Julian Assange, the WikiLeaks founder, says he will “soon” leave his refuge in the Ecuadoran embassy in London, but not when. He says he is sick, but won’t say in what way. He says he should be “freed,” yet he is a captive by choice.
If Assange is seriously ill, he should of course be given medical attention, but beyond his health it is hard to feel much sympathy. His asylum ploy has been a two-year farce of his choosing.
Assange bolted for the Ecuadoran embassy in 2012, as soon as a British court denied his appeal against extradition to Sweden to face questioning over the accusations of two women that he sexually assaulted them. He says the case is a ruse to get him to Sweden so he can then be extradited to the U.S. There, he suspects he would face prosecution in connection with WikiLeaks’s publication of classified military papers documenting the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
There are two things to say about this. First, Assange’s conspiracy argument never made sense, even though the U.S. actually is out to get him. There is no reason to believe he can be more easily extradited to the U.S. from Sweden than from Britain – indeed, in terms of legal process, the opposite is true. So this is and always has been about the Swedish case: He should leave his refuge and volunteer to go to Sweden to clear his name.
Once in Sweden, Assange shouldn’t worry too much if the U.S. does attempt to extradite him. He has been largely forgotten for two years, and an extradition hearing on the Iraq war materials – including an unforgettable video that showed a U.S. helicopter crew gunning down Iraqis as though in a video game – would give him the best possible platform from which to promote his cause of transparency and free speech, certainly better than living in the embassy of Ecuador. That country ranked 95th in the world in this year’s World Press Freedom Index, compared to 10th for Sweden and 46th for the U.S.
Assange would probably win such an appeal against extradition. Admittedly, the U.S. Justice Department is still conducting the investigation into Assange, and the Pentagon has reportedly established a war room to help – so we don’t know what evidence they have assembled of any illegal hacking by Assange himself, or what the charges would be. We do have an idea, though. If the charge is espionage (one possibility), it seems unlikely that a Swedish court would send Assange to face trial; it would be a stretch to persuade a court anywhere that Assange was acting as a spy, let alone in pro-transparency Sweden.
If the charge is one of co-conspiracy with Chelsea (formerly Pvt. Bradley) Manning to leak classified materials to the detriment of U.S. national security, the burden of proof that Assange was doing anything more criminal than journalists in Sweden and the U.S. do on a daily basis would be only a little less daunting.
Which gets to the second point about Assange and his self-imposed Ecuadoran exile: The U.S. government should forget about him.
There is no benefit to be had from trying to prosecute Assange. Any attempt to extradite and try him as the deliverer of classified information that had a clear public-interest purpose would make him a martyr. It would also further the widespread global belief that the U.S. is a rogue state when it comes to freedom of information and the Internet.
The U.S. already damaged itself with the heavy-handed way in which Manning was treated in custody (placed in solitary confinement), tried (by a military tribunal) and sentenced (to 35 years). Yet there was no alternative to Manning’s prosecution. The U.S. military cannot allow personnel entrusted with its secrets to go unpunished when they leak them, even where many of those secrets should not have been classified in the first place.
The same goes for Edward Snowden, who made a deliberate decision to leak vast quantities of data held by the U.S. National Security Agency, where he was working. He may be a hero for doing so; he may have exposed many things that Americans and Germans and others would want to know. Yet to accept that those entrusted with government secrets are entitled to share them at will is untenable.
The judicial process must be seen through, and a judge and jury persuaded, that the public interest involved justifies the decision.
Marc Champion writes editorials on international affairs for Bloomberg View.