What legacy will WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange leave behind?
“Can you say to the American people, unequivocally, that you did not get this information about the DNC, John Podesta’s emails, can you tell the American people 1,000 percent you did not get it from Russia or anybody associated with Russia?” Fox News host Sean Hannity asked Wikileaks founder, editor-in-chief and self-styled leader Julian Assange during a televised interview.
“Yes,” Assange confirmed. “We can say — we have said repeatedly — over the last two months that our source is not the Russian government and it is not a state party.”
It’s January 2017 — two months after the most contentious federal election in living memory, just days away from the inauguration of President-elect Donald Trump — and Wikileaks is riding a wave of right-wing enthusiasm for its role in the release of troves of emails stolen (allegedly by Russian-backed hackers) from the Democratic National Committee during the course of the campaign.
Neither Assange’s assertion, nor his legal and political outlook, has aged well since then. According to recent news reports, Assange is potentially hurtling toward the end of his six-year stay at the Ecuadorian embassy in London, where he has sought refuge since 2012 to avoid arrest warrants from Sweden on a pair of rape charges and then from the US for the site’s role in the 2016 election interference.
Should the Ecuadorians, quite literally, kick him to the curb, it will mark a final indignity in the fall from grace of an organization founded on the principles of radical transparency but which has arguably mutated into a opaque partisan mouthpiece.
In 2006, the Sunshine Press registered the domain WikiLeaks.org and launched the site as part of a non-profit organization focused on collecting and publishing sensitive information. The organization initially began operations in Stockholm, Sweden, due to the Nordic nation’s strong support of internet publications against potential censorship. Its founding team consisted of a small group of technologists, journalists and mathematicians from around the world. The site claims to have collected a hoard of 10 million documents since its founding.
Privacy and information security were of paramount importance to the fledgling organization. Members communicated only through a restricted mailing list and operated largely in secret. When the team received a leak, they would hand off the information to an anonymous volunteer who would work to verify the data. Though the original intent was to use these leaks and disclosures as a bulwark against shady governments, WikiLeaks’ own clandestine nature would soon prove to be a liability.
The original iteration of the site operated much like Wikipedia, the site from which WikiLeaks derives its name. Users and members of the public, the theory went, would collaborate to write analytic articles based on the documents the site could obtain. It turns out that unlike for Wikipedia articles, most folks aren’t particularly interested in poring over government documents for fun. As such, the organization found itself in need of a signal boost from the mainstream media.
In August 2007, WikiLeaks partnered with UK-based newspaper The Guardian and released a trove of documents and evidence that Daniel arap Moi, the president of Kenya, had been busy embezzling money from his own government. In November of that year, they published the Operating Procedures for Camp Delta, the Army’s handbook to the Guantanamo Bay detention facility.
Throughout 2008 and 2009, the organization released documents alleging that the Swiss Bank Julius Baer was mishandling funds in its Cayman Island branch (which got Wikileaks sued and temporarily taken offline), emails from Republican vice-presidential candidate Sarah Palin’s personal Yahoo account, the “secret bibles” of the Church of Scientology, and the membership list of the far-right British National Party. It also released more than 500,000 pager messages sent during the 9/11 attacks.
However, it wasn’t until 2010 that WikiLeaks became a household name with the release of classified information about military activity in Iraq and Afghanistan. These documents and videos were obtained by Army PFC. Chelsea Manning who subsequently leaked them to the organization. In April, WikiLeaks released a video, dubbed “Collateral Murder”, of a US Apache helicopter firing on and killing civilians, including two journalists. This video marked a distinct departure from earlier releases. Rather than be put together by the community and designed to relay information, the Apache video was professionally produced and designed to impart a political point of view.
That July, the group posted six years of classified military documents, dubbed the Kabul War Diaries, relating to operations in Afghanistan, and followed it up in October with another classified document dump, this time regarding the Iraq War.
To cap off the year, Wikileaks released a massive trove of American diplomatic cables, much to the chagrin of the State Department. The diplomatic cables release proved to be another departure from the organization’s earlier efforts. Rather than simply dumping unredacted information onto the internet for the public to sift through, WikiLeaks worked in close conjunction with mainstream news outlets — Le Monde, El Pais, The Guardian and Der Spiegel — to analyze, curate (and responsibly redact) the documents before their release.
For all the notoriety that WikiLeaks gained in 2010, the company struggled financially. The previous December, WikiLeaks temporarily restricted access to its site (save for submitting new leaks), citing a lack of funds. The site’s financial woes continued into 2011, when Assange temporarily pulled it offline in order to “aggressively fundraise,” citing a “financial blockade” against the organization by Bank of America, VISA, MasterCard, PayPal and Western Union that reduced its income from donations by 95 percent.
“The blockade is outside of any accountable, public process. It is without democratic oversight or transparency,” WikiLeaks wrote in a 2010 press statement. “The US government itself found that there were no lawful grounds to add WikiLeaks to a US financial blockade. But the blockade of WikiLeaks by politicized US finance companies continues regardless.”
While WikiLeaks struggled to keep the lights on, Julian Assange was facing his own trials — or at least doing his best to avoid them. In August 2010, Assange was investigated for rape and molestation charges filed against him by two women in Sweden. That November, Swedish authorities issued an extradition warrant in relation to the accusations, though Assange feared that the Swedes would turn him over to the American authorities who were also investigating WikiLeaks regarding the classified document dumps.
Assange spent most of 2011 in court fighting that extradition order but eventually lost his case in 2012. At that point he lobbied for and was granted asylum by the Ecuadorian government. Assange has since spent six years hiding out in the Ecuadorian Embassy in London, even though the warrant for the rapes has since reached its statute of limitations.
While Assange fancies himself as the spokesman for WikiLeaks, he’s been accused of running the organization as something closer akin to a dictatorship. For example, his unilateral decision to release an unredacted version the Kabul War Diaries — over the objections of his own staff, no less — was met with outrage by human rights groups.
“We have seen the negative, sometimes deadly ramifications for those Afghans identified as working for or sympathizing with international forces,” Amnesty International wrote to WikiLeaks. “We strongly urge your volunteers and staff to analyze all documents to ensure that those containing identifying information are taken down or redacted.”
What’s more, his production and release of the Collateral Murder video so enraged German technology activist Daniel Domscheit-Berg, that he quit outright as WikiLeaks’ de facto second-in-command.
“WikiLeaks has a structural problem,” Domscheit-Berg told Der Spiegel. “I no longer want to take responsibility for it, and that’s why I am leaving the project.” Icelandic MP Birgitta Jonsdottir also resigned from the organization in protest over that video.
Over the course of his confinement, the tone and substance of what WikiLeaks releases has gradually shifted. These days, you’ll be hard pressed to find information that’s embarrassing, much less damaging, to Russian interests on the whistleblower site. The same cannot be said about information relating to the Democratic Party.
During the course of the 2016 election, WikiLeaks repeatedly served as a launching pad for embarrassing and politically damaging information about the DNC and presidential candidate Hillary Clinton.
“I love WikiLeaks” Donald Trump – Oct. 10, 2016.
On July 4th, the organization tweeted a link to a collection of emails garnered from Clinton’s personal email server regarding the Iraq War just before the UK released its own Iraq Inquiry report.
Later that month, WikiLeaks released some 20,000 emails and 8,000 files from the Democratic National Committee’s servers that it somehow received. And in October, the organization dumped the contents of Clinton’s campaign manager John Podesta’s email, which included information relating to the paid speeches Clinton had given to banks as well as his recipe for risotto.
“By dribbling these out every day WikiLeaks is proving they are nothing but a propaganda arm of the Kremlin with a political agenda doing Vladimir Putin’s dirty work to help elect Donald Trump,” a Clinton campaign spokesperson told Politico in 2016.
WikiLeaks have been accused of acting as an intermediary between the Trumps and the Russian government, or at least heavily favoring the Trump campaign. It does seem suspect that WikiLeaks would repeatedly choose critical moments in the Clinton campaign to release its most damaging leaks. For example, one of WikiLeaks largest releases came on the eve of the Democratic National Convention. A second set of leaks were released just before Clinton announced her choice for VP.
In the months since the election, additional links between the Trump campaign and WikiLeaks have emerged. This includes reports that Alexander Nix, the chief executive of Cambridge Analytica (of Facebook fame), had reached out to several senior members of the Trump campaign to inform them that he had also emailed Assange asking for access to the database of emails heisted from Clinton’s private email server. Nix then offered to pass that data on to a pro-Trump PAC.
“We assess with high confidence that the GRU [Russia’s Main Intelligence Directorate] relayed material it acquired from the DNC and senior Democratic officials to WikiLeaks,” the January 2017 intelligence report into Russian interference in the election read. “Moscow most likely chose WikiLeaks because of its self-proclaimed reputation for authenticity. Disclosures through WikiLeaks did not contain any evident forgeries.”
The fact that, in 2012, the Russian-funded television station RT even gave Assange his own talk show does little to clear his name. As the January 2017 intelligence report states, there is a strong likelihood that Russian interests reached out to Assange through the station:
The Kremlin’s principal international propaganda outlet RT (formerly Russia Today) has actively collaborated with WikiLeaks. RT’s editor-in-chief visited WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange at the Ecuadorian Embassy in London in August 2013, where they discussed renewing his broadcast contract with RT, according to Russian and Western media. Russian media subsequently announced that RT had become “the only Russian media company” to partner with WikiLeaks and had received access to “new leaks of secret information.” RT routinely gives Assange sympathetic coverage and provides him a platform to denounce the United States.
“People can argue that maybe there is conduct WikiLeaks has engaged in the past that’s closer to regular news gathering but in my view, a huge portion of WikiLeaks’ activities has nothing to do with legitimate news gathering,” then-FBI Director James Comey told a Senate Intelligence hearing in 2017. That same year, then-CIA director and current Secretary of State Mike Pompeo referred to WikiLeaks as a “a non-state hostile intelligence service” and to Assange specifically as a narcissist, fraud, and coward during an address to the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
Little of the political fallout from the election seemed to slow WikiLeaks’ propaganda efforts. In February, the organization released a report accusing the CIA of attempting to interfere in the 2012 French Presidential election. The following month, WikiLeaks unveiled “Vault 7,” a trove of documents and data purportedly exposing the CIA’s cache of hacking and “zero day” exploit tools that are capable of compromising everything from smart TVs to mobile phones.
The organization did release one data set relating to Russia. The “Spy Files Russia” dump in September 2017 illustrated how a St. Petersburg-based technology company helped the state gather detailed cell phone user information for surveillance purposes.
But for as authentic as WikiLeaks claims its information to be, the organization has repeatedly trafficked in well-known and easily debunked conspiracy theories such as the murder of Seth Rich (at the hands of Hillary Clinton, no less) and rumors of John Podesta conducting satanic rituals.
WikiLeaks has also taken flack for making misleading claims about the contents of its leaks to drum up interest. Specifically, the organization was recently forced to retract its CIA hacking tools-related data dump after closer inspection revealed that, despite WikiLeaks’ hyping, many of the impacted apps such as WhatsApp and Signal weren’t ever actually mentioned by name in any of the CIA’s documents.
Earlier this week, freedom of information activist Emma Best published more than 11,000 of Wikileaks’ Twitter direct messages. A number of those DMs include — surprise, surprise — anti-semitic and misogynistic messages sent between WikiLeaks members and supporters. What’s more, they illustrate a strong and early support of the GOP in the 2016 election cycle. This is not a good look for an organization that just a few years ago presented itself as a white knight in the fight against global corruption and crusader for information transparency.
For as claustrophobic and nerve-racking as living in an Ecuadorian spider hole would be for Assange, his future prospects don’t look much brighter. In April, CNN reported that US authorities have prepared a suite of charges against him. Attorney General Jeff Sessions stated that Assange’s arrest is a “priority” for the DOJ.
“We are going to step up our effort and already are stepping up our efforts on all leaks,” Sessions told CNN. “This is a matter that’s gone beyond anything I’m aware of. We have professionals that have been in the security business of the United States for many years that are shocked by the number of leaks and some of them are quite serious. So yes, it is a priority. We’ve already begun to step up our efforts and whenever a case can be made, we will seek to put some people in jail.”
These legal developments would be far less troubling if Assange weren’t also so close to being evicted from the Ecuadorian Embassy where he’s lived for six years under political asylum. He’s been on thin ice with Ecuadorian officials for some time now — they cut off his access to internet and computers months ago. More concerning is that the president of Ecuador flew to London last week to have a closed-door conversation with UK officials regarding Assange’s tenancy, according to The Intercept.
Should Assange be shown the door, he will almost assuredly be immediately picked up by UK authorities and subsequently extradited to the US to stand trial on dozens of counts. Still, that’s a better outcome than if the Russians get to him first.