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Wikileaks founder Julian Assange couldn’t have expressed less confidence in good old Time magazine. In an interview yesterday on ABC News’s “This Week,” host George Stephanopoulos asked Assange this quite pointed question:
“Back in 2010, an email that was revealed from you by Bart Gellman in ‘Time’ magazine, said that you hoped the revelations from Wikileaks would bring about, quote, ‘the total annihilation of the current U.S. regime.’ Is that still your goal, and what did you mean by that?”

Assange responded this way: “I did not say that and there is no such email. That is simply false.”

Talk about a revolutionary! Assange is taking aim at a two-time winner of the Pulitzer Prize!

Then comes the dis:

STEPHANOPOULOS: It’s quoted in Time magazine in December 2010.

ASSANGE: Yes. Well, I mean, Time magazine.

Assange said that last bit with a clear implication — as if Time magazine cannot be trusted to report that the sun rose this morning.

Now to unpack this consequential Sunday clash. In its 2010 Person of the Year issue, Time rated Assange one of its “runners-up.” To establish his bona fides as a world figure, Barton Gellman, an investigative reporter who formerly worked here at The Post, wrote a longish profile on Assange. Early in the piece, he wrote this:

[A] great deal can be said about Assange, much of it unpleasant. He is inclined to the grandiose. Contempt for nearly every authority drives his work, and unguarded e-mails — leaked, naturally — reveal hopes that transparency will bring “total annihilation of the current U.S. regime.” In London, he is fighting extradition to face allegations in Sweden that he sexually assaulted two WikiLeaks supporters.

Annihilation is a strong word, so it’s only fitting that Stephanopoulos would latch onto it for his interview with Assange about the fate and whereabouts of National Security Agency leaker Edward Snowden. Over the past few weeks, Snowden has split opinion in and around Washington. That’s not a difficult task, but impressions of Snowden span from heroic whistleblower to traitor. Given that Assange’s group has assisted Snowden, why not ask the Wikileaks boss if he stands by his annihilation memo?

The claim that there is “no such email” is a patent stretch, in light of this file on the site Cryptome. It shows correspondence on an internal mailing list of Wikileaks. The quote in question comes from this paragraph in an e-mail sent on Jan. 2, 2007:

WL can advance the political/governance aspects of these developments by several years which will have all sorts of positive cascades, not the least of which is total annihilation of the current US regime and any other regime that holds its authority through mendacity alone.

There’s no author listed on the e-mail, and that’s where Gellman’s reporting comes in. He tells the Erik Wemple Blog that Assange himself ran the discussion group and that two sources in that group told him that Assange authored the “annihilation” missive. Though a search of Nexis under “Assange” and “total annihilation” doesn’t yield a massive field of results, the quote did interest Frontline, which put the matter before Assange in a 2011 interview:

FRONTLINE: There’s a number of things that come up in your writings that cause people to sit back and say: “What’s this guy talking about? Governments are conspiracies?” [PDF] Tell me whether this is true, that in an e-mail you said, “The total annihilation of the current U.S. regime or any other regime that holds its authority through mendacity alone could be accelerated or advanced by several years if WikiLeaks does its job right.”

ASSANGE: I don’t know if I wrote that e-mail, but I recall that it spawned [controversy]. That I’ve read. I don’t think the word “regime” was used. I believe the word [was] “administration.”

FRONTLINE: I just raise the issue to give you a chance to address [it] before our audience [gets] this idea that you are setting yourself up as an opponent of the government of the United States and are interested in the annihilation of the U.S. government.

ASSANGE: We’re not interested in annihilating any government. It is a difficult thing to have a critical, functional institution. Institutions derive their legitimate authority from an informed public that chooses to grant them authority. If the public is not informed, then any authority that chooses to grant an organization in itself is not informed, and therefore is not legitimate. When we have cases of clear cover-ups of abuse, which was certainly true under [President George W.] Bush, certainly true in relation to its rendition program and the administration of Guantanamo Bay and many other matters we are dealing with, in the case of those sections or Bush, then an administration that governs by, I’m not sure the word “mendacity” would have been used, but governs by concealing of abuse. And that in itself is abuse, and that must be stopped.

So there: Two years ago, Assange disputed aspects of the e-mail story but not its core.

When asked about Assange’s denial yesterday, Gellman responded:

The early Wikileaks listserv has the e-mail in its full context. People who were on the list told me Assange was the author of that one, and Wikileaks spokesmen did not dispute it at the time. In his Frontline interview, Assange said the e-mail was familiar, said he didn’t know if he wrote it, and then focused his reservations on whether the note said “regime” or administration. The thrust of the quote — that secret government is corrupt and must be toppled by forced transparency — is the core of the philosophy Assange has espoused for years. Until today I had no reason to doubt that those were Assange’s words. Maybe there’s another explanation for the Cryptome document. I’d like to hear it.

Bold text highlighted to an important dynamic. Gellman pulled that e-mail from a Wikileaks discussion group. Had he really mistaken the author of the e-mail, is it not likely that everyone in that group would have sent him a few correction requests? Or perhaps hundreds?

Kristinn Hrafnsson, spokesman for Wikileaks, told the Erik Wemple Blog yesterday that he hadn’t discussed the “annihilation” issue with Assange. He did say of Assange, however: “He is a man of his word.”

Erik Wemple writes the Erik Wemple blog, where he reports and opines on media organizations of all sorts.