WikiLeaks Man and his Fate

As Assange sees daylight, US and Sweden likely to lead the pack in plans to prosecute

As Assange sees daylight, US and Sweden likely to lead the pack in plans to prosecute
WikiLeaks co-founder Julian Assange arrives at Westminster Magistrates Court in London, Britain, 11 April 2019. Assange was due to appear before the Westminster Court after he was arrested in London on 11 April. EPA-EFE/STRINGER

The surrender of WikiLeaks’ Julian Assange by the Ecuadorian Embassy in London to the British authorities, and the possibility he will be extradited to America to stand trial, may well open up a whole can of constitutional worms over government secrecy and the protection of free speech. Millions will be watching how it proceeds.

For people in Britain fighting their seemingly endless battle over Brexit, the “Assange Affair” could not have come a moment too soon. Here was an entirely different matter, another international snarl to contemplate. As the week drew to a close, Julian Assange, the increasingly unwelcome guest inside the Ecuadorian Embassy in London for some seven years, was physically carried out of that sanctuary by British police and taken into their custody.

It now is possible he may actually face criminal charges in three different countries. Right now, the British have him for absconding from bail; bail that had been imposed when the Swedes were first after him over sexual assault charges, based on his behaviour towards two Swedish women, that had been filed in Sweden. And he, of course, had been in Sweden while evading American authorities because of his own fears he would be indicted, captured, extradited, tried, and convicted (and even tortured or killed, per the fervid imaginations of some of his more fervent supporters) over the activities of his exposé website, WikiLeaks.

WikiLeaks, of course, was, and remains, an internet space that became famous (or infamous, depending on your take in the matter) for revealing vast caches of American military digital video, text records and diplomatic correspondence; then with the contents of problematic emails stored on servers at the Democratic National Committee that may have cost Hillary Clinton her election; as well as caches of CIA materials and methods.

(WikiLeaks had also distributed yet other piles of confidential banking material that proved to be highly embarrassing to the banks and their clients, partners, or associates.) Assange had reportedly been working with Chelsea Manning to break into Defence Department highly secret electronic vaults by hacking password protection for yet more highly protected material. Manning was the army private who had been the actual source for that initial extraordinary data dump of military material.

In recent days, it turned out Assange had been charged in a sealed indictment by the US government for cyberhacking in association with Manning for efforts to get access to secret military data; and that those charges had been drawn up well before he departed his Ecuadorian Embassy refuge in downtown London of seven years. As a result, the US government is almost certain to press the British to extradite Assange to the US to face those charges.

But, while the two women who first went to the Swedish police to press their sexual assault charges had eventually withdrawn their criminal complaints, one of them is now reportedly considering asking police to reinstate those charges (and thus presumably triggering a formal request by the Swedes for extradition as well) – before their statute of limitations runs out on that particular crime. For her to face all the public attention, yet again, that such charges would inevitably generate, clearly speaks to some really tough stuff in her character and personality.

Meanwhile, if the Americans want to ask for Assange’s extradition for trial in the US, they have 65 days from his arrest to present their request, after which British authorities would have to rule on this request, as well as which nation gets a crack at him first. (Presumably, the Swedes will quickly decide whether they want him as well.)

As to why the Ecuadorians decided to get rid of their most famous (or infamous) guest, several things apparently came into play together. First of all, Assange reportedly became a thoroughly unlikeable, irritating, even increasingly unhygienic guest in his one cramped room. Back at the beginning of all this, Ecuador’s then president, Rafael Correa, had been pursuing a decidedly anti-American hegemony-style set of policies, even if his government’s economic policies proved to be sufficiently imprudent (especially once the great petroleum price boom died away) that Ecuador had to abandon its own currency, and adopt the US dollar as its currency lifeboat instead.

Taking in Assange had been a deft poke at America from that perspective, especially after they gave him the right of residence in their embassy chancery, as well as Ecuadorian citizenship. And they even gave him a pet kitten for the company in that very constrained space Assange had been confined to within Ecuador’s very modest embassy building in London.

Eventually, though, Correa was succeeded by his former deputy, Lenin Moreno, who pursued a decidedly different economic and foreign policy course, trimming governmental waste, pursuing fraud and corruption issues, reining in governmental spending, and then beginning negotiations with the IMF for the substantial international funding they needed to sort out the mess.

Along the way, Assange thereupon became an unnecessary encumbrance in Ecuador’s move away from their alignment with the Venezuela/Cuba “axis” in its economically tough times. By the end of Ecuador’s role in all this, Assange had been stripped of his Ecuadorian citizenship, and the embassy had invited the British to rid them of the man who stayed far too long for supper.

There are lots of issues coming out of these circumstances. First, of course, is what, exactly, Assange would be put on trial for in the US. To his supporters, he was a doughty journalist pursuing a very big story and making use of the new electronic technologies to disseminate his work. For them, Assange’s circumstances are, at their heart, little different from those courageous editors and journalists at The New York Times and Washington Post who published The Pentagon Papers, illicitly copied by Pentagon consultant Daniel Ellsberg and then given over to reporters. That voluminous, multi-volume study of the lies, deceptions, and calumnies of the Vietnam War had been commissioned by the government to find out how the US had actually become consumed by that conflict.

The resulting controversy quickly went all the way to the Supreme Court, in 1971, which ruled the newspapers had been acting in the greater good and public interest, and that it was clearly under the protection of the US Constitution’s free speech guarantee – a protection that reached back throughout American history, right back to Peter Zenger’s prosecution by a colonial governor over prior government restraint over content, prior to independence. If Assange was in that great tradition, his personal habits, tics and thoroughly adolescent, bad boy behaviour might be lamentable, but it was irrelevant. And even if he thoroughly embarrassed the government through his revelations, and pointed out criminal behaviour on the part of the military, his defence was still clear.

But others argued Assange wasn’t even a real journalist, just an opportunist and would-be thief. Real journalists actually make thoughtful analyses of the information they receive; they weigh it, they check sources against other data. They give those they are writing about a chance to rebut or explain their actions or ideas – and, crucially, they don’t commit breaking and entering-style offences, whether physically or electronically.

By those standards, Assange was just a nasty, narcissistic chancer who should properly be chargeable under the country’s applicable laws – and not simply because he made all those generals, politicians and diplomats squirm in their chairs. Oh, and by the way, he greatly endangered national security through revelations about CIA materials and methods; and he also played footsie with the Russian troll/bot factory, Guccifer, thereby helping Russia insert itself into the 2016 presidential election. And in any case, he is not about to be prosecuted for publishing that stuff – no matter how damaging it might have been. Therefore, his conviction would have no bearing on any free speech questions in the future.

Assange’s circumstances, however, has created something of a mini-schism on the left. Some are now insisting on the primacy of First Amendment concerns emanating from his WikiLeaks reveals, regardless of any supposed harm to national security. And, besides, the US deserved being exposed for its actions. But, on the other hand, in the age of #MeToo, others are starting to argue that punishment for Assange’s sexual exploits deserves at least as much attention as for any publishing exploits. In that case, Sweden should have primacy of place in claiming Assange.

And, of course, the British have some thinking to do about what they will decide. Once it has been presented, do they believe the US case is strong enough to extradite him – and how would they would apportion his body should the Swedes step up and assert a claim for him after all.

One thing that should get much more of an airing in America is just how come so much classified data, and so many documents and video files, could be so easily accessed, downloaded, and handed out by a private in the army, given that a private is the lowest rank in the military, save for the newest recruit, just entering basic training. One reason is how secret access and distribution changed significantly after 9/11. Instead of very carefully regulated, siloed information access, and lots of control protocols, the need for more widespread access throughout the military-security arena for quick analysis, and, crucially, a veritable tsunami of material from new advances in data collection and storage, gave many end users more access to much more data. Private Manning thereby could download treasure troves – zillions of terabytes – of data to hand over to Wikileaks.

There is a further irony that will play out, most likely, in any court proceedings in the US. All throughout his presidential campaign, the man who is now the US president had praised WikiLeaks over 100 times in speeches, in reference to the hacking of the Democratic Party offices.

Now, of course, Trump has tried to wriggle away from any knowledge of the site or its contents. A smart defence attorney team will almost certainly want to use all those video clips to bolster their case of the public’s right to know and of Assange’s carrying out of a sacred civic duty.

In discussing this case with my wife, it occurred to us both that Assange now looks rather a lot like Santa Claus, what with his long grey-white hair and fluffy beard. So how about letting the Swedes have him, and let them send him to a work camp or reindeer research station near Kiruna in the far, far north. And they could wheel him out around Christmas time. Without access to the internet, of course. DM


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