By Mark Hosenball
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Despite claims by Julian Assange that Washington is plotting to extradite and execute him, U.S. and European government sources say the United States has issued no criminal charges against the WikiLeaks founder and has launched no attempt to extradite him.
Moreover, Obama administration officials remain divided over the wisdom of prosecuting Assange, the sources said, and the likelihood of U.S. criminal charges against him is probably receding rather than growing.
The Obama administration has said Assange's immediate fate is in the hands of Britain, Sweden and Ecuador.
Earlier this year, British authorities obtained a court order authorizing them to extradite Assange to Sweden for questioning in a sexual molestation case.
Assange took refuge in Ecuador's London embassy a few days before his extradition was due to occur and Ecuador last week offered him permanent asylum. British authorities have indicated Assange will be arrested if he leaves the embassy.
U.S. State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said on Monday that Assange was making "wild assertions about us, when, in fact, his issue with the government of the United Kingdom has to do with whether he's going to go ... face justice in Sweden for something that has nothing to do with WikiLeaks."
"So he is clearly trying to deflect attention away from the real issue," Nuland said.
Nuland's predecessor, P.J. Crowley, said that by taking refuge in Ecuador's embassy and demanding that the United States "renounce its witch-hunt" against WikiLeaks, Assange made it more difficult for Washington to abandon what officials acknowledge is a continuing U.S. probe of Assange and WikiLeaks.
Crowley said that Assange, in a speech on Saturday from an embassy balcony, had "challenged the president" to close down the investigation. But Assange's demand made it politically more difficult for President Barack Obama to do that, particularly during a presidential election season, he said.
Assange has "painted himself into a corner and he's going to stay there for some time," said Crowley, who resigned after criticizing the government's treatment of alleged WikiLeaks source Bradley Manning.
Some U.S. officials initially were keen to bring criminal charges against Assange.
For about 18 months, a federal grand jury in Alexandria, Virginia, has investigated alleged contacts between WikiLeaks operatives, including Assange, and Manning, a U.S. Army private who faces court martial for unauthorized disclosure of thousands of U.S. government documents.
During preliminary hearings, prosecutors in the Manning case alluded to evidence purporting to link Manning to Assange. Legal experts said this showed prosecutors were trying to build a conspiracy case against Assange.
Based on emails hacked from a Texas consulting firm, Assange claimed that U.S. authorities issued a secret indictment against him which could result in him being imprisoned at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba or executed.
But authoritative U.S. and European sources disputed this claim, saying no U.S. charges have been filed.
Some U.S. officials have long opposed charging Assange.
One argument is that he is afforded as much protection by the U.S. Constitution's guarantee of press freedom as any mainstream journalist. Another is that filing charges would play into the hands of Assange and his followers, who have been trying to portray him as a free speech and anti-American martyr.
WikiLeaks has been crippled for nearly two years as a result of disputes between Assange and some of his collaborators. It has published no new official U.S. secrets since early 2011.
Instead, it has tried to stay in the public spotlight by re-publishing materials acquired by other groups, such as the computer hacking network Anonymous.
In light of WikiLeaks' waning influence and Assange's behavior, some U.S. and European officials believe that U.S. charges would backfire by rescuing them from irrelevance.
British officials learned that making even vague threats against Assange can energize him and his followers.
During negotiations with Ecuador after Assange took refuge in its embassy, UK authorities privately pointed out to Ecuadorean officials that an obscure British law gave them authority, in extreme circumstances, to strip a foreign embassy of its diplomatic status and enter the premises.
While British officials intended for the diplomatic exchange to remain private and sources said it was not meant as a threat, Ecuador made it public and accused Britain of planning to storm its embassy.
British authorities have said they are determined to carry out the court order to extradite Assange to Sweden, where he faces questioning in a criminal investigation which includes a rape allegation. Assange has denied the charges and suggested they are part of a U.S. plot.
Cecilia Riddseleus, a senior official of Sweden's Justice Ministry, said Sweden had received no extradition request from U.S. authorities, though she added, "it could come at any point" if U.S. authorities decided to go ahead.
If Sweden took custody of Assange from Britain and then received a U.S. extradition request, Stockholm would have to go back to Britain to seek its permission before acting, she said.
Swedish law, she said, forbids extradition in cases where the accused might face execution or where the alleged crimes could be deemed "political."
(Editing by Warren Strobel and Jim Loney)