Supporters of Julian Assange protest against his arrest near the British embassy in Berlin. Reuters
Early Thursday morning, news broke that WikiLeaks’ co-founder Julian Assange had been arrested by London›s Metropolitan Police Service at the Ecuadorian embassy. It was later announced that Assange was arrested in relation to an extradition warrant on behalf of the United States for conspiring with former US Army intelligence analyst Chelsea Manning to hack into a classified US government computer in 2010.
Assange has been quite an interesting figure for over a decade. To some he is viewed as a heroic crusader for truth — a man using his First Amendment rights to reveal dark secrets held by the United States and other foreign governments. To others, he is viewed as a danger to national security — an individual getting away with espionage-like tactics by relying on those same First Amendment protections.
First Amendment advocates stand by Assange’s publication of leaked documents, and any attempt to prosecute Assange on the basis of such would be viewed negatively by most politicians as well, regardless of political affiliation. Today’s charges against Assange, however, have nothing to do with him exercising his First Amendment rights, and everything to do with him allegedly attempting to commit an entirely separate crime. Assange is officially charged with conspiracy to commit computer intrusion with Chelsea Manning. He is alleged to have worked with Manning to attempt to crack a password stored on US Department of Defense computers connected to a “US government network used for classified documents and communications”. Back in August 2013, Chelsea Manning was sentenced to 35 years in prison for leaking documents to WikiLeaks pertaining to America’s wars in the Middle East. Former President Barack Obama later commuted her sentence.
This course of events, which essentially has come to a head today, may have just put President Trump in a difficult position. Trump has long been a supporter of WikiLeaks, but he has also been a staunch critic of President Obama and Obama’s decision to commute Manning’s sentence. In January 2017, after Obama made his decision to commute the sentence, Trump tweeted, “Ungrateful TRAITOR Chelsea Manning, who should never have been released from prison, is now calling President Obama a weak leader. Terrible!”
It has long been believed that US officials would love to extradite Assange in order to question him on his role in the 2016 election-related hacking and subsequent release of hacked DNC emails. There is strong evidence, outlined by special counsel Robert Mueller in previous court filings, that Russia›s GRU military intelligence agency hacked the DNC emails and then released those emails through WikiLeaks as a means to help candidate Trump win the 2016 presidential election.
It is unknown if Assange has any evidence which he could turn over that may implicate members of the Trump campaign or even Trump himself in potential crimes, but it can be assumed that Trump certainly would not be very excited about Assange speaking out about WikiLeaks’ role in Russia’s meddling campaign or the release of hacked DNC emails.
Any more publicity of such would, at minimum, provide Democrats with more ammunition against Trump’s 2020 re-election campaign. At worst, Assange’s cooperation could result in additional evidence against Trump or members of his campaign, on various fronts.
So what will the President do? How will he ultimately react to Assange’s extradition? Will he move to squash charges or even consider a pardon, or will he allow Assange to face the full force of federal prosecutors? Does he continue to embrace the idea that Chelsea Manning is a “traitor,” which essentially puts Assange in the same category, or does he continue to side with WikiLeaks and embrace the fact that they may have helped him in his 2016 election campaign? Only time will tell, but the decision probably won’t be an easy one.
I’ve been one of the most strident critics of Julian Assange since journalist James Ball confirmed that Assange was passing highly sensitive US Embassy Cables onto the dictatorship of Belarus that could have been used to prosecute brave opposition activists.
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