False Charges Ricochet in the War on WikiLeaks
This weekend, the controversies surrounding WikiLeaks took another strange turn. Late on Friday, the Swedish newspaper Expressen disclosed that WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange was the subject of an arrest warrant arising out of charges by two female witnesses that he had raped them within a three-day period. The late-hours special duty prosecutor, Maria Häljebo Kjellstrand, issued an arrest warrant for Assange, who quickly protested his innocence and charged that the claims against him were a “dirty trick.” Within twenty-four hours, Swedish prosecutors did a near complete about-face. After finishing a preliminary examination of the claims, chief prosecutor Eva Finné, to whom the case was handed off, concluded that the evidence did not justify an arrest warrant, and canceled the one issued by Ms. Kjellstrand. “I do not believe there is any reason to suspect that he has committed rape,” Ms. Finné told London’s Daily Telegraph. She noted that the file would remain open under a downgraded charge of sexuellt ofredande, or unwanted sexual contact, a far less serious offense. One of the women behind the charges gave an interview to the Swedish paper Aftonbladet on Sunday, backpedaling furiously. She stated that she was surprised to learn that the accusations were treated as a rape charge and denied that there had been any encounter with Assange involving violence or force. She suggested that the controversy had to do with Assange’s failure to use a condom during intercourse. In the meantime, Sweden’s Justice Ombudsman was demanding a formal investigation into how the accusations came to be sensationalized by the press on the basis of an improperly issued arrest warrant.
A few points should be noted about this case. First, Swedish lawyers I have consulted state, much like this Swedish blog, that according to Swedish criminal law, rape is an extremely serious offense, and in practice any credible claim will result in the issuance of an arrest warrant. That helps explain why prosecutor Kjellstrand issued an arrest warrant late on Friday. And it also means that Finné’s decision to quash the warrant could only have resulted from her determination based on preliminary review that the claims either were not credible or that they did not amount to rape even if taken as true. Second, under the Swedish criminal justice system, like in many others, the preliminary investigation of allegations of a crime is a secret matter. That is doubly the case in questions relating to sexual misconduct, since disclosure may do severe damage to the reputation of all the parties involved. In this case, the information was fanned in a tabloid-style paper within minutes of its being opened. The prosecutors involved insist that they did not disclose this information. Who did? The Guardian speculates that it was the Swedish police.
Assange, however, quickly laid the blame on the Pentagon. He stated that he had been warned by Australian intelligence to be on guard against “honey traps”—the time-honored ploys that intelligence services use to lure a target into a sexual encounter with someone who then uses the encounter to damage the target’s reputation. Earlier today, however, Assange reversed course on these charges, telling the Sydney Morning Herald, “We don’t have direct evidence that this is coming from a U.S. or other intelligence service, but we can have some suspicions about who will benefit, but without direct evidence I won’t be making direct allegations.”
The Pentagon quickly denounced the charges as “absurd.” But there is no doubt that the Pentagon is seeking to gain from them in its information war with WikiLeaks: when the case first emerged, the accusations were aggressively spread by the Pentagon via Twitter.
As I wrote in “WikiLeaks: The National-Security State Strikes Back,” a highly classified Army Counterintelligence Center 32-page memorandum noted that to eliminate the threat presented by WikiLeaks, the United States would have to strike not simply servers and databases, but against the individuals who were critical to the operation of WikiLeaks. It repeatedly identifies Assange as a target, describes the leaks as criminal acts and advocates “successful prosecutions” to “destroy the center of gravity” of WikiLeaks. The suspicions raised by Assange are thus hardly unwarranted—they match the Pentagon’s own plan to take WikiLeaks out of action. However, there is as yet no direct evidence for the claim that the accusations leveled at Assange were the work of some intelligence service, and even if there were, Assange has plenty of governments anxious to shut him down aside from the United States. But as this incident makes clear, the war on WikiLeaks will be fought with unconventional tools and those following the story are advised to accept nothing at face value.