In October, I attended a satellite speech by WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange at the Sydney Opera House, where he described the state of his criminal enterprise this way: “WikiLeaks is a rather big boat with a lot of torpedo holes in it that has taken water in and is drifting along and we’re doing our best to keep it afloat.”
Little did I know at the time, he meant this literally. Fox News reports:
Julian Assange’s investors are in the process of purchasing a boat to move WikiLeaks’ servers offshore in an attempt to evade prosecution from U.S. law enforcement, FoxNews.com has learned….
Another WikiLeaks source said attempts had been made to place servers on old military barges in the ocean, in international waters. The source would not say whether those attempts had been successful, citing concerns for compromising the success of WikiLeaks and its future plans to move offshore. WikiLeaks’ servers are now based in Sweden and Iceland, among other locations….
“Then they can keep running WikiLeaks and nobody can touch them,” one source told FoxNews.com. “If you get a certain distance away from any land, then you’re dealing with maritime law … They can’t prosecute him under maritime law. He’s safe. He’s not an idiot, he’s actually very smart”…
If Assange is indeed planning to move his servers offshore, he’s actually not very smart. If anything, such a move would make it far easier for the United States or other concerned parties to take out WikiLeaks’ capabilities.
The Pentagon has offensive cyber-attack capabilities that could do enormous damage to WikiLeaks’ servers. One likely reason those capabilities have not been used is the fact that WikiLeaks’ servers are in Sweden and Iceland. An attack on WikiLeaks would require launching a cyber-attack on the territory of two friendly countries, one of whom is a NATO ally. Thus, WikiLeaks has been free to disseminate classified U.S. government information with near impunity.
But if WikiLeaks’ servers are moved offshore, that is a whole different ball of wax. We can reach those servers without having to worry about violating the sovereignty of a friend or ally. The United States could launch a covert action in cyberspace that would disable and destroy its servers.
Or, if Assange were on board a ship in international waters, the United States could send a special operations team to capture him and bring him back to the United States to stand trial. Assange is kidding himself if he thinks he would find protection from such an operation in “maritime law.” In 1989, the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel issued a memorandum which declared that “the FBI may use its statutory authority to investigate and arrest individuals for violating United States law, even if the FBI’s actions contravene customary international law” and that an “arrest that is inconsistent with international or foreign law does not violate the Fourth Amendment.” In other words, America can apprehend Assange or his co-conspirators anywhere in the world—including at sea.
It is unlikely the United States would exercise this authority if Assange is on the territory of an friendly nation such as Britain or Sweden—though we could seek his extradition. But if he is hiding out on a ship in international waters, there is no need for extradition—the United States can just grab him and bring him to America to face justice.
Or the WikiLeaks ship carrying its servers could mysteriously sink in the deep blue sea—the victim of a “rogue wave” or some other “natural” disaster. The open ocean is a dangerous place. Bad things happen out there.
In other words, WikiLeaks could end up precisely as Assange described it in Sydney: a “boat with a lot of torpedo holes.”