The Assange Diplomatic Standoff Exposes Precisely the Same Side of US/UK as WikiLeaks Cables

everywhere there’s a US post… there’s a diplomatic scandal that will be revealed —Bradley Manning

Yesterday, in anticipation of Ecuador’s imminent (and now announced) official decision to offer Julian Assange, the British sent this letter to the Ecuadorans.

You should be aware that there is a legal basis in the U.K. the Diplomatic and Consular Premises Act which would allow us to take action to arrest Mr. Assange in the current premises of the Embassy.

We very much hope not to get this point, but if you cannot resolve the issue of Mr. Assange’s presence on your premises, this route is open to us.
We understand the importance to you of the issues raised by Mr. Assange, and the strong public pressure in country. But we still have to resolve the situation on the ground, here in the U.K., in line with our legal obligations. We have endeavored to develop a joint text, which helps both meet your concerns, and presentational needs.

Then they sent several vans of police to the Ecuadoran embassy.

In short, the British are threatening to enter the Ecuadoran embassy, purportedly to carry out an extradition for a crime that Assange has not yet been charged with. Actually entering the mission would violate the Vienna diplomatic convention that holds that “The premises of the mission shall be inviolable. The agents of the receiving State may not enter them, except with the consent of the head of the mission.” Craig Murray reports [mirror] that the Brits have decided to do so, in response to American pressure.

I returned to the UK today to be astonished by private confirmation from within the FCO that the UK government has indeed decided – after immense pressure from the Obama administration – to enter the Ecuadorean Embassy and seize Julian Assange.

[snip]

The government’s calculation is that, unlike Ecuador, Britain is a strong enough power to deter such intrusions. This is yet another symptom of the “might is right” principle in international relations, in the era of the neo-conservative abandonment of the idea of the rule of international law.

The British Government bases its argument on domestic British legislation. But the domestic legislation of a country cannot counter its obligations in international law, unless it chooses to withdraw from them. If the government does not wish to follow the obligations imposed on it by the Vienna Convention, it has the right to resile from it – which would leave British diplomats with no protection worldwide.

I hope to have more information soon on the threats used by the US administration. William Hague had been supporting the move against the concerted advice of his own officials; Ken Clarke has been opposing the move against the advice of his. I gather the decision to act has been taken in Number 10.

Now, I suspect with all the attention, with Ecuador’s quick response, and with the presence of a bunch of Occupiers at the embassy, the British may end up just waiting this out.

But even if they don’t–even if they do raid the embassy–I do think the US and the UK are inflicting the same kind of damage to themselves that WikiLeaks did.

If the Brits enter the embassy it will only expose publicly what has become true but remains largely unacknowledged: the US and its allies find international law and protocols to be quaint. That was obviously true under Bush, with the illegal Iraq war and his disdain for the Geneva Conventions. But Obama, too, continues to do things legally authorized only by the most acrobatic of legal interpretations.

Which is why I consider it so apt that one of the most embarrassing–albeit frankly rather minor–details that WikiLeaks published about the Obama Administration is that Hillary ordered her staff to help intelligence officers collect intelligence on their counterparts, including credit card data and biometrics.

A classified directive which appears to blur the line between diplomacy and spying was issued to US diplomats under Hillary Clinton’s name in July 2009, demanding forensic technical details about the communications systems used by top UN officials, including passwords and personal encryption keys used in private and commercial networks for official communications.

It called for detailed biometric information “on key UN officials, to include undersecretaries, heads of specialised agencies and their chief advisers, top SYG [secretary general] aides, heads of peace operations and political field missions, including force commanders” as well as intelligence on Ban’s “management and decision-making style and his influence on the secretariat”.

Frankly, everyone violates diplomatic protection in this way (Bush did so famously in the lead-up to the Iraq War), though we of course have a wider range of resources to dedicate to the effort. So it should not have been treated as a shock.

But nevertheless this generated outrage at how arrogant and cynical Hillary’s order was.

While other cables exposed the Obama Administration to far more legal trouble–such as the one apparently showing that we were targeting Anwar al-Awlaki before we believed him to be operational–it was the exposure of diplomatic spying that seemed to piss the Obama Administration off. Exposure as cynical power brokers, not idealistic world citizens.

Yet if the UK does seize Assange to serve our interests–hell, even just by sending those vans and threatening to do so–it will confirm, in truly astonishing fashion, everything the Obama Administration has been most embarrassed about with the release of WikiLeaks.

Update: As Ian Welsh reminds us, the British showed no such concern over rape allegations when they refused to let Augusto Pinochet be extradited.

Marcy has been blogging full time since 2007. She’s known for her live-blogging of the Scooter Libby trial, her discovery of the number of times Khalid Sheikh Mohammed was waterboarded, and generally for her weedy analysis of document dumps.

Marcy Wheeler is an independent journalist writing about national security and civil liberties. She writes as emptywheel at her eponymous blog, publishes at outlets including the Guardian, Salon, and the Progressive, and appears frequently on television and radio. She is the author of Anatomy of Deceit, a primer on the CIA leak investigation, and liveblogged the Scooter Libby trial.

Marcy has a PhD from the University of Michigan, where she researched the “feuilleton,” a short conversational newspaper form that has proven important in times of heightened censorship. Before and after her time in academics, Marcy provided documentation consulting for corporations in the auto, tech, and energy industries. She lives with her spouse and dog in Grand Rapids, MI.

38 replies
  1. phred says:

    And we can’t have that, now can we.

    I’m on pins and needles waiting both for the announcement from Ecuador and the British response.

    I guess the next blind Chinese dissident will be on his own…

  2. Frank33 says:

    “As a citizen, it is my civic duty to tell the president to stop leaking information to the enemy,” says Benjamin Smith, identified in the video as a former Navy SEAL. “It will get Americans killed.”

    Our Secret Government has been killing Americans and third world riffraff for years. They have failed, even with the assassinations and torture and Drones, to win any hearts or minds.

    The Secret (and incompetent) Government is running another PsyOp against the American people and their own President. Obama is not sufficiently war-like, although some might disagree.

    “Retired” SEALS and other Special Operators, are attacking Obama and and blaming the President for the blabbermouth “leaks”. This is a campaign to continue the Absolute Censorship to continue the wars and make new wars.

    Most of the “leaks” are from the Secret Government as it attempts another fraud for banksters or wars.

    But this cover story is not convincing, being propaganda catapulted from Bushie War Criminals. Obviously US taxpayers are funding this PsyOp one way or the other.

    Smith said the ad campaign pays no heed to political affiliation, and the organization describes itself as nonpartisan and says its focus is on protecting intelligence agents and special operations officers, not on politics.

    But it shares an office with two Republican political consulting firms in Alexandria, Virginia. Its spokesman Chad Kolton worked for the Bush administration as a spokesman for the Director of National Intelligence.

  3. scribe says:

    per German papers, the Ecuadorians are giving Assange “Diplomatic” asylum, rather than “political”, which presumably means he gets an Ecuadorian diplomatic passport.

    We’ll see how this plays out.

  4. JThomason says:

    @scribe: One report indicates protocols require British acceptance of proffered diplomatic credentials to perfect a diplomatic status.

  5. phred says:

    @phred: My initial comment @1 no longer makes sense with the change in title to the post, so let me simply clarify to say that my comment was in response to a title that suggested that Hillary was embarrassed by the Wikileaks cable release.

    And now that Ecuador has granted Assange asylum, let me also say that I am delighted.

    And finally EW, thanks for the update with the link to Ian Welsh. As with the US, in the UK, justice is not blind, with equal application to all, but rather entirely dependent upon who is at its mercy.

  6. bittersweet says:

    On f ace book just now, a link showed up on a bike courier’s site, that is a 64G wik – leeks insurance file released 5 hours ago for seeding download.
    I guess this is the weapon that they have left. If bike couriers are receiving links to it, then how many people worldwide are seeding this information?
    How many secret agents does the US have to raid all of these citizens, if they are scooping up all of our email and monitoring all of the liberal blogs? Surely some college student in South Korea will go undetected when they download from a internet cafe computer?

  7. phred says:

    @emptywheel: No problem EW. I thought a title without a post was odd, but then it was early and I thought maybe you were providing a thread for Assange-related chit chat.

    In any case, my comment wasn’t important, I just didn’t want to leave it in its current nonsensical state ; )

  8. bittersweet says:

    I have been thinking that the British letter threatening the Ecuadorian Embassy is more anti-leaker theater. It would surely be a LOT easier for the US to encourage Assange be allowed to run free in Ecuador, and then just send in “Secret” agents and kidnap him!

  9. Ken Hardy says:

    I believe we must be always be careful, in any discussions of Assange’s current predicament, when we mention the allegations against him in Sweden that we stipulate that he IS NOT accused of forcible rape but for not using a condom and not withdrawing before ejaculating which here is termed sexual assault. Moreover, we should bear in mind that both accusers have requested the withdrawal of their complaints, continue to cooperate with Swedish authorities reluctantly, and have expressed regret for having brought this down on Assange. Here is a link to an excellent Guardian rendering of the story of the allegations.

    http://www.guardian.co.uk/media/2010/dec/17/julian-assange-sweden

    Finally, we should remember that it is a Swedish prosecutor–not a court nor the Swedish government–who, though she states she desires only an INTERVIEW with Assange, has refused all offers to have that interview take place in the UK.

  10. Brindle says:

    Have been reading bmaz’s tweets on this. bmaz come off as as a shallow and petty Assange basher. Disappointing.

  11. emptywheel says:

    @Brindle: I don’t have a particularly high opinion of Assange myself, though I do admire what he did with WL. That’s a sentiment, though, I don’t think bmaz shares.

    Then again, I’ve worked with more of the cables and Gitmo Files, so I’m indebted to Assange, whether I like him personally or not.

    Kind of in the same way many of us are indebted to Steve Jobs, who was a world class asshole.

  12. Frank33 says:

    @Brindle:
    For some reason Bmaz also tried to slander Bradley Manning in a vicious year long campaign.

    Bmaz defends the attacks because of the release of “classified information” revealed from a computer network. All the information has probably been compromised already, because a computer network cannot guarantee any degree of security.

    Manning did help the enemy, the American people.

    Bmaz defended the Kangaroo Court, also repeated the generous Government offer, of 35 years imprisonment, and how we should be grateful for that punishment.

    One thing I accomplished, is that he will never will again tell Rainey Reitman, to “Buck Up Sister”.

  13. phred says:

    @Petrocelli: In the grand scheme of things, Ryan falls well within the diverse political spectrum that runs the gamut from Joe McCarthy to Scott Walker to William Proxmire to Bob LaFollette to Emil Seidel and beyond. In other words, Ryan is par for the course from my home state ; )

  14. thatvisionthing says:

    Just looked at UK Craig Murray’s blog — apparently it’s amazing that I got through — top story is about legality of Assange/embassy:

    America’s Vassal Acts Decisively and Illegally

    UPDATE

    100,000 HITS IN 100 MINUTES CRASHED THE SITE. WE DON’T KNOW YET IF GENUINE INTEREST OR DENIAL OF SERVICE ATTACK. OUR BRILLIANT WEBHOSTS HAVE QUADRUPLED THE RESOURCE, BUT IF YOU CAN HELP TAKE THE STRAIN BY REPOSTING I WOULD BE VERY GRATEFUL.

    Michael Moore quotes Murray but is linking not to Murray’s site but to a repost at http://pastie.org/4521037.

    Here is legal gist I think:

    The provisions of the Vienna Convention on the status of diplomatic premises are expressed in deliberately absolute terms. There is no modification or qualification elsewhere in the treaty.

    Article 22

    1.The premises of the mission shall be inviolable. The agents of the receiving State may not enter them, except with the consent of the head of the mission.
    2.The receiving State is under a special duty to take all appropriate steps to protect the premises of the mission against any intrusion or damage and to prevent any disturbance of the peace of the mission or impairment of its dignity.
    3.The premises of the mission, their furnishings and other property thereon and the means of transport of the mission shall be immune from search, requisition, attachment or execution.

    Not even the Chinese government tried to enter the US Embassy to arrest the Chinese dissident Chen Guangchen. Even during the decades of the Cold War, defectors or dissidents were never seized from each other’s embassies. Murder in Samarkand relates in detail my attempts in the British Embassy to help Uzbek dissidents. This terrible breach of international law will result in British Embassies being subject to raids and harassment worldwide.

  15. earlofhuntgdon says:

    How many birds with one stone? The US would love to stick it to Ecuador generally for having been so bold as not to invite US troops to reside on their soil without specific invitation, which they have not felt obligated to issue. Assuredly they would like to embarrass its present government and, history so often repeating itself regarding US machinations throughout Latin America, the CIA is probably working hard to make that a reality. Then there’s that precedent from some years back about the US mistakenly bombing a Chinese embassy in the Balkans. Mistakes happen, even in peaceful vassals like Britain.

    The US would like to remind the Brits and the rest of Europe that the US is not to be trifled with, no matter how often or how intimately it trifles in their domestic governments and politics.

    Most definitely, Mr. Open Government President and his security state would love to obtain physical possession of Mr. Assange. What better way to trifle with WikiLeaks and discourage its imitators and those who would support them? What better way to make clear to potential domestic whistleblowers, as if he hadn’t done so already, that they would put more than their careers and the well being of their families in harms way should they even speculate about the good that could come from leaking evidence of the harmful, wasteful, criminal conduct of their superiors.

    For Mr. Obama, taking Mr. Assange by the use of (lethal?) force would he a hat trick.

  16. earlofhuntingdon says:

    How many birds with one stone? The US would love to stick it to Ecuador generally for having been so bold as not to invite US troops to reside on their soil without specific invitation, which they have not felt obligated to issue. Assuredly they would like to embarrass its present government and, history so often repeating itself regarding US machinations throughout Latin America, the CIA is probably working hard to make that a reality. Then there’s that precedent from some years back about the US mistakenly bombing a Chinese embassy in the Balkans. Mistakes happen, even in peaceful vassals like Britain.

    The US would like to remind the Brits and the rest of Europe that the US is not to be trifled with, no matter how often or how intimately it trifles in their domestic governments and politics.

    Most definitely, Mr. Open Government President and his security state would love to obtain physical possession of Mr. Assange. What better way to trifle with WikiLeaks and discourage its imitators and those who would support them? What better way to make clear to potential domestic whistleblowers, as if he hadn’t done so already, that they would put more than their careers and the well being of their families in harms way should they even speculate about the good that could come from leaking evidence of the harmful, wasteful, criminal conduct of their superiors.

    For Mr. Obama, taking Mr. Assange by the use of (lethal?) force would he a hat trick.

  17. rugger9 says:

    Since the British government [and one wonders whether the Queen approved this idea even though it’s not necessary for the UK gov’t to proceed] is opening this can of worms, they myopically assume no one will use it against their own missions. Vienna’s requirements are clear and not able to be “tweaked”, much as the Geneva conventions are. Let’s see, the Argentines, Russians, Chinese, Pakistanis, Indians, Irish, Iranians, Saudis, Yemenis, Zimbabweans, et al., all of whom have had issues with the UK in the past, can now point to this unilateral declaration of modified sovereignty and do their own raids for their own domestic reasons. BTW, that would include the USA embassies as well. I for one am not looking forward to trying to keep our secrets in foreign lands where the code rooms are liable to constant attack.

    There’s a reason one plays by the rules, both in finance and in geopolitics. The UK doesn’t rule the waves any more, and we can’t hold everyone down. All this will do is give cover to the Chinese when they decide to steal Taiwan.

    Embassy grounds are the possession of the nation that has it. Any assault on them, “justified” or not is an act of war.

  18. posaune says:

    Hmm. . . anyone remember József Mindszenty, the Roman Catholic Cardinal in Hungary, who sought (political) asylum in the US Embassy in Budapest? He was sheltered at the embassy for 15 years (1956-1971). Even the latter-day Arrow Cross respected US sovereignty.

  19. jawbone says:

    I know that our US embassies are protected by Marine guards, so I’m assumiing there are some kind of military (armed) guarding other countries’ embassies. Or do all US embassies have such guards?

    Could UK forces, either police or military, entering the Ecuadorean embassy lead to a shooting situation inside the embassy?

    A little war?

    Well, that would make for intersting news on the Beeb, eh? And Obama would by proxy have started another military “adventure.” Such a Nobel Peace Prize Prez we have!

  20. jawbone says:

    Oh, and indeed, yes, this is yet one more massive indication the US/UK (pronounced “you suck”) thinks it is above all laws and other nations.

  21. x174 says:

    thanks ew for being on top of this: breaking news & intelligent analysis!

    i think rugger9 at 8:56 hit it on the head:

    other countries “can now point to this unilateral declaration of modified sovereignty and do their own raids for their own domestic reasons”

    just as the busholes spawned this new improved depravity, now obomber will commence to slither and slather that unctuous elixir of corruption all over–making ultra-depravity the new coin of the realm.

    my prediction: the uk is going to back down and let the ‘merican mercs render Assange extraordinarily once he’s enroute to Ecuador.

    let the sickness begin!

  22. tbob says:

    @rugger9: “The UK doesn’t rule the waves any more…”

    Thought you were going resurrect the old “Britannia once ruled the waves, now she waives the rules…” chestnut. Whatever. Once Julian is safely ensconced aboard an aircraft, his safety (and that of the crew) likely disappears. Just my opinion.

  23. earlofhuntingdon says:

    @jawbone: The short answer to your questions is “yes”, although nowadays there are a slew of private contractors performing various “security” tasks in addition to employees working for carefully trained and accountable government military units such as the Marine Corps.

    The British army’s special forces unit, named the Special Air Service or simply the SAS, has long had great skill in the art of assaulting embassies, as well as airliners, commercial buildings, airports and rail stations. The equivalent to US Navy SEAL’s is the Special Boat Service or SBS. Unlike the US for over a century, the UK has no domestic law banning the domestic use of its military forces, and they routinely help in domestic search and rescues, natural disasters, etc. I should add that the military plays games with the names of units so as to put outside observers off the scent of their activities. The SAS in particular vigorously defends its anonymity.

    Up until now, the SAS assaulted embassies to rescue hostages held by armed, murderous terrorists. The FBI’s Hostage Rescue Unit did the same, until Mr. Cheney expanded its remit to include committing extraordinary renditions in his so-called war on terror.

    Now, it seems, the SAS stand ready to assault a foreign embassy in London in order to rescue Mr. Assange from the clutches of a peaceful Latin American country willing to give him political asylum so that they can deliver him to a once neutral country willing to render him not into the hands of its civil or criminal justice system but into the United States and the bottomless pit of its secret prisons. Somehow not surprising, given that predecessor Swedish governments tried hard for decades NOT to reclaim Raoul Wallenberg, who saved thousands of Jews from the Nazis, from Soviet prison.

    Any assault of the Ecuadoran embassy would be heavily armed. It’s possible it would not lead to bloodshed. The police and SAS would no doubt use their version of shock ‘n awe, in an attempt to overwhelm embassy staff before shots were fired. Given the odds, it’s possible the Ecuadorans would order that no defensive shots be fired except to protect such things as the ambassador’s life.

    An armed assault by British forces for the purpose of rendering Mr. Assange would be unprecedented. It could reasonably be called an act of war. In any event, the fallout might be considerable. The US and UK authorities must consider themselves immune to it. They would have Mr. Assange and would have spread fear among neutrals, whistleblowers and defenders of civil liberties worldwide. That, presumably, would be the primary, welcome purpose.

  24. jawbone says:

    T/U so much, earlofhuntingdon, for your excellent explanation — preditions. Kind of gave me chills reading it.

  25. bmaz says:

    @Story of O: @emptywheel: I am not quite sure what that characterization means, but it may be correct. It is foreign law and jurisdiction, so I have had to read and research a little here and there to understand the process. I give my opinion based on that as honestly as I can, irrespective of who the subject is.

    I will admit I am not a personal fan of Assange in many regards, as Marcy noted. However, I do agree there is much value in the material he published. And I think he did publish it as a “journalist” little, if any, different than the NY Times. Should the US charge him, without a hell of a lot more facts different than what we currently understand, I would stand and defend him from that, because I think that is the function of a protected press under the First Amendment.

    But that is wholly separate from Sweden. Say what you will, Sweden has legally obtained, valid on its face, process in the form of a Red Notice absolutely proper and compelling under Swedish, EU and UK law.

    I don’t think the UK ever really intended to breach the Ecuadoran embassy and the decertification process they would have to rely on apparently was never even initiated, much less completed. The little stunt a couple of nights ago seems to have blown up in their face miserably, and that was deserved.

    Also, I think Ian’s analogy to Pinochet is completely misplaced. Pinochet had head of state immunity asserted by Chile. That is why he was not extradited. The second Chile rescinded that, a deal was cut and off he went. Once you scratch below the surface Ian alluded to, it is quite inapposite.

Comments are closed.