By Ray McGovern
Barring a CIA drone strike on the Ecuadorian embassy in London, WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange’s sudden appeal for asylum there may spare him a prison stay in Sweden or possibly the United States. Assange’s freedom now depends largely on Ecuadorian President Rafael Vicente Correa Delgado, a new breed of independent-minded leader like Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez.
In which case, most British “justice” officials will probably say good riddance and breathe a sigh of relief — literally. They have been holding their noses for weeks against the odor of their obeisance to U.S. diktat, after the British High Court rejected Assange’s argument that he should not be extradited to Sweden.
Although Swedish “justice” officials have not charged Assange with any crime, they insist that he be extradited to face questions resulting from allegations by two women of sexual assault. This is widely — and in my view correctly — perceived as a subterfuge to deliver Assange into Swedish hands to facilitate his eventual extradition to the U.S. to face even more serious charges for publishing classified information highly embarrassing to Washington.
There have been persistent reports that Assange has been the target of a secret grand jury investigating disclosures of classified U.S. documents allegedly slipped to WikiLeaks by Army Pvt. Bradley Manning. A leaked 2011 e-mail from Fred Burton, a vice president of the private intelligence firm Stratfor, informed colleagues that “we have a sealed indictment on Assange,” but that claim has not been confirmed. Manning, however, is facing a court martial for allegedly leaking U.S. documents to WikiLeaks.
Giving the Brits the Slip
Interesting, is it not, that Assange — just days before he was to be extradited to Sweden — was able to (I guess) slip out of his ankle monitor, sneak through the cordon of Bobbies on watch at the estate where he was under house arrest, dodge other Bobbies and security chaps, and hit pay dirt inside the Ecuadorian embassy.
There is no denying that Assange is a clever chap. But unless you think him some kind of Houdini, there has to be some more likely explanation as to how he slipped through the various police checkpoints and walked into the embassy, which is located behind the popular Harrods department store in London.
Were the British security forces all out for tea? Or were they just as happy to have the Assange case – and all the pressure from Washington – focused elsewhere?
Certainly, the British had enough clues that, in extremis, Assange might attempt to make it to the Ecuadorian embassy. In late November 2010, Ecuadorian Deputy Foreign Minister Kintoo Lucas publicly offered Julian Assange residency in Ecuador, saying that Ecuador was “very concerned” by information revealed by WikiLeaks linking U.S. diplomats with spying on friendly governments.
“We are open to giving him residency in Ecuador, without any problem and without any conditions,” Mr. Lucas said.
President Correa promptly backtracked, saying that Kintto Lucas’s remarks were unauthorized and that no formal invitation had been extended to Assange, and noting that residency for him would require legal review in the event he requested it. (This came just one week before Assange was arrested, imprisoned, and then put under house arrest.)
Now I’m Requesting It
Ecuador’s embassy in London, announcing Assange’s arrival Tuesday afternoon, said he was seeking asylum, and added:
“As a signatory to the United Nations Universal Declaration for Human Rights, with an obligation to review all applications for asylum, we have immediately passed his application on to the relevant department in Quito,” Ecuador’s capital. “While the department assesses Mr. Assange’s application, Mr. Assange will remain at the embassy, under the protection of the Ecuadorian government.”
The embassy added that the bid for asylum “should in no way be interpreted as the government of Ecuador interfering in the judicial processes of either the United Kingdom or Sweden.”
Temporizing diplomatic phrasing of this kind seems de rigueur, as President Correa and his associates take time to choose how to react to the fait accompli of Julian Assange in Ecuador’s custody. In Quito, Ecuadorian Foreign Minister Ricardo Patino told reporters that his country “is studying and analyzing the request [for asylum].”
Like Mother, Like Son
Assange’s mother not only applauded her son’s decision to seek asylum, but summed up the situation concisely, telling the press:
“I hope Ecuador will grant him asylum, and if not, another third-world country. I hope the third world can stand up for what’s morally right when the first world can’t and won’t because they’ve got their snouts in the trough, rolling over for U.S. greed and big business.
“Julian is a political prisoner, a journalist, a publisher of the truth about corruption, war crimes, kidnapping, blackmail, and manipulation. … He remains uncharged and unquestioned on a crime which, if you explore it, has absolutely no basis. Of course he would seek asylum.”
She added that her son was a victim of decisions by the United States, Britain, Sweden and Australia to abandon proper legal process.
How 20th Century!
Abandoning proper legal process? Such thinking seems so — to borrow words from the eminent legal scholar Alberto Gonzales — so “quaint,” so “obsolete,” so pre-9/11! Abandoning proper legal process post-9/11 has become the “new paradigm” adopted not only by the Bush, but also by the Obama administration.
Not only is Julian Assange within his rights to seek asylum, he is also in his right mind. Consider this: he was about to be sent to faux-neutral Sweden, which has a recent history of bowing to U.S. demands in dealing with those that Washington says are some kind of threat to U.S. security. Glenn Greenwald on Tuesday provided an example:
“In December 2001, Sweden handed over two asylum seekers to the CIA, which then rendered them to be tortured in Egypt. A ruling from the U.N. Human Rights Committee found Sweden in violation of the global ban on torture for its role in that rendition (the two individuals later received a substantial settlement from the Swedish government).”
For those of you thinking, Oh, but that was under the Bush administration and that kind of thing is over, think again. In 2010 and 2011, the hysteria surrounding WikiLeaks’ disclosures of U.S. misconduct and crimes around the world brought cries from prominent American political figures seeking Assange’s designation as a terrorist, his prosecution as a spy and even his assassination.
Rep. Peter King, R-New York, chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee, has called for WikiLeaks to be declared a terrorist organization and Assange to be prosecuted under the Espionage Act of 1917, a position shared by Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-California, chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee, who wrote in a Wall Street Journal op-ed:
“The release of these documents damages our national interests and puts innocent lives at risk. He should be vigorously prosecuted for espionage.”
Others have gone even further, demanding that Assange be put to death, either by judicial or extrajudicial means. For instance, a former Canadian official Tom Flanagan has urged Assange’s assassination.
Former Alaska governor Sarah Palin denounced Assange as an “anti-American operative with blood on his hands” and said he should be treated no differently than an al-Qaeda terrorist.
In a Facebook posting, Palin said Assange was no more a journalist than “the ‘editor’ of al-Qaida’s new English-language magazine Inspire is a ‘journalist.’” She added: “His past posting of classified documents revealed the identity of more than 100 Afghan sources to the Taliban. Why was he not pursued with the same urgency we pursue al-Qaida and Taliban leaders?”
So, put yourself in Julian Assange’s place. If the New York Times accurately described President Barack Obama as saying it was an “easy” decision to authorize the killing of Anwar al-Awlaki, a U.S. citizen alleged to have participated in terrorist operations against U.S. targets, how confident would you be that the onetime constitutional scholar would resist the political pressure to get rid of you?
A drone strike over London can be ruled out. But Assange understandably could fear a covert operation by Britain’s FBI and CIA counterparts — MI-5 and MI-6 — to eliminate him “with extreme prejudice,” in old CIA parlance.
As melodramatic as that might sound, it should be remembered that nine years have gone by since British Ministry of Defense biologist and U.N. weapons inspector Dr. David Kelly’s “suicide.” Yet there remains considerable circumstantial evidence that his “suicide” was not self-inflicted.
Kelly was found “guilty” of disclosing accurate information regarding the bogus nature of the “evidence” of Iraqi WMD and, conveniently, was removed from the scene, supposedly by his own hand. Ecuadorian embassy dwellers may wish to hire beefeaters to taste the foie gras, truffles, or cakes ordered from nearby Harrods.
Correa on TV With Assange
Four weeks before Assange sought asylum, he interviewed Ecuadorian President Rafael Correa for Episode 6 of The World Tomorrow (Assange’s program Tuesdays on RT). Assange asked Correa why he has advocated that WikiLeaks release all its cables. Correa responded:
“First, you don’t owe anything, have nothing to fear. We have nothing to hide. Your WikiLeaks have made us stronger” with the damaging revelations showing the attitude of the U.S. embassy toward the sovereignty of the Ecuadorian government.
Correa continued: “On the other hand, WikiLeaks wrote a lot about the goals that the national media pursue, about the power groups who seek help and report to foreign embassies. … Let them publish everything they have about the Ecuadorian government. You will see how many things about those who oppose the civil revolution in Ecuador will come to light. Things to do with opportunism, betrayal, and being self serving.”
Correa made the point that when WikiLeaks cables became available to the national media in Ecuador, they chose not to publish them — partly because the documents aired so much “dirty linen” about the media themselves. He added that when he took office in January 2007, five out of seven privately owned TV channels in Ecuador were run by bankers. The bankers were using the guise of journalism to interfere in politics and to destabilize governments, for fear of losing power.
Ecuador and the United States
Correa, 49, educated in Belgium at the Université Catholique de Louvain and at the University of Illinois at Urbana/Champaign (for four years, where he earned both a masters and a PhD), said he “admires the American people a great deal.” But the U.S. government can be a different matter.
Assange and Correa discussed Correa’s decision to send the U.S. ambassador, Heather Hodges, packing as a result of the disclosures in the WikiLeaks cables, as well as her “arrogance,” and the Ecuadorian president’s unilateral closure of the U.S. military base at Manta.
Still, Correa seems to have had high hopes that things would improve under the Obama administration. The Ecuadorian president once commented that Hugo Chávez’s description of George W. Bush as Satan was unfair to the Devil and that the previous administration had made Latin America “invisible.”
Regarding Ecuador’s general relationship with the U.S., Correa underscored on Assange’s program that it must be “a framework of mutual respect and sovereignty.” That wished-for mutual respect and especially Washington’s regard for Ecuadorian sovereignty are likely to be put to the test in the coming weeks.
Hillary Clinton may be having second thoughts about the energy she expended earlier this month on her first visit to Sweden as Secretary of State. If Assange succeeds in skirting Sweden and makes it to Ecuador, she may now have to put Quito back on her travel schedule.
A Clinton visit to Ecuador two years ago was marred by protests, but she found President Correa a gracious host. But that was before WikiLeaks disclosed Ambassador Hodges’s pejorative comments on Correa et al. and Correa decided to expel her from the country for “arrogance.”
Correa does seem to have developed an allergy to arrogance, so Clinton may wish to consider sending someone in her stead to try to persuade Ecuador to surrender Assange to the tender mercies of American “justice.”
Ray McGovern works with Tell the Word, a publishing arm of the ecumenical Church of the Saviour in inner-city Washington. An Army officer and intelligence analyst for 30 years, he now serves on the Steering Group of Veteran Intelligence Professionals for Sanity (VIPS). Full disclosure: he also served on the nominating group of Sam Adams Associates for Integrity in Intelligence that selected Julian Assange for SAAII’s annual award in 2010.