Shadow Government

Assange looks for a home in Ecuador

Much of the initial commentary on Julian Assange's surprise bid for political asylum in Ecuador has centered on the question of, why Ecuador? After all, Assange has fashioned himself as a paladin of free speech and government transparency, even as Ecuador's radical populist president Rafael Correa's campaign of intimidation against his own country's free press has been assailed around the world, including his $40 million lawsuit against a leading newspaper and his systematic shuttering of news outlets that don't display an appropriate sympathy for the government line.

Yet if one understands Assange not as a paragon of freedom of expression, but simply as an angry, maladjusted individual who has sought to damage the United States, not because of its alleged lack of openness, but because he sees it as the guarantor of an international system from which he is completely alienated, then his bid for asylum in Ecuador makes perfect sense.  

Indeed, he certainly would find a home in Ecuador.

For his part, President Correa appears to have his own psychological tics about the United States. Although he received his PhD in economics here, his father was also jailed here for drug trafficking. He has also consistently railed about the "neo-liberal" world economic order, evidently resenting his country's relatively powerless role in it and its relation to Ecuador's recent history of political instability. 

Thus, his presidency has been one of conflict with established international institutions and practices of that order, as well as pretending that the traditional determinants of international power and influence no longer apply. He's all South and no North.

In fact, the quixotic, anti-"system" campaigns of Assange and Correa recently converged when the two sat down together for a fawning satellite interview over the news outlet RT TV (funded by the Kremlin). It was a veritable anti-American love-fest, with Correa telling Assange, "Welcome to the club of those who are persecuted!"

So far, the only response from the Obama administration on Assange's Ecuador asylum bid has been a passive statement from the State Department, saying that it was "a matter between Sweden, the United Kingdom, and Ecuador." 

That may be an appropriate public response, but privately the administration ought to make it clear to the Correa government that there will be serious repercussions if asylum is granted to Assange. The temptation to grant it will be great for Correa, who will bask in the global attention it would bring, as well as further burnishing his radical credentials. So far, his anti-"system" posturing and preening has come at no cost to him. It's time he learned there are limits to such behavior.

Dan Kitwood/Getty Images

Shadow Government

How does a leak scandal end? Most likely with a high profile resignation.

Outrage over the recent national security leaks has been slowly building. It has all the signs of having legs, as they say in the business -- of being a long-term Big Problem, rather than a short-term distraction.

The outrage is bipartisan, and in particular has been voiced with authority and passion by the senior senator from California, Dianne Feinstein, who claims that she learned things from David Sanger's book that she didn't learn as chairman of the Senate intelligence committee.

And the outrage is beginning to have a focus: on National Security Advisor Tom Donilon. Old Beltway hands see the dots as connecting and pointing to Donilon as the most senior, if not the earliest and certainly not the only, source. The focus may be unfair, or at least based only on circumstantial evidence. Undoubtedly others were leaking sensitive information, perhaps without the knowledge or approval of senior leaders like Donilon, let alone his boss, the president. But when folks like Tom Ricks are starting a death watch the focus is likely to stay riveted on White House advisors, and on Donilon in particular.

This is all bad news for the Obama administration, obviously. The issues at the center of this scandal are the very ones that have been rare bright spots on Obama's record, where even his most ardent critics have given him praise. Indeed, what the self-aggrandizing leaking has done is to shift the story-line from how the Obama administration helped protect our national security by successfully pursuing Bin Laden to how the Obama administration has hurt national security by bragging about the operational details of the strike -- a pattern repeated over several sensitive covert operations. The first story-line makes for a nice Democratic campaign commercial. The second story-line is fodder for Republicans.

One way this ends is with a lengthy criminal investigation that may or may not resolve the matter. Andrew McCarthy has argued persuasively that as egregious as the leaking has been, it is unlikely to end in criminal convictions. And it is unlikely to end before the election, leaving the scandal as an open wound that cannot heal.

Which suggests another way this could end: with a high-profile resignation, most likely Tom Donilon's. By all accounts, Donilon is fiercely loyal to the president and completely committed to Obama's reelection. He must see, therefore, the damage this is doing to the administration and must be keen to stop the damage if he can. Perhaps he has already offered to resign; several of his predecessors have tendered resignations over far more minor matters. The current scandal, which is quite serious and far-reaching, would likely have driven a principled NSA to offer his resignation long ago. The fact that he is still on the job may simply indicate that President Obama did not accept the offer.

I suspect President Obama may be reconsidering. In the past, Obama moved fairly decisively to distance himself from other close friends and advisors who became campaign liabilities. This scandal has all the makings of a major campaign liability, and in a close election, this president can't afford the distraction.

 

Brendan Smialowski/AFP/GettyImages