W ikiLeaks is important, says WikiLeaks, because its work “improves transparency, and this transparency creates a better society for all people.” Yet, in the eyes of many, Julian Assange’s organisation has become opaque.
WikiLeaks catapulted itself into the headlines in 2010. Armed with documents allegedly obtained by the whistleblower Chelsea Manning, the organisation published the Afghan War logs and the Iraq War logs, including the 'Collateral Murder' videos, which the New York Times described as providing "an unvarnished and grim picture" of US intervention in the Middle East.
Later that year, WikiLeaks released over 250,000 classified diplomatic dispatches from US embassies around the world. ‘Cablegate’ in particular tarnished America’s reputation and rocked its relationship with key allies, but it established Julian Assange as a darling of the liberal media. He had spoken truth to power, held governments to account, and exposed widespread misdemeanours that in many cases infringed on personal privacy.
Fast forward seven years and Mr. Assange - locked inside the Ecuadorian embassy in London since 2012 to avoid being questioned about alleged sex offences in Sweden - still has a flair for the spotlight. Yet it no longer shines so brightly.
On March 7, WikiLeaks published ‘Vault 7: CIA Hacking Tools Revealed’. According to Mr. Assange, it is the first in a series of leaks detailing the sophisticated software tricks and techniques employed by the Central Intelligence Agency to spy on people, by breaking into smartphones, computers, and even Internet-connected televisions. It is already the largest release of classified CIA documents in history.
WikiLeaks is still seen by many as a force for good. However, despite the sensational nature of the leaks, ‘Vault 7’ has not been met with great fanfare. Many observers have rolled their eyes and muttered that Mr. Assange is up to no good.
‘Digital optimism to disinformation’
WikiLeaks has always been viewed as a nuisance by US officialdom, but recently public opinion has begun to turn against Mr. Assange too. In 2010 “people were hopeful and optimistic about the power of the Internet to rearrange political power,” says John Wonderlich, executive director of Sunlight Foundation, a nonpartisan transparency group. Now “the veneer of optimism has worn off”. WikiLeaks “went from being about digital optimism to disinformation”.
Alina Polyakova, deputy director of the Eurasia Centre at the Washington-based Atlantic Council, thinks “WikiLeaks came on to the scene with a core mission of exposing corruption among authoritarian regimes”. In practice, she told TWW, it has targeted Western democracies. “It is a great irony that we can’t see massive data dumps on the Russian, Chinese or North Korean governments. There is a certain hypocrisy.”
Context is key to understanding Mr. Assange’s fall from grace. Ewan Lawson, of the Royal United Services Institute in London, explains that back in 2010 Russia was not seen as a major threat and anything that exposed western abuses of power was viewed as “a positive thing”. Now, there is “overwhelming evidence” that the Kremlin is waging an information war against the West, and yet Mr. Assange’s leaks are “only coming from one side”.
An unexplained recent visit by Nigel Farage - Brexit champion, Putin admirer and Trump terrier - to the Ecuadorean embassy will do little to quell conspiracies that Mr. Assange is siding with illiberal forces on the left and right. “He claims to be above the politics, but WikiLeaks has been releasing data dumps that correspond with Russian political plans to disrupt EU and US elections,” Mr. Wonderlich told TWW. “Julian Assange is working with a political agenda.”
That agenda seems tinged with hatred for Hillary Clinton. It was Ms. Clinton’s State Department which, in the aftermath of ‘Cablegate’, promised “aggressive steps” to hold those who leaked the documents to account. It is plausible that Mr. Assange blames Ms. Clinton for his (self-imposed) captivity and conspired to scupper her presidential ambitions. He shares this enmity with Vladimir Putin, who accused Ms. Clinton of orchestrating the huge protests that greeted his reelection as Russian president in late 2011.
A spokesman from WikiLeaks declined to comment on these allegations.
From Russia, with intelligence
WikiLeaks has been viewed with increasing suspicion since it intervened in last year’s presidential election by publishing over 20,000 emails hacked from the Democratic National Committee (DNC). To cause maximum damage, they were released on the eve of the convention at which Ms. Clinton received the party's presidential nomination, forcing chairwoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz to stand down.
The emails, which suggested that the Democrats had conspired with the Clinton campaign to undermine her primary opponent, Senator Bernie Sanders, are widely thought to have contributed to her unexpected defeat.
US intelligence unanimously agrees that Moscow pulled the strings. Though no definitive evidence has been made public, it would certainly be in character. “Russia has long engaged in campaigns of disinformation, disruption, and subversion outside the formal theatre of war,” explains Emily Taylor, an associate fellow and security expert at Chatham House. Moscow has sheltered Edward Snowden, whose disclosures about mass US surveillance were extraordinarily damaging to America’s intelligence community, since 2013.
Mr. Assange’s allies have leapt to his defence. John Pilger, an Australian investigative journalist seen by Mr. Assange as “a long-term friend”, told TWW “there is no evidence whatsoever of a sinister Russia connection. The story is ridiculous - like so much that pours out of Washington these days.” He argues that “WikiLeaks has consistently and without fear or favour exposed the dark side of the Russian state”.
Mr. Assange is similarly defiant. In a recent question-and-answer on Reddit, he outlined that WikiLeaks had published “more than 800,000 documents that relate to Russia or Vladimir Putin”, including a ‘Cablegate’ release that described Russia as a “virtual mafia state”.
Moscow, however, was unconcerned by this. Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov dismissed Mr. Assange as a “petty thief on the Internet”. After Mr. Assange’s arrest in London in 2010, Mr. Putin claimed he was being “persecuted” for uncovering US military atrocities in the Middle East.
Coming up Trumps
The real question is whether Mr. Assange is a ‘useful idiot’ for the Kremlin, or whether a more nefarious plot is afoot.
There is scant evidence directly connecting Mr. Assange with Moscow. Nonetheless, as the New York Times points out, WikiLeaks’ pro-Russian slant has provided the Kremlin with “a sympathetic outlet… where intermediaries could drop pilfered documents in the group’s anonymized digital inbox”.
At times Mr. Trump - who has benefitted more than most from Mr. Assange's mischief-making - appears to have implicated himself, though he is of course known for courting controversy. At a press conference in July he encouraged Moscow to hack Ms. Clinton and in October, after Mr. Assange had published incriminating emails, he exclaimed “I love WikiLeaks!”
Roger Stone, one of Mr. Trump’s key allies, also has suspect ties with the organisation. Earlier this month, he admitted to communicating with Guccifer 2.0, the hacker allegedly responsible for breaching the Democrat server. During the campaign, he predicted a separate cyber attack on Ms. Clinton’s campaign chairman, John Podesta.
At Ecuador’s mercy
Nonetheless, the three-way tryst between Mr. Putin, Mr. Assange and Mr. Trump is probably a coming together of interests rather than a coordinated partnership. WikiLeaks "are obviously being used by the Kremlin,” Dr. Polyakova says. “If they don’t know they’re being used at this point, then they’re idiots.”
Looking ahead, Ecuador appears to be losing patience with Mr. Assange’s antics. In October, the embassy cut off his Internet connection over fears that he was interfering in the US election. The country is in the middle of its own election cycle and Guillermo Lasso, the opposition candidate, has said he will give Mr. Assange one month to pack his bags if he wins the second round on April 2.
If he is turfed out, Mr. Assange fears extradition to the US on espionage charges, though those accusations are yet to be levied. In January, a lawyer for Mr. Assange indicated that his client would be willing to face trial in the US after Barack Obama pardoned Chelsea Manning. Mr. Assange’s future may then lie in the hands of President Trump, whose apparent admiration for WikiLeaks has given way to paranoia about leaks from within his own administration.
Responding to accusations of Russian collaboration on Reddit, Mr. Assange said that he has “been called a cat torturer, a Mossad agent, CIA agent, a Russian agent now”. Despite these protestations, few would dispute that the chief beneficiary of WikiLeaks’ recent work has been Vladimir Putin.