Julian Assange, the founder of WikiLeaks, is an unattractive character, and he also has very poor judgment.
He should have gone to Sweden seven years ago and faced the rape charges brought against him by two Swedish women. Even if he had been found guilty, he would probably be free by now under Swedish sentencing rules, since no violence was alleged in either case.
His explanation for taking refuge in Ecuador’s London Embassy instead was that he feared that once in Sweden, he would be extradited to the United States – and the U.S. government wanted to try him on charges that could involve a life sentence or even the death penalty.
What had so angered official Washington was WikiLeaks’ spectacular 2010 dump of 725,000 classified cables from American embassies around the world.
The most damaging revelation was an official video in which the crew of a U.S. Apache helicopter over Baghdad machine-gunned innocent civilians while making remarks like “Oh yeah, look at those dead bastards” and “It’s their fault for bringing their kids into battle.”
(Donald Trump, then completing his transition from Democrat to Republican, condemned Assange, as his new guise required. “I think it’s disgraceful,” he said. “I think it should be like death penalty or something.”)
In fact, Assange faced no immediate threat of extradition in 2012, because President Barack Obama had not encouraged the relevant American officials to make such a request. Indeed, in 2017, just before leaving office, Obama pardoned Assange’s source for the leaked cables, former U.S. army intelligence analyst Chelsea Manning, after she had served only four years of her 35-year prison sentence.
Maybe, when Assange sought diplomatic asylum in the Ecuadorian Embassy in 2012, he feared that there would be a different administration in Washington after the U.S. election that November. He should still have gone to Sweden, because the Swedes would have been less likely to grant an extradition request than the British government under Conservative prime minister David Cameron. Poor judgment.
Fast forward four years, and there is another WikiLeaks dump, this time of Democratic National Committee emails that seriously embarrass Hilary Clinton on the eve of the Democratic presidential convention.
“WikiLeaks – I love WikiLeaks,” says Trump at a rally in Pennsylvania.
“This WikiLeaks is a treasure trove,” he says at another. In fact, he cites WikiLeaks 141 times at 56 different events during the campaign, according to a count by NBC News. This is known in the philosophy trade as situational ethics.
But by 2017, Trump is in the White House and the Mueller probe is investigating his campaign’s possible links with the Russians who hacked the Democratic National Committee and passed the information to WikiLeaks.
He did not “support” or “unsupport” the release of the hacked emails, he says. “I am not involved in that decision (to seek Assange’s extradition),” he says, “but if they want to do it, it’s OK with me.”
It isn’t really OK with him at all, because who knows what Assange might reveal if he were brought to trial? But what else could Trump say?
The U.S. intelligence community is known for its vindictiveness towards those who reveal its secrets, and a sealed request for Assange’s extradition was delivered to the British government a year ago.
It has now been seven years, and the Ecuadorian government has changed. The new president, Lenin Moreno, wants to mend relations with the United States (and he is quite cross about a picture WikiLeaks released of him eating lobster in bed in a luxury hotel).
So he withdraws diplomatic protection from Assange, and invites the British police into the embassy to arrest him.
The sole charge currently laid against Assange is carefully written to avoid a British refusal to extradite him – no death penalty is involved – and to get around the guarantee of freedom of the press in the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which says “Congress shall make no law… abridging the freedom… of the press.”
Instead, Assange is charged with conspiracy to commit a computer crime: helping Chelsea Manning crack a password to gain access to the classified documents she gave to WikiLeaks.
The evidence for this is scanty, but Manning has been jailed as a “recalcitrant witness” for refusing to answer questions about her conversations with Assange. She can be held for 18 months.
The maximum penalty for the charge Assange currently faces is five years in prison, but of course “new evidence” can be discovered once he is in the United States, and other charges brought that would involve a far longer sentence.
In fact, we can safely predict that it will be discovered. And Donald Trump now says “I know nothing about WikiLeaks. It’s not my thing.”
Assange is not an honourable whistle-blower like Daniel Ellsberg of Pentagon Papers fame, who released hugely embarrassing documents about the U.S. war in Vietnam, but stayed in the U.S. and faced his accusers down.
Assange is an unpleasant narcissist, but the world needs more whistle-blowers, not fewer. He still deserves protection under the U.S. First Amendment, but it’s doubtful that he will get it.
Gwynne Dyer’s new book is Growing Pains: The Future of Democracy (and Work).