Can USA Assert Jurisdiction Over Assange?

Most Wild Ducks are aware that WikiLeaks is a rogue distributor of classified and secret documents from anonymous news sources, news leaks and whistle blowers. At the helm is the very charming self-promoter, Julian Assange. This man attracts controversy like honey attracts flies. Dozens of governments, banks and NGOs would gladly substitute honey with “horse manure” in that simile.

In the past 2 years, WikiLeaks has threatened—and then followed through—on the release of information troves containing copious numbers of memos, orders, private communications, and tactical analyses by governments, banks, charities, NGOs, and what-have-you. To generate buzz and prevent sabotage while they vet and compile controversial disclosures, WikiLeaks occasionally pre-releases an encrypted stash of secret documents that they call an “insurance file” or, more accurately, an information bomb. Once out there, it can never be defused—The contents can be remotely detonated by anyone with an encryption key. (This can be a short phrase that is easy to remember).

During the past 2 years, WikiLeaks has been doing exactly what it has threatened (or promised, depending upon your perspective). They have disseminated enormous troves of sensitive and sometimes embarrassing documents, phone calls, faxes, emails, and other private communications without permission from those who were party to the data. Among the infringed parties (think of this as the data ‘owner’ or originator) are the US Government, Bank of America and just about anyone else that claims domain over sensitive material. WikiLeaks justifies its acts as a 21st century watchdog agency with a calling higher than any government. Their PR spin conveys an ethical rudder that pushes for transparency in all affairs. The United States points out that outted documents sometimes reveal names of spies, endangering agents and their families. Other documents reveal the number and location of weapon systems, or data about the capacity and range of weapon systems. But that’s not all…

For WikiLeaks, it doesn’t matter that a telephone transcript reveals personal information unrelated to the government or business affairs targeted for disclosure. For example, parties arranging a phone call reveal that a premier is delayed because he is with a young mistress or a Deputy of State can’t take a call, because she is in the midst of a fierce hangover. In effect, WikiLeaks says “Hey! These are public officials supported by their subjects or constituents. Transparency is always better than secrecy, no matter what’s in the pudding. Just throw it all out there and let the chips fall as they may.”

Of course, the US Government, it’s allies, and many public and private organizations don’t see it that way! Just because a disgruntled employee or consultant has access to sensitive documents shouldn’t mean that a 3rd party organization can air it all on the bathroom wall. And so, Julian Assange is a wanted man.

For the past two months, Assange has been holed up at the Ecuadorian embassy in Great Britain. I mention “Great Britain” as a geographic footnote and not to imply ownership or jurisdiction. An embassy is sovereign territory no matter whose land surrounds it. Right?

…Well, not according to the British.

Today, Ecuador’s foreign minister announced that the country is granting asylum to Assange. But now, the British government threatens to storm the Ecuadorian Embassy and forcibly extradite Assange to Sweden, where he is wanted for questioning in cases of alleged rape and sexual molestation.

The US government seeks Julian Assange for trial in a US court on charges related to his role in the massive WikiLeaks disclosure of confidential documents and communications. Of course, the US considers these documents to be sensitive and they are each labeled at various levels of “Secret”. The US has laws that govern access, copying and disclosure. It’s safe to assume that the charge would be treason, conspiracy, theft, aiding the enemy, or something related to willful interference with process.

US Jurisdiction: How Can it be Asserted?

I understand all of that. But I have never seen an explanation as to how the US could assert jurisdiction or request extradition. Assange is a foreigner and his acts related to WikiLeaks took place in foreign countries. Does the US assert that anything labeled as “secret” by its military is automatically secret everywhere on Earth? That would be a tough argument, because it would require a bilateral reciprocation agreement. Assange has lived in Nairobi since 2007. Does the US protect documents and extradite individuals over everything that the Nairobi government considers to be a secret?

Of course, the United States is pursuing enablers within or serving in uniform, but Assange is not among them. His actions may have harmed US interests (this is certainly debatable)—but how can the US claim that it has domain over the legality of his acts or his capture and punishment? Having an extradition agreement doesn’t mean that you can demand any individual that you seek. There has got to be a reasonable basis for the extradition. Doesn’t a bench warrant need a viable basis in law?

We Just Want to Try Him for Rape

The Swedes interest in Assange is ostensibly to charge him with a sex crime. That certainly sounds like a legitimate interest that is unrelated to the beef with Uncle Sam. But the Swedish government refuses to guaranty safe passage to a region that is not party to a US extradition treaty. They claim that they are bound by law to turn Assange over to the US. The solution to this quagmire is not simple, but it is achievable. Assange claims that he is willing to face that charge. Why not try him in Ecuador (or the country that becomes his safe harbor from American extradition). If he refuses, he could be tried in abstention by a Swedish court and the court sentence could be negotiated with authorities in the safe harbor country.

WikiLeaks: Is the Wholesale Release of
                   Secret Communiques Ethical?

What about the 900 pound elephant in the room? Can WikiLeaks claim that its mission is moral or ethical (carried out in the current fashion) morality of what Assange has done vis-à-vis WikiLeaks. My own readers at have pressed for an editorial opinion on the whole affair. Has Assange harmed US interests? Does it matter outside of the US? Did he break an “international” law? Should he be held accountable?  Should he be turned over to American authorities to stand trial?

I won’t weigh in on these issues here. The purpose of this posting is to question US jurisdiction and earnestly seek information & opinions on the basis for extradition. If you have knowledge of the law, the basis or the justification for that request, I invite your analysis and comment.

Could the Brits Really “Storm an Embassy”?

I certainly can’t imagine that the Brits would “storm the Ecuadorian embassy”. Good God, man! Regardless of treaties and acts, it is a sovereign country. In fact, I would think that the Ecuadorian could, at their discretion, grant Assange citizenship and then confer diplomatic status. This would compel a host country to guaranty safe passage to the Airport. Isn’t that the whole idea of ambassadors and the exchange of territory? Storming an embassy would place the UK in the unenviable and undistinguished company of Egypt (2011) and Iran (1979~1981). Who can forget the hostage taking? That event spawned a nightly TV show in the US and the career of Ted Koppel.

         Ellery Davies clarifies the intersection of Technology, Law and Public
         Policy. He is a contributor to Yahoo, CNet, ABC News, PCWorld and
         The Wall Street Journal. He is also Chief Editor of A Wild Duck.

Photo Mural—Sam Spratt, Gizmodo