A Break in the Assange Saga

The New York Times, Editorial –  Ecuador and Sweden finally agreed last week that Swedish prosecutors could question Julian Assange at the Ecuadorean Embassy in London, where he has been holed up since 2012. The sooner the better.

Mr. Assange, the founder of WikiLeaks, is central to a critical debate about secrecy, privacy and the public interest in the digital age. And if the United States or any other government has a legal case against him — whether over allegations of rape, which is why the Swedes want to question him, or the publishing of confidential documents, which is what WikiLeaks does — it should no longer be held up by a procedural dispute.

Mr. Assange’s long years in the Ecuadorean Embassy have not silenced WikiLeaks, as the recent distribution of hacked emails from the Democratic National Committee demonstrated. Nor have his years in the embassy resolved questions about the legality or morality of Mr. Assange’s self-appointed mission.

Unlike Pvt. Chelsea Manning and the other celebrated leaker of United States government documents, Edward Snowden — both of whom worked directly or indirectly for the government and released documents they knew they were not allowed to release — Mr. Assange and his organization publish materials others have purloined. The legal issues are therefore different, and it is far from certain that the United States could build a successful case against Mr. Assange, an Australian national.

Mr. Assange’s principles are also a different story. He has been accused even by those who have hailed his exposés of government secrets — including the director of a film about WikiLeaks, Alex Gibney, in an Op-Ed article in The Times on Aug. 8 — of recklessness with personal information and of using leaks to settle scores. The publication of Democratic Party emails came days after Mr. Assange’s denunciation of Hillary Clinton and just before she was officially named the Democratic presidential nominee; neither he nor other WikiLeaks officials would confirm or deny that the hacked information came, as widely suspected, from Russia.

More troubling, the D.N.C. trove included individual Social Security and credit card data whose disclosure served no public purpose.

The 2010 allegations about which Swedish prosecutors want to question Mr. Assange have not led to legal charges, but until recently Sweden insisted that the questioning be done in Sweden. Mr. Assange presumed that would also lead to his extradition to the United States to face charges over the Manning leaks, and so took diplomatic refuge in the embassy.

Whether or not Sweden decides to formally charge Mr. Assange after questioning him, he may still be reluctant to abandon the Ecuadorean Embassy. But at least the focus of this curious saga will move closer to the serious legal, ethical and security issues at its core.

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