In a case with significant constitutional implications, the US has filed new charges against WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange for allegedly violating the Espionage Act by publishing thousands of classified documents, including the identities of sources for US armed forces and diplomats.
The Justice Department's 18-count superseding indictment alleged Assange directed former Army intelligence analyst Chelsea Manning in one of the largest compromises of classified information in US history.
It said the WikiLeaks founder damaged national security by publishing documents that harmed the US and its allies.
The case comes amid a Justice Department crackdown on national security leaks and raises immediate media freedom questions, including whether Assange's actions - such as soliciting and publishing classified information - are distinguishable from what journalists do.
Assange's lawyer, Barry Pollack, said the "unprecedented charges" against his client imperil "all journalists in their endeavour to inform the public about actions that have been taken by the US government."
The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press also said the case was a "dire threat" to media freedom.
But Justice Department officials sought to make clear they did not view Assange's actions as protected by the First Amendment.
"Julian Assange is no journalist," Assistant Attorney General John Demers, the Justice Department's top national security official, said.
"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."
Prosecutors sought throughout the document to make a distinction between what Assange did as the founder of WikiLeaks and journalists' work.
They described how Assange worked with Manning to improperly access Department of Defence computers to gain access to thousands of pages of material and encouraged her as she delved through databases.
Reports from the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq published by Assange included the names of Afghans and Iraqis who provided information to US and coalition forces, while the diplomatic cables he released exposed journalists, religious leaders, human rights advocates and dissidents in repressive countries.
Assange in an August 2010 interview called it "regrettable" sources disclosed by WikiLeaks could be harmed, but said WikiLeaks was "not obligated to protect other people's sources," according to the indictment.
The new Espionage Act charges go far beyond an initial indictment against Assange made public last month that accused him of conspiring with Manning to crack a defence computer password.
Assange, 47, is in custody in London after being evicted from the Ecuadorian Embassy in April. The US is seeking his extradition.
Manning, convicted in military court for providing a trove of classified documents to WikiLeaks, is currently in a Virginia jail on a civil contempt charge.
She spent two months in the Alexandria Detention Centre beginning in March after she refused to testify to a grand jury investigating WikiLeaks. That grand jury is sitting in Alexandria, where Assange is charged. She could remain in jail for up to 18 months, the length of the current grand jury's term.
She served seven years of a 35-year military sentence before receiving a commutation from then-President Barack Obama.
Australian Associated Press