Assange appears more useful to the wily President Correa than he is to the US authorities
Has Julian Assange, the Wikileaks founder wanted for questioning for alleged sexual offences in Sweden, stumbled into a new role as a pawn in the century-long power game in what Teddy Roosevelt first called "America's backyard"?
The 41-year-old has been more-or-less safely out of reach of the Met Police and their arrest warrant since June in his tiny backroom in the Knightsbridge flat which passes for the Ecuadorian Embassy in London.
But Ecuador's announcement yesterday that it had decided to offer Assange permanent asylum on the grounds that his human rights are endangered by extradition to Sweden has transformed his personal plight into a major diplomatic incident.
Americans, who have been content to put their WikiLeaks humiliation on the back burner as they shift focus to the presidential election, see clear signs of Latin American ‘banana republic' shenanigans.
"Ecuador's decision to grant Assange asylum appears, on the surface, bizarre or even irrational, given the apparent costs," Max Fisher wrote on the Atlantic magazine blog yesterday. "The small-ish Latin American nation has effectively blown up relations with the much more powerful United Kingdom just over Assange... But it's possible that the diplomatic stand-off itself, and not Assange's freedom, is precisely Ecuador's goal.
"Though we can't know the Ecuadorian government's motivation for sure, engineering a high-profile and possibly protracted confrontation with a Western government would actually be quite consistent with [President Rafael] Correa's practice of using excessively confrontational foreign policy in a way that helps cement his populist credibility at home." Correa is playing a canny game in exploiting Assange, whether or not he believes that there is any real threat of his being passed on from Sweden to face the wrath of the Americans with the very remote possibility of a death penalty for espionage.
There is no doubt that Assange's cramped and tedious living conditions in Knightsbridge would be paradise compared to his fate should he ever find himself under lock and key in the States. Americans acknowledge that the treatment in custody of Private Bradley Manning, who fed Assange his WikiLeaks scoop from classified diplomatic traffic, not only amounted to torture, but torture designed to get him to put Assange in the frame as co-conspirator in the leaking of classified documents, rather than the receiver and publisher of the material. That would make Assange a spy. The New York Times explained: "Since WikiLeaks began making public large caches of classified United States government documents, Justice Department officials have been struggling to come up with a way to charge Mr. Assange with a crime. Among other things, they have studied several statutes that criminalise the dissemination of restricted information under certain circumstances, including the Espionage Act of 1917 and the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act of 1986.
"But while prosecutors have used such laws to go after leakers and hackers, they have never successfully prosecuted recipients of leaked information for passing it on to others — an activity that can fall under the First Amendment's strong protections of speech and press freedoms."
Assange's British lawyers claim that they have heard from Swedish authorities that there is a "secret grand jury" impaneled in Virginia weighing charges, but if there is there has been no word of the result.
Manning, his conditions improved after a public outcry, seems to have held out against "co-operating", and as the New York Times pointed out, if Washington charges Assange with the lesser crimes of aiding the dissemination of its secrets, they would have to charge the Times, too, for publishing - along with The Guardian – many of the WikiLeaks cables.
After all the drama, it may just be that Assange is no longer of much use to anyone but President Correa.
Ecuador's president has joined Venezuela's Hugo Chavez in what Washington likes to call a new wave of authoritarian left-wing, anti-American leaders who came to power democratically but are bent on consolidating it through nationalism and stoking the fear of the Yankee. Like most Latin Americans, Ecuadorians have good cause to fear the US authorities. The country sandwiched between Columbia and Peru, the Andes and the Pacific, whose sovereignty includes the Galapagos Islands famed for Darwin's discoveries, was heavily featured as a Cold War playground for the CIA in ex-agent Philip Agee's classic 1975 expose Inside the Company: CIA Diary. The CIA engineered a military coup there in the days of the Cuban crisis.
Since coming to power, Correa has refused to renew America's rights to an airbase used in the drug wars and has presided over the prosecution of Chevron oil for widespread environmental damage. Last year, he threw out an American ambassador who had accused him of hiring a corrupt police chief so that he could more easily manipulate him.
That last was revealed in diplomatic cables published by Wikileaks.
Whether Assange ever makes it to Ecuador against the determined opposition of the Foreign Office is a moot point. But if he does, he had better beware the exploding cigar, infamous emblem of the CIA's covert wars against Castro and all those who cock a snook at Uncle Sam. ·