When diplomatic asylum is an undiplomatic snub: Ecuador gives sanctuary to WikiLeaks' founder and risks the wrath of the United States and other nations

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The case of Julian Assange, the founder of WikiLeaks, which put into the public domain hundreds of thousands of U.S. government classified documents, raises some very complicated questions.

The first of these, which is difficult but probably useful somehow to get past, is Mr. Assange himself. He is 41, Australian by nationality, and a person who probably wants public attention more than anything else in the world. He is presently holed up in the Embassy of Ecuador in London, thus on Ecuadorian territory, having been granted political asylum by the government of Ecuador. Why Ecuador did that is another question.

The government of Sweden seeks the extradition by the United Kingdom of Mr. Assange to Sweden to answer questions on charges of sexual abuse by two women there. He should have to answer those questions. Britain is ready to extradite him to Sweden, and will likely take Mr. Assange into custody and put him on the next plane there if he comes out of the Ecuadorian Embassy onto British soil.

Britain has, in fact, threatened to go into the Ecuadorian Embassy and grab him. That is a clear "no, no" -- a serious violation of Ecuadorian sovereignty. Britain passed a law in effect giving it the right to go into a foreign embassy after the Libyans shot a British policewoman from their embassy in 1984.

But Britain must not violate long-standing diplomatic rules by invading the Ecuadorian Embassy. Nothing in this world is, of course, sacred. At the same time, it is important not to forget that the Chinese, immensely annoyed at the United States for having taken in dissident Chen Guangcheng in April, did not violate the U.S. Embassy in Beijing. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton herself negotiated Mr. Chen's departure from the U.S. Embassy and from China to exile in the United States.

Perhaps the most famous case of political asylum was that of Roman Catholic Cardinal Jozsef Mindszenty, who took refuge in the American Embassy in Budapest, Hungary during the Cold War. He remained there for 15 years.

Another major, interesting question is, if Mr. Assange considers himself innocent of the Swedish sex charges as he maintains, why doesn't he just accept extradition to Sweden and defend himself in the courts there? The reason for his having taken instead the tricky course of seeking political asylum in Ecuador is, basically, his lack of confidence that Sweden won't just turn him over to the United States, which wants to charge him with espionage.

Not surprisingly, since he is a worldly fellow, he has heard of the U.S. practice of rendition. Rendition has the CIA grabbing someone in a foreign country and then holding him in another foreign country where torture is not frowned on. There is also the possibility that if Sweden lets him fall into American hands, he would end up in a U.S. prison, even the one at the U.S. Naval Base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, imprisoned, without due process of law, without trial, for the rest of his life.

One feature of U.S. justice -- if it can be called that -- is that it functions, if it functions, very slowly, at all levels. Many prisoners at Guantanamo have been there for more than a decade without trial. The Jordan Miles case in Pittsburgh provides a more local example. The Pittsburgh police battered him in January 2010. The civil case ended most recently in federal court here this month. If you were Julian Assange, would you be prepared to take your chances with American justice?

The basic question with Julian Assange, of course, is what one thinks about what he, in charge of WikiLeaks, actually did to invite the wrath of the United States government and the willingness of the British government and possibly the Swedish government to put him in American hands for disposition.

In 2010 WikiLeaks, under his direction, put on the Internet thousands of classified U.S. Departments of Defense and State documents, in effect putting them in the hands of the public and the media. In my view, what WikiLeaks did -- never mind their motivation -- was a major triumph for transparency. As a career State Department officer for 35 years, I will grant that I would not have liked some of my juicier comments on local governments at posts where I served to enter into the public domain.

At the same time, the U.S. government at all levels, but particularly in the military and diplomatic domain, classifies and over-classifies tons of documents, some of it done simply to avoid embarrassing itself, or to provide political protection to various members of the cast of characters, including Americans, who appear in them. In 2010 alone 77 million documents were classified, many of them at the secret or top-secret level.

As ambassador, did I want my report of the prime minister's latest mistress, or the latest piece of larceny or a foreign president's handing a U.S. congressman a diamond as a present, on the Internet? Absolutely not. But in the primal battle between those who want to conceal information and those who want to reveal it, I support strongly the right of the American people to know what is going on, particularly what is being done in their name. WikiLeaks brought transparency; it was right in doing so even if some shins got barked in the process.

Now, why did Ecuadorian President Rafael Correa stick his finger in U.S., British and Swedish eyes by granting Mr. Assange political asylum?

It is interesting to see that the foreign ministers of the Union of South American Nations meeting in Ecuador Sunday stated their solidarity with Ecuador's action. The reason lies in the general Latin American attitude toward the United States. They have felt for ages that the United States does not accord them the respect they deserve. In that context an assertion by Ecuador of its sovereignty in the face of U.S. and British opposition would be seen by them as a suitable move.

As to what happens next, the British should negotiate with the Ecuadorians the early departure of Mr. Assange from London to Ecuador. It is hard to imagine how Mr. Assange will contemplate spending the rest of his life in Ecuador, but who knows? The beaches are reported to be charming.


Dan Simpson, a former U.S. ambassador, is a Post-Gazette associate editor (dsimpson@post-gazette.com, 412 263-1976).


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