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British Police Arrest WikiLeaks Co-Founder Julian Assange In London


WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange has been arrested in London this morning. The Metropolitan Police say they took him into custody after he was evicted from the Ecuadorian Embassy in London, where he has lived since 2012. Assange took refuge in that embassy to avoid extradition to Sweden and says he believes the Swedish authorities intended to extradite him to the United States. We begin our coverage with WikiLeaks spokesperson Kristinn Hrafnsson, who is on the line from Iceland.

Thanks for taking the time for us.

KRISTINN HRAFNSSON: Well, thank you. I'm actually the editor of WikiLeaks. And I am in London at the moment.

GREENE: OK. You're the editor. I apologize for that. Can you tell me what your understanding is of why Julian Assange was arrested now?

HRAFNSSON: Well, this is outrageous, of course. This morning, the Ecuadorian president, Lenin Moreno, instructed his ambassador in London to revoke the political asylum that he had granted, or the country had granted, to Julian Assange and called in the Metropolitan Police, allowed them into the premise of the embassy, where Julian Assange was arrested and brought into custody.

This, of course, is a gross violation of international treaties and an outrageous behavior in all respects. A country simply shouldn't revoke the status of that kind when it has been granted in the first place.

GREENE: I just want to ask you, I mean, there's - there are suggestions from WikiLeaks that the United States government, maybe the CIA, was involved in all this. Do you have evidence of that, because the British government is saying that they are just arresting him because he violated, you know, the conditions of his release?

HRAFNSSON: Well, of course, there's evidence of this - I mean, a sealed indictment in place that was revealed by mistake in November last year in the United States and an extradition request to the United Kingdom that would be published, of course, and handed over when he was in the hands of the U.K. police.

And what Julian was dealing with in the use of the authorities in the U.K. is a minor offense, relatively, in terms of things. It's a breach of bail condition that usually is finished with a small fine of some nature.

But we know the existence of the indictment that was issued under seal of a court in Virginia. And now we expect it to be unsealed and an extradition request to be handed to the U.K. authorities. That is what we were claiming all the time, and now with this unfolding just as we had predicted.

GREENE: Well, I just want to ask you, I mean, the Justice Department has filed criminal charges against Assange related to the publication of classified documents. I mean, there are many in the U.S. government who have said that Julian Assange put, you know, people serving in the U.S. military at risk, among other things. Can you just explain to Americans why he should not face a day in court in the United States?

HRAFNSSON: Because that sets a precedent. Even if the authorities in your country claim that something has been put at risk, that does not constitute a violation of the right of public citizen journalists to publish information that is relevant and should be in the public domain.

What Julian Assange and WikiLeaks did was basically the same thing as The New York Times did. They published in coordination with WikiLeaks most of the documents that we believe are now being used as the pretext to haul him into court. This is something - it's a violation against - it's an indictment of journalism. That's it.

GREENE: Speaking to WikiLeaks editor Kristinn Hrafnsson, who is based in Iceland and joins us from London this morning.

Thank you very much for your time.

HRAFNSSON: Thank you.

GREENE: I want to bring in NPR national security editor Phil Ewing, who has been listening into this. And, Phil, what is your understanding about the timing of this and why British authorities have arrested Assange in London today?

PHIL EWING, BYLINE: That's a great question, David. I don't know, as we're talking right now, what made the difference today for British authorities, for the Ecuadorian government and the Metropolitan Police. But as we heard a moment ago in your conversation, there were indications that there is a sealed indictment against Assange in the Eastern District of Virginia in the United States. We don't know the basis for that indictment, what charges prosecutors may try to prefer against him.

But he's no fan of the U.S. government. And the feeling is mutual, meaning that there are many potential causes they could select. And so far from the Justice Department, that case appears to remain sealed. There's no indication that any change is taking place there. But now that Assange is out of the embassy and in British custody, that could change in very short order.

GREENE: I mean, are we now going to see, do you think, an extradition to the United States, which really sets up just an enormous moment, does it not? I mean, set the context for this. I just heard the editor of WikiLeaks essentially saying that this is an indictment of journalism. But there are U.S. officials who say that leaking documents like this is against the law for a reason. I mean, this could really be a moment, if this comes to pass.

EWING: It would be a huge moment. That's exactly right. And Assange's supporters and the supporters of WikiLeaks have said all along that he is a reporter no different from any other and what he does is journalism, which is protected in the United States by the First Amendment and in many other countries by their press freedom laws.

The U.S. government and the opponents or critics of WikiLeaks have always said there is an important difference between reporting and dealing with sources and taking material that, in some cases, has allegedly been stolen, including by a foreign government, and putting it out there to try to achieve a political effect in the target country.

That's what prosecutors say took place in the 2016 presidential election when the Russian government - its spy agency, the GRU - used cyberattacks to steal emails and other data from targets in the United States, gave them to Assange, according to the special counsel's office - that of Robert Mueller - the Justice Department - special counsel. And then he released them to try and bring about devastating effect inside the election.

GREENE: Yeah, but we can't forget, I mean, all the ties - Assange, WikiLeaks - I mean, suggested in the whole Mueller investigation, which involves President Trump, of course. Has President Trump weighed in, or have there been signals from the Trump administration as to how they would handle this if he's actually extradited?

EWING: We're still waiting to learn how the U.S. government is going to respond to this. But you're right. One case that's been made is against the political consultant Roger Stone. Prosecutors say that he was a conduit between the Trump campaign and WikiLeaks. And one question that could come out in his trial is whether he did anything more than just talk between those two sides. And...

GREENE: All right. NPR's Phil Ewing. Phil, we got to stop there. I'm so sorry. Thanks so much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.