Wikileaks founder Julian Assange, who was arrested in London last month after seven years in an Ecuadorian embassy, is now reportedly facing new charges of espionage in the United States.
The Washington Post reported Thursday afternoon that federal prosecutors had brought an superseding 18-count indictment against Assange accusing him of violating the Espionage Act. The charges stem from Wikileaks’ acquisition of more than 725,000 classified documents related to the Afghanistan and Iraq wars in 2010.
The charges are expected to add fuel to an already fractious debate over whether British authorities should extradite Assange to the United States, where he was previously charged with conspiracy to commit a computer crime.
The Espionage Act prohibits specifically the disclosure of “national defence information” that the possessor “has reason to believe could be used to the injury of the United States or to the advantage of any foreign nation.”
But proving that Assange committed espionage will be difficult. It will fall on federal prosecutors to prove, for example, that he had “specific intent” to harm the United States and that his goal was not merely to shine a light on the U.S. military’s conduct in the Middle East.
It also sets the stage for a contentious debate of the freedom of the press. Legal experts have long been divided over whether First Amendment rights are afforded to Assange, who is an Australian citizen.
No journalist has ever been charged under the Espionage Act.
Various U.S. government officials have made the claim that Assange is not a journalist, though it’s unclear whether with regard to the Espionage Act—a law whose limits have never been fully tested—his journalism bonafides even matter.
The U.S. government’s extradition request will be considered by the U.K. on June 12. He is also wanted by Sweden over suspicion of rape stemming from the allegations of two women in 2010.
Last month, Assange was found guilty in the U.K. of jumping his bail and was sentenced to 50 weeks in jail.
The Justice Department did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
This is a developing story.