By Edward Cody
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, September 9, 2010; 7:14 PM
STOCKHOLM - Until a few weeks ago, Julian Assange was riding high.
The self-appointed paladin of uncomfortable truth had just whipped up a media storm in Washington, revealing 70,000 classified Pentagon documents that portrayed the U.S. war in Afghanistan in a way often at odds with the official cheerleading. Further riling the intelligence bureaucracy, his WikiLeaks organization was promising that 13,000 more such documents had been leaked and would be made available soon.
But since that triumph in July, which U.S. officials qualified as a dangerous transgression of secrecy rules, Assange, and by extension his crusade, has been damaged by allegations from two Swedish women that he subjected one to rape and the other to sexual harassment, according to assessments by Assange, his attorney and his associates.
As a result, within WikiLeaks, an amorphous collection of computer wizards who publish data that governments try to keep from the public, some Assange followers have proposed that he back away from his public role, at least pending the rape proceedings. From WikiLeaks' beginnings in 2006, however, Assange has been not only the leader but also its soul; it is an open question how effective the loose network would be without his relentless campaigning.In seclusion
Assange, a lanky 39-year-old Australian with unruly white hair, has gone into seclusion here while Sweden's director of public prosecution, Maryanne Ny, investigates the accusations and decides whether to bring formal charges. In several interviews and online statements, meanwhile, Assange has proclaimed his innocence. He indeed had sex with the two women, he said, but it was consensual in both cases.
The accusations, he suggested, were part of a U.S.-orchestrated smear campaign to undercut WikiLeaks' prestige, discourage potential leakers and, in particular, frustrate plans to reveal the next batch of classified Pentagon documents.
Although the sexual misconduct accusations are murky and the handling of the case has been controversial, no evidence has surfaced that Assange fell victim to some kind of intelligence-agency honey trap, according to Assange's supporters and Swedish journalists who have investigated the case. But if there had been a trap, it was successful, embarrassing Assange and calling his leadership into question.
"There have been headlines all over the world about my being accused of rape. They won't just disappear," Assange acknowledged to Stockholm's Aftonbladet newspaper. "And I know by experience that WikiLeaks' enemies will continue to bandy around things even after they have been renounced. I don't know who is behind this, but we have been warned that, for example, the Pentagon plans to use dirty tricks to spoil things for us."
Birgitta Jonsdottir, an Icelandic member of Parliament who assisted Assange in editing an Army helicopter cockpit video revealed in April, said after reviewing the Stockholm police report that she doubted that the charges resulted from a U.S. manipulation. "But once the reports were in the media, powers that are used to manipulating the media immediately seized on it," she added in a telephone interview from Reykjavik.
Leif Sibersky, a Stockholm defense lawyer retained by Assange, launched his public defense by accusing the prosecutor of procedural irregularities that resulted in unproved accusations being aired in the Swedish press, irreparably damaging Assange's reputation. But Sibersky has been unable to deal effectively with the charges themselves, he said, because the prosecution has yet to provide him with official information on what the women told police.
Ironically, Assange came to Sweden for protection from his enemies. The Pirate Party, a Swedish political group dedicated to free access to Internet information, signed an agreement with him that, according to party leader Rick Falkvinge, was designed to bestow the legal protection of a recognized Swedish political party to WikiLeaks activities here.
Perhaps most important, Assange hoped to benefit from Swedish press protection laws, among the most stringent in the world. Not only are journalists protected from revealing their sources, officials explained, they also are forbidden under law from revealing them if the source requests it. Moreover, they noted, government officials are barred from investigating - or even asking - who the source of a leak was, except in certain cases affecting national security.
Against that background, the nomadic Assange had applied for a Swedish residence permit, saying this country was the only one where he could feel safe from attempts by U.S. and other officials to prosecute him. Editors at Aftonbladet had contracted with him to write a periodic column, giving him status as a journalist so he could benefit from the protective legislation.Tide turns for founder
So things seemed to be going swimmingly when Assange appeared at a news conference and seminar in Stockholm on Aug. 14 that had been organized by the Brotherhood, a Christian affiliate of Sweden's Social Democratic Party, to explain the arrival of WikiLeaks to the Swedish public.
The Brotherhood was acting as Assange's host during his visit in Sweden, and a woman who belonged to the Brotherhood was working as his spokeswoman and assistant. Assange was staying at the woman's home. According to supporters who saw the two together, they were on friendly terms and, at least on one occasion, gave the impression they were enamored of each other.
But by the evening of Aug. 20, that all changed. Assange's host and a second woman appeared at Stockholm police headquarters to complain of his conduct, according to Karin Rosander, spokeswoman for the public prosecutor.
According to reports circulating in Stockholm, Assange's host spoke about a sexual encounter Aug. 16 at her apartment in Stockholm that led to what the police qualified in a report as sexual harassment. The second woman alleged Assange had raped her Aug. 14, after the seminar, at her home in the nearby town of Enkoping, according to those who have seen the police report.
Assange's host, whose name is known in Stockholm but which has not been published, in accordance with Swedish law governing sex crimes, said in an interview with Swedish journalists that she met the other woman at the seminar. When in a subsequent conversation she learned of the alleged rape, she told the reporters, she accompanied the Enkoping woman to lodge a report with police.
Armed with the police report, Rosander said, the prosecutor on call that night concluded that an investigation was warranted to see whether Assange should be charged with rape and sexual harassment. Her conclusion - the opening of an investigation - was leaked during the night and appeared in newspapers and on Web sites the next morning.
But Chief Prosecutor Eva Finne quickly countermanded the duty prosecutor. There was no basis in the police report to believe a rape had taken place, she said, so she halted that investigation. As for the query into sexual harassment, she reduced its severity and ordered an investigation into simple harassment.
After that, the two women retained as their attorney Claes Borgstrom, a former government official and a fixture in the Social Democratic Party. On Sept. 1, Borgstrom persuaded Ny, who is director of public prosecution - and Finne's boss - not only to reinstate the rape investigation but also to expand the harassment investigation to include the allegations of sexual harassment.
The prosecutor has not said when she will hand down her decision whether to order formal charges and a trial. Meanwhile, Assange has been confined to Sweden, and his plans to reveal more documents with another round of fanfare have been crimped.
Asked in an al-Jazeera television interview whether he had fallen for one of the traps he was always warning about, he responded: "Maybe, maybe not."