Inside Story

WikiLeaks deconstructed

The upsides and downsides of the organisation and its controversial founder

Rodney Tiffen 18 April 2019 3111 words

WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange during a press conference discussing the 75,000 Afghan war documents that the organisation made available to the New York Times, the Guardian and Der Spiegel. EPA/AAP Image

Julian Assange’s expulsion from the Ecuadorian embassy in London and his arrest by British police revives old disputes about this polarising figure and fresh speculation about his likely fate. Amid overheated rhetoric on both sides, it’s worth going back to basics.

The two Swedish women deserve their day in court

So much of what follows goes back to Assange’s treatment of two women in Sweden about eight years ago, when WikiLeaks was at the height of its fame. Both had consensual sex with Assange, according to their accounts, but were later unwillingly subjected to unprotected sex. They felt strongly aggrieved, and wanted Assange to be tested for HIV and other sexually transmitted diseases. He initially refused.

During this stand-off, the women went to the police and “sought advice.” As a result, Assange was charged with sexual assault. On Friday 20 August 2011, though, courtesy of a mutually trusted intermediary, Assange and the women were nearing an agreement. By the time Assange agreed to the test, the nearby clinic had closed for the weekend.

Almost immediately the women’s visit to the police was leaked to the Stockholm tabloid Expressen, which splashed the rape allegations across its front page. As the news flashed around the world, journalists were demanding a response from Assange. Caught off balance, he replied with characteristic pugnacity, referring to dirty tricks and implying he had been the victim of a “honey trap.” Naturally enough, the two women were affronted by the suggestion that they were dupes of the American government or anyone else.

Public hostilities escalated. The women hired a high-profile celebrity lawyer. Assange, now in London and supported by a similarly glittering team, faced bail and extradition hearings that attracted saturation coverage. As the legal proceedings followed their own immutable logic, both sides had to endure damaging public attention and allegations.

Several commentators observed the irony of the world’s greatest champion of leaks himself becoming the victim of a leak. But the most telling aspect of these events is the way publicity transformed the process — how the fluidity of private negotiations solidified into formal adversarial proceedings in which each party’s interests lay in sharpening rather than resolving the conflict.

Without publicity, conciliation might well have been successful. Assange could have taken the test at that point (which would later showed him to be clean); the women could have been reassured although not reconciled to their former lover; and the whole matter could have disappeared. Instead, it became a turning point in Assange’s life, and the women received neither conciliation nor the chance to have their charges heard in court.

Assange should face the consequences of breaking bail

Pending his extradition to Sweden, Assange was allowed out on bail by the British court. In August 2012, he made the seemingly precipitate decision to seek asylum in the Ecuadorian embassy. It is not clear whether the people who put up very substantial sums of money for his bail knew what he was planning, and that their money would be forfeited. By absconding, Assange was committing a criminal offence for which he has now been tried but not yet sentenced. The maximum sentence is twelve months’ imprisonment.

Assange was desperate to escape extradition to Sweden, which he thought would result, in turn, in extradition to America. While seeking refuge solved his immediate problem, he seems never to have had an exit strategy. He spent seven years, one-seventh of his life, in the confines of the embassy, and it isn’t clear that he is any better off than he would have been if he had observed his bail conditions in 2012. His existence for much of his time in the embassy is likely to have been miserable.

Nor is it likely that his Ecuadorian hosts knew what they were getting into. The new president, Lenín Moreno, terminated Assange’s immunity after a period of deteriorating relations, and the new foreign minister described Assange as ungrateful, rude and unhygienic. The Ecuadorian government says it has spent more than US$5.8 million on his security and $400,000 on his medical costs, food and laundry.

It should be stressed that it was Assange who chose that fate. Yet a UN working panel said in February 2016 that he was being arbitrarily detained. It is hard to know the logic behind that statement: should people be able to escape criminal prosecution just by staying away for a certain period?

Being a narcissist is not against the law

A week ago, on 11 April, a British judge dismissed as “laughable” Assange’s argument that he could not get a fair trial, and described his actions as “the behaviour of a narcissist who cannot get beyond his own selfish interest.” Such gratuitous character judgements, confidently expressed without any benefit of expert testimony, are well beyond a judge’s legal role. But they are characteristic of a much larger public humiliation process to which Assange is being subjected.

So many people have anti-Assange stories, many of them of course soundly based. “Of all of Julian Assange’s undoubted talents, maybe his greatest gift is the ability to make enemies,” wrote the former editor of the Guardian, Alan Rusbridger, who was directly involved in the original WikiLeaks publication. “He trusts, likes and respects almost no one,” Rusbridger added.

Nevertheless, Assange’s personality is not the important issue. The legal proceedings and the political role of WikiLeaks are central.

The original 2010 WikiLeaks revelations did much more good than harm

Julian Assange had been building WikiLeaks since 2005, but it wasn’t until 2010 that it gained global notoriety. First the organisation released a video of Americans in an Apache helicopter killing several innocent people, including two Reuters journalists, in a Baghdad street. Then came the Afghanistan war logs, which showed the extent of official pessimism about the course of the war. The third release, the Iraq war logs, consisted of 392,000 US military communication records. Finally and most spectacularly, on 28 November 2010, came the long-anticipated release of a massive tranche of US diplomatic cables.

According to Rusbridger, the largest single leak of the analog era, the Pentagon Papers, consisted of two and a half million words. The diplomatic cables released by WikiLeaks amounted to 300 million words. For the demanding task of processing and publicising them, WikiLeaks initially joined with the Guardian, the New York Times and Der Spiegel.

The diplomatic cables provided the citizens of many countries with insights into their own governments’ behaviour and relations with the United States. They disclosed the low American opinion of the ruling clique in Tunisia, for instance, and may have been a factor in the uprising and regime change that occurred there not long after. The venality of the regime was well known to Tunisians, but they did not know that American officialdom shared their critical views.

My favourite Australian WikiLeak was a cable from the US embassy in Canberra that cited an unnamed “key Liberal Party strategist” as saying that the issue of asylum seekers was “fantastic” for the Coalition and “the more boats that come the better” — a case of public hand-wringing and private relish.

The publication of the cables was met with a flood of hyperbole. Italy’s foreign minister, Franco Frattini, called it “the 9/11 of world diplomacy.” US vice-president Joe Biden called Assange “a high-tech terrorist” and his 2008 vice-presidential opponent Sarah Palin thought that the perpetrator of this “sick un-American espionage” should be pursued with “the same urgency we pursue al Qaeda.” One Republican presidential hopeful, Mike Huckabee, believed that “anything less than execution” would be too kind a penalty; another, Newt Gingrich, thought Assange “should be treated as an enemy combatant, and WikiLeaks should be closed down permanently and decisively.” There were at least thirty calls for Assange to be assassinated. The violence of the rhetoric and its lack of interest in legal process are striking.

At the same time as some were calling Assange the most dangerous man in the world, others thought he should be awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. This heady brew would encourage both hubris and paranoia in even the most balanced person. Perhaps as a result, Assange became more autocratic and erratic, and fell out with many former colleagues.

WikiLeaks had been an amateurish, idealistic, shoestring organisation, reliant on the erratic endeavours of volunteers, famous in its own subcultures but barely known outside, held together by Assange’s charisma and energy. Suddenly it was playing on a global stage for huge stakes, facing enormous information-processing and political challenges, and caught up in its founder’s personal dramas.

Characteristically, the politicians’ rhetoric about the cables exaggerated the harm and failed to acknowledge the benefits. After the extravagant claims about the damage WikiLeaks had done in 2010, later assessments, uttered without any fanfare, were very different. “Is it embarrassing? Yes. Is it awkward? Yes. Consequences for US foreign policy? I think fairly modest,” said US defense secretary Robert Gates. Years later, BuzzFeed News obtained a Department of Defense taskforce report concluding, in BuzzFeed’s words, that the disclosures “were largely insignificant and did not cause any real harm to US interests.” They did not affect the military situation or operations in Iraq or Afghanistan, although they did serious damage to intelligence sources and informants in Afghanistan.

It is easy for officials to elide their own embarrassment into some larger, nobler cause. After the leaking of the Pentagon Papers back in 1971, for example, the White House tapes captured Nixon’s adviser Bob Haldeman quoting a very young presidential aide, Donald Rumsfeld. “Rumsfeld was making the point this morning,” he said, that this is all gobbledygook to “the ordinary guy” but it “badly hurt” the “implicit infallibility of presidents, which has been an accepted thing in America” because it shows “the president can be wrong.” Protecting the “implicit infallibility” of presidents is a considerable distance from most conventional notions of national security, and shows how such concepts can be almost infinitely expanded in willing hands.

While the hyperbole from politicians reflected their pain at losing control rather than any substantive damage, one recurring concern about the disclosure of confidential material — and one to which Assange seemed indifferent, at best — was the breaching of individuals’ privacy and their exposure to danger. Guardian journalists Declan Walsh and David Leigh were worried about the repercussions of publishing the names of informants who could easily be killed by the Taliban or other militant groups if the Afghan war logs were published in full. Assange’s response “floored me,” wrote Walsh. “‘Well, they’re informants,’ he said. ‘So, if they get killed they’ve got it coming to them. They deserve it.’” Assange vehemently denies saying this. The US defense secretary was sufficiently concerned to set up a taskforce to arrange protection for anyone in Afghanistan who could be identified in the leaks.

Much later, in a bizarre turn of events, Guardian journalists David Leigh and Luke Harding published the password Assange had given the Guardian to access the files. Everyone had assumed that this password would have been changed since, but differences of opinion at WikiLeaks meant that it still worked on one encrypted file. Rumours that this was the case spread quickly; in response, amid much criticism, WikiLeaks made the whole file public in its raw form.

In the years since, it has been charged that the failure to redact sensitive sections of the diplomatic cables revealed the identities of psychiatric patients, teenage rape victims and gays in Saudi Arabia; anti-government activists in Syria; and dissident academics in China. Assange’s counter to these charges was that “it’s nearly all bogus; [and] in any case we have to understand that privacy is dead.

Assange has peculiar political views that have led him into some terrible decisions

Julian Assange thinks of himself as an anarchist, and believes that radical transparency is the key to real democracy and accountability. His attitudes are well captured by the title of his now-famous essay “Conspiracy as Governance.” He has argued that leaks produce the most fear and paranoia within the most secretive and unjust organisations, and described the work of WikiLeaks as “enforcing the First Amendment around the world.”

This general view has led him to think that all governments are equally bad, and even to the view that Donald Trump was preferable to Hillary Clinton. In January 2017, he declared that “the libertarian aspect of the Republican Party is presently the only useful political voice in the US Congress.” Assange had long cultivated a dislike of Clinton that was “partly personal and partly philosophical.” He suspected she wanted him assassinated and aggravated his problems with Sweden. “He saw her as the main gear of a political machine that encompassed Wall Street, the intelligence agencies, the State Department, and overseas client nations, like Saudi Arabia,” wrote the New Yorker’s Raffi Khatchadourian. “In his view, Clinton was corrupt, pathetically driven by personal ambition, a neoliberal interventionist destined to take the United States into war — the epitome of a political establishment that deserved to be permanently ousted.”

WikiLeaks released a series of emails in June and July 2016, after Hillary Clinton had secured the Democratic nomination, the chief theme of which was how the party establishment had aided her over rival Bernie Sanders, revelations that resulted in several resignations. The more damaging leaks, in September and October, showed that many of Clinton’s campaign team were privately aghast at Clinton’s use of a private email server when secretary of state, and thought she handled the resulting controversy too arrogantly. Other emails suggested “Clinton seemed uncomfortably close to selling political access in exchange for large donations to the family foundation.”

There is little doubt that these leaks came from Russian organisations. In October 2016 the US intelligence agencies took the extraordinary step of formally naming Russia as the culprit and stating that only Russia’s most senior officials could have authorised the hacking. In 2018, the Mueller investigation named more than a dozen Russians it believed were involved. Assange vehemently but unconvincingly denied that Russian state agencies were directly or indirectly his source. The Washington Post fact checker awarded Assange Three Pinocchios for his denial. He had, anyway, earlier declared himself indifferent to the sources or their motives: “If it’s true information we don’t care where it comes from.”

Or presumably whom it helps: “By October, just the mention of WikiLeaks could start a roar of applause at Trump’s rallies,” reported the Washington Post. Trump, who in 2010 had declared that there should be the “death penalty or something” for the WikiLeaks releases, now declared, “I love WikiLeaks.” According to Assange, Trump mentioned WikiLeaks 164 times during the last month of the election. Clinton mentioned WikiLeaks as one factor in her defeat.

Outside the United States, New York Review of Books contributor Sue Halpern reports, Assange’s most egregious error was his collaboration with Israel Shamir, an unapologetic anti-Semite and Putin ally. Late in 2010, Assange gave him all the State Department diplomatic cables relating to Eastern Europe and Israel, and Shamir sold them on to others, including the president of Belarus, who used them to imprison and torture dissidents.

There is every reason to fear that Assange will not receive fair treatment in the United States

ince 2010, Assange has feared what would happen to him if he were extradited to America. The fate of the person who leaked him the bulk of the 2010 material, then Private Bradley Manning, now Chelsea Manning, suggests that that fear is well founded. Manning was held for a lengthy period without trial and then sentenced to an unprecedented thirty-five-year prison term. She was locked up at five different facilities in conditions a UN expert called “cruel” and “inhumane,” and made at least two suicide attempts. After she had served seven years, double the second-longest sentence in any leak case in America, Obama commuted the bulk of her remaining sentence in one of his last acts as president. In March 2019, she was imprisoned again — indefinitely — for refusing to testify to a grand jury investigating WikiLeaks.

In theory, international law offers many protections for people facing extradition. ANU professor of international law Don Rothwell has pointed to several reasons why Assange would not face the death penalty. Under extradition law, people can only be tried for the crime they were being extradited for — a requesting country cannot increase the charges after they are in custody — and extradition cannot be for “political offences.”

The American extradition order is based on conspiring to illegally reveal government secrets, an offence that carries a maximum of five years in prison. The charges seem to have two main strands. The first is that Assange offered to help Manning crack a password. He failed to do so, in fact, and — more importantly — the password would not have given Manning access to any more information than she already had. It would have helped her hide her identity better, though, by helping to bypass security mechanisms that identified her as the one doing the downloading.

Assange’s prosecution is a threat to journalistic activity

The second strand concentrates on how Assange encouraged Manning to reveal information. The indictment’s “manners and means of the conspiracy” section describes many actions that are clearly common journalistic practices, such as using encrypted messages, cultivating sources, and encouraging those sources to provide more information. After one upload, Manning told Assange, “That’s all I really have got left,” to which Assange replied, “Curious eyes never run dry in my experience.” The pair also used an encrypted dropbox, commonly used by investigative journalists, to exchange information. Prima facie, this seems to me very weak material on which to base a conspiracy charge, and some of it could be used against many journalists.

The greater fear is that other charges will be added even though extradition should not permit this. The Trump administration does not have a strong record of complying with international codes, and it may seek ways to justify circumventing the law.

In particular, the administration has not so far charged Assange for publishing classified information. The Obama administration decided that it couldn’t prosecute Assange for disseminating classified information without threatening the First Amendment. The Trump administration, in its war on “fake news,” is likely to have fewer scruples. “If Assange can be prosecuted merely for publishing leaked classified documents,” wrote the New York Times’s Michelle Goldberg, “every single media outlet is at risk of prosecution for doing the same thing.”

The Australian government can’t stop Assange’s extradition from Britain to America, but it’s clear that its consular responsibilities towards this Australian citizen would need to be fully exercised if he did wind up in American custody. •