As his isolation intensifies, WikiLeaks' Julian Assange faces possible threat of eviction, extradition
For WikiLeaks' Julian Assange, freedom could be dangerous.
LONDON — For Julian Assange, the world’s most famous whistleblower, freedom could be dangerous.
As his residency at the Ecuadorian Embassy in London enters its seventh year, the self-styled cyber revolutionary – WikiLeaks’ founder and controversial publisher of some of the world’s most closely guarded official secrets – is facing a pair of converging crises that have left his allies fearing for his wellbeing and his safety.
Inside the embassy, he is living an increasingly secluded existence, having been stripped of his phones, computers and visitor privileges after running afoul of the very government that gave him asylum. Outside the embassy, he is embroiled in the global political scandal surrounding Russian efforts to interfere in the 2016 election, with questions about his role in that drama being raised by friends and foes alike.
In more ways than one, the very walls protecting Assange also appear to be closing in.
“Life goes on outside the embassy,” journalist Vaughan Smith, one of Assange’s staunchest supporters and perhaps the last friend to visit him, told ABC News. “But life doesn’t go on inside.”
In a series of interviews with his lawyers, supporters and friends, the people closest to Assange painted a bleak picture of his present and a grim outlook on his future, telling ABC News that he may both long for and dread the day he is forced out of the embassy.
"He's been effectively in solitary confinement," said Assange’s lawyer Jennifer Robinson. “Julian has always said he's very happy to face British justice but not at the expense of having to face American injustice.”
Assange’s supporters fear that, if his relationship with embassy officials further deteriorates, he could face a potentially devastating series of events that could ultimately land him in the hand of U.S. authorities.
Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigators have been probing WikiLeaks’ possible role in Russian efforts to interfere in the 2016 elections, recently questioning at least five witnesses about their contacts with WikiLeaks. If his hosts at the Ecuadorian Embassy were to rescind his asylum and evict him, he faces immediate arrest by British authorities for failing to surrender on an arrest warrant related to a since-dropped rape investigation in Sweden. That arrest could pave the way for his potential extradition to the United States, should U.S. officials decide to charge him with a crime while he is in custody.
The question of whether WikiLeaks may have coordinated with Kremlin operatives has already has made some of his allies question their continued support.
“If Julian Assange used WikiLeaks to willingly affect the outcome of the 2016 U.S. election on behalf of a foreign power,” a onetime supporter, who asked to remain anonymous, told ABC News, “then we are in a whole new ball game.”
Assange has been confined to the Ecuadorian Embassy in London since 2012. Little is known about how Assange, who friends say is a "creature of the Internet," has managed his time there, especially since his electronic devices were taken away in March. Visitors have told ABC News he reads, uses a treadmill, and observes the street life below from a window.
Weekends in the embassy, they say, were the loneliest times for Assange. The embassy staff leaves on Fridays, so while the streets bustle with throngs of tourists swirling around the luxury store Harrods next door, Assange is left in the company of a guard with whom, Smith said, Assange doesn’t share a common language.
“When I saw him, I was concerned about his welfare, as a friend,” said Smith, who owns London’s Frontline Club, a club for war journalists that once hosted WikiLeaks press conferences. “He was feeling lonely. He scheduled our visit for late in the day on a Friday. It became clear why — he wanted company.”
On March 28, shortly after Smith’s visit, Ecuadorian officials announced new restrictions on Assange’s activities, accusing the 47-year-old Australian of violating a "written commitment made to the [Ecuadorian] government at the end of 2017 not to issue messages that might interfere with other states.”
Assange appears to have angered his hosts when he publicly questioned via Twitter the British government’s assessment that the Kremlin was behind the nerve agent attack on a former Russian intelligence officer in Salisbury earlier this year.
WikiLeaks, however, told a different story, tweeting on Aug. 16 that he has been “gagged” because of “U.S. pressure on Ecuador.”
Assange’s only human contact outside of embassy staff since March has been with his lawyers, and they are concerned about his health and wellbeing.
“He's now unable to receive visitors, doesn't have access to the Internet, no telephone calls,” Robinson told ABC News. “So he's effectively cut off from the outside world all together. The only people that are able to see him are his legal team, which is obviously a very limited interaction with the world.”
Meanwhile, outside the walls of the embassy, Assange – and the issue of WikiLeaks suspected dealings with Russian operatives – remains of great interest to both U.S. investigators and WikiLeaks supporters.
Last month, Special Counsel Mueller indicted three Russian companies and a dozen Russian individuals, alleging that there were communications between Russian intelligence officers posing as a hacker persona, "Guccifer2.0," and an unnamed “Organization-1” -- which sources identified as WikiLeaks -- discussing the politically-timed publication of hacked Democratic Party emails during the 2016 campaign.
Assange has denied having any involvement with Russian state actors, but his animosity toward former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was well known -- he publicly called her a “sadistic sociopath” during the campaign – while Trump praised WikiLeaks five times on the campaign trail for publishing the stolen emails.
What Mueller’s indictment left unexplained — for now — was whether WikiLeaks and Assange knew Guccifer2.0 was not a Romanian hacker, as the persona claimed to be, and was really a group of Russian intelligence officers.
In questioning witnesses, Mueller’s agents have focused on inquiries on their contacts with Republican political strategist and former Trump adviser Roger Stone. Stone tweeted in 2016 that WikiLeaks had a surprise in store for Hillary Clinton a few days before WikiLeaks began posting thousands of hacked emails from her allies.
One witness FBI agents interviewed was Ted Malloch, an American professor living in the U.K., who was questioned March 28 as he arrived at Boston’s Logan International Airport and asked about his ties to Stone, who wrote the forward to Malloch’s recent book, and WikiLeaks. Agents also asked whether Malloch had visited the Ecuadorian Embassy in London. He told ABC News that he denied doing so.
The intensified focus by Mueller has coincided with Assange’s supporters saying they've heard rumors that Ecuador — whose president, Lenin Moreno, has derided Assange as a “hacker” — will revoke his asylum “imminently” and hand him over to British police.
While no charges have ever been announced in the United States, two senior U.S. national security officials this month, when asked separately about Assange potentially facing charges for his past activities, confirmed that they still “want to get their hands on Assange,” though it’s unclear what that would entail.
The question of whether Assange and WikiLeaks may have colluded with Russian spies to tilt the American presidential election in favor of Trump has also opened up a rift among transparency and hacktivist circles and WikiLeaks insiders.
Some of his onetime supporters are questioning his denials. For others, Assange’s reputation appears to already be beyond repair.
“WikiLeaks simply is not what many of us thought it [once] was,” a former WikiLeaks volunteer who worked directly with Assange told ABC News.
But others insist Assange would never be a stooge of the Kremlin, saying that he viewed whomever provided the hacked emails in 2016 as assets who could help him jostle Clinton’s seemingly clear path back into the White House.
“I don't think he could work for anybody else. It would be completely out of character,” Smith said of the Kremlin collusion theory. “He did this [publishing the hacked Democratic emails] thinking Clinton would win and it would screw with her.”
Assange’s health is suffering, according to his lawyer, and his future is uncertain -- but his friend Smith doesn't believe that Assange will buckle under the pressure.
“He is a toughie. He is built to do this sort of thing,” Smith said. “He is motivated by a belief that he is making a difference. From his perspective, he considers that he’s doing the world a favor.”
Editor’s note: This story has been updated to correct that Assange faces an arrest warrant, not charges, for failure to surrender and to add minor edits for clarity.
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