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State Department denies pressuring Brits to go in and get Julian Assange

The war of words between Britain and Ecuador escalated Thursday over the fate of WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, but the State Department said the United States is staying out of it. Ecuador formally granted Assange political asylum Thursday as the WikiLeaks founder continues to hole up in the Ecuadoran embassy in London, where he has ...

Dan Kitwood/Getty Images
Dan Kitwood/Getty Images

The war of words between Britain and Ecuador escalated Thursday over the fate of WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, but the State Department said the United States is staying out of it.

Ecuador formally granted Assange political asylum Thursday as the WikiLeaks founder continues to hole up in the Ecuadoran embassy in London, where he has been since June avoiding extradition to Sweden for questioning related to allegations of sexual assault. Earlier this week, the British government affirmed its right to go into the embassy and get Assange, provoking a harsh diplomatic response from the Ecuadoran government.

The war of words between Britain and Ecuador escalated Thursday over the fate of WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, but the State Department said the United States is staying out of it.

Ecuador formally granted Assange political asylum Thursday as the WikiLeaks founder continues to hole up in the Ecuadoran embassy in London, where he has been since June avoiding extradition to Sweden for questioning related to allegations of sexual assault. Earlier this week, the British government affirmed its right to go into the embassy and get Assange, provoking a harsh diplomatic response from the Ecuadoran government.

"The United Kingdom does not recognize the principle of diplomatic asylum," British Foreign Secretary William Hague told reporters Thursday. "There is no … threat here to storm the embassy. We are talking about an Act of Parliament in this country which stresses that it must be used in full conformity with international law."

Ecuador’s Foreign Minister Ricardo Patino said that he fears if Assange is sent to Sweden he could then be sent on to the United States, where he would not be able to receive a fair trial. Patino called Assange an enemy of the "corrupt" media and U.S. "imperialism."

In Washington, State Department Spokeswoman Victoria Nuland told reporters Thursday that the U.S. government takes no position on the extradition of Assange to Sweden and that the United States is not involved in the issue at the diplomatic level.

"This is an issue between the Ecuadorans, the Brits, the Swedes," said Nuland. "It is an issue among the countries involved and we’re not planning to interject ourselves."

Nor has the United States gotten involved on the issue of Assange’s current location or where he might end up, Nuland said. She declined to say if the United States supported the British position that it does not recognize the principle of political asylum in the first place.

Reporters at the briefing pointed out that the U.S. has invoked the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations in the past, which states, "The premises of the mission shall be inviolable. The agents of the receiving State may not enterthem, except with the consent of the head of the mission." But Nuland declined to get into that issue, saying only that the Brits were invoking British law in this case.

"Well, if you’re asking me for a global legal answer to the question. I’ll have to take it and consult 4,000 lawyers," Nuland said. "With regard to the decision that the Brits are making or the statement that they made, our understanding was that they were leaning on British law in the assertions that they made with regard to future plans, not on international law."

Pressed on whether or not the United States has been involved in the Assange extradition in any way, Nuland said not as far as she knows. She added that she doesn’t think the Justice Department was planning on charging him with anything anyway.

"My information is that we have not involved ourselves in this," she said. "But with regard to the charge that the U.S. was intent on persecuting him, I reject that completely."

Josh Rogin covers national security and foreign policy and writes the daily Web column The Cable. His column appears bi-weekly in the print edition of The Washington Post. He can be reached for comments or tips at josh.rogin@foreignpolicy.com.

Previously, Josh covered defense and foreign policy as a staff writer for Congressional Quarterly, writing extensively on Iraq, Afghanistan, Guantánamo Bay, U.S.-Asia relations, defense budgeting and appropriations, and the defense lobbying and contracting industries. Prior to that, he covered military modernization, cyber warfare, space, and missile defense for Federal Computer Week Magazine. He has also served as Pentagon Staff Reporter for the Asahi Shimbun, Japan's leading daily newspaper, in its Washington, D.C., bureau, where he reported on U.S.-Japan relations, Chinese military modernization, the North Korean nuclear crisis, and more.

A graduate of George Washington University's Elliott School of International Affairs, Josh lived in Yokohama, Japan, and studied at Tokyo's Sophia University. He speaks conversational Japanese and has reported from the region. He has also worked at the House International Relations Committee, the Embassy of Japan, and the Brookings Institution.

Josh's reporting has been featured on CNN, MSNBC, C-Span, CBS, ABC, NPR, WTOP, and several other outlets. He was a 2008-2009 National Press Foundation's Paul Miller Washington Reporting Fellow, 2009 military reporting fellow with the Knight Center for Specialized Journalism and the 2011 recipient of the InterAction Award for Excellence in International Reporting. He hails from Philadelphia and lives in Washington, D.C. Twitter: @joshrogin

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