The Cable Guy: Julian Assange Becomes US's Public Enemy No. 1
He may be on the short list for Time magazine's "person of the year," but many Americans consider Julian Assange to be a criminal and a terrorist. The WikiLeaks founder has been fighting a battle on several fronts since the publication of the diplomatic cables. He has now been arrested in London.
Wherever Julian Assange turned up in recent weeks, there was always a noticeably well-dressed young woman at his side. Jennifer Robinson, an attorney at a London law firm, has served as Assange's legal protection insurance for the last few weeks. She kept several sets of legal documents in her purse, for the event that Scotland Yard or some other law enforcement agency decided to arrest the Australian.
Assange now finds himself in need of such expert legal protection. He was arrested by British police in London on Tuesday on a European warrant issued by Swedish prosecutors. London's Metropolitan Police said in a statement that Assange had been arrested at around 9:30 a.m. local time, by appointment at a police station in the British capital. "He is accused by the Swedish authorities of one count of unlawful coercion, two counts of sexual molestation and one count of rape, all alleged to have been committed in August 2010," the statement read. Assange was due to appear before a London court later on Tuesday.
Assange's lawyers had earlier said that he would meet with police to talk about the European arrest warrant. "We are in the process of making arrangements to meet with police by consent," lawyer Mark Stephens said on Monday.
As of last week, there was no longer any doubt that the Swedish authorities were determined to catch the 39-year-old at all costs. Interpol issued a "Red Notice" seeking Assange's arrest, and Scotland Yard's Serious Organized Crime Agency confirmed that it was familiar with the case.
But like everything else relating to the WikiLeaks founder, this private case has also become a political issue. The man who had sent a shockwave through global politics since the publication of the American embassy cables two weekends ago had become a hunted man.
He has also become the Americans' latest public enemy, after having challenged the world's most powerful nation and made its secrets public for all to see.
'Assange Should Be Assassinated'
While Washington's reactions to the leaks of military documents from the Afghanistan and Iraq wars were relatively calm, the tone has now changed. Last week, Attorney General Eric Holder officially confirmed that the US Justice Department could invoke the Espionage Act of 1917 to take legal action against the WikiLeaks staff. Under the law, the disclosure of secret military information is a crime. According to Holder, an amendment of the law is also an option for the future. "To the extent there are gaps in our laws, we will move to close those gaps," Holder said. At the end of last week, American government agencies instructed their employees not to visit the WikiLeaks website, while institutions like the US Library of Congress blocked access to the site.
Republican Congressman Peter King wants the State Department to examine whether WikiLeaks can be classified as a terrorist organization, which would make it easier for US authorities to hunt down Assange and his supporters. Tom Flanagan, a professor at the University of Calgary and a former adviser to Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper, offered an even more radical suggestion. "Assange should be assassinated," he said on Canadian television. "I wouldn't feel unhappy if Assange disappeared." Flanagan later apologized for his comments.
Prominent politicians like Connecticut Senator Joe Lieberman have also joined the anti-WikiLeaks camp. Last week, Lieberman called on Internet companies to stop providing WikiLeaks with server capacity.
His appeal was successful. Amazon Web Services informed WikiLeaks in an email last week that its activities violated Amazon's terms of service. In addition to being the world's largest online merchant, Amazon also rents out server capacity. WikiLeaks was already using Amazon servers when it leaked the Iraq reports in October, and hundreds of thousands of users viewed the US embassy cables on American servers -- until Amazon pulled the plug, that is.
The Infowar Has Started
Since then, Amazon and Lieberman have come under sharp attack. Daniel Ellsberg, America's most famous whistleblower, publicly called for a boycott of Amazon, saying: "I'm disgusted by Amazon's cowardice and servility." On Friday, John Perry Barlow, an ex-hippie and co-founder of the civil liberties group Electronic Frontier Foundation, addressed Internet activists with the following Twitter message: "The first serious infowar is now engaged. The field of battle is WikiLeaks. You are the troops."
Amazon sought to justify its decision by claiming that terminating its relationship with WikiLeaks had nothing to do with politics. It argued that it had to act as it did because WikiLeaks was disseminating content to which it did not have the rights.
The dispute over servers was accompanied by an attack on the wikileaks.org address. The website's problems began on Nov. 28. Internet statistics site show that wikileaks.org was shut down hours before the planned publication of the first cables by large numbers of simultaneous attempts to access the site. Using Twitter, a certain "th3j35t3r," also known as "The Jester," claimed responsibility for a wave of attacks. According to the Jester, WikiLeaks was endangering the lives of soldiers and jeopardizing international relations. Prior to the WikiLeaks attacks, Jester, who claims to be a former soldier who worked in special operations, had earned a reputation for attacking Islamist sites. Using Special Forces jargon for having eliminated a terrorist, Jester tweeted: "Tango down."
The attacks did not subside during the week. In fact, they intensified. On Tuesday the WikiLeaks team, apparently impressed, tweeted that they were under serious attack once again, at a rate of "more than 10 gigabits per second." The organization has since shifted to servers in France, but it is also beginning to lose ground there. French Industry Minister Eric Besson calls it "unacceptable" for a French server to harbor a website "that has violated the secrecy of diplomatic relations and put people in danger." The Internet company in question has since appealed to a court and requested a legal review.
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By its very nature, field reporting to Washington is candid and often incomplete information. It is not an expression of policy, nor does it always shape final policy decisions. Nevertheless, these cables could compromise private discussions with foreign governments and opposition leaders, and when the substance of private conversations is printed on the front pages of newspapers across the world, it can deeply impact not only US foreign policy interests, but those of our allies and friends around the world.
To be clear -- such disclosures put at risk our diplomats, intelligence professionals, and people around the world who come to the United States for assistance in promoting democracy and open government. These documents also may include named individuals who in many cases live and work under oppressive regimes and who are trying to create more open and free societies. President Obama supports responsible, accountable, and open government at home and around the world, but this reckless and dangerous action runs counter to that goal.
By releasing stolen and classified documents, Wikileaks has put at risk not only the cause of human rights but also the lives and work of these individuals. We condemn in the strongest terms the unauthorized disclosure of classified documents and sensitive national security information.
Corriere della Sera
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