Analysis: WikiLeaks founder unlikely to be extradited soon

Published 8:14 am Friday, April 12, 2019

LONDON — The battle between WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange and the American government was always going to be epic, involving concepts like free speech, journalists’ rights, national interests, even treason.

As Assange settles in to his first night in British custody , his allies and enemies alike are gearing up for what promises to be a long, dogged legal slog, not only over his possible extradition to the U.S. but over how U.S. courts should view his actions, which sharply cleave public opinion.

Yet in a way, Assange has been fighting this battle for much of the past decade. The struggle has taken him through a “mansion arrest” in the English countryside; a dramatic escape into the Ecuadorian Embassy in London; a multimillion-pound U.K. police siege of the embassy that has strained government coffers; and even a bizarre attempt to turn him into a Moscow-based diplomat.

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Whatever happens now, one thing is clear: Assange, who was dragged out of the embassy and arrested Thursday by British police after Ecuador withdrew his political asylum, is not going anywhere soon. Extradition to the United States could take years more.

Assange’s saga kicked off in November 2010, when his publication of 250,000 confidential U.S. diplomatic cables that month left American officialdom apoplectic. Joe Biden, then-U.S. vice president, compared Assange to a “high-tech terrorist.” Sarah Palin, the former Republican vice presidential candidate, called for him to be hunted down by U.S. troops like an al-Qaida operative.

Tempers at the top eventually cooled — Palin would later apologize to Assange after he began publishing material about U.S. Democrats. As a candidate, President Donald Trump startled many Americans by repeatedly praising WikiLeaks.

But in the U.S. intelligence community, the rage against Assange lingered. On the sidelines of a conference a few years ago, a former senior National Security Agency official told an Associated Press journalist that all he wanted was a couple of minutes alone with Assange in a dark alley, grasping his hands together as if he were crushing a man’s windpipe.

Assange seemed to sense that the release of the diplomatic cables, which also enraged and embarrassed other countries around the world, were the point of no return.

It’s often forgotten that Assange once traveled easily to the United States, appearing at the National Press Club in Washington on April 2010 to present “Collateral Murder,” the title he chose for the camera footage that captured American helicopter pilots laughing as they fired at a crowd of civilians they mistook for Iraqi insurgents.

Shortly after his visit, his source for the video — an American Army intelligence analyst now named Chelsea Manning — would be arrested after an ill-advised online confession. Assange dropped out of sight, likely aware that the government now had spools of conversations between him and Manning, including the one that now forms the centerpiece of the Justice Department’s newly unveiled indictment against Assange for conspiracy to hack into a U.S. government computer.

For a while, Assange gravitated to the Frontline Club in London, the convivial journalists’ hangout where he dropped one media bombshell after another in collaboration with the Guardian newspaper and other media outlets. But staying in Britain, a close ally of the United States, was risky.

In a fateful move, Assange decided to scope out Sweden, a country with powerful press protections and where he had already located some of WikiLeaks servers. The expedition would prove to be a disaster.

Two women he stayed with there would soon go to the police with allegations of sexual assault and rape. The prosecution nearly tore WikiLeaks apart and threated the upcoming publication the U.S. diplomatic cables.