it. 

The indictment cites a "Most Wanted Leaks" list posted on WikiLeaks' website, which offered rewards for classified information. Assange plans on fighting his extradition case to the US, and a hearing is scheduled for June 12. 

Watch this: WikiLeaks rears its head in Cohen testimony against Trump

Originally published at 12:57 p.m. PT.
Update at 1:11 p.m. PT: Adds details from the indictment.
Update at 1:33 p.m. PT: Adds Snowden comment and background.
Update at 1:55 p.m. PT: Adds more information on Assange's charges.