As armed police allegedly sit outside the Ecuadorian Embassy in London where WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange has political asylum, questions remain about why his internet connection was cut on 15 October. And while Assange himself may suspect US involvement, the reality may be more complicated.
Ecuador pressured by the US?
WikiLeaks said Ecuador had cut off Assange’s internet access 15 October after the publication of Hillary Clinton’s Goldman Sachs speeches. This increased suspicions that Ecuador’s centre-left government, which granted Assange asylum in 2012 despite US resistance, now saw the WikiLeaks founder as more and more of a liability. WikiLeaks had previously accused the US of leaning on Ecuador to stop Assange from publishing the emails.
Senior US officials have allegedly told NBC News that ‘a message was conveyed to Ecuador’ to encourage action on Assange, though there had been no undue pressure. But Ecuador insisted on 18 October that it simply didn’t want to intervene in US affairs. It said the internet restriction was only temporary, and would “not prevent the WikiLeaks organization from carrying out its journalistic activities”. It also stressed that it did “not yield to pressure from other states”, and that “the circumstances that led to the granting of [Assange’s] asylum remain”.
In 2010, WikiLeaks drew US anger when it released hundreds of thousands of secret documents on the US-led invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, followed by millions of diplomatic cables dating back to 1973. While Sweden wants to process Assange for unrelated charges, he sought asylum in the Ecuadorian Embassy because he believes Sweden would extradite him to the US. There, he fears he could face the death penalty because of his association with WikiLeaks.
WikiLeaks and the US elections
According to NBC News, the US believes the WikiLeaks revelations are part of a Russian intelligence operation aimed at undermining its presidential elections. One senior intelligence official said that Washington sees Assange as “a willing participant in the Russian scheme but not an active plotter in it”.
While the Podesta emails haven’t dropped many fresh bombshells, they have provided a much clearer picture of who Hillary Clinton is as a politician. They reveal her questionable relationship with powerful Wall Street interests and wealthy campaign contributors; her flexibility and responsiveness to outside groups; her yearning for the era when the US could secretly intervene abroad without anyone finding out; and how the Clinton Foundation has ties with controversial groups and states.
All of that could be dangerous for Clinton’s presidential campaign.
Ecuador’s centre-left government has significantly reduced poverty and inequality in the last ten years. And the US has not always looked on that political process favourably. In part, that was due to President Rafael Correa’s decision to close America’s military base in Ecuador in 2009, and the expulsion of the US ambassador two years later.
But today, with right-wing forces on the rise in South America, Correa’s government has fewer regional allies. And with presidential elections coming up in Ecuador, there is also political uncertainty at home. This is all combined with economic difficulties as a result of low oil prices, a strong dollar, and April’s devastating earthquake.
In the interests of ensuring a peaceful transition of power and avoiding the destabilisation efforts in neighbouring countries, the Ecuadorian government is probably very wary of siding with Russia in a brewing conflict with the US. For this reason, Ecuador has been extending an olive branch to the US. Most recently, that included hosting a US trade delegation in efforts to deepen commercial ties.
Assange restrictions as an olive branch?
Former Ecuadorian Foreign Minister Mauricio Gandara insists that “Assange has inserted Ecuador in the U.S. presidential campaign and exposed it to retaliation in case Clinton wins”. Political analyst Santiago Basabe, meanwhile, says the costs of hosting Assange are “growing bigger now because they involve questions of U.S. national security, its tense relations with Russia and the presidential elections”.
But Ecuador is not yet backing out of its commitments to Assange. Nor is it shying away from the WikiLeaks revelations. Instead, it seems much more likely that the focus of its careful positioning is to avoid antagonising the US rather than to protect Clinton. Although Correa has spoken recently about his “personal appreciation” for Clinton, he has also suggested that “primitive policies” like Trump’s could actually revitalise the Latin American left – which would benefit his governing coalition. So it’s unlikely that the restrictions on Assange were all about Clinton.
New York University economics professor Dan Altman perhaps sums the situation up best. Ecuador’s decision to restrict Assange’s internet access, he says, was simply a “costless olive branch” to the US that could pave the way for better bilateral relations at a very difficult time.
Whatever the reasons, however, it’s now very clear that Assange’s leaks are not only affecting Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign; they also risk affecting the internal politics of the nation which has granted him asylum.
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