"Man is least himself when he talks in his own person. Give him a mask, and he will tell you the truth." - Oscar Wilde (a quote repeated by Julian Assange in the introduction to "Underground: Tales of Hacking, Madness and Obsession on the Electronic Frontier," a book he co-authored in 1997)
Since he first landed in a London jail upon his arrest on Tuesday, the only thing that WikiLeaks chief Julian Assange has been requesting is access to a computer.
Of course -- what else would you expect the mastermind behind the online whistleblowing operation that has exposed the closely-guarded secrets of the world's most powerful countries to want?
In a wide-ranging telephone interview with The Huffington Post on Friday, Assange's lawyer Mark Stephens described his jailhouse visit with his client, claimed that the U.S. State Department may be prepared to work out a deal with Swedish prosecutors amid reports of a grand jury meeting in Virginia to consider charges against Assange and expressed his fears that his own family is being intimidated by unknown security personnel. And Stephens said he has not discussed the allegations of rape and sexual molestation made by two women with Assange yet, though he criticized the Swedish prosecutors for resurrecting the charges after they were initially dropped by the country's chief prosecutor.
Assange, who has been kept in the same cell once occupied by Oscar Wilde, is in good spirits and upbeat, "though he's not chuffed to be in jail where he's being kept in Victorian conditions," according to Stephens, who visited his client on Thursday at London's Wandsworth prison, where he was recently transferred from the main section to an isolation unit. Since he didn't bring three sets of clothes, as required in the British penal system, Assange wears a grey tracksuit provided by the jail. He has no material to read -- "it hasn't been library day" and the jail removed several treadmills in recent years so he has been unable to exercise, says Stephens -- and British daytime TV bores him ("he's not a TV watcher anyway").
Stephens, who isn't allowed to visit Assange again until Monday, the day before a court hearing in his case, says that he has not been contacted by the U.S. Justice Department or the State Department, both of which are reportedly seeking to get him extradited to the U.S. to face possible espionage charges.
Stephens says that he has heard that the State Department -- 250,000 of whose diplomatic cables have been leaked by WikiLeaks to the great embarrassment of the U.S. and its allies -- has obtained permission from a federal judge to disclose the grand jury's existence "to the Swedes and the Swedes are proposing to effectively drop their charges if more significant charges come through from the grand jury," though he admits that he has no firsthand knowledge of such a deal.
The Justice Department declined comment to The Huffington Post and a State Department spokesman said he was unaware of such a deal with Swedish prosecutors. Swedish officials, including the lawyer for the two women making the allegations against Assange, did not return calls for comment.
Though U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder has said that prosecutors are exploring a range of possible charges against Assange, whose other lawyer Janet Robinson told reporters that an indictment of her client is imminent, the case could be a difficult one. Any U.S. prosecution of Assange would face unprecedented legal and diplomatic challenges, according to a report by the Congressional Research Service.
"We are aware of no case in which a publisher of information obtained through unauthorized disclosure by a government employee has been prosecuted for publishing it," the report said.
Such a prosecution creates First Amendment and diplomatic hurdles "based on concerns about government censorship," the report said.
Next Thursday, the House Judiciary Committee will hold a hearing on the potential application of U.S. espionage laws to the WikiLeaks case -- the first such congressional hearing since the organization made headlines by leaking documents on U.S. foreign policy and military operations earlier this year.
In addition, leaders in Russia, Brazil, and Assange's native Australia have rallied to support him, calling him a political prisoner. Australian Foreign Minister Kevin Rudd recently said, "The blame for any violations of the law should fall on the persons who gave the documents to Wikileaks. The Americans are responsible for that."
Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, whose Russia is portrayed as a relentlessly corrupt country in some of the diplomatic cables released by WikiLeaks, said it was hypocritical of the U.S. government to try to prosecute Assange. "If it is full democracy, then why have they hidden Mr. Assange in prison," Putin said during a press conference Thursday. "That's what, democracy?"
Meanwhile, several loosely-affiliated Internet hackers continue their cyber-attacks against companies such as Mastercard and Visa, which have turned off the money spigot that has been helping fund WikiLeaks' operations -- without the cooperation of Assange, says Stephens. "He was surprised by these attacks -- he says he had nothing to do with it."
Stephens said that he has not explicitly discussed the particulars of the Swedish allegations with his client. "He hasn't expressed anything to me about the women... there have been reports about this, but I try to keep his mind off of this." He described his frustration that the case was revived after Sweden's director of public prosecutions dropped the case in early November after reviewing the files. "She said there was not a shred of evidence," said Stephens.
WikiLeaks and Stephens have insisted that the charges are politically motivated -- the lawyer says that Assange has not expressed his opinion on whether he was set up. "A number of people have told me that it's like "The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo," but he has not said anything about it," says Stephens.
A lawyer for the women accusing Assange said that his clients are annoyed at the suggestion that their claims are politically motivated. "They were attacked by Mr. Assange and then they are treated like perpetrators themselves," attorney Claes Borgstrom told ABC News. "He has molested them and then sacrificed them for his own interests."
One woman claims that Assange "forcibly parted her legs, preventing her from moving... then had intercourse without a condom," according to prosecutors. The second woman accused Assange of having unprotected sex with her while she was sleeping.
As for the steady drip of diplomatic cables that continue to be published every day by WikiLeaks, they will continue no matter what happens to Assange, says Stephens. "Before he went in [to jail], there was a discussion within WikiLeaks and their traditional media partners and the releases will continue according to a preset schedule, with or without him."
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