The case of Julian Assange, the founder and chief purveyor of WikiLeaks, is a complex one. Whenever his name comes up in Washington, D.C. it is either met with gushing praise or angry tirades, depending on your audience (and depending on who his recent target was). Until the 2016 U.S. presidential election, for instance, Assange was a darling of the American Left. He had exposed grievous war crimes perpetrated by American military units in Iraq and Afghanistan; he had dumped 250,000 classified American diplomatic cables — all in an effort to humiliate the Left’s great bugaboo of the early 2000s, former President George W. Bush and his top advisers (notably people like former Vice-President Dick Cheney).
Once WikiLeaks was involved with leaking stolen documents from the DNC’s server that proved how corrupt Hillary Clinton and her comrades were, though, Assange became persona non grata on the Left — and inexplicably beloved by the American Right.
Understanding the Nuances of Assange
The accolades that Assange and his WikiLeaks organization had received from the American “mainstream” press from 2010-13 were effusive. The Washington Post likened WikiLeaks to itself in 2011. The WaPo said there was no difference between what Assange had done in revealing the classified information about American war crimes and what both the Washington Post and New York Times had done in the 1970s when it divulged what was, at that time, a classified Pentagon study of the Vietnam War known as the “Pentagon Papers.”
It’s also true that Assange did not actually steal classified information from the United States. WikiLeaks was more of a publisher of secrets than it was a hacker of them. Assange has always maintained that his organization relies primarily on whistleblowers more than direct data theft. Where Assange got himself into a legal issue was the fact that he knowingly disseminated classified information, violating a bevy of U.S. statutes and international laws regarding the protection of private or government data.
It’s Not Surveillance When Obama Did It!
Things started to change for Assange and WikiLeaks around 2012-13, when the Edward Snowden affair began. At that time, President Barack Obama, a Democrat who was beloved by the Western press, was in office. While Obama had campaigned as a young and different outsider intent on shaking up the broken political system in Washington, D.C., his presidency was anything but new. In many respects, Obama had taken the worst elements of his two predecessors, Bill Clinton and George W. Bush, and fused them into one.
Most importantly, Obama oversaw the greatest expansion of the American surveillance state since the early days of the Global War on Terror. President Obama went mad with the ability to eavesdrop on anyone he so desired — from potential terrorists, to the heads of allied states, such as Germany, to pesky Fox News reporters, like James Rosen. During the Obama Administration, the National Security Agency collected so much data on Americans and foreigners that they had to create a special facility at Camp Williams, Utah, to house that information (codenamed “Dark Star”). This was but one of several mass data centers spread around the United States meant to “cull billions of bytes of data a second” in order to “increase the agency’s capacity to suck in, digest, analyze, and store whatever the intelligence community decides to collect.”
Edward Snowden, a private contractor working with the National Security Agency at the time, believed the data that the NSA had been collecting violated American civil liberties. Snowden decided to take action against those government abuses by leaking a trove of stolen, classified files to Glenn Greenwald (a reporter who, at the time, worked for the Guardian). Of course, Snowden did not attempt to take his concerns to either the NSA’s inspector general or the relevant Congressional committees charged with regulating America’s sprawling intelligence community. He simply stole thousands of files containing classified intelligence, gave a small fraction which pertained to violations of American civil liberties to Greenwald, and then took the bulk of the stolen data to Communist China!
Once he was there, one of Julian Assange’s closest associates, Sarah Harrison, met with Snowden and never left his side — even helping to engineer Snowden’s eventual escape to Russia. While in China, it’s believed that Chinese state security managed to gain access to Snowden’s cache of classified NSA files. And, once he arrived in Russia, you can rest assured that Russian intelligence got their hands on that information as well. Snowden is reported to have preferred seeking refuge in Latin America. It was Assange who convinced Snowden to stay in Russia instead. Assange claimed that Russia is “one of the few places in the world where the CIA’s influence did not reach.” Many intelligence analysts have long argued that Snowden was involved — either knowingly or unknowingly — with a Russian spy ring at Booz Allen Hamilton, the private contracting firm where Snowden had worked.
Assange Sold Out to Russia
Assange’s bizarre appreciation for Russia in 2013 was a far cry from his attitude about Russia (and China) in 2010. After all, in 2010, Assange had threatened to expose the criminal behavior of Russia’s elite — vowing that WikiLeaks would first take down Putin’s Russia, then move on to despotic regimes, such as those in China and throughout Central Asia. However, once Assange made those public threats against Russia, the Russian FSB cautioned Assange that “We could destroy you.” Assange immediately backed down.
By 2012, as funding for WikiLeaks was drying up due to American pressure, the Russian state English-speaking propaganda network, Russia Today, made Julian Assange a host for one of its shows, “The World Tomorrow.” While it only lasted 12 episodes, the program had a “decidedly anti-American bent” and featured fawning interviews between such international undesirables as Hassan Nasrallah of Hezbollah and Assange. Thanks to his connections with Russia, WikiLeaks was given cover, it was allowed to continue as a proliferator of information damaging to the United States and its allies, and it was able to receive funding outside of traditional methods.
Further, the WikiLeaks document dumps did endanger U.S. intelligence sources and methods. And, the bulk of the data that Snowden had pilfered from the NSA did not pertain to domestic spying. They detailed how American intelligence conducts operations against Russia and China. Because of the opaque nature of intelligence, we will likely never know the extent of the damage wrought to our abilities to challenge China and Russia. Although, the danger to American assets and methods is high.
When Does One Go Too Far?
Fact is, I happen to agree with Tucker Carlson’s assertion that Julian Assange is, in fact, a journalist. He was given exclusive stories from insider sources which he promptly broke for the world on his WikiLeaks platform. But, as Assange would often say, his main target was always “American hegemony.” While we can have a legitimate debate over the role the United States should play in the world (and I happen to favor a more restrained foreign policy, especially in light of the failures in Iraq and Afghanistan), we must never forget that Assange almost exclusively focused his ire on the United States and its allies. There was clearly a political motivation. This in itself is not problematic (after all, most American journalists hate America as much as Assange clearly does).
Yet, when placed in the context of geopolitics it is a threat.
Because of his antipathy for the United States, Assange made common cause with Moscow, whose leadership is virulently anti-American. We should be deeply disturbed by the excesses the U.S. intelligence community has exhibited in recent years — whether it be illegal surveillance or the despicable attempt to overturn a legitimate presidential election in 2016 — but it’s also important to understand that most people in the intelligence community are patriots. They are trying to defend the country as best they can (often in spite of turgid political leadership and sclerotic bureaucracies). Thanks to Assange, their ability to defend the United States from severe threats posed by China and Russia has been hampered.
Assange should be applauded for some of his work — although he did break the law and, therefore, should be punished for having done so. But Assange’s predicament is hardly unique. Remember, journalists have been jailed before for having violated the law in pursuit of their story. Famously, Judith Miller, formerly of the New York Times, was jailed for 85 days in 2005 for refusing to reveal her source (I. Lewis “Scooter” Libby) during the Valerie Plame scandal.
The treatment of Assange would be no different. Miller refused to give up her source due to her sense of journalistic ethics. My respect for her grew immensely after that incident. Many people believe Julian Assange is a selfless individual whose only mission is to expose the Truth. Yet, for an act to truly be selfless it must involve a degree of self-sacrifice.
Brandon J. Weichert can be reached via Twitter @WeTheBrandon.