Julian Assange Versus the Trump Administration
A long, strange chapter in the story of WikiLeaks ended this morning, when London’s Metropolitan Police arrived at the Ecuadorian Embassy to forcibly put Julian Assange in handcuffs and usher him into an armored vehicle. Video of the arrest revealed a man withered by a lengthy and increasingly severe isolation. His face was bloated and pale, his beard frayed, his silvery hair long and pulled back. With four policemen hustling his hunched body onto the street, Assange protested the admission of British officers to Ecuadorian diplomatic territory. “The U.K. has no sovereignty!” he declared repeatedly. His voice was hoarse and weakened. He appeared to be clutching Gore Vidal’s “History of the National Security State.”
Assange’s presence in the Ecuadorian Embassy was never tenable in the long run. He had arrived there to request asylum, in the spring of 2012, disguised as a motorcycle deliveryman to evade detection. At the time, he was being investigated in Sweden for rape and molestation, and he had lost a protracted fight in the British courts to resist his extradition to Stockholm for questioning. Justifying his asylum, Assange argued that the Swedish government merely wanted him on a pretext—that its real intention all along was to deliver him to the United States for prosecution, or, worse, to allow the C.I.A. to render him to a black site, like an Al Qaeda detainee. As I noted in a Profile of Assange that I wrote in 2017, that argument, repeated by his supporters, never made much sense. The United States and the United Kingdom have well-oiled joint-extradition machinery. It was working very well this morning.
The conspiracy theory that a Swedish prosecutor was necessary to apprehend Assange can now die. What will linger as a topic of debate, however, is the core of Assange’s asylum argument: that delivering him to America to face trial is akin to forcing a Cambodian refugee, fleeing the Khmer Rouge into Thailand, to return across the border and face grave harm. There is a principle in international law, called non-refoulement, that asserts that it is unlawful to compel asylum seekers and refugees to return to jurisdictions where they will suffer cruel and inhuman treatment. This argument, as Assange and his supporters have adapted it to his case, assumes not only that indicting him is unjust but also that the American judicial process is so broken that a trial can only result in persecution.
Assange and his supporters have long speculated that he might be charged in the U.S. under the Espionage Act—a poorly written law that, if applied to his case, would set a precedent that could have a chilling effect on all of journalism. The Obama Administration, concerned about the implications for press freedoms, declined to prosecute him under the act. (It also allowed a hacking investigation against WikiLeaks to stall without bringing charges against the organization.) The indictment issued by Trump’s Department of Justice is instead based on the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act—essentially, for a hacking-related conspiracy. The core allegation is derived from a thirteen-page document introduced as evidence during Chelsea Manning’s court-martial, in 2012, and known to U.S. authorities for years. The document records encrypted instant messages between Assange and Manning in March, 2010, after she had downloaded tens of thousands of records from a secure military network, the SIPRNET, and uploaded them to WikiLeaks. Amid some casual banter, Manning mentioned a hash value, an alphanumeric representation that can be used to derive a password, and asked Assange if he could break one.
“Any good at hash cracking?” she asked.
“Yeah,” Assange wrote.
Minutes later, she sent him the hash value, “80c11049faebf441d524fb3c4cd5351c,” but indicated that she was unsure what it was precisely for. Even though it would take considerable effort and computing power to crack, Assange responded, unconcerned, “I passed it to our guy.” He may have done what he said. He may also have been blustering—giving a key source the impression that WikiLeaks was more sophisticated than it really was. In my own dealings with Assange, he has often overstated his abilities as a hacker; he is a self-confessed dissembler.
Two days later, on March 10th, Assange wrote to Manning, “No luck so far.” She didn’t even bother to answer, and he didn’t appear to pursue the matter any further. Nothing else in the chat log indicates any sustained interest in cracking the hash. Nothing appeared to ever come of it.
As evidence of a conspiracy, the exchange is thin gruel—fragmentary banter amid a wider pattern of behavior that looks vastly more like a conventional journalist-source relationship than like that of a hacking duo. That the indictment leaned so heavily on this document shows just how far the Trump Administration had to go to build a case against Assange.
Taken on its own, the indictment is a riddle—one that can be read plausibly as both a suggestion of prosecutorial overreach and a record of behavior that does not appear to be journalistic. According to CNN, there are additional charges coming, so it is hard to assess the full legal implications of Assange’s arrest just yet. But one irony is easy to discern: Assange clearly believed that a Donald J. Trump Presidency would benefit him, and yet it was the Trump Administration that sought to redefine WikiLeaks as a “non-state hostile intelligence service”—an organization that did not belong within the ambit of journalism. Assange, a devoted opponent of what he describes as American imperial power, has welcomed Trump’s degradation of U.S. norms and institutions. Now his fate will be determined by the health of those same institutions. On Thursday morning, while he was being shoved into a police van, he suddenly changed his mind about British sovereignty. “U.K., resist!” he yelled out. “Resist this attempt by the Trump Administration!”