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US Charges Assange Over Classified Info05/24 06:35

   WASHINGTON (AP) -- In a case with significant First Amendment implications, 
the U.S. filed new charges Thursday against WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, 
accusing him of violating the Espionage Act by publishing secret documents 
containing the names of confidential military and diplomatic sources.

   The Justice Department's 18-count superseding indictment alleges that 
Assange directed former Army intelligence analyst Chelsea Manning in one of the 
largest compromises of classified information in U.S. history. It says the 
WikiLeaks founder, currently in custody in London , damaged national security 
by publishing documents that harmed the U.S. and its allies and aided its 
adversaries.

   The case comes amid a Justice Department crackdown on national security 
leaks and raised immediate fear among news media advocates that Assange's 
actions --- including soliciting and publishing classified information --- are 
indistinguishable from what traditional journalists do on a daily basis. Those 
concerns led the Obama administration Justice Department to balk at bringing 
charges for similar conduct.

   Assange's lawyer, Barry Pollack, said Thursday that the "unprecedented 
charges" against his client imperil "all journalists in their endeavor to 
inform the public about actions that have been taken by the U.S. government." 
The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press called the case a "dire 
threat" to media freedom, and the American Civil Liberties Union said it was 
the first time in history a publisher was charged for disclosing truthful 
information.

   But Justice Department officials sought to make clear that they believed 
Assange's actions weren't protected under the law, though they declined to 
discuss the policy discussions that led to the indictment. The new Espionage 
Act charges go far beyond an initial indictment against Assange made public 
last month that accused him simply of conspiring with Manning to crack a 
Defense Department computer password.

   "Julian Assange is no journalist," said Assistant Attorney General John 
Demers, the Justice Department's top national security official. "No 
responsible actor, journalist or otherwise, would purposely publish the names 
of individuals he or she knew to be confidential human sources in war zones, 
exposing them to the gravest of dangers."

   Zachary Terwilliger, the U.S. Attorney in Alexandria, Virginia, where the 
case was brought, said Assange was charged with illegally soliciting classified 
information and not simply publishing it. He said that while the indictment 
alleges that he published hundreds of thousands of documents, it charges him 
with disclosing only a "narrow set of documents" related to the identities of 
confidential sources.

   Prosecutors sought throughout the document to make a distinction between 
what Assange did as the founder and "public face" of WikiLeaks and the work of 
journalists.  

   They noted, for example, that he promoted his site to a convention of 
European hackers and published a list of the classified information he sought 
as "The Most Wanted Leaks of 2009." They described how Assange worked with 
Manning to improperly access Defense Department computers to gain access to 
thousands of pages of material and encouraged her as she delved through 
databases for information. 

   Prosecutors also say the danger wasn't just to the U.S. government, but to 
people who worked with it.

   Reports from the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq published by Assange included 
the names of Afghans and Iraqis who provided information to American and 
coalition forces, while the diplomatic cables he released exposed journalists, 
religious leaders, human rights advocates and dissidents in repressive 
countries.

   Assange said in an August 2010 interview that it was "regrettable" that 
sources disclosed by WikiLeaks could be harmed, the indictment says.  Later, 
after a State Department legal adviser informed him of the risk to "countless 
innocent individuals" compromised by the leaks, Assange said he would work with 
mainstream news organizations to redact the names of individuals. WikiLeaks did 
hide some names but then published 250,000 cables a year later without hiding 
the identities of people named in the papers. 

   Justice Department officials mulled charges for Assange following the 
documents' 2010 publication, but were unsure a case would hold up in court and 
were concerned it could be hard to justify prosecuting him for acts similar to 
those of a conventional journalist.

   The posture changed in the Trump administration, with former Attorney 
General Jeff Sessions in 2017 calling Assange's arrest a priority. Attorney 
General William Barr paused for several seconds at his confirmation hearing 
when asked if his Justice Department would ever jail journalists, finally 
saying there were scenarios when he could envision it as a last resort.

   A senior Justice Department official, who spoke on condition of anonymity 
Thursday to discuss the case, said it had been "looked at by a number of 
prosecutors" and that prosecutors reached the point "where we believed we had 
assembled the best case that we could and we presented it to the grand jury."

   First Amendment aside, the indictment poses a secondary ethical question for 
journalists. News organizations around the world widely used the Manning 
material, which provided previously unavailable information about the 
Guantanamo Bay detention center, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and 
international diplomacy. Many reporters found the documents that he released 
inherently newsworthy.

   "These unprecedented charges demonstrate the gravity of the threat the 
criminal prosecution of Julian Assange poses to all journalists in their 
endeavor to inform the public about actions that have taken by the U.S. 
government," said Pollack, Assange's lawyer.

   WikiLeaks played a central role in special counsel Robert Mueller's 
investigation into possible coordination between the Trump campaign and Russia, 
having published before the 2016 presidential election Democratic emails that 
were hacked by Russian intelligence officers. The allegations in Thursday's 
indictment are entirely separate from that episode.

   Assange, 47, is in custody in London after being evicted from the Ecuadorian 
Embassy in April. He has said he would fight any effort to extradite him to the 
U.S.

   Manning, who was convicted in military court for providing classified 
documents to WikiLeaks, is currently in a northern Virginia jail on a civil 
contempt charge. Manning spent two months in the Alexandria Detention Center 
beginning in March after she refused to testify to a grand jury investigating 
WikiLeaks.

   Manning has said she believes prosecutors want to question her about the 
same conduct for which she was convicted at her court-martial. She served seven 
years of a 35-year military sentence before receiving a commutation from 
then-President Barack Obama.


(KA)

 
 
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