With the recent news that the US will likely seek to have Julian Assange extradited to the US on espionage charges, it is worth asking the question of whether Assange can be extradited, and on what charges.
First, American authorities that Sweden and the United Kingdom are two completely different countries in terms of how US-friendly they are. Whereas the UK has what has been described as a "special relationship" with the US, Sweden upholds neutrality, has a very independent media and a strong tradition of media freedom. Handing over Assange to the United States, where he would likely be charged for a lot of different things to see what sticks, is therefore much less likely if Assange is first extradited to Sweden.
This is likely one of the reasons why the United States is acting now. The US government wants Assange handed over before he arrives in Sweden, simply because the United Kingdom is more likely to look the other way and send Assange to the United States. The UK's policies has been among the more liberal when it comes to handing over people to the US court system and the country has traditionally been very concerned with its pro-US image. Retaining this may ultimately hinge on sending Assange to what appears to become a mock trial.
What complicates this issue is that the US must - in accordance with its agreements with the UK and Sweden - in some way show how what they do is in fact illegal in the country the target is being held. This, combined with the fact that the United Kingdom may not be able to hold their nose long enough, may make the whole transaction of goodwill vs. Assange, difficult. Such transactions take years and any popular backlash in Britain could certainly complicate this affair. It is worth noting here that the Guardian is actually covering the WikiLeaks cables, unlike its American counterparts. I've written about that in several previous entries.
The question of what Assange will be charged for is a difficult one. He could, as US officials have hinted, be charged for espionage. The evident problem is that it will ultimately be very easy to defend Assange against such charges. Assange can simply argue that he did not partake in any hacking and merely published whatever material he came across. By showing that he did publish material on other countries, he will most definitely be protected by the first amendment.
The problem is, however, the recent tendency where American politicians have sought to have alleged terrorists sentenced in courts and where any failure to get the desired sentence, has been seen as an example of how the system is unable to deliver an appropriate sentence. That a suspect can be found to be innocent is therefore no longer the strength of a system, but its weakness. This means that a suspect is not innocent until proven guilty, but guilty until proven guilty. This sounds like a description of China and it disrupts and puts pressure on a system that still works reasonably well.
This furthermore is also a problem for press freedom. If Assange was in fact to be sentenced for espionage, it would mean that the US would find itself in a situation where whatever the government decides is secret, is essentially out of hands of the media. The media will be able to quote governmental officials, but they will not be able to prove they are lying by publishing secret governmental documents. This situation would mean that Obama could create another Gulag. Reporting on it would be a crime of espionage as long as the fact is made secret/classified.
Any such charges could therefore be made, but it does not necessarily mean they expect a sentence in accordance with it. It is likely that the government will instead throw in a lot of other minor charges, and hope the total sentence for minor things, will be high enough to keep Assange away for a relatively long time. One thing they've spoken of is theft of governmental property, but this is difficult since what Assange "conspired" in was merely copying of documents that by the law cannot be copyrighted.
What is sure is that the eventual result will be highly interesting. A trial against Assange will be heavily covered and it could mean worsening relations with many countries, especially if it appears that Assange does not get a fair trial. Any such operation is risky business for the US, because allies simply may not be able to hold their nose throughout the trial. There is also a chance that some countries may become braver and actually issue an arrest warrant for George W. Bush - an issue that would only highlight the hypocrisy of the current US government further.
But that's for the future (and maybe another blog post).