The Russian government has loomed large in the WikiLeaks hacking scandal, cast by the US government as a nefarious superpower bent on stealing American political secrets in a brazen effort to influence the presidential election.
But on Tuesday, WikiLeaks alleged that Secretary of State John F. Kerry pressured a much less powerful country, Ecuador, to stop the leaks of Hillary Clinton’s campaign e-mails, which have helped Donald Trump by revealing Clinton’s close ties to Wall Street.
WikiLeaks said that Ecuador, at Kerry’s urging, abruptly cut off Julian Assange’s Internet connection at the country’s embassy in London, where Assange, the founder of Wikileaks, has been holed up for more than four years.
The accusations — offered without proof and vehemently denied by the State Department — added another intriguing twist to what has emerged as a sprawling international subplot to the Clinton-Trump battle.
“While our concerns about WikiLeaks are longstanding, any suggestion that Secretary Kerry or the State Department were involved in shutting down WikiLeaks is false,” John Kirby, a State Department spokesman, said Tuesday. “Reports that Secretary Kerry had conversations with Ecuadorian officials about this are simply untrue. Period.”
Ecuadorean officials released a statement Tuesday confirming they had “temporarily” unplugged Assange’s Internet connection.
“The Government of Ecuador respects the principle of non-intervention in the internal affairs of other states. It does not interfere in external electoral processes, nor does it favor any particular candidate,” the statement said.
The statement added, “This temporary restriction does not prevent the WikiLeaks organization from carrying out its journalistic activities.”
Some political observers said the move was a sign that Ecuador’s leftist president, Rafael Correa, may be worried about the appearance that his country is aiding Russian meddling on behalf of Trump, who is not popular in Latin America.
“It seems to be that Assange overstepped the limits of what Ecuador could consider appropriate behavior by intervening in an election on behalf of a candidate who is considered reactionary,” said Carlos Espinosa, a professor of history and international relations at Universidad San Francisco de Quito. “Ecuador is interested in maintaining its reputation as a progressive state and it doesn’t want to face a very high cost for supporting a candidate . . . who is not viewed favorably by the left or by other Latin American countries.”
Ecuador granted asylum to Assange in August 2012, when he was wanted for questioning in Sweden on accusations of rape and sexual molestation.
Correa has said that he wanted to protect the WikiLeaks founder from the possibility he might have his due process rights violated and face the death penalty if he were ever charged for his leaks in the United States.
Politically, the move allowed Correa to flex his muscles on the international stage and burnish his anti-American credentials at home, according to Latin American political observers.
“He thought this was a low-cost way of kind of poking the US without generating real consequences,” said J.D. Bowen, a political scientist at St. Louis University. Instead, “everyone got themselves into a stalemate here.”
Leslie H. Gelb, president emeritus of the Council on Foreign Relations, said the United States should shut down Ecuador’s embassy, in retaliation for helping Assange distribute internal Clinton campaign e-mails stolen by the Russians.
“Assange has done us a lot of damage and Ecuador, by letting him stay there and granting him effectively diplomatic immunity, allows him to do this, and we ought to put pressure on Ecuador to throw him out,” Gelb said. “Let the Russians find another means of transmission.”
But others who view Assange as a crusader against government secrecy applauded Ecuador for protecting him in the face of international pressure.
“I think it’s quite admirable, ”said Marc Becker, a professor of Latin American history at Truman State University in Missouri. “It indicates the principled nature of the foreign ministry in Ecuador, in defense of the freedom of information.”
Despite some strained relations with the United States, Correa, who has a doctorate in economics from the University of Illinois, warmly welcomed Clinton when she visited Ecuador as secretary of state in 2010. But Correa has been coy when asked about the presidential race.
“If you ask me what’s better for Latin America, the answer I give may shock you: Trump,” he said in an interview with teleSUR in July. “He is so crude that this will generate a reaction in Latin America which will build more support for progressive governments.”
Still, Correa made clear he wasn’t endorsing Trump. “For the sake of the USA and the world in general,” he said, “I hope Hillary Clinton wins.”