UK's Assange Threat

In June of 1984, unknown Libyan officials shot down a British policewoman observing a demonstration in front of their embassy in London. After a standoff in which British officials vainly demanded that the killer be handed over, the shooting triggered the passage of the UK’s Diplomatic and Consular Premises Act, written to allow British police forces to invade a foreign embassy to extract the perpetrators of such an outrage.

The law has been used only once, to evict squatters from the Cambodian embassy in London at the request of Cambodian officials. Whoever submachine-gunned Yvonne Joyce Fletcher, the police never went in and got him or her. Across the world, embassy grounds are considered inviolate, with the possible exception of Iran, which invaded the US Embassy shortly after the hard-line Islamic revolution led by Ayatollah Khomeini took over the country in 1979. Iran has had cause to rue that invasion ever since.

However, last week, for the first time since the Fletcher murder, the British government threatened to enter the Ecuadorian Embassy in London to extract another accused perpetrator of a heinous crime. This time, of course, the target is Julian Assange of Wikileaks, whose crime, if it ever took place, was an attempted rape of two women in Sweden. Without diminishing the seriousness of the allegations, it is a charge hardly on a par with machine-gunning a police officer from an embassy window. Assange has denied the charges and said they were trumped up.

“You need to be aware that there is a legal basis in the UK, the Diplomatic and Consular Premises Act 1987, that would allow us to take actions in order to arrest Mr. Assange in the current premises of the embassy,” a British official told the Ecuadorians. “We sincerely hope that we do not reach that point, but if you are not capable of resolving this matter of Mr. Assange’s presence in your premises, this is an open option for us.”

Assange sought protection from Ecuador not because he fears a Swedish court but because he is probably deathly afraid of what happened to Bradley Manning. Manning, now 24 years old, was confined to a 6 x 12 foot cell with no window at the Marine Corps base in Quantico, Va., for two years without access to sheets or a pillow except for one built into his mattress. His lights were always on and he was not allowed clothing at night and had to present himself naked to a guard each morning. In April, Manning was transferred to a facility in Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, where he remains, still awaiting charges.

Assange, of course, is the man who invented Wikileaks, and who received an estimated 250,000 secret US diplomatic cables from Manning, then an emotionally disturbed US marine who used his security clearance to gain access to classified government files and download the trove. Assange himself certainly appears to be an odd character, regarding himself as a messianic figure attempting to bring down the US government.

The mental state of the players aside, the cables liberated by Manning and Assange have been of immense value for a free press. A great many news outlets eventually published news reports based on excerpts from the material. Asian Sentinel published a wide range of the leaked cables themselves, having to do with politics in Indonesia, Singapore, Thailand and Malaysia. They have considerably illuminated the political process in all of those countries, and Asia Sentinel would happily print more of them.

Whatever the scandalous revelations, if anything the cables have largely, and perhaps unexpectedly, confirmed that US diplomats were mostly knowledgeable, competent and wired into the countries where they served. Where the Americans were embarrassed, they fully deserved to be embarrassed, as they were by Daniel Ellsberg in 1971 when he delivered the Pentagon Papers, a secret history of the War in Vietnam, to the New York Times.

The Ecuadorians have granted Assange political asylum and responded to the British with high dudgeon. "They're out of touch. Who do they think they're dealing with? Can't they see that this is a dignified and sovereign government which will not kneel down before anyone?" Ecuadorian President Rafael Correa said over the weekend in response to the British threat.

It is almost certain that the United States government has been leaning heavily on No. 10 Downing Street to try to get Assange to the US, and leaning equally hard on the Swedes to attempt to extradite him back to Stockholm where it is easy to assume he could be handed over to the Americans and “rendered”  a euphemism for the practice of being kidnapped and shipped to another country without judicial process that was used by the Bush administration – to an isolation cell of his own somewhere in the vast US prison system.

If the British were so stupid as to knuckle under to American bullying and go in after Assange, it would be an unprecedented reversal of centuries of diplomatic practice, and it would open both the Americans and the British to possible threats to invade their embassies on the part of every third-world satrap from Tehran to Timbuktu.

The very threat makes one wonder what has happened to the democratic leadership of both the United States and Great Britain. It puts President Barack Obama – he of the Nobel Peace Prize – and Tory leader David Cameron on the same level as George W. Bush and his Labour lapdog Tony Blair as far as criminally flouting international law.

The Pentagon Papers, classified secret, were handed to the New York Times in 1971. The US Supreme Court, in New York Times vs. United States, ruled that the absolute superiority of the First Amendment to the Constitution obviated any prior restraint on publication, with the majority ruling that the need for a free press as a check on government power is more important than governmental restraint on the press.

That decision was made on behalf of the New York Times and the Washington Post, then America’s most respected newspapers. Assange, by all accounts, has grandiose illusions of his own importance, and Wikileaks exists only as an Internet Web site. The New York Times and a wide range of other publications (including Asia Sentinel) printed the “secret” documents that Assange made available to them.

There was never any question that Bill Keller, then the editor of the Times, (or for that matter, John Berthelsen of Asia Sentinel or many other editors) was ever going to face charges for printing Assange’s documents. Despite the dire rumblings of the government at the time that Daniel Ellsberg constituted a threat to national security, charges eventually were dismissed against Ellsberg and his colleague, Anthony Russo, for leaking the Pentagon papers. Is Assange different because he doesn’t have the clout that the Times and the Post had, not to mention high-caliber legal teams?

“Today, the US claims the legal right to indefinitely detain its citizens; the president can order the assassination of a citizen without so much as even a hearing; the government can spy on its citizens without a court order; and its officials are immune from prosecution for war crimes. It doesn’t help that the US has less than 5 percent of the world’s population but almost a quarter of its prison inmates, many of them victims of a ‘war on drugs’ that is rapidly losing legitimacy in the rest of the world,” said The Guardian in an editorial.

“Assange’s successful pursuit of asylum from the US is another blow to Washington’s international reputation. At the same time, it shows how important it is to have democratic governments that are independent of the US and – unlike Sweden and the UK – will not collaborate in the persecution of a journalist for the sake of expediency. Hopefully other governments will let the UK know that threats to invade another country’s embassy put them outside the bounds of law-abiding nations.”

The United States remains Ecuador’s biggest trading partner. It will be interesting to watch whether the Obama administration conjures up some imaginary trade dispute over crude oil, bananas, cut flowers or shrimp in the coming months. The US is sadly turning into the kind of country that would contemplate such an action.