US Espionage Act prosecutions jump under Trump, Assange extradition trial hears

Donald Trump’s administration has prosecuted national security leaks more aggressively than any presidency in US history, Wikileaks founder Julian Assange’s extradition hearing has been told.

Lawyer and historian Carey Shenkman said the US president is on track to exceed the number of Espionage Act cases brought under Barack Obama’s two terms in less than four years.

Assange, 49, is fighting extradition to the US to face 17 charges under the 1917 law, as well as an 18th charge alleging he plotted to hack computers.

Giving evidence by videolink and holding a telephone to his ear – following technical glitches that have beset the hearing – Shenkman described on Thursday the Espionage Act as “extraordinarily broad” and “one of the most contentious” in the US.

He said in a report submitted to the court: “The administration of Donald Trump has prosecuted disclosures of national security information more aggressively than any presidency in US history.

“Indeed, Trump’s justice department is on track, in less than one four-year presidential term, to exceed the number of Espionage Act prosecutions under two terms of Obama’s presidency.”

Shenkman said eight prosecutions of media sources under the act were brought under Obama – more than all previous administrations combined.

The Trump administration indicted its eighth alleged journalistic source, Henry Kyle Frese, under the act in October last year, he added.

“This escalation in prosecutions is consistent with a dramatic policy shift in approach to applying the Espionage Act,” he wrote in his report.

Shenkman said the law has been used to prosecute government employees-turned-whistleblowers and in unsuccessful political bids to target the press.

“There has never, in the century-long history of the Espionage Act, been an indictment of a US publisher under the law for the publication of secrets,” he said in his statement.

“What is now concluded, by journalists and publishers generally, is that any journalist in any country on earth – in fact any person- who conveys secrets that do not conform to the policy positions of the US administration, can be shown now to be liable to being charged under the Espionage Act of 1917.”

Wearing a face mask, Assange spoke to his partner and the mother of his two children, Stella Moris, and gave instructions to his legal team, through the glass-enclosed dock at the Old Bailey on Thursday.

The case is expected to last four weeks.

Picture: AP Photo/Alex Brandon

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