Assange was taken into custody by British police after Ecuador rescinded his asylum at its embassy in London
The Washington Post
British authorities arrested WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange on Thursday in response to an American extradition request, and a U.S. federal court unsealed an indictment charging him with a single count of conspiracy to hack a classified Defense Department computer.
Assange was taken into custody by British police after Ecuador rescinded his asylum at its embassy in London, ending a media-saturated standoff that lasted nearly seven years.
London’s Metropolitan Police said that Assange, 47, was “arrested on behalf of the United States authorities.” British authorities originally sought custody of Assange for jumping bail after Sweden requested his extradition in a separate case stemming from sexual assault allegations.
In an indictment unsealed hours later, Assange was accused of conspiring in 2010 with Chelsea Manning, a U.S. Army intelligence analyst then known as Bradley Manning, and others to illegally obtain secret U.S. military and diplomatic documents whose dissemination could be used to injure the United States.
In his subsequent appearance in court in London on Thursday, Assange was quickly found guilty of breaching his bail, an offense that carries a prison sentence of up to 12 months. He pleaded not guilty to the bail-jumping charge.
Judge Michael Snow reprimanded Assange and said he demonstrated “the behavior of a narcissist.” The court was told that Assange resisted arrest at the Ecuadoran Embassy, shouting, “This is unlawful!”
Assange is due to appear at a later date to be sentenced for the bail charge. He is due to appear again in Westminster Magistrates’ Court via video link on May 2 regarding the extradition matter.
Outside court, one of Assange‘s lawyers, Jennifer Robinson, said Assange would fight extradition to the United States. She called the action against him “a dangerous precedent for all news media.” Robinson said she was seeking medical care for Assange, whose health she said has suffered during his time in the Ecuadoran Embassy.
The lawyer said Assange told her to thank his supporters and to say, “I told you so,” to the world – presumably a reference to Assange‘s long-held prediction that the United States would seek his arrest and extradition.
In Washington, President Donald Trump was asked Thursday about his expressed “love” for WikiLeaks during the 2016 election campaign when the organization was publishing stolen emails damaging to the campaign of Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton.
“WikiLeaks – I love WikiLeaks!” he said in October 2016 at a rally in Pennsylvania, waving a report on the latest disclosures. “Boy, I love reading those WikiLeaks,” Trump said a few days before the election after a new dump of emails.
Trump told reporters Thursday: “I know nothing about WikiLeaks. It’s not my thing. And I know there was something having to do with Julian Assange.” He said Attorney General William Barr would deal with the matter, adding: “I know nothing really about it. It’s not my deal in life.”
The U.S. indictment, filed in federal court in March 2018 and unsealed Thursday, accuses Assange of agreeing to help Manning break a password to the Defense Department’s computer network in 2010. That, prosecutors alleged, would have allowed Manning to log in with another username. The indictment includes no evidence that the password-hacking effort actually succeeded.
Even before the attempt to secure a password, Manning had given WikiLeaks hundreds of thousands of classified records, prosecutors alleged. The material allegedly included four nearly complete databases, comprising 90,000 reports from the Afghanistan war, 400,000 reports from the Iraq War and 250,000 State Department cables.
Manning was imprisoned for seven years for violations of the Espionage Act and other offenses.
Robinson told The Washington Post that Assange met Thursday morning with the Ecuadoran ambassador, who notified him that his asylum was being revoked. Then the Metropolitan Police were invited into the embassy, where they arrested him, she said.
Video of the arrest showed a gray-bearded Assange being pulled by British police officers down the steps of the embassy and shoved into a police van. Assange appeared to be physically resisting. His hands were secured in front of him, but he appeared to be clutching a copy of Gore Vidal’s “History of the National Security State.”
Ecuador, which took Assange in when he was facing the Swedish rape investigation in 2012, said it was rescinding asylum because of his “discourteous and aggressive behavior” and for violating the terms of his asylum.
The British government heralded the development. “Julian Assange is no hero and no one is above the law,” Jeremy Hunt, Britain’s foreign secretary, said. “He has hidden from the truth for years.”
Hunt said it was Assange who was “holding the Ecuadoran Embassy hostage in a situation that was absolutely intolerable for them.”
The foreign secretary praised Ecuadoran President Lenín Moreno for making “a courageous decision.”
Sweden dropped its sex crimes inquiry in May 2017. Assange had always denied the allegations. But he faces up to a year in prison in Britain for jumping bail in 2012.
But more than anything, he fears extradition to the United States, which has been investigating him for alleged espionage, the publication of sensitive government documents and coordination with Russia.
The Russian government accused Britain of “strangling freedom” by taking custody of Assange.
“Ecuador has sovereignly decided to terminate the diplomatic asylum granted to Mr. Assange in 2012,” Moreno said in a video statement tweeted by the country’s communications department. “The asylum of Mr. Assange is unsustainable and no longer viable.”
The Ecuadoran president specifically cited Assange‘s involvement in what he described as WikiLeaks’ meddling in the internal affairs of other countries, referring to the leaking of documents from the Vatican in January.
“Mr. Assange violated, repeatedly, clear-cut provisions of the conventions on diplomatic asylum of Havana and Caracas, despite the fact that he was requested on several occasions to respect and abide by these rules,” Moreno said. “He particularly violated the norm of not intervening in the internal affairs of other states. The most recent incident occurred in January 2019 when WikiLeaks leaked Vatican documents.”
“Key members of that organization visited Mr. Assange before and after such illegal acts,” Moreno said. “This and other publications have confirmed the world’s suspicion that Mr. Assange is still linked to WikiLeaks and therefore involved in interfering in internal affairs of other states.”
WikiLeaks used the arrest as a fundraising opportunity on Twitter.
“This man is a son, a father, a brother,” the group said in a tweet, above a headshot of Assange. “He has won dozens of journalism awards. He’s been nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize every year since 2010. Powerful actors, including CIA, are engaged in a sophisticated effort to dehumanise, delegitimize and imprison him.”
From Moscow, Edward Snowden, the fugitive American former National Security Agency contractor, described Assange‘s arrest as a violation of press freedom.
“Images of Ecuador’s ambassador inviting the UK’s secret police into the embassy to drag a publisher of – like it or not – award-winning journalism out of the building are going to end up in the history books,” Snowden wrote on Twitter. “Assange‘s critics may cheer, but this is a dark moment for press freedom.”
Sen. Mark Warner, D-Va., vice chairman of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, had a less charitable take on Assange. “Whatever his intentions when he started WikiLeaks, what he’s really become is a direct participant in Russian efforts to undermine the West and a dedicated accomplice in efforts to undermine American security,” Warner said. “It is my hope that the British courts will quickly transfer him to U.S. custody so he can finally get the justice he deserves.”
Barry Pollack, Assange‘s U.S.-based attorney, said that while the indictment charges Assange with conspiracy to commit computer crimes, the factual allegations against him “boil down to encouraging a source to provide him information and taking efforts to protect the identify of that source.”
Ahead of the U.S. election in 2016, WikiLeaks released tens of thousands of emails that had been stolen from the Democratic National Committee and from Clinton’s campaign chairman, John Podesta, in cyber-hacks that U.S. intelligence officials concluded were orchestrated by the Russian government.
When special counsel Robert Mueller indicted 12 Russian military intelligence officers in July 2018, he charged that they “discussed the release of the stolen documents and the timing of those releases” with WikiLeaks – referred to as “Organization 1” in the indictment – “to heighten their impact on the 2016 presidential election.”
Among the former Trump aides indicted as a result of Mueller’s investigation was Roger Stone, a longtime friend of Trump’s who was accused of lying, obstruction and witness tampering. His indictment charged that he sought to gather information about hacked Democratic Party emails at the direction of an unidentified senior Trump campaign official.
In the Obama administration, Attorney General Eric Holder Jr. decided against pursuing prosecution of Assange out of concern that WikiLeaks’ argument that it is a journalistic organization would raise thorny First Amendment issues and set an unwelcome precedent.
The Trump administration, however, revisited the question of prosecuting members of WikiLeaks, and a court filing error in November revealed that Assange had been charged under seal.
Some federal prosecutors say a case can be made that WikiLeaks is not a journalistic organization. As if to lay the groundwork for such an argument, in April 2017, then-CIA Director Mike Pompeo, now secretary of state, characterized WikiLeaks as a “nonstate hostile intelligence service” and a threat to U.S. national security.
Pompeo also noted then that the intelligence community’s report concluding Russia interfered in the 2016 election also found that Russia’s primary propaganda outlet, RT, “has actively collaborated with WikiLeaks.”
Assange‘s expulsion from Ecuador’s embassy reflects a shift in the country’s politics since it first extended refuge to him.
Sebastián Hurtado, president of the political consulting firm Prófitas in Quito, said: “I think the president has never been comfortable with Assange in the embassy. And it’s not like this is an important issue for most Ecuadorans. To be honest, we really don’t care about Assange.”
Another hint that Assange was wearing out his welcome came in March 2018, when Ecuador cut off his Internet access, saying he had breached an agreement not to interfere in the affairs of other states. The embassy did not specify what Assange had done, but the move came after he tweeted criticism of Britain’s assessment that Russia was responsible for the poisoning of a Russian former double agent and his daughter in the city of Salisbury.
Ecuador imposed tighter house rules last fall. Among the demands were that Assange pay for his medical and phone bills and clean up after his cat.