Justice Department officials on Thursday cited Mr. Assange’s mixed reputation as they tried to reject the notion that they were interfering with the free press.
“The department takes seriously the role of journalists in our democracy, and we thank you for it,” John Demers, the head of the department’s National Security Division, said at a briefing with reporters. “It is not, and has never been, the department’s policy to target them for reporting.”
“Julian Assange is no journalist,” Mr. Demers added.
Still, press advocates were quick to condemn the Justice Department on Thursday. The American Civil Liberties Union called the indictment “a direct assault on the First Amendment.” The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press described it as “a dire threat.”
Alan Dershowitz, the Harvard lawyer who has been a recent ally of Mr. Trump, said the case against Mr. Assange was “really the first time since the Pentagon Papers that the government has gone after publishers.”
“We all think there’s a difference between The New York Times and Assange from a practical point of view, but from a constitutional point of view, it’s hard to find that difference,” Mr. Dershowitz said. “They’re both publishing classified, stolen material.”
“This is analogous to if The New York Times and The Washington Post had been prosecuted after publishing the Pentagon Papers,” Mr. Dershowitz added, referring to the top-secret report on Vietnam whose publication in 1971 was upheld by the Supreme Court. “It’s a very, very frightening development.”
But Asha Rangappa, a lawyer and former F.B.I. counterintelligence agent, said she believed that the Justice Department had made a crucial distinction between Mr. Assange’s activity and the work of traditional journalists.