Julian Assange, the Wikileaks founder, was hit with 17 new criminal charges by the US Justice Department on Thursday over his role in obtaining and releasing classified information in 2010.
Assange was accused of “aiding, abetting, and causing” Chelsea Manning, then an intelligence analyst in the US Army, to access and leak secret documents belonging to the US government.
The 47-year-old Australian was also accused of endangering the lives of US sources in Iran, China, Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan by not redacting names when publishing the documents.
The alleged violations of the Espionage Act will trigger a battle over press freedom, given Assange argues he is a journalist and acted no differently from other reporters. US officials dispute that defence.
The case could end up with the courts determining whether Assange is protected by the US Constitution’s First Amendment, which enshrines freedom of the press.
The charges also escalate an extradition battle playing out in Britain, with both America and Sweden attempting to have Assange sent to their respective countries first to face prosecution. He is wanted by Swedish prosecutors because of sexual assault claims.
Wikileaks said Home Secretary Sajid Javid was under "enormous pressure to protect the rights of the free press in the UK and elsewhere".
In a statement after the latest charges, WikiLeaks said: "The final decision on Assange's extraditions rests with the UK Home Secretary, who is now under enormous pressure to protect the rights of the free press in the UK an elsewhere.
"Press rights advocates have unanimously argued that Assange's prosecution under the (US) Espionage Act is compatible with basic democratic principles. This is the gravest attack on press freedom of the century."
WikiLeaks editor-in-chief, Kristinn Hrafnsson, labelled the new charges facing Assange as "the evil of lawlessness in its purest form".
He added: "With the indictment, the 'leader of the free world' dismisses the First Amendment - hailed as a model of press freedom around the world - and launches a blatant extraterritorial assault outside its border, attacking basic principles of democracy in Europe and the rest of the world."
Justice Department officials sought to make clear that they believed Assange's actions weren't those of a journalist, though they declined to discuss the policy discussions that led to the indictment.
"Julian Assange is no journalist," said Assistant Attorney General John Demers, the Justice Department's top national security official. "No responsible actor - journalist or otherwise - would purposely publish the names of individuals he or she knew to be confidential human sources in war zones, exposing them to the gravest of dangers."
Assange is currently serving a 50-week sentence in British prison for skipping bail. He had been seeking refuge in the Ecuadorian Embassy in London from 2012 but was released earlier this year.
The new charges go well beyond the single count of computer hacking which the US announced in April. He now faces a total of 18 counts, most carrying a 10-year maximum jail term.
They relate to Assange’s role in what US officials called “one of the largest compromises of classified information in the history of the United States”, which took place in 2009 and 2010.
Manning, who had become disillusioned with the US government's role in foreign wars, proceeded to leak a string of documents – many given “secret” classification - to Assange, which were then published on Wikileaks.
They included around 90,000 Afghanistan war-related significant activity reports, 400,000 Iraq war-related significant activities reports, 800 Guantanamo Bay detainee assessment briefs and 250,000 US State Department cables.
US officials allege that Assange played an active role in getting the documents by encouraging Manning to look for more information, discussing ways she could avoid detection and working out how to pass on what she found.
Assange is accused of putting human sources helping America in “grave and imminent risk of serious physical harm and/or arbitrary detention” by refusing to redact names contained in the documents.
US officials said local Afghans and Iraqis, journalists, religious leaders, human rights advocates, and political dissidents from repressive regime were all among those put at risk. People in Iran, China, Syria named in the leaked State Department cables were also said to have been endangered.
To underscore the point, the indictment revealed that when US forces stormed Osama bin Laden’s hideout they found the jihadist had once directed another member of al-Qaeda to grab US defence department documents that had been released on Wikileaks.
Central to the legal battle to come will be whether Assange can convince the courts that he was acting like any other journalist by releasing information which the US government did not want in the public domain.
Jennifer Robinson, a lawyer for Assange, told The Telegraph that the new indictment charges her client with "encouraging sources to provide him truthful information and for publishing that information".
She said: "These unprecedented charges demonstrate the gravity of the threat the criminal prosecution of Julian Assange poses to all journalists in their endeavor to inform the public about actions that have been taken by the US government."