What’s the motive behind Julian Assange’s internet ban?

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A national flag flies outside the Ecuadorian Embassy where WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange is taking refuge, in London, Britain September 16, 2016.  REUTERS/Peter Nicholls - RTSO0FQ

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HARI SREENIVASAN: For the last four years, Julian Assange, the founder of WikiLeaks, the anti-secrecy group, has been staying in self-imposed exile in the Ecuadorian Embassy in London.

He’s taking refuge from a sexual assault investigation in Sweden that Assange claims is an American plot to have him extradited. Over the summer, WikiLeaks began divulging thousands of pages of documents and e-mails stolen from the Democratic National Committee, and, most recently, Hillary Clinton’s campaign chairman, all in an effort, said Assange himself, to damage her presidential candidacy.

Now a new twist in this saga. In a statement issued yesterday, Ecuador said it had cut off Assange’s Internet access, saying in part: “The government of Ecuador respects the principle of nonintervention in the internal affairs of other states. It doesn’t interfere in external electoral processes, nor does it favor any particular candidate.”

For more on this, I’m joined now from London by Raphael Satter of the Associated Press. He’s covered WikiLeaks extensively.

Is there anything more to it than that statement by the Ecuadorian government?

RAPHAEL SATTER, Associated Press: You know, it’s not much more — not much more official.

There is an enormous amount of speculation about what’s going on behind the scenes. WikiLeaks alleges that, despite what the Ecuadorian government has said, they are, in fact, bound to pressure from the U.S. State Department, and, in particular, John Kerry, the secretary of state. Now, the State Department has denied all this.

HARI SREENIVASAN: The batches of e-mails have been trickling out for months, Hillary Clinton’s e-mails, John Podesta’s e-mails for weeks now. So, why now? Why intervene now to try to cut off his Internet access?

RAPHAEL SATTER: It’s quite puzzling, actually.

The timing is a bit of a mystery. And the best people to speak about this are the parties concerned themselves. But neither WikiLeaks nor the Ecuadorian — nor various Ecuadorian officials that we have tried have returned our calls or even deigned to comment. They have communicated via Twitter or through their Web sites in a series of terse statements, which leave a lot to the imagination, frankly.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Is this a sign that perhaps Julian Assange is overstaying his welcome?

RAPHAEL SATTER: I think that people have speculated about how long Julian could stay at the Ecuadorian Embassy in London ever since he came in there.

The Ecuadorians have themselves said that Assange is still welcome to stay as long as the reasons that he sought asylum remain the same. So, there — it doesn’t seem like he is going to get thrown out any time soon.

That said, there have been rumors of tension between Assange and his hosts, and conceivably this could be a sign of that.

HARI SREENIVASAN: The Ecuadorians must recognize that cutting off Internet access to Julian Assange doesn’t mean that they shut down WikiLeaks.

RAPHAEL SATTER: I think they do realize that. And they were at pains to point that out in their statement.

They said that they don’t intend to interfere with WikiLeaks’ journalistic activities. And for it’s worth, WikiLeaks has continued to publish, in fact, public quite aggressively. So, it seems that, for the moment at least, this Internet ban has not hurt WikiLeaks’ ability to publish documents.

HARI SREENIVASAN: And still there’s no word on whether or not Julian Assange could borrow someone’s laptop to try to get instructions across or give instructions over a telephone?

RAPHAEL SATTER: There are really a lot of unanswered questions here.

The Ecuadorians were rather vague in their statements. They said that they were restricting his Internet access. That could conceivably mean a lot of things. That could mean that he can use the Internet for some things and not for others, or it could mean that he’s been kicked off the Internet altogether.

It’s not clear, and no one’s answered our questions, whether Julian Assange can make phone calls, whether he can send text messages, whether he can send courier messages back and forth.

HARI SREENIVASAN: He has a fairly — or had a fairly robust infrastructure. He was able to take part in interviews around the world, including on this program a couple of months ago.

RAPHAEL SATTER: Yes.

I don’t think there is any reason to believe that infrastructure has gone. The Ecuadorian Embassy is not a very large space. It’s a rather modest suite on roughly the ground floor of a red brick building on Hans Crescent, which is near the Harrods department store.

There’s not a huge amount of space, but it’s enough to do TV interviews, to have journalists over every once in a while and even host celebrity guests.

HARI SREENIVASAN: All right, Raphael Satter from the Associated Press, joining us from London tonight, thanks so much.

RAPHAEL SATTER: Thanks for having me.

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