The United States issued an updated charging document Thursday, accusing Wikileaks founder Julian Assange of espionage and mishandling classified information he received from then-information officer Chelsea Manning.
The 18-count indictment includes the single count of conspiracy that appeared on Assange’s arrest warrant issued shortly before he was evicted from the Ecuadorian embassy in London and taken into British custody.
LMT Online reports that federal prosecutors believe “Assange worked with a former Army intelligence analyst to obtain and disseminate classified information.” The indictment also argues that Assange cannot be considered a “reporter” for purposes of the First Amendment’s guarantee of freedom of the press.
Instead, the U.S. government seems to claim that Assange is a foreign agent engaged in the “explicit solicitation of classified materials” that he could publish in pursuit of an agenda, not as mere information for Americans he believed were kept in the dark about their country’s role in the deaths of Iraqi civilians during the initial years of the Iraq War.
The indictment, as the initial claim of conspiracy, stems from Assange’s interactions with Manning, who stole thousands of classified documents, audio and video files, and funneled them to Wikileaks in the hopes that Wikileaks would publish them. In the initial arrest warrant, the U.S. government described Assange as “encouraging” Manning, helping him to hack further into a classified database in order to get better material.
Manning was eventually arrested and convicted on espionage charges.
Assange believes himself to be a reporter and publisher, and considers Wikileaks a protected media outlet. To be convicted of espionage, a court of law would need to find that Assange is not, in fact, simply a publisher — and that’s what the U.S. government is arguing in order to avoid any long-term consquences for other journalists who obtain and publish classified information.
Prosectuors, LMT reports, say Assange “repeatedly encouraged sources with access to classified information to steal it” and wanted the information he received to have potential “political, diplomatic, ethical or historical impact on release.”
Assange’s attorney’s contend that Wikileaks is a news media outlet and that, if he is convicted of espionage for publishing material that turned out to be classified, Assange’s case could have repercussions for any member of the media who published information the U.S. government didn’t want readers or news consumers to see.
“The factual allegations against Mr. Assange boil down to encouraging a source to provide him information and taking efforts to protect the identity of that source,” Assange’s attorney Barry Pollack said in a statement Thursday afternoon.
The 18 counts carry with them a maximum jail sentence of 170 years, but there’s no guarantee that Assange will face trial in the United States. A court in the U.K. is currently considering at least two requests for Assange’s extradition — from the United States and Sweden — and is not expected to rule on where Assange is headed next until early June. Sweden filed its charges late last week, resurfacing an arrest warrant issued for Assange in the early 2000s stemming from an alleged sexual assault.
Assange remains in jail in the U.K. awaiting the court’s decision.