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Press Advocates Warn Of Dangers As U.S. Files New Charges Against Assange

WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange gestures from the window of a prison van as he is driven out of Southwark Crown Court in London on May 1.

U.S. authorities have filed new criminal charges against Wikileaks founder Julian Assange, accusing him of causing the United States major harm by publishing thousands of classified documents.

The new, 18-count indictment, unsealed on May 23, was filed under the Espionage Act, accusing Assange of directing a former U.S. Army intelligence analyst to leak the materials.

The leak was one of the largest compromises of secret information in U.S. history.

Assange is currently in British custody after being kicked out in April of Ecuadorian Embassy, where he had been holed up for several years.

The United States is seeking his extradition.

"No responsible actor, journalist or otherwise, would purposely publish the names of individuals he or she knew to be confidential sources, exposing them to the gravest of dangers," Assistant Attorney General John Demers said in a statement.

The new Espionage Act charges go beyond the initial indictment made public last month. That indictment accused him of conspiring with the army analyst, Chelsea Manning, to crack into a defense computer.

The classified materials, published by the antisecrecy organization Wikileaks, included the names of people who helped U.S. forces in Iraq and Afghanistan and U.S. diplomats, according to prosecutors.

Manning was convicted in military court for providing a trove of classified documents to Wikileaks but her sentence was later commuted by then-President Barack Obama.

She is currently in a northern Virginia jail on a civil contempt charge.

Press advocates decried the new charges, saying that Assange's conduct in obtaining the materials was virtually indistinguishable from the conduct of conventional investigative journalists who cover national security or subjects involving classified government secrets.

"Regardless of what you think about Wikileaks or Julian Assange, an Espionage Act prosecution can only turn out badly for press freedom in this country," David Kaye, an American lawyer and United Nations special rapporteur for press freedom, said in a Twitter post.

“This is not about Julian Assange," Democratic U.S. Senator Ron Wyden said in a statement. "This is about the use of the Espionage Act to charge a recipient and publisher of classified information. I am extremely concerned about the precedent this may set and potential dangers to the work of journalists and the First Amendment."

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