Officers of the Metropolitan Police were invited into the Ecuadoran embassy in London yesterday to arrest Julian Assange. I haven’t written much about Mr. Assange here, though I’ve made it clear for a long time that I have little sympathy for him. In some way Assange is like Trump. They both are epic narcissists and people of bad character. They both inspire a kind of derangement among both their supporters and their detractors. My favorite bit of derangement among Assange supporters is the bizarre claim, made by people who should know better, that he has been detained in the Ecuadoran embassy all these years, when in fact he fled to the embassy after becoming a fugitive from justice, leaving his friends on the hook for the bail money they posted so that he could stay in English country houses while fighting his extradition to Sweden on rape charges, and when he has been free to leave anytime he chose.
Sometimes when an odious person takes the public stage you have to grin and bear it because of important commitments—the Nazis in Skokie had to be allowed to march because of our commitment to the First Amendment and the freedom of speech. There was some thought that we might need to take the same approach with Assange. If the government were to charge him with espionage, for example, because he printed the secrets Chelsea Manning stole, how could we distinguish him as a legal matter from actual journalists who printed secrets their sources provided to them? I am happy that the grand jury has not charged Assange with espionage, but instead with conspiring with Manning to steal secrets from the government. The indictment alleges that Assange conspired with Manning and agreed to try to crack a password that on a US government computer. I don’t see any risk to legitimate journalists from such a charge, and so I see no reason to hold my nose and object to the indictment.
The English court to which Assange was taken after his arrest wasted no time in finding him guilty of breaching his bail conditions. It is unclear to me whether the Swedish prosecutor will seek to reopen the investigation of the rape charges there. In any event, Assange was remanded in custody pending an extradition hearing on the US indictment.
Why did the Ecuadorans act? It seems clear that Assange had worn out his welcome. President Moreno called Assange a “miserable hacker” and a “spoiled brat” whose “only goal is to destabilize governments.” But I want also to repeat my speculation from August 2018: the United States has offered Ecuador favorable treatment—perhaps renewal of trade preferences, perhaps better relations in general—in return for a resolution of the Assange problem and the investment treaty arbitration between Ecuador and Chevron, which of course is a US company. Two people who I believe are in positions to know the truth of the matter have told me that there is such a deal. And so I expect that in a relatively short time we will see a settlement of the arbitration announced. But time will tell. I suppose the biggest unanswered question is: will the deal include a provision making the Lago Agrio judgment unenforceable as a matter of Ecuadoran law?