WASHINGTON – The US Department of Justice announced on Thursday a new indictment of WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange that includes an espionage charge.
A federal grand jury handed down an 18-count indictment for “offenses that relate to Assange’s alleged role in one of the largest compromises of classified information in the history of the United States,” the DoJ said in a statement.
Assange, 47, was initially charged last month with violating cyber security laws in 2009 and 2010 to assist then-US Army intelligence analyst Chelsea Manning in gaining access to classified information intended for publication by WikiLeaks.
Conviction on that charge would have entailed a maximum prison sentence of five years.
If found guilty on each of the 18 counts in the superseding indictment, the Australian citizen could be sentenced to as much as 180 years behind bars.
“Assange’s actions risked serious harm to United States national security to the benefit of our adversaries and put the unredacted named human sources at a grave and imminent risk of serious physical harm and/or arbitrary detention,” the DoJ said.
At her court martial, Manning admitted having provided WikiLeaks with 700,000 battlefield reports and diplomatic cables as well as video of a 2007 US helicopter attack in Iraq.
“This is madness,” WikiLeaks said Thursday in reaction to the new indictment. “It is the end of national security journalism and the first amendment,” a reference to the First Amendment of the US Constitution, which enshrines freedom of the press.
None of the documents Manning gave WikiLeaks was classified Top Secret and much of the material was marked only as “Confidential.”
US legislation explicitly states that the classification system is not to be used to conceal evidence of criminal conduct or to shield officials from embarrassment.
The video and military reports pertained to US actions in Iraq and Afghanistan, while the State Department cables offered a window into Washington’s relations with a wide range of countries.
In the wake of the initial batch of Afghan and Iraq war revelations in 2010, US officials said that the disclosures posed “great risks” to people identified in the documents as collaborating with Washington, but the Defense Department subsequently said that it knew of no deaths that could be attributed to WikiLeaks.
The then-defense secretary, Robert Gates, later characterized reactions to the WikiLeaks publication as “overwrought” and dismissed predictions that the revelations would jeopardize Washington’s ability to conduct diplomacy.
“The fact is, governments deal with the United States because it’s in their interest. Not because they like us, not because they trust us and not because they believe we can keep secrets,” Gates said in November 2010. “Is this embarrassing? Yes. Is it awkward? Yes. Consequences for US foreign policy? I think fairly modest.”
Politicians and pundits in the US called for Assange to be prosecuted – or even assassinated – after WikiLeaks disseminated diplomatic cables as well as a video that showed an American military helicopter crew killing a Reuters photographer and several other civilians in Iraq.
Assange sought refuge at the Ecuadorian Embassy in London in June 2012 after losing a long battle in the British courts to avoid extradition to Sweden to face accusations of sexual misconduct.
The Australian, who has consistently denied the accusations, said he feared that once in Swedish custody, US prosecutors would indict him for espionage and Washington would pressure Stockholm into handing him over.
Quito eventually granted Assange Ecuadorian citizenship, but a change of government in the South American nation resulted on April 11 in his expulsion from the mission.
British police dragged him out of the embassy and is he now serving a 50-week sentence for violating the term of his bail.
Assange says he intends to fight extradition to the US. Since his detention, Swedish prosecutor have re-opened the cases from 2010.