Extradition fight begins for WikiLeaks founder
WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange was this week preparing for a potentially years-long legal battle over a U.S. extradition request, after he was expelled from the Ecuadorean Embassy in London and arrested by British police. U.S. officials have charged Assange, an Australian national, with a single count of conspiring to commit computer intrusion. The case stems from 2010, when Assange allegedly told former Army intelligence analyst Chelsea Manning that he would help crack a password that would provide even deeper access to the Defense Department computer network from which Manning was leaking classified information. That password hack was apparently unsuccessful, but WikiLeaks did publish hundreds of thousands of classified and sensitive military and diplomatic documents supplied by Manning. The indictment notes that Assange encouraged Manning to keep hunting for new information, saying in one online exchange, “Curious eyes never run dry in my experience.”
Assange, 47, took shelter at the embassy in 2012 to avoid being extradited to Sweden on allegations of sexual assault. Unable to interview Assange, Swedish authorities dropped the investigation in 2017; they now say they may reopen the case. Ecuadorean officials said Assange became increasingly unhinged in recent years, verbally abusing staff, neglecting his pet cat, and at one point smearing his own feces on the embassy walls. Assange is also accused of leaking documents about Ecuador’s president online. President Trump, who repeatedly praised WikiLeaks during the 2016 campaign after it published hacked Democratic Party emails, swiftly distanced himself from Assange. “I know nothing about WikiLeaks,” Trump said.
What the editorials said
You don’t have to like Assange to worry that his indictment “portends a crackdown on freedom of the press,” said the Los Angeles Times. Thankfully, the U.S. government isn’t prosecuting him for publishing classified information, which would have set a dangerous precedent. But there are “some ominous implications” in the indictment. It accuses Assange of actively soliciting information from his source, for example, but that’s just standard journalistic practice. It “would be a tragedy” if Assange’s case ultimately makes it harder for legitimate journalists to expose official wrongdoing. Assange “is no journalist,” said the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. WikiLeaks published many newsworthy documents. But instead of confirming and contextualizing the information the way real reporters do, “Assange simply dumped it all online for the public to sort out.” He even refused to redact the names of dissidents in hostile countries who worked with the U.S., putting their lives at risk. Real journalists “stand up for their reporting and are willing to go to jail to protect their sources.” Assange hid like a coward.
What the columnists said
Nobody should cheer this arrest, said Nathan Robinson in The Guardian.com. “The Obama administration fished for years to find a charge that would stick to Assange, but ultimately couldn’t find a way of going after him that wouldn’t also criminalize ordinary acts of journalism.” Trump’s administration has no such scruples. It should be obvious that a single, flimsy charge for a failed attempt to break a government password is just a pretense to punish him for airing America’s dirty laundry.
“As a journalist and a citizen” I’m grateful for the secrets Assange revealed, said Timothy O’Brien in Bloomberg.com. WikiLeaks data dumps, which included harrowing footage of a U.S. helicopter attack in Iraq that killed two journalists, opened a window into “the outrageous, gut-wrenching, and legally questionable aspects” of America’s War on Terror. But if Assange coached or helped Manning break into government computers, he committed a crime. “Journalists stop being journalists when they help case the joint.”
The sight of a bedraggled Assange being hauled from the Ecuadorean Embassy “should provide us with a moment of reflection,” said David French in NationalReview.com. In 2010, Assange was a darling of the Left for exposing military secrets; six years later, he “enjoyed a reputational renaissance on the Right” for helping Russia interfere in our democracy. But no matter who was singing his praises, he consistently pursued a virulently anti-American agenda. “Assange was a window into America’s polarized soul, and the view he revealed is ugly, petty, and deeply dispiriting.” ■