The architect of WikiLeaks continues to depict himself as a heroic fighter for the cause of transparency, but that image is increasingly hard to take at face value. A series of revelations over the past two years — from U.S. intelligence agencies, special counsel Robert S. Mueller III and the international media — have dramatically altered Assange’s place in the scheme of things.
Assange, we now know, was a key player in the Russian operation to undermine the 2016 U.S. presidential election — by actively helping Donald Trump to become president and undercutting Americans’ trust in their democracy, the twin goals of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s interference campaign.
Assange behaved as an instrument of the Kremlin operation which, in an excruciatingly close election, may have made just enough of a difference to secure Trump’s victory.
Once, Assange was celebrated as the apostle of openness. But now, it seems, history will more likely remember him as an accessory to one of the world’s most secretive and cynical autocracies.
Mueller’s investigators have recently questioned at least five witnesses about Assange’s role in the 2016 campaign. The WikiLeaks founder’s ties to Trump confidant Roger Stone appear to be a focus of that line of inquiry, as ABC News reported last week.
More revelations are likely to come. But we already know Assange looks less like a crusader of the online counterculture than the power-mad intriguer who once referred to Hillary Clinton as a “sadistic sociopath” and who was happy to openly accept Russian support. (The Kremlin’s RT propaganda network gave a show to Assange for a time, and the Guardian newspaper recently reported on an apparent Russian plan to help Assange escape Britain, though it was ultimately scrapped.) In July, the Mueller investigation indicted a dozen Russian military-intelligence operatives for stealing information from Democratic Party computers — information, the indictment said, that was then passed on to WikiLeaks.
That has prompted some observers to recall a remarkable appearance by Assange on Dutch television in August 2016. At the time, Trump’s campaign was foundering, even after Russian intelligence agencies had mounted a campaign to help him by stoking U.S. divisions on social media, promoting fake stories and hacking into the servers of the Democratic National Committee.
Assange was asked whether WikiLeaks had material that could help Trump. He responded by detonating a conspiracy theory, despite knowing it to be untrue. “There’s a 27-year-old who works for the DNC who was shot in the back, murdered for unknown reasons,” Assange said. He was referring to Seth Rich, killed in a robbery, whose death has since been weaponized by anti-Clinton activists.
Assange was in a unique position to energize the notion of a politically-motivated assassination. “What are you suggesting?” the Dutch interviewer asked. Assange coolly replied: “I’m suggesting that our sources take risks.” Though declining to confirm Rich was a source, he did manage to imply that Rich had handed WikiLeaks the documents. Assange’s remarks fueled countless far-right conspiracy theories used by Trump and his defenders to divert public attention from the compromising findings of Mueller’s investigators and the U.S. intelligence community.
The GRU (Russian military intelligence) created a character it called “Guccifer 2.0,” an alleged Romanian hacker, to divert attention away from the Kremlin after the DNC and U.S. intelligence officials discovered Russian fingerprints on the cyberintrusions. Four days after the DNC hack, WikiLeaks became the beneficiary of Guccifer 2.0’s work. Assange told Britain’s ITN that “WikiLeaks has a very big year ahead,” acknowledging it had “emails related to Hillary Clinton which are pending publication.”
Guccifer 2.0 confirmed he was working with Assange, and Wikileaks became an important tool in the Russian operation. Oddly enough, Assange’s quest for documents never extended to the Trump campaign, which was more secretive than any in recent U.S. political history. WikiLeaks didn’t appear to have much interest in Trump’s tax returns, or in any of the communications between top campaign officials and Russian figures. Nor has WikiLeaks ever provided any sensational revelations from the databases of the Kremlin.
WikiLeaks became fully engaged in helping Trump and Russia. In July 2016, just before the Democratic Convention — the launch of the final stage of the Clinton campaign — WikiLeaks released DNC emails that suggested the party had favored Clinton over Sen. Bernie Sanders. The timing roiled the convention, forced resignations among top Democratic officials, and unquestionably hurt Clinton’s efforts to gain the support of Sanders’s supporters.
And, of course, in October 2016, when Trump’s campaign seemed on the verge of collapse — with near-simultaneous releases of the Access Hollywood recording (in which Trump boasts of committing sexual assault), and a U.S. intelligence report confirming Kremlin interference — Wikileaks rushed to the rescue.
Exactly 29 minutes after Americans heard the would-be president declare that when you’re famous, you can “grab them by the p—y,” WikiLeaks posted emails hacked from the computer of Clinton’s campaign chairman, John Podesta. Headline writers could hardly keep up. Trump’s troubles eased.
Soon after, at a frenzied campaign rally, Trump gushed, “I love WikiLeaks!”
Trump had every reason to say that. In 2010, when Assange first assured the world he would remain “strictly impartial” in his search for the truth, many of his admirers still believed him. One wonders how many of them still do.