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Assange Arrest and Extradition Round-Up

Summary:
By Lambert Strether of Corrente Julian Assange was arrested yesterday by British police, at the Ecuadorian embassy in London where he had been staying for the last seven years, having been granted political asylum (recently revoked[1]) by the Ecuadorian government. The ostensible reason for his arrest was breaching his bail conditions for a suit brought against him by the Swedish government (subsequently dropped, or not); the real, or at least less ostensible reason was a recently unsealed criminal indictment (here) in the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia, brought against him in his capacity as founder of Wikileaks, which published a trove of material from Army intelligence analyst Chelsea (then Bradley) Manning, including the controversial “Collateral

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By Lambert Strether of Corrente

Julian Assange was arrested yesterday by British police, at the Ecuadorian embassy in London where he had been staying for the last seven years, having been granted political asylum (recently revoked[1]) by the Ecuadorian government. The ostensible reason for his arrest was breaching his bail conditions for a suit brought against him by the Swedish government (subsequently dropped, or not); the real, or at least less ostensible reason was a recently unsealed criminal indictment (here) in the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia, brought against him in his capacity as founder of Wikileaks, which published a trove of material from Army intelligence analyst Chelsea (then Bradley) Manning, including the controversial “Collateral Murder” video:

Collateral Murder: U.S. Apache helicopters killing journalists in Iraq from Jesse Taylor on Vimeo.

(I’ve got to use the Vimeo version, which I hope is authentic, because YouTube requires me to “Sign in to confirm your age,” which I won’t do.) That video made a number of powerful people unhappy, and they shared their unhappiness with Manning, who was jailed for seven years (and is now back in jail for refusing to testify against Assange). The Iraq War Logs, also in the trove, “suggest evidence of torture was ignored, and detail the deaths of thousands of Iraqi civilians,” so they made a powerful people very unhappy, too.

Patient readers, you can well imagine that there’s already an enormous mass of material on the Assange arrest, and I can’t pretend to have mastered it all. Even the most basic questions — like why? and why now? — are nearly impossible to answer, given the tendentiousness of all the players and the role of the intelligence community and its assets in the press. (We should also remember (1) that, as Sleepwalkers shows before World War I, that determined mediocrities in office, if properly placed, can exert more leverage over events than those ostensibly above them in the chain of command; and (2) the role of accident and error.) For example, when asking “Why now?” we might speculate that the sad dissolution of the Mueller report has deprived the media of a story where they can boost circulation with access journalism from anonymous sources, which is far cheaper than reporting, and that the Assange arrest provides a timely substitute; but we might also consider that prosecuting Assange would provide the intelligence community and the administration generally with more leverage over the press even than they currently have. Who can say?

So, as opposed to a theory of the case, I am going to aggregate material I find especially compelling, and toss it under the numbered headings below. (There are so many explainers out there I’m probably not going to get to them!) This is in no way exhaustive, and I hope readers will contribute their own expertise!

(1) The indictment is for Wikileaks’ 2010 publication of documents provided by Chelsea Manning

(Here again is the indictment.) Bloomberg:

The U.S. charges disclosed Thursday against Assange deal solely with his helping ex-U.S. Army analyst Chelsea Manning hack into classified government files.

The indictment is narrowly tailored (though not, perhaps, in its effects. From the Washington Post:

Analysts said focusing narrowly on that incident is a deft way of fending off criticism that the case puts news organizations in legal jeopardy.

Charging a conspiracy to hack a computer system “definitely gets prosecutors over the First Amendment issue,” said Mary McCord, former acting head of the Justice Department’s national security division.

Oh, definitely! (Well, she would, wouldn’t she?) As we shall see below, actual reporters disagree. And WaPo also draws attention to the timing:

Under the federal law governing computer crimes, prosecutors faced a deadline to file charges within eight years of the 2010 disclosures that put him in their crosshairs. The single-count indictment unsealed in Alexandria federal court Thursday shows they did so just under the deadline.

(Of course, there may be more indictments to come; possibly indictments upon which British authorities might not look so kindly.) So, apparently we have a now, but we still don’t have a why now.[2]

It’s also unclear how long the process of extraditing Assange will take. Lawfare:

It may be years before Assange sees the inside of a U.S. courtroom. The initial Swedish request to extradite Assange from the U.K. came in November 2010. Assange successfully slowed the process until June 2012, when he simply skipped bail and fled to the Ecuadorian embassy. Now, an effort to extradite him to the U.S. on computer-related charges further complicates things.

Two particular cases show the difficulty. In 2013, the U.S. government indicted British citizen Lauri Love for compromising U.S. government computers. It took three years for the court to hear the extradition case, and when it did, Love presented an argument that a long sentence of imprisonment in the United States, combined with his Asperger’s syndrome, would significantly harm him. Two years later, he won on appeal after the court ruled that U.S. prison would be “oppressive to his physical and mental condition.”

There was also Gary McKinnon, who similarly hacked U.S. government systems. After he was indicted in 2002, the extradition proceedings dragged for a decade. Eventually, then-Home Secretary Theresa May withdrew the extradition order because of McKinnon’s diagnosis of Asperger’s syndrome and depression: “Mr McKinnon’s extradition would give rise to such a high risk of him ending his life that a decision to extradite would be incompatible with Mr McKinnon’s human rights.”

Assange’s appeal against extradition may prove to be a replay of the Love and McKinnon cases, on an even larger scale.

(There are a number of complexities I can only gesture at: Whether a state can revoke either political asylum or citizenship; the possibly that Assange might be tortured once in the United States; a possible change of leadership in the UK.) The indicment also raises a policy issue. From the ACLU:

Any prosecution by the United States of Mr. Assange for Wikileaks’ publishing operations would be unprecedented and unconstitutional, and would open the door to criminal investigations of other news organizations. Moreover, prosecuting a foreign publisher for violating U.S. secrecy laws would set an especially dangerous precedent for U.S. journalists, who routinely violate foreign secrecy laws to deliver information vital to the public’s interest.

Do we really want to set the precedent that some other power can indict one of our own reporters, remotely, for breaking their laws?

(2) The indictment has nothing to do with the (putative) hack of DNC email, which Wikileaks published in 2016

Bloomberg:

That March 2018 indictment didn’t address a more recent episode involving Assange’s WikiLeaks — its publication of waves of emails that embarrassed Democrats during the 2016 presidential election, a trove that U.S. prosecutors have said were stolen during a Russian intelligence operation. The matter was a central part of Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s now-completed investigation into Russian election meddling.

That makes reactions like this especially idiotic:

Or this:

(I know I shouldn’t blame the voters, but when watching the moves Sanders makes, it’s important to take the nature of a large fraction of the Democrat electorate, many of whose voters he must win, in mind.)

(3) The theory of the case seems pretty sketchy

A thread from Ken White (PopeHat):

Not impressive: “So, basically, the story it tells is (1) Manning gave Wikileaks stuff after she downloaded it, which isn’t a crime by Wikileaks, and (2) Assange encouraged her to go after more files and offered to help by cracking a password to give her broader access, but it didn’t work.”

And a thread from the Intercept’s Dan Froomkin (who is also a genuine old-school blogger):

Key point (caps in original): “THEY FOLLOWED STANDARD INVESTIGATIVE JOURNALISM PROTOCOLS.” “Definitely gets prosecutors over the First Amendment issue” my Sweet Aunt Fanny.

(4) Calling the indictment “hacking” at all is careless, lazy journalism

An unsucccessful attempt to crack a password hardly rises to the level of hacking. Froomkin once more:

(5) If you’re a real journalist, you should be concerned

There’s a lot good stuff on this issue (The Nation, Jacobin, even Charles Pierce, bless his heart, who at one time was a real newspaperman) but I like this by Jonathan Turley the best, because USA Today appears at the front door of every (business-class) hotel room in America:

WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange will be punished for embarrassing the DC establishment

Exactly. And not just electeds and bureaucrats and intelligence community goons, but the Beltway press, since Assange has broken more real stories than of them will in their crabbed, bitter, sycophantic lives. More:

The key to prosecuting Assange has always been to punish him without again embarrassing the powerful figures made mockeries by his disclosures. That means to keep him from discussing how the U.S. government concealed attacks and huge civilian losses, the type of disclosures that were made in the famous Pentagon Papers case. He cannot discuss how Democratic and Republican members either were complicit or incompetent in their oversight. He cannot discuss how the public was lied to about the program.

A glimpse of that artificial scope was seen within minutes of the arrest. CNN brought on its national security analyst, James Clapper, former director of national intelligence. CNN never mentioned that Clapper was accused of perjury in denying the existence of the National Security Agency surveillance program and was personally implicated in the scandal that WikiLeaks triggered.

Clapper was asked directly before Congress, “Does the NSA collect any type of data at all on millions or hundreds of millions of Americans?”

Clapper responded, “No, sir. … Not wittingly.” Later, Clapper said his testimony was “the least untruthful” statement he could make.

That would still make it a lie, of course, but this is Washington and people like Clapper are untouchable. In the view of the establishment, Assange is the problem.

(6) Some especially horrid takes

Theresa May:

“No-one is above the law.” Oh, Theresa. Where have you been? Have you been paying attention? At all?

WaPo:

“Personal accountability,” like all the talking heads and Op-Ed writers who got us into the Iraq War. GTFO.

Clinton:

Love the Waffen SS jacket! Who’s the stylist?

Joe Manchin:

In what world are people property? Oh, wait…

And of course Trump: “Trump Goes From ‘I Love WikiLeaks’ to ‘I Know Nothing About WikiLeaks.” Par for the course. At least the way Trump plays golf!

(7) Some entertaining arrest details

Lots of versions of Assange seen through the window of the car taking him away. This “thumbs up” seems most sympathetic:

Another damn book to read:

An intriguing question:

* * *

Readers, I’m sure this post doesn’t do the topic justice, but I hope I found at least one factoid that you’ve never read!

NOTES

[1] The Vox headline gives an excellent indication of the hatred and contempt the political class bears for Assange.

[2] It’s not a matter of new information, as Caitlin Johnstone points out; the Obama administration decided against prosecuting Assange, the Trump administration decided for it. Possibly the differentiating factor was their view of the press, or rather their assets within the press. Regardless, we can be sure that the next liberal Democrat administration, if any, will rationalize and consolidate Trump’s gains, as they did with Bush.

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