The strange exile of Julian Assange

I was at a bit of a loss as to what to write this week when I saw an opinion piece in Friday’s Guardian – Julian Assange is suffering needlessly. Why not report that?:

Assange has won numerous awards for publishing information that has exposed egregious violations of human rights and abuses of state power. He has also won the more dubious prize of being placed in the crosshairs of US government attempts to silence free speech by silencing the publications and publishers that dare to speak freely.

There is no doubt that Assange helped inspire an era of whistleblowing, from Edward Snowden exposing illegal US and UK surveillance, to the Panama Papers that showed the extent of global tax avoidance. Assange has been a hero for many.  But, something doesn’t quite true to me. He seems to me to be a flawed character. I also believe that when material is leaked, we need to ask cui bono? This was true with Watergate, when Mark Felt aka Deep Throat had his agenda. Ultimately, the question is: who can hold the whistleblowers to account?

The WikiLeaks website, was set up in 2006 “to bring important news and information to the public… One of our most important activities is to publish original source material alongside our news stories so readers and historians alike can see evidence of the truth.” Another of the organisation’s goals is to ensure that journalists and whistleblowers are not prosecuted for emailing sensitive or classified documents. Their online “drop box” was designed to be “an innovative, secure and anonymous way for sources to leak information to [WikiLeaks] journalists”. Instead of leaking directly to the press, whistleblowers have an intermediary, which will leak to the press on their behalf. In this way they have a greater chance of avoiding detection and punishment.  They are based in Stockholm because of its strict laws protecting confidential source-journalist relationships. It has servers throughout Europe which can be accessed from any uncensored web connection.

A selection of Wikileaks’ greatest hits would include unearthing evidence of military atrocities in Iraq and Afghanistan and US espionage of the French, German and Brazilian governments. With the former the most famous case was that of Chelsea Manning. They also published a whole series of diplomatic cables in 2010, the protocol of the US Army at the Guantanamo Bay detention camp and “the collected secret ‘bibles’ of Scientology”.  Their most significant act of recent times was the publishing of the hacking of the Democratic National Committee. And just last year WikiLeaks posted links to e-mails allegedly from Emmanuel Macron during the French 2017 presidential election. The documents had first appeared on the far-right 4chan forum and by pro-Trump Twitter accounts. What is interesting is that the leak came 36 hours before France’s runoff election in which Macron defeated Marine Le Pen.

This would be my first big criticism of WikiLeaks its apparent proximity to Russia. There are reports from different Western security agencies that WikiLeaks has been infiltrated by Russian agents aiming to discredit NATO governments. This is what I was blogging about last week. The security agencies even claim that Putin and his Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev receive details about what WikiLeaks publishes before publication. I don’t know about that – these organisations have also been known to spread misinformation.  Establishing who leaked is a difficult task. But I believe that Russian involvement was highly likely. They do seem to be doing Russia’s bidding. The leaking of the hacked DNC material is a revealing case study. Hillary Clinton was a flawed candidate and there is not doubt that that Julian Assange had a all-consuming hatred towards her. I suppose there could justify publishing in terms of transparency. Curiously, they came out immediately after the infamous Access Hollywood tapes, in which Trump talked about “grabbing pussy”.  But there can be no justification for collaborating with the Trump campaign. Yet, they leaked nothing on Donald Trump and his invisible tax records. Indeed, he frequently corresponded with Donald Trump Jr. through direct messages on Twitter during both the presidential election and after.

Talking of tax WikiLeaks also criticised the Panama Papers, which had among other things revealed Russian businesses and individuals linked with offshore ties. The WikiLeaks Twitter account tweeted:

“#PanamaPapers Putin attack was produced by OCCRP which targets Russia & former USSR and was funded by USAID and [George] Soros”.

The Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (OCCRP) Putin and RT would use Wikileaks to dismiss the Panama Papers. Despite Assange’s claims, the papers did not give western leaders and their allies a free pass. David Cameron and Ukraine’s President Petro Poroshenko were both outed.

There has been a fascinating metamorphosis in political attitudes to Wikipedia. In its beginnings when it was exposing abuses by George W. Bush’s presidency, many liberals and left-wingers praised them. On the right, Donald J. Trump has gone from calling for the execution of Assange to saying that he loved WikiLeaks As a vice-presidential nominee in 2008, Sarah Palin had her  private email hacked and all the data posted on WikiLeaks. In 2010 she described Assange “an anti-American operative with blood on his hands.”  Like Trump, she called for the site to be shut down. Now in this upside-down world Sarah Palin has apologised to Wikileaks.

I am going to try to give a less partisan opinion. I am in favour of whistleblowing. I think that it is important that we know about military abuses, political corruption or corporate malfeasance. I do, however, have other reservations about WikiLeaks. I think their methodology is questionable. They really should be more careful about how they leak. The data dumps they do can compromise the security of people whose names appear.

Curiously for an organisation which promotes transparency, they are themselves rather secretive. Employees are made to sign sweeping non-disclosure agreements, with the penalty for non-compliance said to be  £12 million. I think that transparency is good, but an activity like diplomacy does need to be carried out away from the glare of publicity. In the end actors will feel unable to give advice for fear of this coming out a later date.

I have to confess that I’m no fan of Assange. As to the rape case in Sweden, the charges have been dropped, so I would not want to try him in the court of public opinion. I have criticised what he know he has actually done. Assange has been in the Ecuadorian embassy for nearly six years now. I would be opposed to his extradition to the United States. The US secretary of state has declared that first amendment protections don’t apply to Assange, and the US Department of Justice has promised that his arrest remains a priority. I think it would be outrageous if Assange were prosecuted under laws that were introduced in 1917. The effects on free speech would be dire. So I say despite all my personal reservations about him: Free Julian Assange!

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