The picture painted by Raffi Khatchadourian in his New Yorker profile of Julian Assange is not flattering. The Wikileaks founder variously appears as a paranoid recluse, playing white noise in his conference room and concocting elaborate eating routines for fear of poisoning; a genius turned strange through fame (even if you don’t read the whole article, you have to scroll down and read the poetry that Pamela Anderson—yes, that Pamela Anderson—has written for him); a lackey for the Russians being used to manipulate global politics; and a warrior for free speech on a mission to out state secrets.
While Assange likes to imagine himself as an embattled underdog, his organisation has an annual budget that runs into the millions, receives hundreds of thousands in donations from the US alone and has ‘ridiculous’ amounts of money in bitcoin and tax havens. Questionable ethics abound in his solicitation of donations: he recently called for donors to contribute towards a $100k reward for the Trump-Comey tapes which, unsurprisingly, turned out not to exist. Donors were not offered a refund.
His big jolt to fame came thanks to Chelsea Manning’s 2010 leak of US military and State Department documents. Assange was eager to get the jump on anything that might lessen the publicity they would receive. But Manning was arrested before the release of the documents, meaning US intelligence was likely to quickly become aware of the documents he held. The release included hundreds of classified records that, if published without redactions, were likely to endanger intelligence sources around the world. Assange scheduled ‘no time for harm minimisation’, so redactions were done hastily, with hundreds of Afghan people, many in remote places, identifiable as US intelligence sources and cooperators. The State Department established a task force to mitigate the toll of the release, but the scale of the damage remains unknown.
While the Manning release was still generating hype, Assange’s personal conduct came under question. The sexual assault allegations in Sweden have always been an uneasy issue in the Assange story—not least because of his attitude towards it. When a European warrant was issued for Assange’s arrest, he messaged Khatchadourian to say: ‘Battles with governments come easy. Battles with treacherous women are another matter’. For his part, he refuses culpability in relation to the claims, viewing the allegations as an elaborate plot to arrest him—in the words of his attorney: ‘the honeytrap has been sprung’.
For Assange’s supporters, the idea that the Swedish case was in fact a geopolitical manoeuvre had ‘immediate appeal’, but in fact makes little sense. Khatchadourian writes:
...the Swedish extradition process requires the approval of the nation’s Supreme Court; thus, the scenario that Assange was proposing—a geopolitical plot to use his sex-crimes case as a pretext to deliver him to the United States—would require at least three high justices to act as conspirators.
Further, Swedish law prohibits extraditions for political crimes, and Sweden could not extradite Assange without permission from the UK. As one US official noted: ‘the perception that somehow Sweden was a place that American officials would want him, as opposed to the UK, is on its face so ludicrous’.
Even if extradited, it is highly unlikely that Assange would be successfully prosecuted under the Espionage Act: the Act is intended to punish those who leak classified documents, but has never been applied to a publisher. There would be significant implications for the freedom of the press if the Espionage Act were to be applied to a publisher. And a more pressing question is: would the New York Times and the Washington Post be similarly charged for publishing excerpts from the Wikileaks releases? It seems clear, argues Khatchadourian, that the Justice Department has known from the beginning that there was no case for the arrest of Assange—not without arresting editors of the Times and the Post as well.
Despite any criminal case having been put on the back burner, Assange’s beef with the US appears not have dwindled. In particular, he harbours a personal grudge against Clinton—whom he suspected ‘wanted to assassinate him, and was instrumental in aggravating his conflict with Sweden’. When releasing hacked DNC emails, Assange devised an algorithm to publish them in random sequence, to prevent the Clinton campaign from predicting releases and entering damage control—a move that seems exacted at inflicting political damage, rather than ensuring public access to information. He is gleeful about Clinton’s election loss—and helped produce an annotated anthology of his election publications titled How I lost: By Hillary Clinton.
In the year since the election, repeated questions have arisen around the links between Assange and Russian intelligence. The exact nature of the relationship remains hazy—but that a relationship exists seems beyond doubt. To begin with, Assange has an historical relationship with the Russians: he has previously worked for RT—the Russian state news network, and Putin personally extended support to Assange when he was in prison. Assange, for his part, regards Russia as a valuable counterpoint to American global hegemony.
Despite denials, it seems Assange was given the hacked emails by a persona called Guccifer 2.0, who was crafted to appear as an amateurish Romanian lone-wolf hacker, but, Khatchadourian reports, was ‘comically unconvincing’. US intelligence linked Guccifer 2.0 to Russia, but Assange denied that Guccifer 2.0 or any Russian affiliate was his source. Assange received a trove of emails from the hacked DNC server in the same weeks that the Trump campaign met with Russian representatives claiming to have information on the Clinton campaign. Each subsequent release tended to occur simultaneously with releases on the Russian-linked sites, and Guccifer 2.0 could demonstrate that they had withheld certain documents from Assange.
Khatchadourian argues that Assange’s insistent ‘protestations that there were no connections between his publications and Russia were untenable’. There appears to be a great deal of evidence that Assange’s source was, or was linked to, Guccifer 2.0, which in turn was linked to the Russians, and that Assange was aware of this.
In Khatchadourian’s telling, Assange’s role has shifted from a supposed warrior for the public’s right to know to pawn in a geopolitical saga. His denials about Russian involvement in the release of information around the 2016 election ‘obfuscated an act of information warfare between two nuclear-armed powers’. Assange shows a troubling disregard for his role in geopolitical conflict. ‘If it’s true information, we don’t care where it comes from,’ he told Khatchadourian. ‘Let people fight with the truth, and when the bodies are cleared there will be bullets of truth everywhere.’
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