WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange surrendered to British authorities this week and was denied bail after a judge decreed him a flight risk. British police served an international arrest warrant from Sweden, where Assange is accused of sexually assaulting two women. Assange called the charges retaliation for his role in leaking hundreds of thousands of confidential U.S. military and diplomatic dispatches. He has insisted that the sexual encounters were consensual; each woman says she withdrew consent when Assange refused to wear a condom. Assange previously threatened that, if arrested, he would employ a “poison pill”—releasing secret documents without redacting names. But it’s unclear if he will pursue such a course. His extradition hearing is scheduled for next week.
Visa, MasterCard, and PayPal suspended payments to the WikiLeaks website in compliance with U.S. government requests. In response, hackers attacked the sites of MasterCard, PayPal, and others aiding authorities. The U.S. Justice Department is investigating whether Assange can be charged with espionage, conspiracy, or trafficking in stolen goods.
Casting about for a crime with which to charge Assange is hardly government “at its best,” said Amy Davidson in
NewYorker.com. Worse, whatever convoluted formula is invented to prosecute him will someday be used against another media organization—a chilling thought for press freedom. Meanwhile, some are calling for Assange to be treated as an enemy combatant. “What does that mean? Guantánamo?”
He’s an “ax-grinding, anti-American criminal,” said the New York Daily News in an editorial. Facing arrest on suspicion of rape, he released a new stolen document that lists hundreds of locations—including ports and mines—that the U.S. deems vital to national security. Assange’s irresponsible and vindictive maneuvers have “nothing to do with theoretical American wrongdoing and everything to do with threatening national security.”
Yet he’s taught the world a valuable lesson, said Evgeny Morozov in the Financial Times. “Geeks have real power.” It’s in America’s interest to channel that power constructively rather than invite a wave of “anti-Americanism.” Not only will Assange become a “martyr” if harmed, but his organization could be transformed into “a global movement of politicized geeks clamoring for revenge.” Think not? Ask MasterCard.