A threat by the Donald Trump administration last month to imprison WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange might, from Assange’s perspective, seem ungrateful.
It was WikiLeaks that published a steady drip of awkward emails stolen from Hillary Clinton’s campaign chairman in the run-up to the November election. It was WikiLeaks that exposed plotting inside the Democratic National Committee to ruin the candidacy of Bernie Sanders. And it was WikiLeaks that Trump associates such as Roger Stone touted as the force that would finish off Clinton.
“I love WikiLeaks,” Trump himself said at a Pennsylvania rally a month before the election, brandishing a printout of a Clinton campaign email, to cheers from the crowd.
So favored was Assange inside the Trump orbit that Fox News host Sean Hannity, an extreme Trump backer, traveled to London after the election to conduct a three-part interview with Assange inside the Ecuadorian embassy.
Trump and Assange were, not four months ago, more than friendly allies. They were undeclared partners.
But now, with Swedish prosecutors having closed an investigation of rape allegations against Assange, the stated intention of the United States to charge him or his associates for crimes relating to the publication of classified material once again looms as perhaps the greatest threat to Assange’s freedom.
The Trump team revealed its 180-degree turn on the Assange question last month, with CIA director Mike Pompeo – who celebrated WikiLeaks during the presidential campaign – calling the group a “hostile intelligence service” and attorney general Jeff Sessions saying that prosecuting WikiLeaks was “a priority”.
“So yes, it is a priority,” Sessions said. “We’ve already begun to step up our efforts and whenever a case can be made, we will seek to put some people in jail.”
The White House had not commented on the development in the Assange case by midday Friday. It was unclear what steps the justice department had taken against Assange or whether the US had requested his extradition from Britain.
In some ways, the twist in Assange’s fate presents a problem to US prosecutors, who are under new pressure to state their case, which includes grappling with thorny first amendment and jurisdictional issues.
David Leigh, the former investigations editor of the Guardian and the author of a book on WikiLeaks, said on Friday that Sessions’ tough talk on Assange was “all just noise”.
“The fact is that there is no official extradition request that has been made known from the US to the UK to get hold of Julian Assange,” Leigh told the BBC in an interview. “The Obama administration had probably dropped the idea of arresting and extraditing Assange.”
WikiLeaks has a long track record of publishing classified military material. In 2010 alone, the group published an estimated 90,000 documents relating to the war in Afghanistan, 400,000 documents related to the Iraq war and 250,000 leaked state department cables.
Perhaps the most famous material in those leaks was footage of a US helicopter firing on and killing Iraqi civilians in 2007. The source for that material was Army private Chelsea Manning, then Bradley, who was released after seven years of imprisonment on Wednesday morning following Barack Obama’s forgiveness of part of her sentence on Espionage Act charges.
Given the Manning release, there is an uncanniness about the timing of the closure of the Swedish investigation of Assange, and the prospect, however complicated, that he may go free after five years of detention in the embassy. WikiLeaks tweeted in January: “If Obama grants Manning clemency Assange will agree to US extradition despite clear unconstitutionality of DoJ case.”
After Obama commuted Manning’s sentence in January, a lawyer for Assange retreated on that dare, saying that the US president’s action was “well short of what he [Assange] sought.”
It is also the case that the special counsel investigation of alleged Russian interference in the last US presidential election announced Wednesday could fuel the US desire or ability to prosecute the WikiLeaks founder.
The US government formally accused Russia in October of hacking the DNC emails, which WikiLeaks then published. A statement by intelligence agencies at the time explicitly linked WikiLeaks and “Russian-directed” hacking efforts.
Roger Stone, the on-again, off-again Trump adviser, boasted in early March that he had a “perfectly legal back channel” to Assange. Stone also appears to have been a focus of an FBI investigation of Russian tampering in the election, judging by pointed questions directed at former bureau director James Comey in testimony before the House intelligence committee in late March.
“Do you know Stone tweeted confidence that Assange would educate Americans? And then WikiLeaks started publishing Podesta’s emails?” ranking member Adam Schiff asked Comey.
“No comment,” Comey replied.
After the hearing, Republican senator John McCain said that “obviously” Stone should testify before Congress about what went on behind the scenes during the election. “I think he and others need to be questioned,” McCain said.
Stone, never one to shirk the spotlight, volunteered to testify. “I have had no contacts or collusions with the Russians,” he said. As for ranking member Schiff?“Largely full of Schiff,” Stone said.