Two US federal prosecutors connected to the Justice Department's case against WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange disagreed with the department's decision to seek espionage charges against Assange, arguing that the charges "posed serious risks for First Amendment protections", The Washington Post reported Friday.
The Post cited people familiar with the matter as claiming James Trump, “one of the assistant US attorneys asked to evaluate the case” against Assange, and Daniel Grooms, who served as criminal chief in the US Attorney's office managing the case, disagreed with the Justice Department's decision to charge Assange under the Espionage Act.
However, by the time the US Justice Department charged Assange on Thursday, the two prosecutors were no longer involved with the case.
Grooms was reported to have left the department last month “for unrelated reasons,” while James Trump, who “offered to remain on board in whatever capacity his supervisors wanted after delivering his opinion,” has moved to other casework.
While noting that it was not unusual for prosecutors to disagree on whether a particular case merits criminal charges, the Post writes that this particular disagreement “involved major questions about constitutional rights.”
When an attempt was made to reach out to the two prosecutors for comment, Grooms declined, while James Trump referred to Joshua Stueve, a spokesman for the US Attorney's Office in Alexandria, Virginia, who told the paper in a statement that they “do not respond to anonymously-sourced statements”.
On 23 May the US Justice Department charged WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange with 17 new counts under the Espionage Act atop the original hacking charge used to file for Assange's extradition from the United Kingdom.
The new charges are all espionage-focused, and each carries a potential prison sentence of up to 10 years.
The charges alarmed First Amendment experts, who have called them a threat to press freedoms.
Assange's initial indictment sparked a debate over the First Amendment and whether the whistleblower’s alleged role in procuring secret US material constituted protected journalistic activity.
Assange's motives or membership in an undefinable "journalist" club are irrelevant to the very dangerous step that the Trump DOJ took today. We'll now find out whether *publishing* information (as well as seeking and obtaining it) may constitutionally be charged as espionage.— Barton Gellman (@bartongellman) May 23, 2019
Fears have been voiced by press freedom advocates that a conviction of Assange could undermine protections for journalists to challenge government secrecy, as prosecutors stated Thursday that Assange's actions constituted criminal acts, not journalism.
Julian Assange, 47, was arrested by British police last month after spending years claiming asylum at the Ecuadoran Embassy in London.
Hours after his asylum was revoked, the US indicted Assange for helping Chelsea Manning, the former US Army intelligence analyst who shared hundreds of thousands of classified war logs and diplomatic papers with WikiLeaks, accessing Defence Department computers in 2010 in a bid to disclose secret government documents.
According to reports, law enforcement officials described the initial charge as a “placeholder”, claiming officials had intended all along to charge Assange with Espionage Act violations, which carry a potential 10-year prison sentence.
The Justice Department's Thursday move came within a window for the US to submit its formal request outlining legal charges that Assange would face if he was transferred to the US from UK custody.