By Adam Aluzri
In the wake of Julian Assange’s arrest on April 11, the United Nations, ACLU, and a number of journalists are crying foul. Any attempt to indict Assange, they say, would be an attack on journalistic freedom to publish leaked information. However, Assange is not without his opponents, both inside and outside the fourth estate. A brief Google search about his arrest yields headlines ranging from The Daily Mail’s absurdly vindictive “That’ll Wipe the Smile Off His Face” to The New Yorker’s more proper “The Indictment of Julian Assange is a Threat to Journalism.” Those I’ve spoken to on the issue seem similarly torn—a few weeks ago, I attended a BridgeKenyon discussion of his arrest, and the resounding opinion roughly boiled down to “He sucks, but I don’t know what to think about his indictment.” Why is it so hard to pin this issue down?
To answer that question, let’s review the timeline. In 2010, Chelsea Manning leaked hundreds of thousands of diplomatic cables and Army reports on the Iraq and Afghanistan Wars to WikiLeaks, for which she was charged and sentenced with violating the Espionage Act of 1917 (among other charges). The contents of those leaks varied highly, and WikiLeaks refused to publish some of them on the basis that they could not be verified (although that did not stop them from publishing information revealing the identities of numerous Iraqi and Afghani translators and sources, whose lives were subsequently endangered when religious extremists later found them online). Probably the most publicized leak was a video of American soldiers shooting and killing 18 unarmed civilians from a helicopter, including several children and two Reuters reporters.
WikiLeaks claims to never know the identities of its sources; however, prosecutors eventually found evidence of extensive contact between Manning and a WikiLeaks member believed to be Assange. They messaged each other on Internet Relay Chat (IRC) channels on an almost daily basis about topics ranging from foreign policy, to Manning’s personal life and struggles with mental illness, to the leaks themselves. Although the identity of this WikiLeaks member is officially unknown, Manning herself believed them to be either Assange or another high-ranking member. Given the extent of their communications, her hunch was probably well-informed. Additionally, this individual offered to help Manning crack a password which would have allowed her to access a number of classified files undetected. As it turns out, Assange has been a prolific hacker since his teenage years, providing additional circumstantial evidence of his involvement. All reports suggest that this hacking attempt failed. However, if it turns out that the individual in question was indeed Julian Assange, and he did in fact attempt to crack the password (regardless of whether he succeeded or failed), such an act would fall under the purview of the Espionage Act just as Manning’s actions did.
In late 2010, Sweden filed an international arrest warrant for Assange based on numerous sexual misdemeanor and rape charges. He surrendered to police in London and posted bail, only to seek asylum from the Ecuadorian government in 2012 after his appeal to avoid extradition to Sweden was denied. At the time, he was under the impression that the rape charges were a guise to assist the US government in extraditing him for their own as-yet secret investigation—whether he was attempting to avoid the rape charges or possible American charges, though, is hard to tell. Until this past April 11, he’s been holed up in the Ecuadorian embassy. Unfortunately for him, he and newly-elected Ecuadorian President Moreno have not gotten along. Things came to a head when WikiLeaks revealed that President Moreno tried to sell Assange to the US in exchange for debt relief; shortly thereafter, Assange’s asylum was revoked. He has since been arrested by London police for violating the terms of his bail by seeking asylum. While Sweden dropped the rape charges against him in 2017 as they neared their statutes of limitations, the US currently has an open charge against him for “Conspiracy to Commit Computer Intrusion,” and reports suggest that prosecutors intend to add a number of other charges, including one based on the Espionage Act. The British judge overseeing his case has given American prosecutors until early June to list out all of the relevant charges, although they were already in a hurry seeing as any charges for his actions in 2010 would reach their statutes of limitation next year.
Importantly, however, it does not appear as though any of the charges currently being drawn up by American prosecutors have anything to do with WikiLeaks’s involvement in the publication of DNC emails during the 2016 election. So far, it’s been impossible to definitively determine whether WikiLeaks has been in direct contact with Russian hackers in the same way that it contacted Manning. That being said, significant coincidental evidence exists which would support such a connection. For example, Assange has a particularly strong grudge against Hillary Clinton—internal leaks from WikiLeaks suggest that Assange has privately expressed disdain for her, saying “it would be much better for [the] GOP to win” and describing her as “a bright, well connected, sadistic sociopath.” Additionally, Assange once hosted a TV show on Russian state-supported news outlet Russia Today. Coincidentally, this occurred during a time of particular financial trouble for WikiLeaks. Finally, WikiLeaks dumped the DNC emails at especially pivotal moments during the election: one trove was released just a week before the nominating convention, while another was released just a month before the general election. It seems especially likely that these leaks were timed to maximize fallout for the Clinton campaign or distract from other anti-Trump stories like the Access Hollywood tape (which was released just an hour before the second WikiLeaks dump).
However, Assange’s actions in 2016 may now be coming back to haunt him. With the publication of the redacted Mueller report on April 18, some additional details about WikiLeaks’s communications point to even greater involvement in the acquisition of DNC emails. While details are still emerging at the time of writing, it appears WikiLeaks’s contacts with Russian hackers were far more extensive than he claims. According to The Daily Beast, a computer security firm called CrowdStrike published a report tracking the original leakers down to the Russian national intelligence apparatus less than a week after the first major transfer of DNC emails. Further, Assange attempted to deflect attention away from Russia by suggesting that Seth Rich, a DNC staffer who had recently been murdered in a robbery gone wrong, was the original leaker, thereby stoking a long-lasting conspiracy theory spread by Fox News, Breitbart, and The Washington Times. It therefore seems increasingly implausible that Assange and WikiLeaks were not at least aware of the identities of their Russian leakers, if not aiding them in their goals.
Based on this evidence alone, it would be difficult to conclude that Assange is also guilty of conspiring to hack and leak information in 2016. There is, however, one more bit of circumstantial evidence which might point in that direction, or at least which rounds out his image as being in the pocket of Russia. It came out in late 2017 that Russian hackers also hacked a trove of RNC emails, the contents of which have not been publicized. Assange insists that WikiLeaks never received any RNC emails; whether this is true or not, however, there is no evidence that he put half as much effort into obtaining and publishing those emails as he did with the DNC emails, especially considering that he must have known his leakers were Russian agents. That, combined with WikiLeaks’s history of at least somewhat curating their leaks, exposes Assange as either highly negligent and ignorant or as a hypocrite who seeks to publish whatever suits his whims at a given time.
Assange and WikiLeaks are not the vigilantes of universal information transparency that they claim to be. (Even if they were, I question whether universal information transparency is such a beneficial goal—we live in the world of Sarah Huckabee Sanders, not John Stuart Mill.) They have attempted to position themselves such that they can cherry-pick just like traditional outlets while simultaneously forgoing the unspoken rules of journalistic integrity. While he claims his organization is more truthful than journalistic institutions like CNN and MSNBC, WikiLeaks similarly editorializes its content, as it did with the Iraq and Afghanistan logs. Besides, even WikiLeaks’s purported modus operandi of publishing huge quantities of information without commentary is in and of itself a form of editorialization—while it likely adds some veracity to WikiLeaks’s content, it is also designed to be difficult to navigate without additional media curation from third parties, which allows other outlets to perpetuate what might otherwise be an innocuous story indefinitely (sound familiar?). After all, who among us actually went through and read the DNC emails on WikiLeaks itself, and not on a third-party outlet? And yet, despite being “biased” in the same way journalists are, Assange and his supporters spread egregious lies to suit their interests, as they did with the Seth Rich conspiracy. Where CNN might be forced to publicly apologize for a misleading headline and have their White House press passes revoked, WikiLeaks can claim to follow a different set of guidelines (“We never claimed the contents of that email to be true!”).
This brings us back to the issue at hand: is Assange’s indictment bad for journalistic freedom? If Assange were a journalist, then yes, it would be. But his cooperation in producing the 2010 Manning leaks, as well as his partisan actions throughout 2016, shows that he is little more than a false martyr who pretends his prosecution to be an unjust suppression of some vague notion of transparency. All of his actions until now scream that he’s not a journalist and doesn’t respect journalism. If the grand jury finds that he did not, in fact, conspire with Manning to produce the 2010 leaks, then I will readily admit that my characterization of him was false and that he can be considered something akin to a real journalist. I’m fairly confident that won’t happen. Assange is scum, and he deserves what’s coming to him.