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Ecuador Suspends Internet Of WikiLeaks Founder Julian Assange

KELLY MCEVERS, HOST:

Several big surprises in the presidential campaign have come from hacked emails released by WikiLeaks. Now Ecuador says it has decided to temporarily restrict Internet access for WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange at their embassy in London. In a statement, Ecuador says they do not, quote, "interfere in external electoral processes."

Assange has been holed up in Ecuador's embassy since 2012, when Ecuador granted him asylum. I talked about all this with Michael Shifter. He's president of the Inter-American Dialogue. That's a think tank in Washington. And I asked him first to explain why Ecuador granted Assange asylum in the first place.

MICHAEL SHIFTER: Ecuador saw this as a defiance of the United States. They saw that the United States was really against Assange, and there was an expression of solidarity. And Ecuador was trying to look for a place on the global stage.

MCEVERS: And this, of course, did not make American officials happy, of course, because of WikiLeaks' release of American documents in the past. Did that matter to Ecuador at the time?

SHIFTER: It mattered less certainly than it does today. Ecuador, four years ago, was doing a lot better economically. Oil prices were still high. And Rafael Correa, the president of Ecuador, was in very good shape, and so he was very popular. The economy is not contracting as it is today. And so this was a way to clash with the United States, but with very little cost. Things were going pretty well in Ecuador, and that situation has changed dramatically.

MCEVERS: Right. So now - why the change? Why've they decided to restrict Assange's internet access?

SHIFTER: Well, it's a combination, I think, of reasons. One is because Assange has gone too far in what is seen as a collaboration with Russia to try to interfere in the U.S. elections and also...

MCEVERS: By releasing hacked emails.

SHIFTER: By releasing hacked emails - correct. And I think even for the Ecuadorian government, which often clashed with Washington, this was going too far and made Correa very, very uncomfortable. And the second reason is because of its own serious economic difficulties in Ecuador. Ecuador needs the United States. There's no free trade agreement, but the United States is by far the largest trading partner of Ecuador. It imports more from the United States than any other country, exports more of its products to the United States than any other country. And it cannot afford to increase antagonism at this time. And so it had a pull back and draw the line and get some distance between itself and Assange.

MCEVERS: WikiLeaks has said that they think U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry pressured Ecuador into doing this. The State Department denies that. What do you think?

SHIFTER: I think this is more of Ecuador's decision, initiative. There may have been some communication hinting that this was of great concern - expressing concern the United States has that this was a serious matter, had global implications and involved Russia. And I think this could have been communicated with Ecuador, but I don't think it was anything threatening or very blunt. I think this was more of Ecuador's decision of just feeling very uncomfortable, very uneasy where this was going and what it might mean in the future for its relationship with the United States.

MCEVERS: That's Michael Shifter. He's president of the Inter-American Dialogue. Thanks a lot.

SHIFTER: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MCEVERS: And during tonight's presidential debate in Las Vegas, we'll bring you live coverage on many NPR stations starting tonight at 9:00 p.m. Eastern Time. We'll be fact-checking the candidates on the air and in real time at npr.org. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.