It was a bizarre twist in a story that had already been difficult to untangle: on Thursday morning, officers of the UK’s Metropolitan Police arrived at the London embassy of the Latin American republic of Ecuador to arrest a man who to some is a hero of truth-telling and transparency, and to others a mere fugitive from justice. Julian Assange, who had been holed up in the embassy since 2012, having been granted asylum by Ecuador, was not going to leave voluntarily. So he was dragged out. As he was carried by the policemen to a waiting van, he no longer looked like the fierce, intelligent-looking figure he had been less than a decade ago – he seemed to have aged twenty years, with a long white beard; and he mumbled out pleas to the UK authorities as he was led away. What had happened?
Back in 2010, Assange had a triumph to celebrate. The Australian-born hacker and computer nerd had founded an organization called WikiLeaks in 2006, envisioned as a platform for whistleblowers to safely expose the secrets of the world’s powerful. By getting secrets out in the open, WikiLeaks hoped to transform public debates and bring about positive change. Besides, there is an inherent value in knowing the truth, whether the revelations lead to change or not. In 2010, WikiLeaks could boast of a massive success: from a source inside the U.S. military, it had received hundreds of thousands of secret government documents. The files included reports from the US military on Iraq and Afghanistan, daily dispatches that revealed a reality of the ‘war on terror’ much more grim than American politicians had been willing to admit. A video shot from an Apache combat helicopter in Iraq featured US soldiers firing at, and killing, Iraqi civilians – and boasting about it, as if it were a video game. WikiLeaks also obtained 250,000 diplomatic cables from the State Department, many of them embarrassingly frank assessments of foreign leaders by US embassy staff. It was a bombshell: a small group of passionate cyber-activists had humiliated the US government in front of the entire world.
But this sort of work also came with a risk: the US government is not an adversary that should be underestimated and the leaks related to sensitive national security topics. Under President Obama, the Department of Justice took a hardline approach to whistleblowers. In May 2010, WikiLeaks’ source was identified as Chelsea Manning, an army analyst stationed in Iraq. Manning was arrested, tried and sentenced to thirty-five years in prison by a military court in 2013. During parts of her detention, she was held in solitary confinement, kept naked and watched almost continuously, allegedly because she was at risk of committing suicide. At the end of his presidency, Obama commuted her sentence, and she was released last May (although she has been jailed again this year for refusing to testify to a grand jury investigating WikiLeaks).
But in 2010, Assange, too, felt the noose tightening around him. He went to Sweden, a place he thought would be a staunch defender of the press and freedom of information. And, indeed, in Sweden, he did not get into trouble for running WikiLeaks. But he did get in trouble for something else. Two women he had had sex with had spoken to the police, seeking to have him tested for sexually transmitted diseases, but their description of his behavior alerted the officers. The Swedish police were investigating him on allegations of sexual assault. He left the country, after being told he was allowed to by the Swedish authorities. In December 2010, he turned up in London. By now, the Swedish authorities had decided they wanted to press ahead with their case and issued an arrest warrant for Assange. He contested the decision from London, alleging that it was really just a ploy by the Americans to ruin his reputation and that if he returned to Sweden, he was at risk of extradition to the US, where he could be prosecuted and harshly punished for the leaks. To many of those who continue to support him, those fears are well-founded and justified. Others saw it as a cynical move to conflate his personal legal trouble with the ongoing campaign against WikiLeaks, in this way recasting the allegations against him not as an ordinary criminal investigation but a geopolitical showdown. To some, this will be what makes it more difficult to support him now, at the time when he is in deeper trouble than ever before.
In any case, Assange was not going to leave everything up to the judiciary. When, in the summer of 2012, the UK’s Supreme Court blocked his final appeal against extradition to Sweden, Assange put on a disguise and entered the embassy of Ecuador. He identified himself and asked for asylum. Assange had felt like he was under surveillance for a while, but now no-one could doubt it any longer. The Metropolitan police surrounded the small embassy building. The world’s press descended on him. It felt like a siege. In the embassy, he was safe – because the local authorities lack jurisdiction over foreign embassies, the British police could not simply raid it and arrest him (though the UK did initially threaten to strip the embassy of its diplomatic status). Under Ecuador’s left-wing president Rafael Correa, Assange was granted asylum, and later even made a citizen of the small Latin American country. He was, for now, safe – from Sweden, from extradition, from American high-security prison. But he was not free – the embassy became his prison. He could not leave it because outside, he would be on British soil and vulnerable to being arrested at any moment.
The Ecuadorians soon found him to be a difficult guest. Assange did not go above and beyond to express his gratitude to his hosts. Instead, he increasingly criticized them, accusing them on spying on him (not an entirely unfounded allegation) and even filing a lawsuit. Ecuador, too, became less hospitable, cutting off his internet access at times, exercising control over who was allowed to visit them. And then came the 2016 election.
The Russian link
During the 2016 US election campaign, the Democratic party and its candidate, Hillary Clinton, were hit by a series of damaging leaks. Along with other websites, WikiLeaks published e-mails that had been obtained from a hack into the Democratic National Committee’s (DNC) servers, and Clinton staffers including her campaign chairman, John Podesta. The e-mails proved, among other things, the existence of bias against Hillary’s primary contender for the Democratic nomination, Bernie Sanders, within the DNC. The leaks prompted resignations and heightened the tensions in the Democratic party. One man couldn’t get enough of it: Donald Trump, Clinton’s Republican opponent, who asserted that he ‘loved’ WikiLeaks and spoke about it numerous times on the campaign trail (yesterday, he said he was not interested in it). While WikiLeaks published internal documents from the Democratic party, there were no similar leaks about the Republicans or Trump. And in the context of special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into alleged Russian meddling in the election, it was revealed that some in Trump’s orbit – including one-time advisor Roger Stone – sought to establish direct lines of communication with WikiLeaks.
In the aftermath of the election, the US intelligence agencies concluded that the DNC servers had been broken into by hackers working for the Russian government, as part of an alleged campaign to destabilize the US elections and its political system and exploit the deepening divisions in American society. WikiLeaks and Assange have denied that they received the e-mails from Russian agents, and indeed it seems that the Russian intelligence services used intermediaries to pass them on to WikiLeaks. Whether a man of Assange’s intellect and instincts could have been truly ignorant of the documents’ likely origins is an open question – especially as he himself has insisted that what his source is does not matter to him, he merely cares about the truth coming out. It is this approach, among many things, that have led to some of his early supporters to be disillusioned with him. There are those who complain about his personality, his leadership style. There are those outraged that he used WikiLeaks as a shield to avoid facing the allegations against him in Sweden. And there are those dismayed at the fact that when he released the US government papers in 2010, he did not think it was overly important to redact the names of people working for the American government around the world – despite the fact that their being named in the papers could have jeopardized their personal safety. Perhaps this, too, was a reason that Edward Snowden, the employee of the US National Security Agency (NSA) who left the US in 2013 with heaps of secret papers documenting a massive, worldwide surveillance program, did not see WikiLeaks as his natural ally in publishing the documents. Instead, he worked with a filmmaker, Laura Poitras, and other news outlets to carefully select, edit and publish the documents.
Ecuador, too, did not have unlimited patience. With WikiLeaks continuing to undermine governments around the world, Ecuador came under increasing pressure to stop sheltering him. His character and habits irritated embassy staff. Finally, the embassy stay was not going to work forever: if Assange ever fell seriously ill, he could not go to a hospital without facing likely arrest. And then, Ecuador, too, had an election, and a government less sympathetic to Assange came in. So yesterday’s events were, perhaps, bound to occur at some point. It did not make them any less surprising.
Yesterday afternoon, news crews from around the world were waiting outside Westminster Magistrates Court in central London, where Assange would appear. Cameramen and reporters shared the sidewalk with a handful of protesters accusing Sweden, the US and the UK of attempting to silence Assange for WikiLeaks’ exposure of US war crimes in Iraq and Afghanistan. Immediately after the arrest, the US authorities made an extradition request and revealed an indictment that had been filed in secret last year. In Sweden, one of the two women who had accused Assange of misconduct asked the prosecutor to reopen the case, which had been closed in the meantime. In Court 1, which had to stop admitting spectators because the gallery was full of journalists, Assange appeared in a glass box. His lawyers argued that a judge previously presiding over the proceedings had been biased because her husband had been targeted by WikiLeaks. But the judge, Justice Michael Snow, chastised the defense for making such allegations in front of the press without the judge being able to defend herself. He branded Assange a narcissist and described as ‘laughable’ the idea that he had not received a fair trial. Snow found Assange guilty of the one crime he was charged with under UK law, skipping bail. He faces up to twelve months in prison in the UK, and the sentence will be handed down by a crown court later this year. Justice Snow ordered Assange into custody and scheduled another hearing, on the US extradition request, for May. Assange is accused of assisting Manning in hacking into a secret US government database, a charge which carries up to five years’ imprisonment. For now, he has not been charged with actually publishing the leaked material – in part because, as Justice Department lawyers concluded in the Obama era, they could not charge Assange for publication without also charging media outlets like the New York Times which had also published the papers – and this would have been a massive blow to press freedom. To his lawyers and supporters, of course, Assange’s extradition is still a threat to freedom of information. And then there is still his Swedish case, which could be reopened. Throughout his life as the crusader and provocateur challenging the world’s powerful, he relied on his public image and his determined fans to keep him afloat. But Assange is a complex character, and his actions over the past few years have cost him support. At 4pm yesterday, a white prison van drove Assange out of Westminster magistrates court – into prison in the UK, for now, and into an uncertain future.
Cover picture: Jack Taylor/Getty Images