What if Julian Assange had walked out of the Ecuadorian Embassy in London in 2013? asks Joe Lauria.
By Joe Lauria
Special to Consortium News
On Nov. 25, 2013, The Washington Post reported that after a lengthy investigation, the Obama administration was unlikely to indict WikiLeaks‘ publisher Julian Assange.
“The Justice Department has all but concluded it will not bring charges against WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange for publishing classified documents because government lawyers said they could not do so without also prosecuting U.S. news organizations and journalists, according to U.S. officials,” the Post reported.
The newspaper quoted “officials” saying that “although Assange published classified documents, he did not leak them, something they said significantly affects their legal analysis.”
The Post reported:
“Justice officials said they looked hard at Assange but realized that they have what they described as a ‘New York Times problem.’ If the Justice Department indicted Assange, it would also have to prosecute the New York Times and other news organizations and writers who published classified material, including The Washington Post and Britain’s Guardian newspaper, according to the officials, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss internal deliberations.”
In the Embassy
Assange at the time was living and working in the Embassy of Ecuador in London with political asylum granted just 15 months before. He and his legal team were faced with the question: Was the heat really off and could he leave the embassy without fear that the U.S. would seek his extradition?
Hindsight, of course, sees perfectly clearly. It is very easy now for anyone to ask whether Assange would have been better off leaving the Embassy after the U.S. in this Post report said it would not seek his indictment and extradition. Had he left, British police would have arrested him on the spot on a minor charge of skipping bail, which he committed to get asylum.
There was also an active European arrest warrant for Assange, who was wanted for questioning in Sweden on allegations of sex crimes. Assange had lost his appeal to the U.K. Supreme Court to overturn an extradition order to Sweden, after which he sought refuge in the embassy in June 2012. He feared onward extradition from Sweden to the U.S. Sweden wanted to drop the case but just weeks after the Post story the British Crown Prosecution Service pressured it not to.
Had he left the embassy after the Post story he would have, after serving his bail skipping sentence, been sent to Sweden. Even if after questioning he was not charged, Assange may well have still feared that Sweden would then extradite him to the U.S. despite the Post story.
If he served the bail conviction in Britain, was cleared of the sex crimes allegations, and the Post was right and the U.S. did not seek his extradition from Sweden, he would then have been free before the end of Obama’s term in January 2017. As a free man, Assange could have then left for a country that has no extradition treaty with the U.S., where he could have continued his work as publisher and editor of WikiLeaks.
There are 75 countries that have no extradition deal with Washington. There are two in Europe, with non-stop flights from the U.K., where family and friends could have easily visited him: Montenegro and Andorra. There are several Asian and African countries too, but none in Latin America. Russia has no extradition agreement with the U.S. but it was politically out of the question. It would have tainted everything WikiLeaks did going forward, however irrational the U.S. and its allies are about that country.
Little Reason to Trust Them
Despite the Post article, it was not unreasonable that Assange did not trust the Obama administration and believed there was a faction in it that wanted him indicted. This might have included Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who had left office before The Washington Post story but was secretary of state for more than two years after the Obama administration first considered an indictment in December 2010. Clinton had condemned Assange’s diplomatic cables release as “not just an attack on America’s foreign policy; it is an attack on the international community.”
The Pentagon was certainly against him for his revelations of U.S. war crimes. Gen. Mike Mullen, the then chairman of the joint chiefs of staff, in July 2010 said: “Mr. Assange can say whatever he likes about the greater good he thinks he and his source are doing, but the truth is they might already have on their hands the blood of some young soldier or that of an Afghan family.” (The U.S. would later admit the WikiLeaks releases harmed no one, though it remains in Assange’s indictment.)
A press release published by the Department of Defense on July 29, 2010 has since been deleted, but was retrieved via archiving services. It shows that the Pentagon wanted the F.B.I. on Assange’s case leading possibly to his indictment:
“Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates announced he has asked the FBI to help Pentagon authorities investigate the leak of the classified documents published by WikiLeaks. … Calling on the FBI to aid the investigation ensures that the department will have all the resources needed to investigate and assess this breach of national security, the secretary said, noting that use of the bureau ensures the investigation can go wherever it needs to go.”
On Oct. 27, 2010, the Obama Central Intelligence Agency refused to confirm or deny that it had a plan to assassinate Assange.
The C.I.A. under Obama’s Director John Brennan, who led the agency from March 2013 to January 2017, had also contemplated taking extrajudicial measures against Assange. A little noticed line in the Yahoo! News story in September about C.I.A. consideration of plans to assassinate or kidnap Assange says: “While the notion of kidnapping Assange preceded Pompeo’s arrival at Langley, the new director championed the proposals, according to former officials.” The article curiously leaves that hanging without further details or analysis of the fact the Obama administration considered abduction.
So even if Assange had managed to move to a country without an extradition treaty with the U.S. and then published, for instance, Vault 7, the largest agency leak in history, fear that the long-arm of the C.I.A. might have gotten him could not be easily dismissed.
The Post article also makes clear that a final decision on whether to indict hadn’t been made and that the case ominously remained open. “The officials stressed that a formal decision has not been made, and a grand jury investigating WikiLeaks remains impaneled, but they said there is little possibility of bringing a case against Assange, unless he is implicated in criminal activity other than releasing online top-secret military and diplomatic documents,” the Post reported.
Assange’s lack of trust of the Obama administration’s intentions was also clearly spelled out in the piece:
“WikiLeaks spokesman Kristinn Hrafnsson said last week that the anti-secrecy organization is skeptical ‘short of an open, official, formal confirmation that the U.S. government is not going to prosecute WikiLeaks.’ Justice Department officials said it is unclear whether there will be a formal announcement should the grand jury investigation be formally closed.
‘We have repeatedly asked the Department of Justice to tell us what the status of the investigation was with respect to Mr. Assange,’ said Barry J. Pollack, a Washington attorney for Assange. ‘They have declined to do so. They have not informed us in any way that they are closing the investigation or have made a decision not to bring charges against Mr. Assange. While we would certainly welcome that development, it should not have taken the Department of Justice several years to come to the conclusion that it should not be investigating journalists for publishing truthful information.’”
Changes in Government
But here was an opportunity that may have never come again. Obama could only have stayed in office for another three years and who knew then who would follow him? The Ecuadoran government of President Rafael Correra, which granted asylum to Assange, would also not remain in power forever. Assange could not have contemplated staying the rest of his life in the embassy.
As it turned out, changes of government in both the United States and Ecuador conspired to put Assange in the dire situation he now finds himself in: under indictment with his health rapidly deteriorating in Belmarsh Prison, where he remains on remand until the final decision on extradition.
In retrospect, the period after The Washington Post story and before the onset of the Trump administration and the new Ecuador government of Lenin Moreno (which lifted the asylum and allowed his arrest) was the very best opportunity for Assange to be free. A lot had to fall into place: he had to be cleared after questioning in Sweden and the U.S. officials quoted in that story had to be sincere that no prosecution would take place.
Given all the U.S. forces arrayed against him, that the grand jury remained active and considering the generally duplicitous ways in which governments often act, it is understandable that Assange did not take the chance. But given where he is now, with his life in danger and his extradition looking extremely likely, it may well have been the best chance he ever had.
Joe Lauria is editor-in-chief of Consortium News and a former U.N. correspondent for The Wall Street Journal, Boston Globe, and numerous other newspapers. He was an investigative reporter for the Sunday Times of London and began his professional work as a 19-year old stringer for The New York Times. He can be reached at [email protected] and followed on Twitter @unjoe