Revolutionary Hero or Criminal and Traitor?
On February 24, in a London courtroom, WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange faces the threat of being sent to the US to go on trial as an enemy agent and saboteur. Defenders argue that the Australian is a champion of free speech. His accusers say he’s a willing stooge using the cover of “journalism” to do the dirty work of hostile forces. Is Assange a 21st century hero of the Information Age? Or is the one time convicted hacker the tip of a dangerous digital spear?
“We’re going to fuck them all… We’re going to crack the world open and let it flower into something new.” — Julian Assange, January 7, 2007
This week, in a London courtroom, WikiLeaks founder and radical transparency revolutionary Julian Assange begins the legal battle of his life. The United States government is on the war path against the digital information impresario. The global superpower seeks his extradition from the U.K. to face multiple criminal counts of espionage and one count of conspiring to hack a government computer. If convicted in the US, the 48-year-old Australian hacktivist could spend the rest of his life behind bars in an American federal prison with no possibility of parole.
The US federal indictment details Assange’s role in exposing 90,000 Afghanistan war reports, 400,000 Iraq war reports, 800 Guantanamo Bay detainee assessment briefs, and 250,000 U.S. Department of State cables — the most devastating security breach in human history. Many of these documents contained highly classified and sensitive material, including rules of engagement in the Iraq war and the unredacted names, locations, and even medical files of civilian informants.
They also revealed, among other secrets, the US military’s attempt to cover up the scope of civilian casualties in the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq and the existence of a Special Operations team dispatched as what critics called a “kill squad.” The Nation magazine declared at the time of the explosive disclosures, “WikiLeaks may not be a media outlet and Assange may not be a journalist, but why does it matter?” The public had a right to know the truth of the coalition’s ruthless methods and the human costs of the dual wars.
In the 2013 documentary, “We Steal Secrets: The Story of WikiLeaks,” former State Department spokesman, P.J. Crowley, reveals that, as a result of WikiLeaks massive and indiscriminate document dumps, some civilian allies were jailed and others are now dead, although he admits he can’t be certain if WikiLeaks is responsible for the latter. British investigative reporter Nick Davies of The Guardian newspaper, who worked with Assange early on, claims Assange told him, “If an Afghan civilian helps coalition forces, he deserves to die.” Davies adds, “He went on to explain they have the status of a collaborator or informant.” Assange categorically denies making these statements. New York Times national security correspondent Scott Shane tells the documentary that when it came to protecting personal identities revealed in the secret government files, “Sometimes [Assange] argued there was no line.”
Two Australian parliamentarians have traveled to London, this week, to meet with Assange in the Belmarsh prison in southeast London where he has been held in solitary confinement since his dramatic televised arrest last spring. They are campaigning for their fellow countryman to be deported back down under. MP Andrew Wilkie, a former intelligence official, charges that the very country he says Assange exposed committing war crimes “is trying to get a hold of him. For the Australian government to be going along with this is unconscionable. The whole thing is mad from start to finish.”
Many free speech advocates believe that if the US succeeds in its prosecution of Assange under the Espionage Act for his role in publishing hundreds of thousands of classified documents, not only is Assange’s future at stake, but the future of press freedom. Following Assange’s arrest last year, The New York Times issued a statement defending the controversial digital agitator, intoning, “Obtaining and publishing information that the government would prefer to keep secret is vital to journalism and democracy. The new indictment is a deeply troubling step toward giving the government greater control over what Americans are allowed to know.”
Is Assange a radical information activist, the purveyor of a “hostile intelligence service,” as former CIA Director and current Secretary of State Mike Pompeo charges, or a freewheeling journalist crashing through traditional safeguards? The answer is at the heart of the US case against Assange and the definition of journalism in the Internet era.
“WikiLeaks may become the most powerful intelligence agency on earth — an intelligence agency of the people.” — Julian Assange
For seven long years, Assange had staved off this week’s courtroom confrontation, safe behind the red brick walls of the Ecuadorian embassy in the posh neighborhood of Knightsbridge, London south of Hyde Park. But last April, his exasperated Latin American hosts snapped. They abruptly cancelled his asylum, revoked his recently granted Ecuadorian citizenship, and invited the British Metropolitan police to dislodge their troublesome guest.
After 2,487 days at a cost of nearly $1 million a year, Ecuadorian President Lenín Moreno, who inherited “Operation Guest” from his predecessor Rafael Correa, announced, “We’ve ended the asylum of this spoiled brat. From now on, we'll be more careful in giving asylum to people who are really worth it and not miserable hackers whose only goal is to destabilize governments.”
Moreno’s fury at Assange followed years of escalating tensions. According to the Ecuadorian government, Assange’s behavior was erratic and dictatorial. Embassy staff complained of his late night skateboarding, loud music, pungent personal odor, and his habit of roaming the halls in his underwear. Assange reportedly provoked fist fights with embassy guards and, in a shocking act of defiance, smeared his feces on the walls.
What was initially intended as a short sojourn on the way to exile in Ecuador became an epic diplomatic drama. From a small room with an inflatable mattress, Assange and his WikiLeaks command center took over a third of the embassy’s ground floor. Embassy staff were barred from entering his private quarters which were only accessible with a code. And while Assange has described his refuge as “house arrest,” he wielded surprising authority. The ostensible guest insisted that selected visitors be allowed to enter the embassy without identification or a security search. He was allowed to delete names from the visitors log, receive uninspected packages, and the global sensation entertained a constant stream of guests including former Baywatch pin up, Pamela Anderson, who professed that she feels “very close” to Assange in their shared “romantic struggle” to “educate the world.” One ambassador wrote to the Assange, “You cannot give instructions that are contrary to mine.”
More suggestive, however, is surveillance by the Spanish security company hired by the Ecuadorian government to keep tabs on their demanding occupant. The security firm concludes that there is “no doubt there is evidence” tying Assange to Russian intelligence, a long standing suspicion which Assange has repeatedly and vigorously denied.
According to surveillance reports reviewed by CNN, Assange conducted multiple meetings with Russians connected to the Kremlin, along with known computer hackers. The London bureau chief of the Russian state-owned television network, “RT” visited Assange and delivered a mysterious USB drive. (Full disclosure: your author has appeared many times on the English-language network). The hacker identified as “Guccifer 2.0,” believed by US officials to be a false front for Russian intelligence, sent WikiLeaks a cache of encrypted files labeled, “big archive.”
And in an audacious plot straight out of a Hollywood spy thriller, the The Guardian reports that Russian diplomats held secret discussions with Assange associates to spirit the WikiLeaks chief out of the UK to Mother Russia. The stealth operation was tentatively planned for Christmas Eve of 2017, but was abandoned as too risky.
Which leads to the question: Is Assange a journalist? Or, as former vice president and current presidential contender Joe Biden insists, “a high tech terrorist”?
“Lights on, rats out.” —Julian Assange
New York Times former executive editor Bill Keller, who worked with Assange in releasing the massive collection of classified documents illegally pilfered by former Army intelligence analyst Chelsea Manning, considers the WikiLeaks founder an uneven and unruly, but legitimate, publisher.
He tells the Committee to Protect Journalists, “Assange is not my idea of a journalistic role model. But he has taken no oath to protect U.S. government secrets, and I'm not aware of any evidence that he is an enemy agent, in the traditional legal meaning of the term.” Keller, who is unflinching in his personal appraisal, explains that Assange, “gathers information (albeit sometimes by questionable methods), packages it (albeit selectively and with malice) and publishes it (albeit with no sense of responsibility for the consequences, including collateral damage of innocents.) The First Amendment doesn't just protect people who keep honest company, uphold standards of fairness and publish responsibly.”
Alan Rusbridger, former editor-in-chief of the The Guardian which joined the consortium of newspapers that initially collaborated with Assange to publish the damning war files, similarly defends the information absolutist. Last year, in a column for the British paper, the journalist was candid: “We fell out, as most people eventually do with Assange. I found him mercurial, untrustworthy and dislikable: he wasn’t keen on me, either. All the collaborating editors disapproved of him releasing unredacted material from the Manning trove in September 2011. Nevertheless, I find the Trump administration’s use of the Espionage Act against him profoundly disturbing.” The journalism veteran adds that the Espionage Act, “has never been used to prosecute a media organization for publishing or disseminating unlawfully disclosed classified information. Nobody prosecuted under the act is permitted to offer a public interest defense.”
Ben Wizner, the director of the Speech, Privacy and Technology Project of the American Civil Liberties Union, echoes their sentiments. “No one would choose Julian Assange to be the poster child for freedom of the press.” In an interview with National Public Radio, the free speech guardian concedes that, “Certainly, most journalists follow a publication model that's not the same as WikiLeaks and are more careful about redacting information that's not in the public interest and only publishing that which is.” But, like Keller and Rusbridger, Wizner sees great peril in prosecuting Wikileaks for activities that investigative journalists engage in every day. The legal pursuit of Assange — however irresponsible or reckless he may be — sets a dangerous precedent.
But the acceptance of Assange’s claim to journalism is not universally shared. Former CNN correspondent Frida Ghitis is emphatic that what Assange is practicing is not journalism. The CNN world affairs columnist enumerates a long history of WikiLeaks deception and deliberate political meddling, including in the 2016 US presidential election, that undercuts Assange’s claim to First Amendment protection. She believes that Assange is “not entitled to the protections of the law” and “should face justice.”
In a 2011 expose, Assange’s former partner, Daniel Domscheit-Berg, confesses that WikiLeaks ignored commonly understood journalistic standards. It misled the public about its fact checking and editorial standards. It had virtually none. The former spokesperson for the group admits that they routinely exaggerated the security of their source gathering protocols and embellished the size of what was, in reality, a rag tag operation. And, unlike traditional journalism which strives to identify sources for the public to freely evaluate, WikiLeaks is built on a code of secrecy and anonymity.
Ironically, as WikiLeaks came under increasing pressure after the Manning bombshells, Assange demanded that his colleagues sign non-disclosure agreements, a move that led to internal chaos and drove many team members to quit. Smari McCarthy, a former WikiLeaks volunteer, says in the 2013 documentary about his former mentor, “Somehow, this idealist that I met became something else through the story.” Domscheit-Berg wryly notes that Assange adopted the language of the Espionage Act to eject non compliant members, accusing them of “Disloyalty, Insubordination and Destabilization in Times of Crisis.”
John Young, a former WikiLeaks insider, claims that Assange was never the idealist of popular imagination. He was always something else. Behind the radical transparency rhetoric and self invented mythology, the globe trotting information evangelist was, in truth, driven by more base motives: wealth and fame.
In a 2010 interview for ABC News, the aptly named “Young” to whom the WikiLeaks website was first registered, explains: “It’s a well known aspect of underground hacking. Much money to be made here.” Selling secrets to the highest bidder on the dark web is big underground business. Young claims that Assange hoped to be arrested and jailed to prove his street cred and boost his notoriety. “He was trained as an actor and he has a wonderful speaking voice. He works on his appearance. He works on his slow speaking thing. He loves to provoke people. He loves to make dramatic statements. He loves to be thrown in jail. He'll love to have a show trial."
Ten years later, the long awaited trial to determine if Assange will be delivered into maw of the American legal system has arrived. How much the digital provocateur welcomes the opportunity to face his persecutors and the waiting cameras remains to be seen. Much has changed for Assange since the early days of promising to crack the world open. After eight years of confinement, the last year spent in a grim UK super-max prison, the one time teenage computer hacking whiz who reveled in his screen persona, “Mendax” — Latin for “noble liar” — may simply wish for it all to go away.
“Telling the truth is a revolutionary act.” —WikiLeaks