WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange arrested
LONDON â€” British police arrested WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange Tuesday on a European warrant issued by Sweden.
Swedish prosecutors issued the arrest order for the 39-year-old Australian who is wanted on suspicion of committing sexual crimes, which he denies.
Assange was arrested at 9:30 a.m. local time (4:30 a.m. ET) Tuesday and was due to appear at City of Westminster Magistrate’s Court later in the day, London’s Metropolitan Police said.
Assange has been hiding out at an undisclosed location in Britain since WikiLeaks began publishing hundreds of U.S. diplomatic cables online last month.
The organization’s room to maneuver has been narrowing by the day. It has been battered by Web attacks, cut off by Internet service providers and is the subject of a criminal investigation in the United States, where officials say the release jeopardized national security and diplomatic efforts around the world.
Assange’s lawyer had earlier arranged to deliver him to British police for questioning in the sex-crimes investigation.
Lawyer Mark Stephens told reporters in London that London’s Metropolitan Police had called him to say they had received an arrest warrant from Sweden for Assange.
“We are in the process of making arrangements to meet with the police by consent in order to facilitate the taking of that question and answer that is needed,” Stephens said Monday.
Assange is wanted on suspicion of rape, sexual molestation and unlawful coercion in Sweden, and the case could lead to his extradition.
Amid Assange’s personal legal troubles, his WikiLeaks site continued to reveal state secrets.
According to the latest diplomatic cables â€” reported by the U.K.’s Guardian newspaper â€” NATO has drawn up secret plans to defend the Baltic states, Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, and Poland against any Russian threat.
Nine NATO divisions were identified for combat operations in the event of Russian aggression and countries were grouped together in a new regional defense scheme codenamed Eagle Guardian, the cables said.
Such revelations have prompted the U.S. to consider prosecuting Assange, but the rape allegation presents a more immediate issue.
Interpol placed Assange on its most-wanted list on Nov. 30 after Sweden issued an arrest warrant. Last week, Sweden’s highest court upheld the detention order.
Assange has denied the accusations, which Stephens has said stem from a “dispute over consensual but unprotected sex.” The lawyer has said the Swedish investigation has turned into a “political stunt.”
Another Assange lawyer, Jennifer Robinson, said the WikiLeaks founder had voluntarily offered to cooperate with Swedish prosecutors because he “is very keen to clear his name,” but his offers have been refused.
She said it was “disproportionate” to seek an arrest warrant rather than a formal summons for his interrogation.
“Mr. Assange still has not seen the full allegations against him or the potential charges he faces in a language which he understands, which is English, and this is in clear breach of his human rights under the European Convention of Human Rights,” Robinson said in an interview with the Australian Broadcasting Corp.
The pressure on WikiLeaks mounted from other quarters Monday: Swiss authorities closed Assange’s bank account, depriving him of a key fundraising tool.
And WikiLeaks struggled to stay online in the face of more hacker attacks and resistance from world governments, receiving help from computer-savvy advocates who have set up hundreds of “mirrors” â€” or carbon-copy websites â€” around the world.
In one of its most sensitive disclosures yet, WikiLeaks released on Sunday a secret 2009 diplomatic cable listing sites around the world that the U.S. considers critical to its security.
The locations include undersea communications lines, mines, food suppliers, manufacturers of weapons components, and vaccine factories.
Pentagon spokesman Col. David Lapan called WikiLeaks’ disclosure “dangerous” and said it gives valuable information to the nation’s enemies.
U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder said Monday the Obama administration was considering using laws in addition to the U.S. Espionage Act to possibly prosecute the release of government information by WikiLeaks.
Assange has said he and colleagues are taking steps to protect themselves after death threats.
Video: Defiant Assange fights legal, online attacks
Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard told a news conference Tuesday that it is “grossly irresponsible” for WikiLeaks to publish items like critical infrastructure lists.
But she backed away from her comment made last week that posting classified U.S. government documents on the WikiLeaks website was an “illegal” act.
After being pressed by reporters to distinguish between leaking the documents and posting them, Gillard said their publication would not have been possible “if there had not been an illegal act undertaken” in the United States.
She said police were still investigating whether Assange had broken any Australian laws.
WikiLeaks has been under intense international scrutiny over its disclosure of a mountain of classified U.S. cables that have embarrassed Washington and other governments.
U.S. officials have been putting pressure on WikiLeaks and those who help it, and is investigating whether Assange can be prosecuted under espionage law.
In what Assange described as a last-ditch deterrent, WikiLeaks has warned that it has distributed a heavily encrypted version of some of its most important documents and that the information could be instantly made public if the staff were arrested.
For days, WikiLeaks has been forced by governments, hackers and companies to move from one website to another.
WikiLeaks is now relying on a Swedish host. But WikiLeaks’ Swedish servers were crippled after coming under suspected attack again Monday, the latest in a series of such assaults.
It was not clear who was organizing the attacks. WikiLeaks has blamed previous ones on intelligence forces in the U.S. and elsewhere.
‘Born with the Internet’
WikiLeaks’ huge online following of tech-savvy young people has pitched in, setting up more than 500 mirrors.
“There is a whole new generation, digital natives, born with the Internet, that understands the freedom of communication,” said Pascal Gloor, vice president of the Swiss Pirate Party, whose Swiss Web address, wikileaks.ch, has been serving as a mainstay for WikiLeaks traffic.
“It’s not a left-right thing anymore. It’s a generational thing between the politicians who don’t understand that it’s too late for them to regulate the Internet and the young who use technology every day,” he added.
Meanwhile, the Swiss postal system’s financial arm, Postfinance, shut down a bank account set up by Assange to receive donations after the agency determined that he provided false information regarding his place of residence in opening the account. Assange had listed his lawyer’s address in Geneva.
“He will get his money back,” Postfinance spokesman Alex Josty said. “We just close the account.”
Assange’s lawyers said the account contained about $41,000. Over the weekend, the online payment service PayPal cut off WikiLeaks and, according to Assange’s lawyers, froze $80,000 of the organization’s money.
The group is left with only a few options for raising money now â€” through a Swiss-Icelandic credit card processing center and accounts in Iceland and Germany.
Monday marked the first day that WikiLeaks did not publish any new cables. It was unclear whether that had anything to do with the computer attacks.
NATO combat plan
According to the leaked cables, NATO took a secret decision to draft contingency plans for the former Soviet states of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania earlier this year at the urging of the United States and Germany.
The move ended years of division within the alliance over how to view Russia, the Guardian said.
In parallel talks with Warsaw, the newspaper added, Washington offered to beef up Polish security against Russia by deploying special naval forces to the Baltic ports of Gdansk and Gdynia, putting F-16 fighter aircraft in Poland and rotating C-130 Hercules transport planes into Poland from U.S. bases in Germany.
NATO leaders were understood to have quietly endorsed the new strategy to defend vulnerable parts of eastern Europe at a summit in Lisbon last month, the Guardian said.
In Lisbon, NATO and Russia agreed to cooperate on missile defense and other security issues, and hailed a new start in relations strained since Russia’s military intervention in Georgia in 2008. U.S. President Barack Obama has a policy of “resetting” relations with Moscow.
But the WikiLeaks cables point to the underlying tension in the relationship between the former Cold War adversaries.
The plan entailed grouping the Baltic states with Poland in a new regional defense scheme, codenamed Eagle Guardian, the paper said.
Poland, the Baltic states and others were rattled by Russia’s brief war against Georgia and have been irked by large-scale Russian army exercises in Belarus and by Moscow’s new military doctrine that sees NATO expansion as a threat.
The Guardian said nine NATO divisions â€” U.S., British, German and Polish â€” had been identified for combat operations in the event of aggression against Poland or the Baltic states.
North Polish and German ports had been listed to receive naval assault forces and British and U.S. warships, the paper said.
The first NATO exercises under the plan were to take place in the Baltic next year, it quoted informed sources as saying.
Germany and other Western European countries had previously opposed drawing up plans to defend the Baltic states, anxious to avoid upsetting Russia.
Earlier this year, the United States started rotating U.S. army Patriot missiles into Poland.
But the secret cables exposed the Patriots’ value as purely symbolic. The Patriot battery was for training purposes, and was neither operational nor armed with missiles, said the Guardian.