The U.S. Justice Department said on Thursday that it has filed 17 new charges against WikiLeaks co-founder Julian Assange, including receiving and unlawfully publishing classified military and diplomatic documents in 2010.
He was accused of violating the U.S. Espionage Act. However, multiple U.S. media outlets say the new charges raise profound First Amendment issues with concerns that such charges could set a dangerous precedent for journalists.
The new counts include one of conspiracy to receive national defense information, three of obtaining national defense information and 13 of disclosure of national defense information. Australian-born Assange, 47, faces a maximum penalty of 10 years in prison for each of the new counts if convicted.
The charges, contained in an indictment issued in U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia, were revealed during a press conference held by the Justice Department officials in Washington D.C.
The U.S. government has never successfully prosecuted a non-government official for publishing or sharing unlawfully leaked classified information, University of Chicago Law Professor Geoffrey Stone told NBC News.
"This is madness. It is the end of national security journalism and the first amendment." WikiLeaks tweeted.
The secret documents that Assange published were provided by former U.S. Army intelligence analyst Chelsea Manning, who was convicted at a court-martial trial in 2013 to 35 years in jail but released in 2017 months after receiving clemency from outgoing U.S. President Barack Obama. Manning leaked some 700,000 military files including a battlefield video and diplomatic cables to WikiLeaks, the largest leak of classified data in U.S. history.
Assange was sentenced to 50 weeks in jail on May 2 for breaching the Bail Act in Britain after having been expelled from Ecuador's embassy in London, where he had lived for nearly seven years. He said at the time that he does not consent to being extradited to the United States over charges related to leaking government secrets.
The WikiLeaks databases contain 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, according to local media reports, quoting prosecutors as sources.