How Assange’s arrest and potential extradition might prove embarrassing for Trump

Kim Sengupta

Despite persistent reports over the last week that Julian Assange was soon to be expelled from the Ecuadorean embassy in London and arrested, when the moment finally arrived, with footage of him being dragged out of the building by police, it was nevertheless a stunning development.

What took place, nearly seven years after Assange first sought refuge in the diplomatic mission, is however, not the end of the tale, with all of its twists and turns. It is merely the opening of a new chapter for the founder of WikiLeaks, and one which may reveal important and intriguing information, potentially with far-reaching consequences.

Within hours of his arrest, Assange was found guilty at Westminster magistrates court on charges of failing to answer bail in June 2012 after he had been arrested on sexual assault charges made against him in Sweden.

Those charges were subsequently dropped. But Elisabeth Massi Fritz, lawyer for one of the two women who accused Assange, announced on Thursday that “we will do everything we can to ensure that the prosecutors resume the Swedish preliminary investigation so that Assange can be extradited to Sweden and prosecuted for rape.”

It was, he claimed, fears over extradition to the US which caused him to refuse to go to Sweden to be questioned by prosecutors, and instead seek asylum on Ecuadorian soil. This threat, say his supporters, remains – the fear that he would be extradited to America and face a heavy sentence over Wikileaks’ hacking and dissemination of US intelligence and defence documents in 2010.

The US had not hitherto admitted that it is seeking to prosecute Assange, an Australian citizen, but the US justice department had, in November, inadvertently disclosed that he had been secretly charged over the documents when lawyers erroneously included his name in court papers related to another case.

The US Justice Department has now unsealed the indictment and insists that Assange faces just five years in prison if convicted.

But, a source told CNN on Thursday, the DoJ expects to bring further charges against Assange, but it is not clear what those charges would be or when they would be filed.

In the extradition case, which will begin in May in London, charges allege that Assange was involved in a computer hacking conspiracy with Chelsea Manning to crack Defence Department passwords and encourage Manning (then an army private and intelligence analyst called Bradley Manning) to continue to provide classified information.

Manning, who was convicted by a court-martial in the hacking of the intelligence and defence material and spent seven years in prison, is currently back in jail for refusing to give evidence to a Grand Jury investigating WikiLeaks and Assange earlier this year.

But it is another set of hacks involving Assange and Wikileaks and America which could prove highly problematic for Donald Trump. Assange is suspected of helping Russian interference in the presidential election by releasing information stolen from Hillary Clinton’s campaign and the Democrats and subsequently released by WikiLeaks.

Last July the US Justice Department charged 12 Russian military intelligence officers, from the GRU, with hacking computers, with the indictment stating that they had been in contact with WikiLeaks.

The former WikiLeaks founder has not been indicted in ‘Russiagate’, but he is certain to face investigation in relation to it if he is returned to the US, with a number of committees of the House of Representatives, now Democrat-controlled, who have begun inquiries into Trump.

A number of people close to Trump are said to have been in touch with Assange over the hacking of the Democrat emails, including Roger Stone, a long term and close advisor to the US president. Stone was in January arrested as part of special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into Russian attempts to subvert the election.

Mueller’s indictment states that during the election campaign, Stone talked regularly to Trump officials about the information WikiLeaks, called ‘Organisation 1’, possesses which would be damaging to Hillary Clinton’s campaign.

“Stone was contacted by senior Trump campaign officials to inquire about future releases by Organisation ... On multiple occasions, Stone told senior Trump campaign officials about material possessed by Organisation 1 and the timing of future releases.”

Stone had mentioned contacts with Assange and at one point instructed a friend, believed to be the conservative author Jerome Corsi, to “get to” Assange in the Ecuadorean embassy in London and obtain the pending WikiLeaks emails.

He also allegedly told Ted Malloch, a Trump supporter in London, to see Assange. Stone later claimed, speaking to a Republican group in Florida: “I actually have communicated with Assange. I believe the next tranche of his documents pertain to the Clinton Foundation, but there’s no telling what the October surprise will be.”

A British name has also come up in relation to Assange and the Hillary Clinton emails – that of Nigel Farage. The former Ukip leader, who regularly boasts of his closeness to Trump, visited Assange at the embassy in 2017 after returning from a trip to the US. The news of the visit broke after a member of the public saw him go into the building.

Glenn Simpson, whose Washington-based investigations firm hired former MI6 officer Christopher Steele to compile a report on Trump and Russia, told a US Congressional inquiry in January that Mr Farage was a more frequent visitor to Assange than was known and that he had passed data on to Assange on “a thumb drive”.

Mr Farage had denied the claims, but refused to tell a number of news organisations what he had discussed with Assange. He said to me when I asked: “I met Julian Assange just once. I went there in a journalistic capacity because like you I wanted to find out about the emails, no real answer was forthcoming. It is nonsense to say that I had met him secretly. Do you think one of the best known faces in the country can go into the embassy without people noticing?”

Vladimir Putin’s spokesman Dmitry Peskov said, following Assange’s arrest, that the WikiLeaks founder’s rights must not be violated. Earlier the Foreign Ministry in Moscow had accused Britain of “strangling freedom” over the affair. The footage of Assange, frail, white bearded and dishevelled being taken out of the embassy was livestreamed by Ruptly, a subsidiary of RT, formerly Russia Today, which is bankrolled by the Russian government.

Assange now faces potential extradition and litigation in the cases in Sweden and the hacking of the classified intelligence and defence documents in 2010. He also faces investigation and possible litigation over the Democrat hacking in 2016.

The legal process on all these cases will likely take a long time, and his lawyers have already said he plans to appeal extradition to the US. More details will emerge about the alleged sexual assaults and collusion with Chelsea Manning and we may, also, discover if Julian Assange played a part in influencing the US presidential election from his house-arrest, albeit self-imposed, in a building in West London.