Julian Assange Indicted Under Espionage Act

By Christopher Coble, Esq. on May 23, 2019

The U.S. Department of Justice added 17 charges to an indictment of Wikileaks founder Julian Assange today. Assange had already been arrested in London and charged with one count of conspiracy to commit computer intrusion, but the new charges all cite violations of the Espionage Act.

The DOJ claims Assange worked with former intelligence analyst Chelsea Manning "in unlawfully obtaining and disclosing classified documents related to the national defense." It appears that it is the first time a third party (as opposed to the source of the leak) has been indicted for receiving classified documents, and some are speculating that it could actually hinder U.S. efforts to have Assange extradited from the United Kingdom.

Assange and Espionage

The Espionage Act, among other things, prohibits conspiring to receive, obtaining, and disclosing national defense information. As it pertains to Assange, the Justice Department claims he was not just a passive recipient of leaked information. "Assange personally and publicly promoted WikiLeaks to encourage those with access to protected information," according to the indictment, "including classified information, to provide it to WikiLeaks for public disclosure."

Specifically, the indictment claims Manning and Assange engaged in real-time discussions regarding obtaining and publishing classified documents, and that Assange actively encouraged Manning to provide more information and even agreed to crack a password hash stored on Department of Defense computers. According to the government, Manning provided Assange and WikiLeaks with "approximately 90,000 Afghanistan war-related significant activity reports, 400,000 Iraq war-related significant activities reports, 800 Guantanamo Bay detainee assessment briefs, and 250,000 U.S. Department of State cables."

Assange and Extradition

Such a charge, against a third-party recipient of government documents, has reportedly never been successfully prosecuted, and many are viewing this as a test case of how far the Espionage Act can be stretched to prosecute leakers and publishers of classified materials. "The department takes seriously the role of journalists in our democracy and we thank you for it," John Demers, the head of the Justice Department's National Security Division, told Buzzfeed. "It has not and never has been the department's policy to target them for reporting. But Julian Assange is no journalist."

Despite that assertion, the Espionage Act (at least the sections with which Assange has been charged) make no distinction between journalists and non-journalists. The U.S.-U.K. Extradition Treaty, however, does make an exception for "political" offenses, so that a person may not be extradited for a political offense."[T]hat's not defined," former State Department legal adviser John Bellinger told NPR. "But historically, under international law, a political offense is an offense against the state such as espionage or sedition or treason."

So, these additional charges may have made its extradition efforts even more difficult.

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