Welcome to the Hotel Ecuador, Mr. Assange

Julian Assange, charismatic leader of Wikileaks, desperate fugitive from Swedish justice and now the latest member of Interpol’s Most Wanted List, has been sleeping on an air mattress in an office at the Ecuadorian Embassy in London since June 19.  Today, he emerged onto a balcony (which is, technically, in Ecuador) above the street outside (which is, diplomatically speaking, in the United Kingdom) and spoke to his supporters and media flacks, both of which had been camped outside awaiting that performance, some of them sleeping on air mattresses of their own.  He accused the Obama Administration in the United States of conducting a “witch hunt” and called upon America to put an end to it.  About five minutes after he completed his speech, while I relaxed in my living room in Great Falls, Virginia, my land line telephone rang.  As the caller ID immediately revealed, it was my nephew Jason.

Jason: Hi?  Tom?
Tom: Hello, Jason.
Jason: Did you hear about what Julian Assange just did?
Tom: That he came out on a balcony in front of the crowd?
Jason: Yeah.  So what do you think?
Tom: Well, the speech was okay, but since he was up there on a balcony, I would have preferred a spirited rendition of Don’t Cry for Me, Argentina or maybe a decent Mussolini imitation.
Jason: Aw, come on!  This is serious!
Tom: What is?
Jason: This whole thing – the Swedish sex charges, the British legal system, the American witch hunt!
Tom: You mean, your main man, Barack Obama, is engaged in a witch hunt?
Jason: Uh, well, ah… he… I mean, that is… Oh, [expletive]!  He can’t help it, okay?  Hillary Clinton is making him do it!
Tom: Do what?  The US has firmly declared that there’s no secret indictment of Julian Assange.
Jason: And you believe that?  Are you kidding me?  Didn’t reading US diplomatic cables on Wikileaks teach you anything?
Tom: I didn’t read them.
Jason: Really?  Why the hell not?
Tom: Because I have a Top Secret security clearance.
Jason: So?  Could you please explain to me what difference that could possibly make?
Tom: You have to realize that just because Julian Assange posted classified United States government materials on Wikileaks, that doesn’t make them public information. 
Jason: What do you mean, they aren’t public?  The whole [expletive] world can see them!
Tom: But as far as the US government is concerned, those documents are still classified.  And if someone has a security clearance, like me, for example, then, while that clearance allows them to view classified information, it only allows them to view classified information for which they have a demonstrable need to know.  The same laws which grant them the privilege to view classified information they need to know prohibits them from viewing any classified information they don’t need to know.  Therefore, in order to avoid accidently viewing classified information I have no need to know, I cannot view, did not view, have not viewed, and never shall view any of the information posted on the Wikileaks Web site.
Jason: That’s totally insane bull [expletive]!
Tom: No, that’s United States classified information policy.  There’s a difference.
Jason: What?
Tom: That policy was published in the Federal Register, and when something is published in the Federal Register, it’s the law.
Jason: Even if it was totally insane bull [expletive] before it got published in the Federal Register?
Tom: Especially if it was totally insane bull [expletive] before it got published in the Federal Register.
Jason: So, legally, I can look at the stuff on Wikileaks, but you can’t?
Tom: Correct.
Jason: What if I start reading some of it to you – right now?
Tom: Then I will be forced to terminate this telephone call and contact the Federal Bureau of Investigation to report the incident.  Please don’t make me do that.
Jason: Okay, I won’t, but what about all the stuff that got published in the media – all those embarrassing revelations of what American diplomats said about our enemies, competitors and adversaries, not to mention our supposed friends and allies?
Tom: The official United States classified information policy is that information reported in the media cannot be avoided, and therefore, while such information is still classified, knowledge of it is not a violation of federal law.
Jason: Oh, my God – that’s amazing.
Tom: What is?
Jason: What you just said.  It almost makes sense.
Tom: It’s rare, I know, but occasionally, the federal government can accomplish that.  So anyway, yes, I am nevertheless quite aware of the fact that US officials don’t always tell the truth.  But you can’t be too surprised by that, can you?  Don’t you recall what Sir Henry Wotton said about diplomats?
Jason: Sir Henry Who?
Tom: Wotton.  He was English, a long time ago.  He said, “An ambassador is an honest gentleman sent to lie abroad for the good of his country.”
Jason: So you’re saying that lying diplomats are some kind of tradition?
Tom: Essentially.
Jason: And because it’s traditional, that makes it all right?
Tom: That makes it diplomacy.
Jason: But wouldn’t it be better if diplomats all told the truth?
Tom: “And Pilate said unto Jesus, ‘What is truth?’”
Jason: Huh?
Tom: My answer is, no, Jason, I don’t think the world would necessarily be a better place if diplomats always told the truth – what ever that means.  But in fact, most of the embarrassing things that you referred to were just that – diplomats in our embassies sending what they considered to be the truth – in coded, classified diplomatic cables – back to the State Department in Washington.  So, as you can see, sometimes it’s not such a good idea for everybody to know the truth.
Jason: Oh yeah?  Can you give me an example, then?
Tom: Sure.  How about when one of our diplomats wrote back to Washington – in a secret cable that was later posted on Wikileaks, and that I know about because it was reported by the Associated Press – that the Ecuadorian government tolerated police corruption and was seeking financing from Hugo Chavez in Venezuela, as well as from Colombian Marxist rebels engaged in kidnapping, extortion and the cocaine trade?  Plus, there were plenty of instances where revealing secret information put the lives of various people who have helped the United States in real and serious danger, you know.  And as I recall, the State Department begged Wikileaks not to post the content of secret US diplomatic cables for just that very reason.
Jason: Well, you can’t make an omelette without breaking some eggs.
Tom: I agree.  Do you, however, know who said that?
Jason: Who?
Tom: Stalin.
Jason: Okay, but just because Stalin said it, that doesn’t make it wrong.
Tom: Oh, no, on the contrary, speaking of truth, that’s about as true as a statement can get.  And you think that telling the truth is always good?
Jason: Of course it is.
Tom: What if your girlfriend puts on a pair of blue jeans that fit so tight it gives her a muffin top, and then she asks you if they make her look fat?
Jason: Are you nuts?  If I told her the truth, I’d get no nookie for at least a week!
Tom: Okay then, if you can conceive of how it might be in your own best interest to lie once in a while, can you wrap your frontal lobes around the concept that it might also be in the best interests of our nation for our diplomats to lie once in a while, too?
Jason: Hey, look, Tom, that’s all well and good, theoretically speaking and so forth, but what we’re talking about here is the CIA forcing a couple of Swedish women to lie about Julian Assange committing sex crimes on them so the US can get him extradited from England to Sweden, then turn him over to the Justice Department – or maybe even the US military – for an espionage trial and probable execution!  And one of the women already admits she had consensual sex with Assange in the past!  The whole thing is totally bogus!
Tom: All right, I’ll concede that’s not entirely a paranoid conspiracy theory fanatic’s view of the situation.  It’s vaguely possible that Assange might end up strapped to the Timothy McVeigh Memorial Lethal Injection Gurney.  America is nothing if not a bloodthirsty and vengeful nation, no doubt about it.  And while McVeigh certainly deserved what he got, I would disagree that execution is a suitable penalty for Julian Assange’s alleged acts of espionage, and also readily admit that my opinion concerning that, plus five dollars and ten cents, tax included, will get you a cup of coffee at Starbucks.  So – why did you call?
Jason: Because my friends and I figure it’s absolutely essential that we come up with a way to get Assange out of the embassy before the British government moves in and takes him by force.
Tom: Okay, well, yes, the Diplomatic and Consular Premises Act 1987 might be construed to permit revocation of the diplomatic status granted to a foreign embassy by Her Majesty’s government if it can be proved that the foreign power occupying those premises, quote, “ceases to use land for the purposes of its mission or exclusively for the purposes of a consular post,” unquote.  And I know that Her Majesty’s government did some pretty stupid things about that last week, primarily by sending a message to the Ecuadorian government that the Ecuadorians should, quote, “…be aware that there is a legal basis in the UK, which would allow us to take action to arrest Assange in the existing facilities of the embassy.”  But realistically speaking, there’s no way the British are going to storm the Ecuadorian Embassy in London.  The mere suggestion that it might happen caused an international incident.  The Organization of American States has already called for a meeting of foreign ministers at the OAS in Washington on August 24, just to discuss this mess – not Assange, mind you, but rather the outrageous and ridiculous suggestion the British made that they have the right to violate the Ecuadorian embassy.  And besides, the United States used its own embassy in Beijing to shelter a human rights activist named Chen Guangcheng just last May.  The bottom line is, there’s no way the US or the UK is going to take any action that vitiates such a nice, useful thing like that.
Jason: But the Australian Embassy in Washington has admitted that they’re engaged in contingency plans so they can respond when Assange is extradited to the United States.
Tom: That doesn’t necessarily mean the Australians know something we don’t.  It’s probably just some nervous Nellies at the embassy looking to cover their backsides, that’s all.
Jason: That’s easy for you to say!  You’re not holed up in a foreign embassy, surrounded by police, facing trumped-up charges, extradition to Guantanamo, trial by a military tribunal and execution by hanging, lethal injection or a firing squad!
Tom: No, and I intend to avoid ever being in that situation, too, which more than can be said for Mr. Assange, isn’t it?  So, anyway, I take it that you and your friends want to brainstorm up some way of getting him out of this pickle?
Jason: Yeah, we do.  That’s why I called you. 
Tom: All right, in that case, my first and most important piece of advice would be, no matter what he tries, Assange shouldn’t do it until after Tuesday, November 6. 
Jason: Why?
Tom: That’s Election Day.  You didn’t recognize the date?  You are going to vote, aren’t you?
Jason: Oh, yeah, of course I’m going to vote.  But why…
Tom: Because, if he tries to sneak out of England before the election and he gets caught, he will be shipped off to Sweden faster than you can say “wikiwiki” and then the Republicans will insist that Obama extradite him to the United States, just so they can get a few more votes by convincing the public they’re tougher on foreign policy than the Democrats are.
Jason: You mean, if Assange gets into British custody before November 6, he’s going to become a political football for Obama and Romney to kick around?
Tom: Precisely.  And my best guess is, Obama would like to avoid having to do that.  But if the situation comes down to it, Obama will kick the living, gooey, green snot out of him.  He’ll have to – there’s no way the Democrats are going to risk losing the presidency and control of the Senate over a fight with Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan about what to do with Julian Assange.
Jason: Okay, understood.  Nothing happens until after the November election.  But what then?
Tom: Did you and your friends come up with anything so far?
Jason: Well, one thing we came up with is cutting a hole in the wall below the street level so he could escape through the storm sewer system.
Tom: Two things.  First, the storm sewer system, if it’s large enough for a person to escape through, probably has several very unhappy members of the Metropolitan police stationed in it already.  And secondly, since the British don’t consider the lobby of the building to be part of the embassy, it’s a safe bet the basement isn’t considered part of the embassy, either.  So again, there are probably cops lurking in the basement already, too.
Jason: Oh.  Good points.  I guess anything involving him sneaking up to the roof is out, too, then.
Tom: Definitely.
Jason: How about him sliding out a window, down a rope, and blending in with the crowd outside Harrods department store?  It’s just around the corner from the embassy, on Brompton Road.
Tom: Every square inch of downtown London is under surveillance by closed circuit television cameras.  He’d never make it to Harrods.
Jason: How about at night?
Tom: The street lighting downtown never gets all that dark.
Jason: What if, you know, somebody hacks into the grid and there’s a local power failure?
Tom: The cameras are set up with night vision capability.
Jason: But would they work during a power failure?
Tom: The cameras have their own, independent power supply.
Jason: So what if somebody hacks that?
Tom: What if somebody concurrently hacks into the London municipal and CCTV power grids and shuts them both off?
Jason: Yeah.
Tom: I don’t know, maybe, if there was somebody around to create a diversion, and the timing was absolutely perfect.  But frankly, it sounds like something out of Ian Fleming.  If it worked, of course, Anonymous and Assange would get fantastic media play out of it.  But it strikes me as way too risky to be feasible.
Jason: Okay then, another idea we had was to convene a big flash mob of men about the same size and build as Julian, all wearing Anonymous Guy Fawkes masks, in front of Number Three Hans Crescent in Knightsbridge, where the Ecuadorian Embassy is.  Then they provoke the police, who react with rubber bullets and tear gas.  When that happens, several of the demonstrators climb onto the balcony and invade the embassy.  The Ecuadorians chase them out, naturally, but when that happens, there’s an extra guy wearing an Anonymous mask with them – it’s Julian, who mixes with the crowd and escapes to a waiting getaway vehicle when the crowd disperses.
Tom: Not bad – in order to catch Assange, the police would have to arrest everybody in a Guy Fawkes mask.  If the flash mob was sufficiently large, it could overwhelm the available police resources long enough for him to escape.
Jason: Exactly what we were thinking.  But what would you suggest?
Tom: I think that Ecuador should make Assange a citizen, then appoint him to a diplomatic post at their embassy in London.
Jason: Diplomatic post?  What kind of diplomatic post?
Tom: Oh, I don’t know, it really wouldn’t matter much what kind, but obviously, Assange would be very qualified as a Special Envoy for Information Technology and Security, wouldn’t he?
Jason: Yeah, I guess he would!
Tom: And then, of course, the Ecuadorian government would simply recall him from London to Quito for… consultations.
Jason: Wow, that’s awesome!  You think that will work?
Tom: Well, it’s a bit… “in-your-face” with respect to the British, the Swedes and us Americans, and I’m not a lawyer, but it doesn’t strike me as violating any international laws.  On the other hand, the Ecuadorians could always put him in a large diplomatic pouch and send that to Quito.
Jason: A large diplomatic pouch?
Tom: That’s right.  I know one usually thinks of a satchel or a briefcase handcuffed to somebody’s arm when the phrase “diplomatic pouch” is used, but actually, there are no limits on the size that one of them can be.  I suppose the Ecuadorians would want to start shipping out large crates under the auspices of diplomatic immunity on a regular basis right away.  After all, if a shipment of “diplomatic material” large enough to hold a person goes out every three days or so, what can the British do?  Her Majesty’s government certainly doesn’t want to establish a precedent under which other countries could intercept, inspect, weigh, X-ray, open and examine the contents of British diplomatic shipments until they found something… interesting, now does it?
Jason: I guess not.  But how can me and my friends get a suggestion for something like that to the president of Ecuador, or whoever?
Tom: You can’t.  But I can.
Jason: Really?
Tom: Sure.  I have an appointment scheduled tomorrow morning at my office with a fellow from the Ecuadorian Embassy here in Washington.  We’re supposed to talk about agricultural reform policy, but I’m sure I can slip in a couple of minutes about your hero’s tragic plight.
Jason: And you’d do that?
Tom: Why not?  It’s a free country, isn’t it?
Jason: Uh, yeah, I guess it is.
Tom: For the time being, anyway.  All set, then?
Jason: Ah, sure, thanks.
Tom: Okay then, ‘bye!