If convicted for all counts, Assange could face a maximum sentence of 175 years in U.S. prison for his “alleged role in one of the largest compromises of classified information in the history of the United States.”
The new charges were part of an expanded indictment obtained by the Trump administration that significantly raised the stakes of the legal case against Mr. Assange, who is already fighting extradition proceedings in London based on an earlier hacking-related count brought by federal prosecutors in Northern Virginia.
Until now, the DoJ has only prosecuted and charged government officials who leak classified information to the media or public, but this is the first time when the 102-year-old, First World War-era Espionage Act has been used against a journalist.
The Espionage Act forbids the disclosure of national defense information that could be used against the United States or to the advantage of any foreign nation.
Mr. Assange vaulted to global fame nearly a decade ago as a champion of openness about what governments secretly do. But with this indictment, he has become the target for a case that could open the door to criminalizing activities that are crucial to American investigative journalists who write about national security matters.
The indictment says that Assange had “repeatedly encouraged sources with access to classified information to steal and provide it to Wikileaks to disclose.”
“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,” DoJ says.
Justice Department officials did not explain why they decided to charge Mr. Assange under the Espionage Act — a step also debated within the Obama administration but ultimately not taken. Although the indictment could establish a precedent that deems actions related to obtaining, and in some cases publishing, state secrets to be criminal, the officials sought to minimize the implications for press freedoms.