RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
WikiLeaks co-founder Julian Assange has been arrested in London this morning. The Metropolitan Police said they took him into custody after he was evicted from the Ecuadorian Embassy in London. That's where Assange has lived since 2012. He took refuge in that embassy to avoid extradition to Sweden and says he believes the Swedish authorities had intended to extradite him to the United States. NPR's Ofeibea Quist-Arcton is with us now from London.
Ofeibea, this was quite the scene. Television cameras were present when he was removed from the Ecuadorian Embassy. What can you tell us?
OFEIBEA QUIST-ARCTON, BYLINE: Absolutely. I mean, it's so unusual that this sort of case should happen. Now, the British Metropolitan Police are keen to stress that they were invited in by the Ecuadorian Embassy to remove Julian Assange, and they effectively revoked his political asylum. As you know, in 2012, he was in court here in Britain. And he was given bail. He effectively skipped bail by bolting into the Ecuadorian Embassy here in Knightsbridge, a very tony part of London.
At the time, Julian Assange was in very good odor with the Ecuadorian leader of the time, but now he is not. And it looks as if the Ecuadorians feel that he has overstayed his welcome. He has leaked things about the current Ecuadorian president - time to go. That's why they say they called in the British police.
MARTIN: And even though the police were invited into the Ecuadorian Embassy, clearly, this happened with their green light. Julian Assange himself did not go voluntarily.
QUIST-ARCTON: No, Julian Assange, with a long, snowy beard, was escorted out. He didn't look as if he was resisting, but he was being held by very many police officers right into the van. And then he shouted something, which I didn't catch, on his way out. Now, I have to say that WikiLeaks is saying Ecuador has illegally terminated Assange's political asylum in violation of international law when they say he was arrested by the police inside the embassy at about 10 o'clock local time this morning.
MARTIN: I want to bring in another voice to the conversation - NPR justice correspondent Ryan Lucas. Ryan, this has been years in the making. Can you take us back? When was the first time the name Julian Assange came into the public consciousness?
RYAN LUCAS, BYLINE: Well, WikiLeaks first started to pop up around 2008, but it really kind of entered the consciousness of Americans around 2010. And that's when WikiLeaks published a trove of U.S. diplomatic and military documents related to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. They published a video that the U.S. military was very angry about at the time that showed, essentially, a U.S. helicopter opening fire in Iraq on a building where there were men who appeared to be, perhaps, insurgents. But it turns out that a couple of them were, in fact, Iraqi journalists.
WikiLeaks really caused a stir with this release of documents. At the time, that really kind of catapulted the leader of WikiLeaks, Julian Assange, into the public consciousness. And it really was the beginning of this kind of thorn in the side that WikiLeaks became for the U.S. government. And...
MARTIN: We should just note that this is what led to Chelsea Manning being indicted, right?
LUCAS: That's right. Chelsea Manning was one of the individuals who provided those documents - the military documents to WikiLeaks - leaked them to WikiLeaks. Manning actually pleaded guilty to some of the charges, received 35 years in prison over her role in that. President Obama commuted that sentence in the final days of his administration. But Manning has actually been in court recently over what appears to be a grand jury investigation of Julian Assange.
MARTIN: So, Ofeibea, he has been under the protection of the Ecuadorian Embassy for all these years. What has he been doing there?
QUIST-ARCTON: The Ecuadorians will tell you he's been talking far too much. That was in breach of his asylum provisions, which is why, eventually, he has been pushed out. But, Rachel, let me just say that there are several strands, of course, to the Julian Assange story because, of course, there's the U.S. - is he going to be extradited to there or not? Britain has said it will not extradite anyone to a country where they might face the death penalty, if they're not adequately assured, you know? And, of course...
QUIST-ARCTON: That's the case in the U.S., but don't forget Sweden. He was in the courts here because Sweden wanted him to be extradited on alleged rape and molestation charges, which were eventually dropped but may be revoked. So Julian Assange is wanted by very many people. He's hugely unpopular. The Ecuadorians have become hostile to him, although the former leader was sympathetic to him. You know, it's a sort of sunny, chilly day here in London. Julian Assange must be sweating buckets...
QUIST-ARCTON: ...Because, suddenly, he's now in the hands of the British police.
MARTIN: And it sounds like he doesn't have a lot of allies. I mean, Ryan, can you just give us the broad picture of the legal proceedings against Julian Assange here in the United States?
LUCAS: Well, for a long time, the Obama administration looked at possible charges against Julian Assange, but this is a tricky issue because WikiLeaks functions, in many ways - like its supporters will certainly say - like a media organization. It gets government secrets. It releases them to the public so that it can expose wrongdoing or malfeasance by the government. It says that it plays a critical role in doing these things. And this is something that Assange's lawyer in the United States, Barry Pollack, said today. He said that, you know, U.K. courts will need to resolve what appears to be an unprecedented effort by the United States seeking to extradite - and he says here - a foreign journalist to face criminal charges for publishing truthful information. This has been the line from WikiLeaks all along.
But it came out in November in a - in what appeared to be a mistake by U.S. federal prosecutors in Virginia - that Assange appears to be the subject of a sealed indictment in the Eastern District of Virginia. It's not exactly clear what charges may be brought against Assange. But, certainly, that is hanging over him. A spokesman for the Justice Department, Marc Raimondi, said today, we are aware of the reports that Julian Assange was taken into custody by United Kingdom authorities. And he just referred us to British authorities for comment regarding the arrest.
MARTIN: So do either of you - I mean, do we have any sense of, literally, what happens in the next hours or days?
QUIST-ARCTON: Certainly, you hear in Britain the authorities say they want Julian Assange to go through the British legal system because, of course, he skipped bail. You know, to many, he's a truth-seeker and a hero. To others, he's a menace, so question mark about what happens eventually and whether he'll end up in the U.S. or not.
MARTIN: All right. NPR's Ofeibea Quist-Arcton in London, NPR justice correspondent Ryan Lucas in Washington covering the London police, their arrest of co-founder of WikiLeaks, Julian Assange. Thanks to you both. We appreciate it.
LUCAS: Thank you.
QUIST-ARCTON: Always a pleasure - thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.