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Julian Assange hit with 18 federal charges in new indictment

CBS News logo CBS News 5/23/2019 Emily Tillett
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A federal grand jury has indicted WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange on 18 felony charges for his alleged involvement in the 2010 leak of classified documents by Chelsea Manning, the Justice Department announced Thursday.

The indictment includes 17 new counts of violations of the Espionage Act, in addition to one charge that had been unsealed after Assange was arrested by in London in April. Each count carries a maximum sentence of between five and 10 years if convicted.

"The superseding indictment alleges that Assange was complicit with Chelsea Manning, a former intelligence analyst in the U.S. Army, in unlawfully obtaining and disclosing classified documents related to the national defense," the department said in a statement.

The department said Assange "engaged in real-time discussions regarding Manning's transmission of classified records to Assange" and "actively encouraged" Manning to hack into a military computer network. In 2010, WikiLeaks published hundreds of thousands of State Department cables, documents related to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and other sensitive material that Manning had provided.

The use of the Espionage Act to prosecute Assange signifies a dramatic escalation in the government's pursuit of Assange, who has maintained he acted as a journalist when publishing the documents and deserves protections under the First Amendment. WikiLeaks called the indictment "madness" in a tweet on Thursday, saying it signified "the end of national security journalism and the first amendment."

Manning was arrested in 2010 and convicted of espionage in 2013. She had been behind bars for seven years before President Obama commuted her sentence shortly before he left office in 2010. 

In March, Manning was sent to jail by a federal judge in Virginia for refusing to comply with a subpoena by a grand jury investigating WikiLeaks. She was briefly released when the grand jury's term expired, but ordered back to jail last week when she refused to comply with a new subpoena. It's unclear whether either grand jury returned Thursday's indictment.

Assange was until recently holed up in the Ecuadorian Embassy in London, where he had been granted asylum after jumping bail in 2012. He was arrested in April and ordered to serve a 50-week prison term in the U.K. Federal prosecutors in the U.S. unsealed an indictment of one conspiracy charge soon after, and Assange now faces possible extradition to the U.S. 

Meanwhile, Swedish prosecutors have said they are reopening a rape case against Assange. They said they will seek his extradition after he has served his sentence in the U.K.

Clare Hymes and Emily Tillett contributed reporting.


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