Finally being called to account for crimes and other outrages ruins any villain’s day, and Julian Assange’s bad day started early Thursday, when he was pulled out of bed at the Ecuadorian Embassy in London and packed off to considerably smaller and less plush living quarters in the pokey. He did not go gently into that rainy English morning.
Handcuffed and dragged to a waiting paddy wagon by a scrum of British bobbies, he screamed to a circle of spectators that “the U.K. has no civility.” Being carried away like a sack of Irish potatoes might make anyone yearn for a facsimile of dignity and civility, but Mr. Assange asked for it.
Not long after his arrest, he answered to more serious indignities, sitting in the dock affecting to read Gore Vidal’s book, “History of the National Security State.” The United States hopes to persuade British courts to extradite him to the United States to answer for breaching national security secrets and publishing them on the Internet for all to read.
The founder of WikiLeaks, the online repository of security secrets that everyone was invited to help themselves is accused of conspiring with one Pfc. Chelsea Manning, a lady (loosely defined) who used to be a Mister, who spent seven years in the pokey until President Barack Obama let her out, for hacking into U.S. Defense Department files where they helped themselves to four databases containing 750,000 documents, including many confidential battlefield reports and secret State Department cablegrams. The lives of thousands of Americans were thus put in harm’s way. Any government worth its bureaucratic paper and ink cannot tolerate that, and for once both right and left, Democrat and Republican agree that crimes like that must be punished.
What the arrest revealed is that Julian Assange’s publication of these files was not the passive act of the frustrated patriot he and his collaborators in press and tube have presented him to be. “During the conspiracy,” the Justice Department says, “Manning and Assange engaged in real-time discussions regarding Manning’s transmissions of classified records to Assange. The discussions also reflect Assange actively encouraging Manning to provide more information. At one point Mr. Assange told the private: ‘Curious eyes never run dry in my experience.’ “
This is the commutation that Barack Obama might like to have back for further reconsideration. Private Manning, like most felons run to ground, had been properly remorseful at his sentencing, but as it turns out he was sorry only for getting caught. Now he’s back in the maw of the law for contempt for having refused to testify in the WikiLeaks proceedings.
This episode will be a learning moment, if not a teaching moment, for a lot of collaborators. Mr. Assange, innocent until proved guilty (as everyone is), was applauded by many whistle-blowing fans as a front man for leakers everywhere, cheered by campaigners for government transparency about war crimes. Now some of those hero-worshippers will be horrified anew when the extent of Mr. Assange’s document drops are made clear in court.
The documents, dating from 2010, included 90,000 classified military files from the Afghan war, 400,000 from Iraq and 250,000 U.S. diplomatic cables covering almost every nation in the world.
Now the whistleblowers themselves will learn an expensive lesson. Mr. Assange has been called to account for crimes large and small, from jumping bail to grave violations of laws against espionage and treason. His lawyers are girded for a struggle over extradition to the United States, where his lawyers fear he could be tried for treason or espionage and face the prospect of the noose. His lawyers fear that death penalty, and President Lenin Moreno said Ecuador would not extradite Mr. Assange to a country with the ultimate penalty.
He has been living the life of “an astronaut on a space station” for seven years in a small apartment within the Ecuadorian Embassy. He exercises on a treadmill and uses a sun lamp as a substitute for the sun. The walls have begun closing in on him, in the telling of friends and supporters, and his weary hosts have come to regard him as the man who came to dinner and never went home.
Julian Assange and Chelsea Manning cast their purloined secrets on the wind unedited, unredacted and unexamined for the risks they posed to the innocent. The idea seemed to be that the innocent would just have to take care of themselves, and if some of them had to die, well, that’s just a risk the leakers were willing to take. There’s a broken heart for every light on Broadway, after all, and every omelet has a broken egg or two in it. Somebody has to suffer for a greater good, and all that. Now we’re about to see who else can suffer.
• Wesley Pruden is editor in chief emeritus of The Times.