My colleagues, Barrett Wilson and Ali Taghva, published a piece last Sunday titled, “Julian Assange: troll or truth teller?” It followed the piece I filed a few days before, and tackles a variation of a question I posed: “ Is Julian Assange a hero or a villain?” They take a much more pro-Assange stance than I do. They defend him against the charge that he’s not a real journalist, and take the establishment media to task for hypocrisy. They also celebrate Assange’s efforts to shed light on the state’s national security apparatus.
I agree that some of the joviality about his arrest is maddening when one recognizes the media’s flip-flopping on Assange. They were quite happy with his and Chelsea Manning’s efforts to “expose” American actions in Iraq and Afghanistan. They then had a change of heart when he sabotaged their agenda by helping to shatter Hillary Clinton’s electoral chances in 2016. These turnarounds aren’t only visible in liberals, either. Conservatives like Sean Hannity went from denouncing Assange as an anti-American agitator to hailing him as a mutineer acting against the liberal establishment. It’s obvious that people are willing to turn their backs on their professed principles if it serves their narrative and agenda. As I explained in my first piece, this is also true of Assange.
There is a multitude of questions that get lost amid the dissonance. Two are: Does this nullify the legitimate concerns “establishment liberals” and “hardline conservatives” have about Assange and his modus operandi? Also, does Assange’s work constitute fearless journalism driven by truth and a respect for the profession? Maybe I’m too tenacious, but my answer to both is no.
My colleagues caution that Assange’s arrest will set a precedent for the persecution of “individuals worldwide who publish the secret information of governments.” Warning us, they write: “If you’re a journalist and the arrest of Julian Assange doesn’t concern you, that’s fine. You don’t have to be concerned. But just remember: you’re next.”
In my opinion, this is highly unlikely. For the most part, journalists are free to publish and say what they want about Western governments (the ones Assange focuses on while not doing the same for oppressive regimes that actually kill journalists) as long as they go about doing so legally. There’s a debate to be had whether Julian Assange is a journalist or not given his peculiarities and wrongdoings. The rule of law still applies to journalists. There are also several elephants in the room that have been obscured by omission.
I discussed this at reasonable length in the last piece, but it bears repeating. Assange has pursued an anti-American agenda that incidentally helps further Russia’s interests, as well as those of other foes of the West. He is also affiliated with hostile Russian intelligence groups.
For a time, Assange hosted a talk show that was distributed by Russia’s English news channel. WikiLeaks associates like the anti-Semite and Holocaust denier Israel Shamir have gone to Moscow and offered to publish articles on US diplomatic cables for Russian newspapers. In 2011, Tablet Magazine reported that Shamir travelled to Belarus to meet with members of Alexander Lukashenko’s government, and handed over a “cache of unredacted American diplomatic cables concerning Belarus.”
In the Ecuadorian Embassy, Assange reportedly maintained contact with Russian hackers. According to the Guardian, he couldn’t shake his subversive curiosity about Ecuador, and violated the embassy’s computers and read “confidential diplomatic traffic.”Increasing suspicion was the number of foreign visitors he received and reports of a Russian plot to help him escape the embassy. So it shouldn’t be a surprise that the Ecuadorian government decided to remove his asylum status.
Over the last few years, it’s clear that the Kremlin has been trying to wage a non-linear war against the West. And Assange’s enterprise has only helped it. In their paper, “The Menace of Unreality,” journalists Michael Weiss and Peter Pomerantsev provide a comprehensive analysis of how the Russian government has revived the disinformation campaigns of the Soviet period to penetrate Western societies. They outline how the Russians have tactically used the Internet and media to spread untruths and anti-Western propaganda. As they elucidate: “The underlying mindset of the Kremlin’s political technologists exploits the idea that “truth” is a lost cause, and that reality is essentially malleable and the instant, easy proliferation of fakes and copies on the Internet makes it the ideal forum to spread such ideas.”
For example, they can spread falsehoods about the conflicts in Syria or Ukraine and blame the West while using Western faces like Assange to “court the anti-Western Left.”
The Mueller Report breaks down the communications between WikiLeaks and the GRU (Russian foreign intelligence agency) in 2016 regarding Hillary Clinton. The GRU sent WikiLeaks encrypted files allegedly containing material that bedevilled an already awful campaign, and then Assange and WikiLeaks made several statements about murdered DNC staff member Seth Rich that implied he was the source of the stolen information. I am no Clintonista, but Russian covert disruptions are not something about which we should be complacent, even if the preferred candidate might be the indirect beneficiary of them.
I’d be remiss not to mention the issue of “transparency,” the thing for which Assange is most venerated. Causing perplexity is how non-transparent Assange has been about his organization. Douglas Murray rightly chided him for his failure to expose the killing of Russian journalists by the FSB; or his inability to be honest about his affiliates, his employees, and finances. Assange has never provided clear answers.
And what about journalistic ethics?
The story for which Assange has perhaps garnered the most recognition is his role in Private Chelsea (then Bradley) Manning’s massive theft and leak of military documents concerning the wars in the Middle East. The disclosures revealed military secrets—such as airstrikes that went awry— that provided ample fodder for the far-left who, like Assange, see the West as the scourge of the world. After this display of “transparency,” Assange won praise and a band of slavish sycophants.
His arrest has been considered historically analogous to that of Daniel Ellsberg, the former RAND Corporation military analyst who in 1971 stole a top-secret Pentagon study of the Vietnam War and handed its contents to the New York Times and the Washington Post. Ellsberg then faced charges that were eventually dropped. In New York Times Co v. United States, the Supreme Court upheld First Amendment rights and sparked a conversation about First Amendment protections when it came to publishing material about diplomacy and warfare.
Apropos of which, commentators have argued that Assange’s case will end up the same way.
However, there might be important distinctions to be made. Those involved in the Ellsberg case undertook a rigorous editorial process; Assange and WikiLeaks did not. The Times and the Post received the scoop and lawyers and editors contemplated the details when it came to curating the documents and publishing them. While, according to the indictment, “Assange agreed to assist Manning in cracking a password stored on United States Department of Defense computers” connected to a network “used for classified documents and communications.” Furthermore, “Assange and Manning took measures to conceal Manning as the source” of disclosures. This doesn’t sound like investigative journalism; it sounds like conspiring to commit theft.
Making matters worse was the remorseless act of publishing the documentsunredacted without thoughtfully surveying them for content and evidence. There was no regard for protecting identities or information that’d be of great use to enemies like military tactics, plans, and weapon reports.
Besides perhaps a few noteworthy items, a lot of the documentation wasn’t that valuable. What do we gain from the revelation that the US government thought that Stephen Harper’s talk of Arctic sovereignty was just “empty chest-thumping”? What exactly is useful in knowing that US diplomats compared Bob Rae with Michael Ignatieff? If anything, this being public would only negatively impact Canada-US relations. This type of information, along with the names of Afghan and Iraqi allies, would have just been useful for adversaries who seek to undermine Western alliances and complicate diplomatic initiatives.
It is a reality that diplomacy sometimes needs to be done furtively. Nihilistic anarchists like Assange don’t understand this, and their promiscuous leaks are a hindrance to proper statecraft. Todd Gitlin, a writer who is no American jingoist, wrote that the WikiLeaks publications are an “impediment to the sound, constructive work of states as much as to their wicked schemes.”
This is all because of Assange’s vile worldview and impetuous approach to the work he does.
Christopher Hitchens was correct when he said Assange is an “unscrupulous megalomaniac with a political agenda.” This foul man deserves and should have his day in court, just as we deserve and should get answers regarding his transgressions and affiliations.
I’ll end with this.
Recently, The Post Millennial published its Ethical Journalism Policy and Mission Statement. It extols the values of scrupulous judgment and truth, and TPM will continue to live up to them. In doing so, we shouldn’t consider ourselves at one with Julian Assange.