Police In London Arrest Julian Assange After Ecuadorean Embassy Evicts Him
DAVID GREENE, HOST:
WikiLeaks co-founder Julian Assange was arrested in London this morning. The Metropolitan Police said they took him into custody after he was evicted from the Ecuadorian Embassy in London, where he has lived since 2012. And the U.S. Justice Department has just announced charges against him. And that's we're going - where we're going to begin our coverage. We have NPR's justice correspondent Ryan Lucas with us. Hi, Ryan.
RYAN LUCAS, BYLINE: Hi, there.
GREENE: What exactly is the U.S. government charging Assange with?
LUCAS: Well, first off, this indictment literally was just unsealed minutes ago. So I'm still in the process of digesting it. But what Assange has been charged with - this is a grand jury indictment. And basically it boils down to that he is charged with helping Chelsea Manning, who at the time worked - was with the U.S. Army. He was an intelligence - she was an intelligence analyst with the U.S. Army, and that - the indictment alleges that Assange helped Manning crack a password to get classified information out of a U.S. government database. So the actual charge is conspiracy to commit computer intrusion. And this relates to, again, getting - helping Chelsea Manning break into a government database.
GREENE: OK. So this is the U.S. government - I mean, again, I know you're just reading through this - but essentially saying that this goes beyond WikiLeaks just dispensing information that it receives. These allegations are that WikiLeaks was actually involved in cracking into U.S. government documents.
LUCAS: Right. This does not appear to pertain to or relate to actually publishing information. This is about WikiLeaks taking an active role in attempting to get such information from the U.S. government and taking an active role in essentially stealing it, is what they're saying.
GREENE: Obviously, I mean, we're just gathering dots right now, not connecting them. But the timing of all of this, we have the Ecuadorian government now evicting Julian Assange from the embassy. We have British authorities arresting him. Now we have the U.S. government coming out with these charges. What - do we know whether this was all coordinated? Is there any way to try and understand the timing of all this at this point?
LUCAS: Well, it would certainly look as though the timing of Assange's arrest and the unsealing of the indictment are certainly related. What was all going on behind the scenes, we don't know. We're not privy to that at this point in time. But we certainly know that for a long time, the U.S. government has been looking at possible charges against Assange. We know that it was tricky because of concerns about freedom of the press. There are certainly supporters of WikiLeaks who argue that the organization is essentially functioning as a media organization does. It's getting information about alleged government wrongdoing and putting a spotlight on that, making it public.
But the U.S. government for some time has also made clear that it has its own issues with Assange, with WikiLeaks. Mike Pompeo, when he was CIA director, actually called WikiLeaks a non-state hostile intelligence agency. And there have been a number of releases that Wikileaks have done over the years that have angered the U.S. government, starting with Chelsea Manning's release back in 2010 all the way up into 2016 and the role that the U.S. intelligence agencies - well, the role that WikiLeaks played in releasing hacked emails during the 2016 campaign, Democratic emails. And special counsel Robert Mueller has said, in one of his indictments, essentially that WikiLeaks worked with the Russian government on that.
GREENE: Yeah, just a reminder that, I mean, Julian Assange is related in many ways to so much of the news we've seen in the United States. That's NPR's Ryan Lucas. Ryan, thanks so much. We really appreciate it.
LUCAS: My pleasure.
GREENE: All right, I want to bring in another voice here. It is Julian Assange's colleague, Glenn Greenwald. He's on the line. He's a longtime backer and proponent of WikiLeaks and Julian Assange. Glenn, thanks for taking the time this morning.
GLENN GREENWALD: Sure. I'm not sure why you introduced me as a colleague of Julian Assange since I'm not actually that. I've reported on him as a journalist. But I'm happy to be with you.
GREENE: Oh, well, tell - I would love if you could actually, just so people understand, characterize your relationship with him and with WikiLeaks.
GREENWALD: Sure. I'm a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist who has reported on WikiLeaks over the years, just like NPR has. And beyond that, I don't have any relationship with WikiLeaks or Julian Assange. And I'm not sure why you're trying to imply otherwise.
GREENE: Have you been in contact with him today or leading up to this?
GREENE: And what do you think of the charges against him?
GREENWALD: Well, I agree with the Obama Justice Department, the Washington Post editorial of 2011, the Guardian editorial from yesterday and the consensus of press freedom groups around the world, which is that prosecuting Julian Assange in connection with publishing secret documents that showed U.S. war crimes is one of the gravest threats to press freedom possibly imaginable.
And the indictment that the DOJ issued says, among other things, that Assange, for example, encouraged Manning to get more documents than she had originally provided, which is something journalists - I don't know if you work with sources or not in your reporting, but I do. This is something journalists do every day. They say, thanks for getting me this. Is there any way you can get more of that? So to criminalize that, encouraging sources to get more classified documents, is to criminalize journalism. And I would hope no journalist would stand behind the Trump administration as it tries to do that.
GREENE: So you believe even if the charges that we just heard about from the U.S. government - even if they are true, that Julian Assange was involved in actually cracking into the U.S. government and helping Manning, that would not go beyond the definition of journalism.
GREENWALD: Well, it depends what they were able to prove. The Obama Justice Department tried for years to find evidence that Assange did more than work with Manning in the capacity that journalists typically work with sources and concluded there was no evidence to be able to do that. They impaneled the grand jury in 2010 and spent years looking. And so there was no evidence for that.
Obviously, if Julian Assange actually hacked into a government database, that's just standard criminal hacking. But the indictment doesn't say that. The indictment says that Julian worked with Chelsea Manning and encouraged her in order to get these documents, which again, that's something journalists do all the time. We'll have to see what the evidence says. Obviously hacking is a crime, and just because you're a journalist doesn't mean you get to do that. But encouraging a source or working with a source to get documents is pure investigative journalism.
GREENE: And if we set the larger debate about - about press freedom and how dangerous, as you say, this could be for press freedom - and, you know, a lot of disagreement out there over those issues. I just - could we look at what happened specifically with Julian Assange in terms of the law? I mean, the British say he broke the law by skipping bail. You have Swedish prosecutors who say that their case is not necessarily closed on allegations of sexual assault. And you have the Ecuadorian government saying he no longer deserved asylum. So is there anything that is outside the bound of legal processes taking place today, bringing him into custody?
GREENWALD: Well, the - Ecuador had provided Julian Assange with asylum because they were concerned that his arrest would be used as a pretext to ship him to the U.S. to be prosecuted in connection with the publication of documents and said that that would be a persecution of him for his political liberties. And that's true - as true today as it was seven years ago.
What changed is that the president of Ecuador for six years, who said to the U.S. and the U.K., we're not going to be bullied by you, was term-limited out of office. The new president is much more submissive. The Trump administration - administration has spent a year and a half trying to bully and coerce and pressure the Ecuadorian government to withdraw its asylum. So yeah, I think threatening a foreign government to withdraw legally recognized asylum is a pretty severe violation of international law.
GREENE: Do you have evidence of that? I mean, do you have actual reporting that the Trump administration has exerted that kind of pressure?
GREENWALD: There's tons of reporting about that. If you go to Google and type, Trump administration pressures Ecuador over Assange, you'll find every major media outlet in the world. I don't know how you missed it. Probably NPR has reported it too, saying exactly that.
GREENE: Journalist Glenn Greenwald, thanks so much. We appreciate your time this morning.
GREENWALD: Sure, good to be with you.
GREENE: I want to turn now to NPR's media correspondent, David Folkenflik, who's on the line. And David, I mean, the definition of journalism and whether this arrest is a case of press freedom being at great risk or whether the U.S. government has a legitimate right to go after someone who they accuse of cracking into secret government documents, this is quite a moment and could be quite a moment, as we follow this case, if he is indeed extradited to the United States.
DAVID FOLKENFLIK, BYLINE: Yeah, I think that you're seeing right now questions about how to define, how to think about Julian Assange. And, you know, I did a piece - call it nearly nine years ago - in which we said, is he a journalist, or is he a whistleblower? And those - that's still a valid question. We can get into that in a second. You know, the government is laying on the question of whether in some ways he's been an actor for, you know, foreign powers. And that's the Russians.
So if you think back to, you know, the Chelsea Manning leaks and leaks like that, he was really against, early on, the war in Iraq and Afghanistan. He accused American troops of war crimes. He released certain kinds of files to the public and didn't get the kind of pop he wanted, in some ways, because they were unmediated. And that is they weren't vetted and vouched for by outside groups. So he worked, in certain instance, in the Manning case, with The New York Times, EL PAIS in Spain, The Guardian in - in the U.K. And I believe it was Der Spiegel in Germany...
FOLKENFLIK: ...To get credibility for that. And one of the frustrations he had was that there was fact-checking. And they checked with various government agencies to see if there would be actual harm done to, say, troops if certain things were published and posted. He really bristled at that. So again, was he a whistleblower? Was he a journalist? He called himself editor-in-chief. And yet, there is a journalistic function being served by the Chelsea Manning leaks, as then-President Obama himself grudgingly acknowledged.
GREENE: So where do you see this case going from here? What will you be following from - from the stuff that you cover?
FOLKENFLIK: Well, I think in some ways Glenn Greenwald is absolutely right in saying it depends what authorities in Britain and, particularly, the U.S. can prove. If he is shown to have actively been involved in hacking of documents and he was sort of an anarchistic hacker queuing up in Australia, then that's against the law. If he was trying to get information from a source, that's a much more problematic place for prosecutors to go. And authorities know that.
GREENE: NPR's David Folkenflik, one of the voices this morning as we cover the arrest of Julian Assange in London this morning. He's now facing charges in the United States. David, thanks a lot.
FOLKENFLIK: You bet. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.