WikiLeaks’ publishing of emails hacked by Russia to embarrass Hillary Clinton shows that its founder has not changed, the world has. By Martin McKenzie-Murray.

What is going on with WikiLeaks’ Julian Assange?

WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange on the balcony of the Ecuadorian embassy in London.
WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange on the balcony of the Ecuadorian embassy in London.

From a cramped room strewn with food wrappers, Julian Assange can still exercise great mischief. So much so that his hosts, the Ecuadorian embassy in London, temporarily cut his internet last week after they decided Assange’s publishing of hacked United States Democratic Party emails did not reflect well on them. “The government of Ecuador respects the principle of nonintervention in the internal affairs of other states,” a statement read. “It does not interfere in external electoral processes, nor does it favour any particular candidate.” 

More crucially for Assange is a choir of critics now alleging his collaboration with the Kremlin. It is widely believed that the source of WikiLeaks’ Democratic National Committee (DNC) emails, gleefully adopted by Donald Trump in July to attack his presidential election opponent, was state-sponsored Russian hackers. While no unequivocal evidence has been presented publicly, President Barack Obama reinforced the view of his intelligence agencies by fingering Moscow, and this week it was revealed that code found in the malicious phishing emails that compromised Democratic email accounts was likely linked to specific Russian hackers. 

Assange has denied any connection, and a staffer this week suggested to me that the WikiLeaks’ encrypted repository is likely such that the source of leaks cannot be verified. But regardless of active collaboration, by publishing the emails Assange was carrying Putin’s water. It is not the first connection. In 2012, the Russian state’s TV station offered Assange his own talk program. In his first episode, he interviewed the leader of Hezbollah from that cramped room. 

In a long New York Times article in August, a reporting team led by Jo Becker detailed the many occasions that a WikiLeaks drop complemented the strategic interests of Russia. “Notably absent from Mr Assange’s analysis, however, was criticism of another world power, Russia, or its president, Vladimir V. Putin, who has hardly lived up to WikiLeaks’ ideal of transparency,” the piece said. “Mr Putin’s government has cracked down hard on dissent – spying on, jailing, and, critics charge, sometimes assassinating opponents while consolidating control over the news media and internet. If Mr Assange appreciated the irony of the moment – denouncing censorship in an interview on Russia Today, the Kremlin-controlled English-language propaganda channel – it was not readily apparent.”

Putting aside active collusion, WikiLeaks is beset by a very serious contradiction: established to bring “radical transparency” to the world, WikiLeaks can just as readily be manipulated as a tool for counterespionage – a laundering place for tactical mistruths. As is typical, Assange has blithely dismissed this criticism. 

He has also strenuously denied formal links to Russia, and says also that there is no hard evidence to indicate Russian hackers procured the DNC emails. “There is no proof of that whatsoever,” Assange said. “We have not disclosed our source, and of course, this is a diversion that’s being pushed by the Hillary Clinton campaign. That’s a meta-story.”

Greg Barns tells me the same: “There’s no evidence of Russian collaboration.” Barns is an Australian lawyer who has advised Assange, and who served as the campaign director for the WikiLeaks Party in 2013. “The source for this is [US Director of National Intelligence] James Clapper, who is discredited. This is simply a convenient argument for Clinton, who thinks that Putin is a modern Hitler. She just wants another Cold War.” 

The 2013 campaign was an abject failure for the WikiLeaks Party, which ran candidates in three Australian states. Assange was one of them, joined on the Victorian ticket by academic and commentator Leslie Cannold. Midway through the campaign, Cannold resigned. She released a statement excoriating the party, arguing it did not fulfil its own demands for democratic transparency and accountability. “As long as I believed there was a chance that democracy, transparency and accountability could prevail in the party I was willing to stay on and fight for it,” she said. “But where a party member makes a bid to subvert the party’s own processes, asking others to join in a secret, alternative power centre that subverts the properly constituted one, nothing makes sense anymore. This is an unacceptable mode of operation for any organisation but even more so for an organisation explicitly committed to democracy, transparency and accountability.” 

Barns attributed the resignations – Cannold was joined in her departure by volunteers and a number of the party’s council – to political differences. The WikiLeaks Party, for instance, had preferenced country parties over the Greens. “The mix wasn’t right,” Barns told me of the party’s candidates. “It was mostly hard left. There was a disconnect there between the candidates’ politics and Julian’s. Also, people hoist upon [Assange’s] shoulders their own ideological settings and invariably they’re disappointed. Embittered. It happens with heroes. Take Nelson Mandela. Assange is in that category – they’re a flagship for people’s beliefs. Which means they must be either heroes or villains.”

The WikiLeaks Party attracted just 0.66 per cent of the national vote, but a much more significant portion of the Greens’ ire. Senator Scott Ludlam, who had been an ardent champion of the organisation, said he was saddened and mystified by the preference decision. The WikiLeaks Party ineffectually contested the West Australian election in 2014, before it was dissolved last year.   

Cannold disputed Barns’s characterisation of the resignations, telling me: “I stand by the description I gave in my resignation letter about the problems with the party’s internal democracy, and how these led me and other key members to resign.”

Interestingly, Barns says any irritation the left may have for Assange is owed to their ignorance of his politics. Neither Assange’s personality nor his politics have changed, he argues. “Individuals want to place a set of views upon Julian, but his is a much more nuanced view,” Barns tells me. “My reading of Julian is that he is a libertarian. In the States, Ron and Rand Paul are supporters of Assange, and he’s fond of them. Assange hasn’t changed in this at all. Julian gave an interview to Forbes back in 2011, where he was talking about full information symmetry in markets. Now, this is a classic Chicago School theory. But there’s little history or understanding of libertarian politics here in Australia, and so he gets misunderstood. Julian holds both right and left-of-centre positions. As do I.”

It was a point made by a former colleague of Assange’s this week, albeit far less flatteringly. Writing in Buzzfeed, James Ball said that while to some observers the WikiLeaks of 2016 looks nothing like it did at its conception, “Neither Assange nor WikiLeaks (and the two are virtually one and the same thing) have changed – the world they operate in has. WikiLeaks is in many ways the same bold, reckless, paranoid creation that once it was, but how that manifests, and who cheers it on, has changed.”

1 . Unbridled zealotry

One of the many problems with Assange’s philosophy – his belief that states are conspiracies that can be paralysed by making vulnerable their private communications – is that there’s very little discernment about those states. No distinction between vicious autocracies and benign democracies. 

Assange’s zealotry is such that he will never accept that secrets are often necessary – in fact, they might be required to protect certain freedoms. “He’s a revolutionary,” Robert Manne tells me. Manne is an emeritus professor at La Trobe University, and the author of Cypherpunk Revolutionary: On Julian Assange. “His originality is that radical transparency will change the world. This was my interest in him – his extraordinary political imagination, and also his concern for justice and truth, which I found to be very attractive. But over time it’s become clearer that his attitude to curation is dubious. Snowden makes this point. 

“I personally never thought a regime of total transparency was a good idea. If Assange had lived in May 1944 and the plans for the D-Day operation fell in his hands, would he have published them?” 

2 . ‘Untruthful, narcissistic’

In 2014, the Scottish journalist Andrew O’Hagan published a 26,000-word profile of Assange in the London Review of Books. It was the intimate product of a few intense months in 2011, during which O’Hagan worked with Assange as his ghostwriter. Wickedly unflattering, O’Hagan depicted a deceitful misogynist incapable of maintaining personal or professional relationships. Far from being a list of trivial complaints, O’Hagan’s piece offered us a series of awful contradictions: the effortless duplicity of a man who speaks of truth; the personal treachery of one who speaks of malignant power; the intolerable arrogance of one who speaks of US immodesty. This is who he always had been. “He is thin-skinned, conspiratorial, untruthful, narcissistic,” O’Hagan wrote. The sentiment was echoed by James Ball this week, who wrote: “What’s often underestimated is his gift for bullshit. Assange can, and does, routinely tell obvious lies.”

It appears to have rarely occurred to Assange’s supporters that his chilling remoteness from actual people might disqualify him from possessing life-altering secrets. For years Assange has shown little regard for the redaction – or “curation” – of the documents leaked to him. In 2010 WikiLeaks published the Afghanistan logs, containing the names of hundreds of people who had served as informants to the US military. The Taliban were suddenly gifted an assassination list, and stated publicly that they would act to shorten it. Some within WikiLeaks were uncomfortable or outraged. Assange, convinced of his own rectitude, blithely rejected criticism and dismissed dissenting colleagues.   

This wasn’t simply an appalling error. Assange has consistently regarded redaction as a form of cowardice. He has now thoroughly compromised his earlier distinction between a private citizen and a public institution, the former to be protected, the latter to be exposed. It’s all the same now, and in one of the most recent WikiLeaks publications – the Democratic National Committee emails – we see the home addresses and credit card details of lowly staff and volunteers. This has been done without compunction or apology.

In O’Hagan’s article he spoke of the cultish deference shown to his subject – from the few who hadn’t abandoned him in disgust – and the hints of radical chic that informed it. O’Hagan doesn’t explore this, naturally preferring his abundance of intimate observation. But I wondered why, generally, there were so few invocations of Tom Wolfe’s phrase to explain Assange’s appeal to the left’s intellectuals and celebrities – those attempting, via conspicuous support, to reinforce their social status or dilute their middle-class guilt. 

To linger on this, though, might be to discount those of sincerer intentions. I came of political age at the turn of the century, when the towers fell, and I remember at the age of 21 upon the lawn of my university reading the national broadsheet’s clamorous support for war. I instinctively felt the arguments for invading Iraq were weak. In Perth’s anti-war march of 2003 I sought to articulate this fact, even as I shuddered at the crude placards that read “No blood for oil”. Obviously, I was far from alone in wanting the shadowy truth to be exposed. Hundreds of thousands wanted the same in this country. O’Hagan would write similarly when expressing his original sympathy for the WikiLeaks project: “Those of us who grew up in the 1980s and 1990s, especially in the United Kingdom under Thatcher and Blair, those of us who lived through the Troubles and the Falklands War, the miners’ strike, the deregulation of the City, and Iraq, believed that exposing secret deals and covert operations would prove a godsend,” he wrote. “When WikiLeaks began this process in 2010, it felt, to me anyhow, but also to many others that this might turn out to be the greatest contribution to democracy since the end of the Cold War.”

The Iraq war confirmed for many the theory that the US state was a murderous clique. I merely saw it as being fatally optimistic. Given the profound costs of the Iraq war – a terrible disaster, contributed to by the credulity of the major press – I sympathise with the enduring trust in WikiLeaks to disable the instincts that created it. But the thought that a single hacker, ignorant of the histories of the countries he deemed to save, could – or should – usher in a new political epoch was repellently naive. 

3 . ‘Enormous pressure’

Assange has now spent four years in the Ecuadorian embassy in London. There are concerns for his health. Greg Barns tells me it is a “humanitarian issue” but that Assange is “remarkably” resilient. Barns also believes the decision to temporarily suspend his internet connection indicated American pressure, rather than a souring of the relationship between the embassy and their exiled guest. “Ecuador have full and unambiguous support for his asylum,” Barns says. “The reality is they’ve had enormous pressure placed upon them.” 

From that cramped place of asylum, Assange has tried his best to unravel the Clinton campaign. One suspects that like the Kremlin he favours Trump not only out of a spitefulness towards Clinton, but on some anarchic impulse. Perhaps the United States will be reborn in flames. One thing is clear: Assange has no qualms about collateral damage.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on October 29, 2016 as "What is going on with Assange?".

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Martin McKenzie-Murray is The Saturday Paper’s associate editor.

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