AFTER SIX-PLUS years of asylum in the Ecuadoran Embassy in London, Julian Assange, the founder of WikiLeaks, was removed from that diplomatic facility Thursday by British police and jailed for up to 12 months for jumping bail back in August 2012. He may ultimately face courts in the United States or Sweden, as well. If these democracies handle it properly, Mr. Assange’s case could conclude as a victory for the rule of law, not the defeat for civil liberties of which his defenders mistakenly warn.
Contrary to much pro-WikiLeaks propaganda, Mr. Assange had no legitimate fears for his life, either at the hands of CIA assassins or, via extradition, the U.S. death penalty, when he fled to the embassy of what was then an anti-American government. Rather, he was avoiding transfer to Sweden pursuant to a seemingly credible sexual assault charge lodged against him in that country. He then proceeded to abuse the hospitality of his South American hosts, most egregiously by presiding over what an indictment by U.S. special counsel Robert S. Mueller III described as Russian intelligence’s use of WikiLeaks as a front for its interference in the U.S. election. Democratic Party documents stolen by the Russians made their way into the public domain under the WikiLeaks label. Ecuador’s new, more pragmatic president, Lenín Moreno, cited Mr. Assange’s more recent alleged involvement in the release of confidential Vatican documents, along with threats against the government in Quito, as reasons to oust him.
Mr. Assange is not a free-press hero. Yes, WikiLeaks acquired and published secret government documents, many of them newsworthy, as shown by their subsequent use in newspaper articles (including in The Post). Contrary to the norms of journalism, however, Mr. Assange sometimes obtained such records unethically — including, according to a separate federal indictment unsealed Thursday, by trying to help now-former U.S. Army soldier Chelsea Manning hack into a classified U.S. computer system.
Also unlike real journalists, WikiLeaks dumped material into the public domain without any effort independently to verify its factuality or give named individuals an opportunity to comment. Nor, needless to say, would a real journalist have cooperated with a plot by an authoritarian regime’s intelligence service to harm one U.S. presidential candidate and benefit another.
Even if it isn’t really about journalism, the Assange case may touch on genuine issues of free expression, as would any matter related to the dissemination of information, secret or otherwise. The Justice Department proposes to try Mr. Assange on a single count of conspiring (with Ms. Manning) to break into a U.S. computer system, which, on its face, does not criminalize the communication of the secrets thereby obtained. Having already given assurances to Ecuador that it will not extradite Mr. Assange to the United States on any charge (including, implicitly, espionage) that might carry capital punishment, Britain should not fear that sending him for trial on that hacking count would endanger freedom of the press.
To the contrary, Mr. Assange’s transfer to U.S. custody, followed possibly by additional Russia-related charges or his conversion into a cooperating witness, could be the key to learning more about Russian intelligence’s efforts to undermine democracy in the West. Certainly he is long overdue for personal accountability.