In D.C. and around the world, millions were shocked in April when WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange was physically removed from the Ecuadorian embassy in London and placed under arrest at long last.
That shock was renewed on Thursday when the Department of Justice (DOJ) unveiled a slew of new indictments against Assange, charging him with serious violations of the Espionage Act.
The charges stem from an alleged conspiracy involving Assange and then-U.S. Army Private Chelsea Manning, a transgender woman who is currently incarcerated for her unwillingness to testify about WikiLeaks. The pair reportedly sought to steal and subsequently publish a number of classified Defense Department documents in 2009 and 2010.
Of the 18 federal charges against Assange, 17 of them fall under the Espionage Act. These include one count of receiving national defense information, eight counts of obtaining national defense information, and eight counts of disclosing national defense information, as well as a separate count of conspiracy to commit computer intrusion.
Prosecutors have claimed that Assange’s publication of the hundreds of thousands of documents stolen by Manning resulted in the public revelation of secret sources in Afghanistan, China, Iran, Iraq, Syria, and other nations, among other sensitive material that proved damaging to U.S. interests and national security.
If convicted, Assange could face upwards of 170 years in federal prison.
This is reportedly the first time in history that an individual acting as a “journalist” has been charged under the Espionage Act, and the indictments have raised First Amendment and freedom of the press concerns among some.
The WikiLeaks Twitter account called the indictments “madness” and alleged that they mark the “end of national security journalism” and the First Amendment.
Indeed, Assange and WikiLeaks have long defended their publication of classified information as nothing more than journalism that is protected by the Constitution’s freedom of the press.
But U.S. officials have countered that by dismissing Assange as “no journalist.”
For his part, Assange is currently being held by authorities in London for refusing to surrender to the courts. He is facing demands for extradition from both the United States and Sweden, where he is facing charges related to an alleged sexual assault in 2012, before he took refuge in the embassy.
The U.S. reportedly has until June 11 to make its case for extradition, a process that the Washington Post reports could take months or even years, as Assange intends to fight the law every step of the way.
What will ultimately happen to Assange remains to be seen, but if American officials have their way, the WikiLeaks founder will soon be seeing the inside of a prison cell.