The Great ‘What if?’ for Julian Assange

What if Julian Assange had walked out of the Ecuadorian Embassy in London in 2013? asks Joe Lauria.

Assange speaking from balcony of Ecuador embassy in London, February 2015. (Snapperjack CC BY-SA 2.0, Wikimedia Commons)

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 to risk leaving, perhaps believing there was a faction in the administration 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.” In 2019, she agreed with the indictment. “The bottom line is he has to answer for what he has done, at least as it’s been charged,” she said. 

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.”

The CIA

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.

Legitimate Skepticism 

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

July 20, 2019: U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, left, with Ecuadorian President Lenin Moreno, in Guayaquil, Ecuador. (State Department, Ron Przysucha)

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 joelauria@consortiumnews.com and followed on Twitter @unjoe  

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8 comments for “The Great ‘What if?’ for Julian Assange

  1. Tony
    December 21, 2021 at 09:04

    “On Oct. 27, 2010, the Obama Central Intelligence Agency refused to confirm or deny that it had a plan to assassinate Assange. “

    It does make you wonder how many CIA assassinations have taken place around the world.

    In July 1965, Adlai Stevenson suddenly died of a heart attack whilst walking near the US embassy in London. He did not appear to be at serious risk of a heart attack, let alone a fatal one.

    And there were reports that he disagreed strongly with President Johnson on the question of Vietnam.

    These matters are raised in Phillip F. Nelson’s internet article:

    The Curious Death of Adlai Stevenson.

  2. Moritz Müller
    December 21, 2021 at 06:20

    Hello and thank you for your extensive reporting on Julian Assange!
    Are you sure your title photo on this article is from December 2018?
    Julian Assange was at that stage held incommunicado for the previous 9 months.
    I was outside the embassy at the beginning of January 2019 and the atmosphere was
    spooky because nobody had seen or heard very much from Julian Assange, let alone that he
    had been on the balcony in the previous weeks.
    I think the photo must be from much earlier, maybe when he announced his asylum, or the findings of the
    UN Working Group for Arbitrary Detention. Findings that were then wholly ignored by the UK and Sweden…

    • Consortiumnews.com
      December 21, 2021 at 10:45

      Indeed it was February 2015. Thanks.

  3. Geof Hughes
    December 20, 2021 at 10:41

    Will the U.S. now be prosecuting the New Times for releasing these articles? hXXps://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2021/us/civilian-casualty-files.html?smid=tw-nytimes&smtyp=cur

  4. Realist
    December 19, 2021 at 16:28

    Seems like just one in a host of American foreign affairs that have been allowed to inexorably spiral downward towards war and fascistic policies which might well have been stopped short if only a bit of prudence and good sense had been used along the way. Instead these things are allowed to escalate as if our worst instincts cannot be denied. So now we have lost freedom of speech and the 1st amendment because an ascendant War Party must always gravitate towards the dangerous and violent approach to all issues.

    It was the same when Washington decided to deviate from promises made when the Cold War ended and annex about a dozen new countries into NATO, many of which are so hostile to Russia that, considering the implications of Rule 5 and its stated obligation to defend any and every country in the alliance, a nuclear war with Russia is virtually guaranteed at some point down the road. Not only satiating the anti-Russian blood lust of Poland and its Baltic neighbors seem to have been sufficient but our macho leaders have decided to provoke that country further with the announcements that we intend to recruit uber-Russophobic Georgia and Ukraine into this big club of Russia haters.

    Every move Amerika makes on the European subcontinent seems intended to provoke Russia, deal it much political and economic harm in any way possible (even if that also means damaging the interests of our alleged “allies”) and then claim our actions are only defensive against “Russian aggression.” The stink of hypocrisy must detectable as far away as Mars. Washington could have stopped this cascade of dangerously insane actions at any number of points.

    Obama had no reason to so conspicuously try to sabotage the normalized relations this country had established with its two formerly communist adversaries Russia and China under previous administrations. His policy changes seemed more like an excuse to rekindle the Cold War and begin a slow but sure escalation of a new “hybrid” war which made economic and political stability in those countries what he outrageously thought to be fair targets with his “sanctions” which have no legal basis under international law. They are simply acts of extortion against the target countries and our own supposed allies should they fail to engage in the US mandated economic warfare.

    And the fun, or should I say the madness, has not abated since. This despicable and counterproductive policy, aimed at disrupting the lives of innocent civilians in the questionable goal of “regime change” was then applied to numerous other sovereign nations who, plainly put, we wanted to de facto rule, places like Venezuela, Iran, Syria… the list is a long one.

    This has basically been an embarrassing single clown performance by the United States all across the globe. All the side kicks in the act, like Britain, France and Germany, would undoubtedly have thought it better not to come across as so brazenly bellicose and irrational. Besides, they have to share the same global neighborhood with America’s favorite whipping boy, and anyone who reports factually on this stuff–like Assange–becomes another whipping boy of the USA.

    But none of that has deterred the hegemon which foolishly continues to speed towards the ground at terminal velocity. American foreign policy at this point might even be considered a corollary to Murphy’s Law which states that whatever can go wrong, will go wrong. To wit: Whatever the Washington State Department can make worse, it WILL make worse. It’s like they have no free will to resist, any more than the moth can swear off diving into flames. Washington seems to think that its megalomaniacal ego is the most important thing in this universe, worth more than the billions of lives it collectively or individually (like Julian Assange) so cavalierly puts at risk by continuing to raise the stakes in this stupid, futile and needless game of chicken it thinks that it is playing with Russia and China. And if not those two countries, its wrath would be directed at other nations or internally amongst its own people.

  5. Matrix
    December 19, 2021 at 14:28

    I think the wasted opportunity was to bust him out.

    Could’ve had someone his height and build as part of the legal team/wiki team/visitor. Hire or self-teach to be experts in gait and makeup. Smuggle in a full attire set over time. The accomplice would have to have some makeup the first time going in in order to set that as his face–the main components a recognition program or person would focus on. Possibly bearded but that may be too obvious. Then when ready, Assange would put on the attire, the makeup expert would put that on, and a wig, Assange would change his gait to the new one, and he’d walk out taking the place of the accomplice.

    This might not have worked at all, just one idea, but I hope ways to bust him out were considered. Obviously security was tight at the embassy and snooping spies in and out of it, but still nowhere near him being in an actual prison. The time for escape was then. Oh well.

  6. renate
    December 19, 2021 at 10:02

    hXXps://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2021/12/18/us/airstrikes-pentagon-records-civilian-deaths.html
    The NYT does what Julian Assange did, or not?

    • Consortiumnews.com
      December 20, 2021 at 11:02

      Nowhere on the same scale. But it has committed the same act — journalism — that has Assange imprisoned.

Comments are closed.