Allison Stanger is a professor of international politics and economics at Middlebury College and the author of “Whistleblowers: Honesty in America from Washington to Trump.”
WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange is neither whistleblower nor journalist. He is an Australian citizen charged by the Justice Department with conspiring to hack into a U.S. government computer.
The report by special counsel Robert S. Mueller III released this past Friday amply documents that Assange, with the support of Russian intelligence, played a critical role in the 2016 presidential election. He is a potential missing link in the chain of understanding the extent to which foreign intervention affected the American electoral process.
This is not a partisan issue. Democrats certainly would have agreed with Mike Pompeo, speaking in 2017 as CIA director before becoming secretary of state last year, when he said, “It is time to call out WikiLeaks for what it really is: a nonstate hostile intelligence service often abetted by state actors like Russia.”
The special counsel’s investigation had long ago established that WikiLeaks distributed materials obtained from Russian military intelligence’s hack of the computer networks of Democratic organizations and the private email account of Hillary Clinton’s campaign chairman John Podesta. Now the Mueller report has refocused attention on the degree of contact during the campaign between WikiLeaks and Trump associates.
WikiLeaks launched in 2006. In the years that followed, Assange released classified information about the U.S. wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and was hailed as a whistleblower. But his actions over time indicate that he is not. To have a meaningful national conversation on whistleblowing, we must deploy a nonpartisan definition: A whistleblower is an insider who has evidence of misconduct (illegal or improper conduct) and exposes it, either to the authorities or to the news media. In government, misconduct is illegality or a violation of constitutional norms.
By this definition, former U.S. military analyst Daniel Ellsberg blew the whistle on the United States’ dishonest conduct regarding the Vietnam War. He was a whistleblower in a way that Assange could never be, because Assange is a foreign national who reportedly collaborated with Russian intelligence to derail Clinton’s candidacy. As unredacted portions of the Mueller report show, during the 2016 presidential election campaign, WikiLeaks communicated both with Trump advisers and with Russian-intelligence (GRU) front organizations, DCLeaks and Guccifer 2.0. WikiLeaks subsequently sought to cover up its connections with the GRU. The pattern of redacted passages suggests that investigators continue to look into the link between WikiLeaks’ election sabotage and longtime Trump adviser Roger Stone.
If Assange is not a whistleblower, is he a journalist? When he had mainstream media outlets such as the New York Times, the Guardian in Britain and Der Spiegel in Germany curate and redact documents stolen by the Army intelligence analyst now known as Chelsea Manning, Assange could have been construed as such. But WikiLeaks ultimately wound up releasing the entire cache of unredacted materials to the Internet, something a journalist would not do. And no journalist would conspire to hack into the Pentagon’s computer network, as the U.S. Justice Department accuses Assange of doing. (His lawyer says Assange will resist extradition to the United States from Britain.)
Some of the confusion surrounding Assange is a product of WikiLeaks’ complete transformation since its inception. WikiLeaks once was something wholly new: a site designed for whistleblowing targeted at corruption anywhere in the world. The optimistic values that originally animated its mission were expressed on the WikiLeaks beta site, the test version before its official launch: “We propose that every authoritarian government, every oppressive institution, and even every corrupt corporation, be subject to the pressure, not merely of international diplomacy or freedom of information laws, not even of quadrennial elections, but of something far stronger: the individual consciences of the people within them.”
The original idealism quickly morphed into an exclusive focus on the alleged transgressions of the United States. After it began releasing the State Department cables in November 2010, American companies backed away from WikiLeaks. Amazon stopped hosting WikiLeaks. PayPal announced it would no longer process donations to the site. MasterCard and Visa Europe severed ties. Assange called it “economic censorship.”
He eventually found a new source of cash in the Kremlin’s main global propaganda outlet, RT, formerly called Russia Today. “World Tomorrow,” otherwise known as “The Julian Assange Show,” ran for 12 episodes in 2012. When he sought refuge in Ecuador’s London embassy around that time, Assange was being sought for questioning by Swedish police regarding sexual assault allegations. From the time Donald Trump announced his presidential candidacy in 2015 through his election in November 2016, Assange did not publish a single document that was damaging to Russia or Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Assange’s indictment by the United States is not the attempted silencing of a whistleblower or a threat to press freedom or an abuse of power. It is about prosecuting Assange on a specific criminal charge. Questioning him more broadly might yield potentially valuable information about how Russia intervened in the 2016 election, enabling the United States to mount a better defense of the electoral process’s integrity in 2020.