Julian Assange, the peripatetic and elusive founder of the whistleblower web site Wikileaks, put himself at the center of a fine bit of political theater over the weekend when he used his fugitive status at the Ecuadorean embassy in London to demand the U.S. cease persecuting those who seek to hold governments accountable. Having stage managed a diplomatic crisis between Britain and Ecuador that threatens to rupture relations between the two countries, Mr. Assange is milking the incident for all it's worth, but it remains to be seen whether that will be enough to get him out of the jam he's in.
Mr. Assange had been living in London for the last two years after fleeing Sweden to avoid being questioned about two women who claim he raped them. He denied the charges but then conflated the allegations with his own self-serving claim that the Swedish government was acting on behalf of a sinister U.S. plot to punish him for the unauthorized release of classified U.S. military and State Department documents.
Mr. Assange's current status as a fugitive holed up in Ecuador's London embassy caps a convoluted legal struggle to persuade Britain's courts to prevent his extradition. Matters came to a head last week when England's highest court rejected his petition to stay in the country and ordered him returned to Sweden. That's when Mr. Assange showed up at the Ecuadorean embassy in London asking for political asylum, which Ecuador granted last week.
Ecuador has demanded Mr. Assange be given safe passage to the airport so he can leave the country. But Britain, which has taken a dim view of his defiance of its courts, insists it will arrest him if he sets foot off embassy property. Since Sunday, both sides have settled into a waiting game, with neither apparently willing to give ground.
Mr. Assange may well fear eventually being extradited to the U.S. more than the sexual misconduct charges pending in Sweden, though it might be difficult for the Justice Department to justify prosecuting Wikileaks for releasing the same material also published by the New York Times and other news organizations. But that's not the only part of Mr. Assange's claim of victimization rings hollow: His asylum request was approved by Ecuadorean President Rafael Correa, who is no champion of press freedom and who has himself been accused of persecuting journalists who criticized him. His backing of Mr. Assange seems motivated more by a desire to stick his thumb in the eye of the U.S. and Britain than out of any real concern to protect journalists who disclose government secrets.
In any case, Mr. Assange has always more comfortable as an activist and provocateur than as a journalist or even as a whistleblower. Most whistleblowers are motivated by a desire to expose government wrongdoing. But the huge cache of U.S. documents Mr. Assange uploaded onto Wikileaks didn't point to official corruption or malfeasance. Tidbits such as former Libyan dictator Muamar Gadhafi's attachment to his voluptuous Ukrainian nurse, or the lavish spending of a Central Asian warlord on his daughter's wedding, offered titillating details about how U.S. diplomats privately regarded certain foreign leaders, but they were hardly earth-shattering revelations. The Pentagon Papers, this was not.
The indiscriminateness of Mr. Assange's leaking suggests there was no grand moral scheme behind his activities and that he would as soon leak the dinner menu at an embassy reception as the U.S. plan to capture Osama bin Laden. He is basically an Internet bomb-thrower who believes all government secrets are illegitimate regardless of the consequences of revealing them, an anarchic view of the activist's role that doesn't add up to scrutiny in the real world. His claim to the mantle of whistleblower trivializes the actions of those who willingly risk the consequences for exposing actual wrongdoing.
Mr. Assange is a world-class self-aggrandizer whose choices have narrowed dramatically in recent days; he can spend the next few months, years or decades cooped up in Ecuador's London embassy, or he can return to Sweden to face the charges against him.
The U.S. has not formally charged Mr. Assange, though it is actively pursuing a case against Army Private Bradley Manning, who is alleged to have turned documents over to Wikileaks. Private Manning is scheduled to appear at a hearing next week in an Alexandria, Va., federal court, and reports of his treatment while in custody are beyond troubling. Rather than respond to Mr. Assange's egotistical claims of persecution, the U.S. should leave him where he is and focus on finding a just resolution to the Bradley Manning case.