In new charges against Assange, groups see cause for concern
New charges filed against WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange quickly drew alarm on May 23 from media organizations and others. The groups are concerned that the Justice Department is charging Assange for actions that ordinary journalists do routinely in their jobs.
Department officials said they don't view Assange, who founded WikiLeaks in 2006, as a journalist. And they say his actions strayed far outside what the First Amendment protects.
An indictment made public last month charged Assange with only one count, conspiring with former Army intelligence analyst Chelsea Manning to crack a Defense Department computer password.
The 17 additional charges unsealed on May 23 go further, accusing him of one of the largest compromises of classified information in U.S. history.
The new charges rely on the Espionage Act, which dates to the World War I era and is designed to protect the handling of classified information.
Prosecutors say Assange asked for and received hundreds of thousands of secret government documents including military reports and State Department cables in violation of the act.
The documents say Assange illegally solicited classified information and ignored government warnings that some of the material could be damaging to national security.
The Department of Justice says he published identities of people working with the government without regard to the consequences, something officials say professional journalists would handle differently.
But Jameel Jaffer, the executive director of the Knight First Amendment Institute at Columbia University, said in an email that the government's charges "rely almost entirely on conduct that national-security journalists engage in every day."
That includes cultivating sources, encouraging sources to share information about government policy and conduct, and receiving and publishing classified information.
He called those activities "crucial to investigative journalism, and crucial to the public's ability to understand government policy and conduct."
"I don't think there's any way to understand this indictment except as a frontal attack on press freedom," he wrote.
The American Civil Liberties Union and Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press were among the organizations and individuals calling the charges a grave threat to press freedom.
"For the first time in the history of our country, the government has brought criminal charges against a publisher for the publication of truthful information. This is an extraordinary escalation of the Trump administration's attacks on journalism, and a direct assault on the First Amendment," said Ben Wizner, director of the American Civil Liberties Union's Speech, Privacy, and Technology Project in a statement.
Lisa Lynch, a communications professor at Drew University who has written about WikiLeaks, said the Obama administration had considered but then backed away from using the Espionage Act to bring charges against Assange.
She said the Trump administration's decision to do so, adding the Espionage Act to its arsenal of tools to prosecute the dissemination of information, "sets the stage for an unprecedented crackdown on press freedom."
The Justice Department, in announcing the new charges, sought to draw a distinction between journalism and Assange's actions.
"Julian Assange is no journalist," said the Justice Department's top national security official, John C. Demers, in announcing the charges, noting that the indictment charges Assange with conspiring to obtain classified information and publishing the names of secret sources that gave critical information to American military forces and diplomats.
"The Department takes seriously the role of journalists in our democracy and we thank you for it. It is not and has never been the Department's policy to target them for their reporting," Demers said.