WASHINGTON (CN) – A federal grand jury returned 17 additional charges Thursday against WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange for his alleged complicity in former Army intelligence analyst Chelsea Manning’s leak of classified U.S. military documents.
The superseding indictment filed in the Eastern District of Virginia brings the total number of U.S. charges against Assange to 18.
Assange, 47, was indicted in March on one count of conspiracy to commit computer intrusion for allegedly helping Manning crack a password to a classified military database and encouraging her efforts to gain access to hundreds of thousands of secret military documents about the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan as well as information about detainees held at Guantanamo Bay.
“These alleged actions disclosed our sensitive classified information in a manner that made it available to every terrorist group, hostile foreign intelligence service and opposing military,” John Demers, assistant attorney general for national security, told reporters Thursday.
WikiLeaks first began releasing the documents in 2010 and Manning spent seven years in prison before having her sentence commuted just as President Barack Obama left office.
The new charges are based on the same alleged communications between Manning and Assange that spurred the first indictment, but are brought under the Espionage Act. The indictment accuses Assange of soliciting classified information, aiding and abetting Manning’s efforts to leak the documents and publishing unredacted files that revealed alleged human intelligence sources in war zones.
Some have raised concerns about prosecuting Assange under the Espionage Act, warning it could open up charges against journalists who regularly receive secret government documents.
But on Thursday, U.S. Attorney Zachary Terwilliger, who oversees the Eastern District of Virginia, attempted to distinguish Assange’s work from that of reporters, noting Assange is not being charged for “passively obtaining or receiving” the information, but for actively seeking it out.
Terwilliger said the charges also do not involve all of the documents WikiLeaks released, but just a specific subset that revealed particularly sensitive information that endangered the lives of people who provided information to the United States.
Demers also distanced Assange from journalists by saying no journalist would publish information identifying intelligence sources operating in dangerous conditions.
“Julian Assange is no journalist,” Demers told reporters.
Despite the Justice Department’s insistence that prosecuting Assange would not be the same as prosecuting journalists, the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press raised concerns about the new charges.
“Any government use of the Espionage Act to criminalize the receipt and publication of classified information poses a dire threat to journalists seeking to publish such information in the public interest, irrespective of the Justice Department’s assertion that Assange is not a journalist,” Bruce Brown, the group’s executive director, said in a statement Thursday.
The 37-page superseding indictment restates some of the alleged conversations between Assange and Manning that were included in the original charge filed against Assange, but also expounds on Assange’s alleged efforts to solicit the information before he got in touch with Manning.
The indictment specifically mentions a post on WikiLeaks that identified the radical transparency group’s “Most Wanted Leaks of 2009.” Among the documents the group sought were the rules of engagement in Iraq and Afghanistan and details about Guantanamo Bay detainees.
“Assange and WikiLeaks have repeatedly sought, obtained and disseminated information that the United States classified due to serious risk that unauthorized disclosure could harm the national security of the United States,” the indictment states.
Each of the new charges filed against Assange carry a sentence of up to 10 years, according to a Justice Department official.
WikiLeaks blasted the new indictment on Twitter shortly after the announcement Thursday.
“This is madness,” the group tweeted. “It is the end of national security journalism and the First Amendment.”