London: The US Senate Intelligence Committee has asked Julian Assange to give evidence on what he knows about Russian influence in the US election – and the WikiLeaks editor is said to be “considering the offer”.
If he agrees, and the interview takes place, it is likely to focus on Assange’s role in publishing Democratic Party emails that were allegedly hacked by Russian military intelligence then passed on to WikiLeaks.
WikiLeaks published the emails at crucial turning points during the 2016 presidential election – and has been accused of doing so deliberately to hurt Hillary Clinton’s chances.
Russian president Vladimir Putin has admitted he wanted Donald Trump to win the election, though he has denied being behind any interference in the campaign.
According to the official WikiLeaks Twitter account, which was run by Assange until the Ecuador cut off his internet access earlier this year, the Senate committee sent a letter on August 1 asking Assange to make himself available for a “closed interview… at a mutually agreeable time and location”.
Assange has lived in the Ecuadorean embassy in west London since he was granted political asylum there in 2012.
The WikiLeaks legal team said they were “considering the offer but the conditions must conform to a high ethical standard”.
If Assange leaves the embassy he faces arrest for skipping bail, and also potential extradition to the US.
Assange reportedly faces charges under the US Espionage Act for publishing documents given to WikiLeaks by Chelsea Manning, then a US army soldier based in Iraq.
Espionage can attract the death penalty, though this sentence is rarely sought and the US has not executed anyone for spying since the 1950s.
Manning pleaded guilty but her 35-year prison sentence was commuted after seven years by then president Barack Obama.
But Assange faces extra scrutiny over Wikileaks’ role in the 2016 presidential election in the US.
During the election, WikiLeaks published emails allegedly stolen from Clinton’s campaign, and from the Democratic Party’s national committee.
In July, the US Department of Justice charged 12 Russian intelligence officials over their alleged role in the hack that obtained the emails.
The indictment said some of the documents those officials obtained were later released by WikiLeaks.
The indictment claimed they transferred many of the documents to WikiLeaks “in order to expand their interference in the… election”. And it says they discussed the timing of the release of documents with WikiLeaks to heighten their impact.
The Russians were accused of using a fake identity, a Romanian hacker dubbed 'Guccifer 2.0’, to disguise the fact they were a Russian military intelligence operation.
The indictment alleged that WikiLeaks approached Guccifer 2.0, asking in a private message “Send any new material here for us to review and it will have a much higher impact than what you are doing… If you have anything Hillary-related we want it in the next two days preferably because the [Democratic National Convention] is approaching”.
WikiLeaks added “we think Trump has only a 25% chance of winning against Hillary… so conflict between Bernie [Sanders] and Hillary is interesting”.
The Russians sent a gigabyte of data through and WikiLeaks released over 20,000 emails and other documents three days before the convention began. There was another big release of emails and documents taken from the Clinton campaign in October, precisely a month before voting day - and just an hour after Trump’s infamous “grab them by the pussy” tape was made public.
Assange has denied receiving the documents from a Russian source, though he has given no details - saying part of WikiLeaks' mission is to protect the identity of sources.
On the eve of the election, Assange posted a statement on the WikiLeaks website saying it was not partisan in its release of information.
“Irrespective of the outcome of the 2016 US Presidential election, the real victor is the US public which is better informed as a result of our work,” he wrote. “We publish material given to us if it is of political, diplomatic, historical or ethical importance and which has not been published elsewhere. When we have material that fulfills this criteria, we publish.”
He denied being motivated by revenge for the Obama administration’s “inhuman and degrading treatment of one of our alleged sources, Chelsea Manning”.
“WikiLeaks must publish. It must publish and be damned.”
Spokespeople for the Senate Intelligence Committee, chairman Richard Burr and the top Democrat, Mark Warner of Virginia, declined to comment on the letter to CNN.
Their committee has interviewed senior members of Trump's campaign team, though it has released little information about its investigation into possible collusion.
In July, it released a report confirming the earlier conclusion of US intelligence organisations that the Kremlin had attempted to interfere in the 2016 US presidential election to help elect Donald Trump, including through the email server hack.