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Assange Charged With 17 New Counts Under Espionage Act

A superseding indictment returned by a U.S. federal grand jury on Thursday charges WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange with 18 counts related to illegally obtaining and disclosing classified information.

Assange was arrested by British authorities on April 11 after Ecuador, which had allowed him to stay at its embassy in London for nearly seven years, withdrew his asylum. On the same day, the United States, which hopes to have Assange extradited after he serves his 50-week prison sentence in the U.K. for violating his bail conditions, unsealed an indictment charging him with computer hacking conspiracy.

The computer hacking charge is related to his communications with Chelsea Manning, the former U.S. Army intelligence analyst who provided WikiLeaks classified information taken from government networks. Authorities allege that Assange attempted to help Manning crack a partial password hash. The password would have given Manning access to a network storing classified documents and communications through an account belonging to a different user, which would have made it more difficult for the government to trace the leak back to her.

The superseding indictment charges Assange on 17 new counts under the Espionage Act, including conspiracy to receive national defense information, obtaining national defense information, and disclosure of national defense information.

The government has accused Assange of aiding and abetting Manning in obtaining classified information, receiving the classified documents, and publishing them on WikiLeaks. The leaked documents contained unredacted names of individuals who provided information to U.S. forces in Iraq and Afghanistan, which authorities said put these individuals and national security at risk.

The files provided by Manning to Assange are said to have included roughly 90,000 activity reports related to the war in Afghanistan, 400,000 reports related to the war in Iraq, 800 Guantanamo Bay detainee assessment briefs, and 250,000 State Department cables.

“Many of these documents were classified at the Secret level, meaning that their unauthorized disclosure could cause serious damage to United States national security. Manning also provided rules of engagement files for the Iraq war, most of which were also classified at the Secret level and which delineated the circumstances and limitations under which United States forces would initiate or conduct combat engagement with other forces,” the Justice Department said.

In response to the new charges, WikiLeaks, Freedom of the Press Foundation, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and others raised concerns about the implications of the charges on press freedom and the First Amendment as Assange is considered by many a journalist.

However, Assistant Attorney General for National Security John Demers said Thursday that Assange should not be considered a journalist.

“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 stated.

“Julian Assange is no journalist,” Demers added. “This made plain by the totality of his conduct as alleged in the indictment—i.e., his conspiring with and assisting a security clearance holder to acquire classified information, and his publishing the names of human sources.

“Indeed, no responsible actor—journalist or otherwise—would purposely publish the names of individuals he or she knew to be confidential human sources in war zones, exposing them to the gravest of dangers,” he said.

The Justice Department says Assange faces up to 10 years in prison for each espionage count and up to five years for the hacking charge. Assange will fight extradition to the United States.

Related: Julian Assange - A Decade of Stunning Leaks of U.S. Secrets

Related: Ecuador Says Hit by 40 Million Cyber Attacks Since Assange Arrest

Related: WikiLeaks Set 21st Century Model for Cyber-Leak Journalism

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Eduard Kovacs (@EduardKovacs) is a contributing editor at SecurityWeek. He worked as a high school IT teacher for two years before starting a career in journalism as Softpedia’s security news reporter. Eduard holds a bachelor’s degree in industrial informatics and a master’s degree in computer techniques applied in electrical engineering.