Julian Assange, the founder of WikiLeaks, is an unattractive character and he also has 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 was 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 then-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 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 then-Conservative prime minister David Cameron.
Fast forward four years and there was another WikiLeaks dump, this time of Democratic National Committee (DNC) emails that seriously embarrassed Hilary Clinton on the eve of the Democratic presidential convention.
“WikiLeaks. I love WikiLeaks,” Trump said at a rally in Pennsylvania.
“This WikiLeaks is a treasure trove,” he said at another rally.
In fact, he cited WikiLeaks 141 times at 56 events during the 2016 campaign, according to a count by NBC News. This is known in the philosophy trade as “situational ethics.”
However, by 2017, Trump was in the White House and the Robert Mueller probe was investigating the Trump campaign’s possible links with the Russians who hacked the DNC and passed the information to WikiLeaks.
Trump did not “support” or “unsupport” the release of the hacked emails, he said.
“I am not involved in that decision [to seek Assange’s extradition],” he said. “But if they want to do it, it’s OK with me.”
It wasn’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 toward 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 withdrew diplomatic protection from Assange and invited the British police into the embassy to arrest him.
The sole charge laid against Assange was 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 states “Congress shall make no law ... abridging the freedom ... of the press.”
Instead, Assange has been charged with conspiracy to commit a computer crime — helping 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 faces is five years in prison.
Of course, new “evidence” can be discovered once he is in the United States and other charges can be brought that would involve a far longer sentence.
In fact, we can safely predict new “evidence” will be discovered.
And 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 country and faced his accusers down. Neither is Assange like Edward Snowden, another honourable man (still in exile in Moscow) who alerted the world to the scale of the U.S. global electronic surveillance operation.
Assange is an unpleasant narcissist, but the world needs more whistle blowers, not fewer. He still deserves protection under the U.S. Constitution’s First Amendment, but it’s doubtful he will get it.
Gwynne Dyer’s new book is Growing Pains: The Future of Democracy (and Work). To read more Dyer columns on world affairs, go online to kamloopsthisweek.com and click on the Opinion tab.