Alexander J. Urbelis is a unique character. He’s a partner at Blackstone Law Group, a New York law firm, specialized in privacy and security. He’s also active in the hacker community, as a producer for the radio show Off The Hook, from 2600. We asked him about Julian Assange’s future and his evolving reputation among hackers.
As a lawyer, can you tell me what is the most predictable scenario for Assange?
Assange’s departure from the Ecuadorian embassy has set in motion several simultaneous legal showdowns, all of which will no doubt be subject to intense scrutiny and coverage by the world’s media.
First, the London police have already brought Assange before a magistrate judge and who found Assange guilty of failing to surrender to the UK judiciary. The UK courts will shortly impose a sentence on Assange for that charge, meaning that he will be subject to confinement in the UK.
Separately, Assange’s UK legal representatives have signaled that they intend to fight the United States’ request to extradite Assange. Assange will appear in court in the UK in May to begin the process of contesting extradition. This will be a battleground and Assange and WikiLeaks supporters can be expected to use the extradition proceedings to cast aspersions on the US legal system and the dangers of prosecuting journalism. Not surprisingly, the United States Department of Justice appears to have expected this, and crafted the indictment of Assange along very narrow lines. Facing only five years in prison if convicted, it will be difficult for Assange to argue that the US legal system is pursuing him in an inherently biased or overly aggressive manner.
That being said, even though the indictment is narrow and criminal penalty relatively light given the gravity of the information WikiLeaks published, the very fact that Assange is facing this extradition battle could very well lead to dangerous and far-reaching implications for journalists in the United States and abroad that publish source materials on the subject of national security. And simultaneously, legal counsel for the alleged rape victim in Sweden will also be seeking Assange’s extradition if Swedish authorities elect to re-charge Assange for that crime. Under Swedish law, the authorities can pursue these charges until the statute of limitations expires, which would be in 2020.
So, in short, we know that Assange is in legal trouble in the UK and will be sentenced for the crime for which he was convicted [Thursday], that there will be a legal showdown in the UK courts about whether to extradite Assange to the United States, and that Sweden may very well jump into the fray to claim its right to try Assange for rape. My prediction is that Assange will be extradited to the United States and that will be in large part due to the US Department of Justice’s narrow crafting of the indictment and the light prison sentence Assange faces. Regardless, the summer of 2019 will be brimming with stories about WikiLeaks and Assange.
As a hacker what you think is the general opinion of him in the hackers community, especially the American community?
If you were to have asked this question of me several years ago — and in particular before the election of 2016 — I would have said that the hacker community has generally favorable views on Assange. There is no doubt that he is a brave individual, a person who has shed light on secrets that, arguably, should not have remained secret, and that he has spoken truth to power. However, in recent years, that support has waned. Assange’s involvement in the publication of the Guccifer 2.0 documents from the Democratic National Convention during the 2016 election are seen as instrumental to the election of Donald Trump. And recently it has come to light that Roger Stone, a Trump ally an confidant who is also facing criminal charges in the United States, may have had interactions directly or through intermediaries with WikiLeaks during the 2016 election. It did not help Assange’s reputation that Donald Trump famously stated on the campaign trail that he “loves WikiLeaks.”
All of this, together with what many interpret as a smug and narcissistic demeanor, have not been the best way for Assange to win friends and influence people in the hacker community. But there are die-hard WikiLeaks supporters in the hacker community who believe that the mission and purpose of WikiLeaks is embodied in Assange, and support for Assange among that community has not dropped off. But guilty or not, there is no denying that the practices and injustices Assange and WikiLeaks brought to light with the Manning leaks changed the world. And because of that I will be continually conflicted: I applaud the end result but disagree with the means.
What is Chelsea Manning risking now because of Assange? Do you think she was protected sufficiently by WikiLeaks?
As things stand now, I do not thinking Chelsea Manning is facing any legal jeopardy on account of Assange. A military tribunal already tried and convicted Manning for her offenses arising under the Uniform Code of Military Justice, for which Manning was already imprisoned. President Obama then commuted that sentence as one of the last official acts of his presidency. As such, under the Fifth Amendment to the Constitution of the United States, Manning cannot again have those same charges brought against her. If, however, Assange details actions of Manning to US authorities that give rise to separate criminal offenses, it is possible that Manning could face additional charges as a civilian. Given the breadth of charges against Manning, I think this is a very unlikely scenario.
At the moment, the legal issues Manning is facing and for which she is imprisoned are of her own making for refusing to provide grand jury testimony about Wikileaks. Manning’s stance is principled and rooted in the belief that secret testimony is unjust, but in my opinion this is a misguided fight. Grand Jury testimony is secret for a reason: it pertains to ongoing criminal investigations. At the conclusion of testimony, it is up to the Grand Jury — composed of ordinary citizens — to make a decision as to whether there is enough evidence to proceed with a criminal charge.
This protection of WikiLeaks at the cost of Manning’s liberty seems strange to me. As far as I understand things, WikiLeaks did not make overt efforts to protect Manning during the course of her trial. Granted, perhaps there was little WikiLeaks could do aside from try to sway public opinion. But it is critical to remember that in 2017 WikiLeaks pledged that “if Obama grants Manning clemency, Assange will agree to US extradition.” After Obama commuted Manning’s sentence, Assange reneged on this promise and remained in embassy of Ecuador in London.