WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange has requested political asylum from Ecuador.
British courts recently rejected Assange's appeal against extradition to Sweden. Assange has good reason to fear extradition to Sweden: many believe it likely that Sweden would extradite Assange to the United States to face charges under the Espionage Act of 1917 for his role in publishing leaked U.S. diplomatic cables, charges that could carry the death penalty. The treatment of Bradley Manning, the U.S. soldier accused of providing U.S. diplomatic cables to WikiLeaks, suggests the treatment that Assange might expect in U.S. government custody. Manning has been subjected to repeated and prolonged solitary confinement, harassment by guards, and humiliating treatment such as being forced to strip naked and stand at attention outside his cell.
If the U.S. government succeeds in prosecuting Assange under the Espionage Act for helping to disclose the WikiLeaks cables, it will likely intimidate future potential whistleblowers, making it harder to reveal important secrets about U.S. foreign policy in the future, and therefore making it harder to reform U.S. foreign policy in the future.
That's why I'm urging Ecuador's President Rafael Correa to grant Julian Assange's request for political asylum.
Glenn Greenwald writes today in the Guardian:
If one asks current or former WikiLeaks associates what their greatest fear is, almost none cites prosecution by their own country. Most trust their own nation's justice system to recognize that they have committed no crime. The primary fear is being turned over to the US. That is the crucial context for understanding Julian Assange's 16-month fight to avoid extradition to Sweden, a fight that led him to seek asylum, Tuesday, in the London Embassy of Ecuador.
The evidence that the US seeks to prosecute and extradite Assange is substantial. There is no question that the Obama justice department has convened an active grand jury to investigate whether WikiLeaks violated the draconian Espionage Act of 1917. Key senators from President Obama's party, including Senate intelligence committee chairwoman Dianne Feinstein, have publicly called for his prosecution under that statute. A leaked email from the security firm Stratfor - hardly a dispositive source, but still probative - indicated that a sealed indictment has already been obtained against him. Prominent American figures in both parties have demanded Assange's lifelong imprisonment, called him a terrorist, and even advocated his assassination.
As Greenwald notes:
Assange's fear of ending up in the clutches of the US is plainly rational and well-grounded. One need only look at the treatment over the last decade of foreign nationals accused of harming American national security to know that's true; such individuals are still routinely imprisoned for lengthy periods without any charges or due process. Or consider the treatment of Bradley Manning, accused of leaking to WikiLeaks: a formal UN investigation found that his pre-trial conditions of severe solitary confinement were 'cruel, inhuman and degrading', and he now faces capital charges of aiding al-Qaida.
WikiLeaks has made a tremendous contribution to exposing U.S. foreign policy to public scrutiny. The importance of transparency and public information to reforming U.S. foreign policy cannot be overstated. Recently, I worked with the offices of Rep. Dennis Kucinich and Rep. John Conyers to support a letter signed by 26 Members of Congress to President Obama pressing the Administration to disclose more information about its drone strike policy, particularly concerning civilian casualties and so-called "signature strikes" that target unknown people based on (often faulty) intelligence of suspicious activity. Polls have suggested that the drone strike policy is popular in the U.S. (while very unpopular outside the U.S.), but the popularity in the U.S. stems from ignorance: the American people don't know what they are supporting, because the reality of the policy has been hidden from public scrutiny. That's why it's so important to press the U.S. government to disclose more information about the drone strike policy.
Therefore - in addition to our concern for Assange's individual human rights - people who are working to reform U.S. foreign policy have a big stake in what happens in the Julian Assange/WikiLeaks case. If the U.S. government succeeds in intimidating whistleblowers, it will be harder to reveal information about U.S. foreign policy in the future, and therefore it will be harder to reform U.S. foreign policy in the future. That's why it's so important for President Correa - who has legitimate reason to be concerned about possible retaliation from the United States - to hear from Americans urging that he grant Julian Assange's request for political asylum.
I once had the opportunity to meet President Correa. We share an alma mater - the University of Illinois, where Correa, like me, was a graduate student in Economics. Like me, President Correa was a member of the Graduate Employees Organization, the union of teaching assistants at the University of Illinois. I know that President Correa believes in the Illinois values of free inquiry and fair play. I'm confident that if President Correa hears from Americans who value free inquiry and fair play, he's going to do the right thing.