The revelation that WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange has been secretly charged has prompted fears among free-press advocates that the Justice Department is targeting those who publish classified information, the Washington Post reports. The Trump Justice Department has waged an aggressive crackdown on disclosures of classified information, more than tripling the number of leak investigations in then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions’s first six months on the job. Assange’s case could mark a dramatic escalation, if prosecutors are essentially charging someone who disseminated information that the government did not want to be made public, free-press advocates say. “This is troubling because it would mean that the government is bringing criminal charges against a publisher for disclosing leaked, but truthful, information about our government,” said law Prof. Sonja West of the University of Georgia.
Word of the charges against Assange came in a court filing in an unrelated case that inadvertently referenced the WikiLeaks publisher. Joshua Stueve, a spokesman for the U.S. attorney’s office in the Eastern District of Virginia, said: “The court filing was made in error.” The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press asked a judge to unseal the records about Assange’s case, saying the secrecy surrounding the matter was “anathema to our open system of justice.” Assange has long been of interest to federal investigators. Federal prosecutors in the Eastern District of Virginia, where the errant filing was made, had been examining WikiLeaks for its 2010 publication of diplomatic cables and military documents. Justice Department officials in the Obama administration concluded that WikiLeaks was a publisher, and that bringing charges against members of the group might prompt First Amendment challenges or set a dangerous precedent that could invite future prosecutions of traditional news organizations.