Jeff Sessions, the US attorney general, confirmed the Trump administration’s interest in Assange last year. Photograph: UPI / Barcroft Images
The Obama administration did not push the Assange issue, but there has been a change under Donald Trump. The US attorney general, Jeff Sessions, described Assange as a priority last year, and over the past few months, the FBI and others have been interviewing various people associated with WikiLeaks.
Long said Ecuador’s president, Lenín Moreno, is not particularly favourable to Assange’s request for asylum, marking a shift towards returning to the US sphere of influence.
He said the greatest pressure during his time as foreign minister came not from the US, but the UK. “The UK was the most aggressive. I had a number of meetings with UK representatives, [including with Foreign Office ministers]. The meetings were difficult. They were tense. There were strong disagreements,” Long said.
“There were some sort of veiled and not so veiled threats it would affect relations not just with the UK, but the European Union, including when Ecuador wanted to sign a trade deal with the European Union. None of this was in writing but it was implied … The UK wanted us to chuck him out of the embassy. That is pretty much what was required of us.”
Assange became a naturalised Ecuadorian citizen in December, having spent more than five years in the embassy. On top of that, the Ecuadorian government offered him a position in December as a senior diplomat, complete with salary, which he accepted. But the UK Foreign Office refuses to recognise his status.
The Metropolitan police deployed about half-a-dozen officers around the embassy 24 hours a day from 2012 to 2015 at a cost of £13.2m. When they were pulled out, partly as a result of embarrassment over the cost, they were replaced by covert surveillance.
Assange’s supporters say the cost since would be roughly the same, making for a total that could be in the region of £26m.
The police presence was stepped up again a few months ago, with marked cars positioned outside the embassy and another in a side-street, with one officer deployed on the pavement ready to grab Assange should he leave, his supporters say. At the time, having been made a diplomat, there were police concerns he might make a dash for an airport, claiming diplomatic immunity.
His supporters are dismissive of the idea of flight as fantasy, given how well-known he is. The Foreign Office has retained his Australian passport, though the Ecuadorian embassy may have given him an Ecuadorian passport.
A court battle is the more realistic option, one his supporters hope he would win if the UK was to baulk at the idea of sending Assange to the US for what could possibly be a life sentence.