By Edward Cody
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, December 2, 2010; A08
PARIS - For Julian Assange, the WikiLeaks founder and guiding spirit, it must have been sweet.
Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton was trying to smooth over the embarrassment, while the White House huffed that a criminal investigation was underway. The French government was decrying "the height of irresponsibility," and Pakistan was reckoning with a rebuke from its traditional patron, Saudi Arabia.
Meanwhile, the pasty-faced Assange, a self-appointed knight-errant who has been doing battle with official secrecy since 2006, was in the shadows somewhere - few knew where - undoubtedly savoring the ruckus caused by WikiLeaks' exposure of confidential State Department cables.
In an uncomfortable irony, however, he had to do the savoring in a secret location, because Interpol, the international anti-crime organization, has issued a high-priority "red notice" asking member countries to arrest him.
President Obama's spokesman, Robert Gibbs, has said the U.S. government might want to prosecute Assange, a 39-year-old Australian, for violating U.S. secrecy laws and perhaps even for espionage. But that is not the reason for the notice - at least not yet. Swedish authorities on Nov. 18 asked Interpol to help them take Assange into custody for questioning on accusations of rape and sexual harassment.
The charges were brought by two Swedish women in August after what both described as consensual sexual encounters in Sweden that escalated into something unwanted and illegal. Assange, who has long expressed fear of reprisal from Washington and other governments, denied anything but consensual sex and suggested that the two women were part of a plot to smear his name and undermine his campaign to get government secrets into the open.
Before the women came forward, Assange had sought a Swedish residence visa, hoping to benefit from the country's strong protection of press freedoms. But since then, he has been traveling constantly and staying below the radar, popping up in London, appearing on a videoconference in Amman, Jordan, and answering questions from Time magazine via Skype, reluctant to show himself in flesh and blood.
In the Time Q&A, he said Clinton should resign because of her cable suggesting that U.S. diplomats surreptitiously gather personal data on their counterparts, something Assange said would violate the Vienna Convention on diplomatic activity. Gibbs dismissed that idea as "ridiculous" and said the problem is rather that Assange violated the diplomatic convention.
An underground existence is nothing new for Assange, his associates have pointed out. Driven by his anti-secrecy crusade and convinced that governments are out to get him, he has long avoided fixed residences, borrowing travel funds and sleeping on other people's couches between marathon sessions at the computer.
WikiLeaks announced via Twitter, meanwhile, that it has been the target of repeated hacker attacks since the publication of more than 250,000 leaked State Department communications, a claim in line with Assange's frequent assertions that U.S. intelligence agencies are intruding on his work.
While Assange stayed out of sight, his Stockholm lawyer, Bjorn Hurtig, filed an appeal Wednesday against the Swedish government's arrest order. At the same time, his London attorney, Mark Stevens, said the Stockholm prosecutor's tactics show that she is out to get Assange for more than legal reasons.
"Since Sweden is a civilized country, I have to come to the conclusion that this is persecution and not prosecution," Stevens said in an e-mail to the Associated Press.
One news report suggested that Assange is considering asking for asylum in Switzerland. But that country is known for keeping secrets, so that seemed an unlikely solution. Moreover, WikiLeaks has announced that its next big project is to reveal the confidential documents of a major bank, believed to be Bank of America, which could make the land of numbered accounts an awkward haven for Assange.
A surprising possibility seemed to arise Monday, when a deputy foreign minister of Ecuador, Kintto Lucas, said Assange would be welcome in that South American country. "We are going to invite him to come to Ecuador so he can freely present the information he possesses and all the documentation, not just over the Internet but in a variety of public forms," Lucas announced.
By Wednesday, however, that idea had fallen apart. President Rafael Correa said neither he nor his foreign minister had approved the invitation to Assange and gave a strong impression that they never would.