The sad downfall of Julian Assange and his empire of secrets.
- By Joshua E. KeatingJoshua E. Keating was an associate editor at Foreign Policy.
The story of WikiLeaks, once an exciting tale of overcoming government secrecy and empowering online activists and journalists, is now a story primarily concerned with the vagaries of diplomatic immunity, British-Ecuadorean relations, and Swedish rape laws. It’s a safe bet that it’s not the scenario that Julian Assange — who is reportedly now holed up in a windowless backroom of the Ecuadorean Embassy in London, sleeping on an air mattress — had in mind when he founded the whistle-blowing website six years ago.
As Assange remains in international legal limbo, granted asylum in Ecuador but with no foreseeable way to get there, and as WikiLeaks struggles to stay afloat in the face of money problems and denial-of-service attacks, it’s worth reflecting on how we got here. How did an organization that once touted itself as the future of journalism — and for a time seemed to have a credible case for the claim — devolve into one man’s soap opera? If one looks back, several key tactical errors landed WikiLeaks in its current predicament.
One mistake WikiLeaks has made is that, over time, it has allowed itself to be associated with a particular political agenda — notably Assange’s. Obviously, leaks including the "Collateral Murder" video, the Afghanistan war logs, and, of course, the tens of thousands of secret U.S. State Department cables were going to provoke the ire of the U.S. government no matter what the site did. Assange has claimed that he doesn’t see the site as anti-American, but, rather, as universally anti-secrecy, and to be fair, it hasn’t targeted the United States exclusively; his first leak that brought major international attention was a report exposing government corruption in Kenya. And it has deviated at times from left-wing politics, notably in publishing the "Climategate" emails from researchers at Britain’s University of East Anglia.
Since 2010, however, it has been pretty hard to make the case that WikiLeaks is a neutral transmission system. Nearly all its major operations have targeted the U.S. government or American corporations. When WikiLeaks released U.S. government cables, its stated purpose was to reveal "the contradictions between the US’s public persona and what it says behind closed doors." By contrast, when it released Syrian government cables in July, Assange was quick to point out, "The material is embarrassing to Syria, but it is also embarrassing to Syria’s opponents." This at a time when 14,000 people had already been killed in the uprising against Bashar al-Assad’s regime.
Assange also hasn’t improved his credibility with his TV talk show, The World Tomorrow — particularly with its first episode, a softball interview with Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah. It doesn’t help that the show is aired by RT (formerly Russia Today), a network funded by the Russian government. And in an ironic twist, the transparency advocate has now cast his lot with Ecuadorean President Rafael Correa, a past World Tomorrow guest and a leader with a less-than-sterling record on press freedom.
The U.S. government might always have viewed Assange as a threat, but more Americans might have been willing to hear him out if he weren’t so easy to paint as a purely anti-American figure. Even Americans who are highly critical of their government’s foreign policy have a hard time getting on board with a man who promises to hasten "the total annihilation of the current U.S. regime."
Assange could have combated the charge of double standards by leaking some material about a government hostile to the United States, such as China or Russia. In October 2010, he promised in an interview with the Russian paper Izvestia, "We have [compromising materials] about Russia, about your government and businessmen.… But not as much as we’d like.… We will publish these materials soon.… We are helped by the Americans, who pass on a lot of material about Russia." But "Kremlingate" has never materialized, which suggests either that it wasn’t a major priority for WikiLeaks or that Assange was bluffing.
Overpromising on leaks the site can’t deliver, as well as overhyping the ones it can, has been another hallmark of Assange’s work. This year, WikiLeaks released more than 5 million emails from the global intelligence firm Stratfor, touting it as a "private CIA" operating outside the law in cooperation with the U.S. government. In reality, if the emails revealed anything, it’s that Stratfor’s marketing to its corporate clients has somewhat overstated the glorified intelligence firm’s own level of access and expertise. Take, for example, Stratfor Vice President of Intelligence Fred Burton’s prediction of a flood of 9/11-type attacks heading America’s way after the fall of Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak. And emails purporting to prove that the U.S. Department of Homeland Security was spying on the Occupy Wall Street movement turned out to be less than meet the eye (though an extended dialogue about the theft of pesto tortellini from the company fridge was at least amusing).
The Syria emails may have shown some Western companies and politicians being a bit too quick to engage with the Assad regime, but the documents had little damaging information that hadn’t already been reported in outlets like Bloomberg and the Wall Street Journal. Readers were duly underwhelmed, and the story disappeared quickly from headlines.
Even WikiLeaks’ crowning achievement — Cablegate — may have been embarrassing to the State Department and put some U.S. government sources at risk, but didn’t actually reveal much in the way of nefarious doings by U.S. diplomats. If anything, it often revealed them to be a bit more informed about their postings than their public statements might suggest. Yes, cables detailing the personal excesses of the Tunisian ruling family were one of several factors that helped spark protests in that country in early 2011, but WikiLeaks’ claims that the Arab Spring was a direct result of its work doesn’t pass the laugh test.
WikiLeaks has also repeatedly proved itself fairly unreliable when it comes to handling secret information. In a 2009 email, by accidentally using the CC instead of BCC field, Assange reportedly revealed the names of the organization’s first 58 supporters to one another, an action that may have set in motion the chain of events that led to the arrest of accused leaker Bradley Manning. WikiLeaks even failed to keep control of its crown jewels — the U.S. cables likely obtained from Manning — allowing them to leak to a Norwegian newspaper that was not part of the original publication agreement in December 2010. According to some reports, Assange had given one Icelandic volunteer access to the full archive. Eventually, WikiLeaks turned its back on its media partners and simply published the entire archive without redacting the names of sources, revealing the identities of dissidents who had confided in U.S. officials.
WikiLeaks’ defenders often complain about the organization’s hostile treatment in the mainstream media. The Aug. 16 New York Times story on the Ecuador standoff, which manages to find a way to work in past stories of Assange not flushing toilets and abusing cats, will probably bolster their claim. But WikiLeaks has also contributed to its own bad coverage by undermining its relationships with its media partners. WikiLeaks alienated its first publishing partner, the Guardian, by going behind editors’ backs to share material with a competing news outlet. In the case of the New York Times, Assange soured on the paper and its editor at the time, Bill Keller, after it published what he saw as an unflattering profile of him; and soon thereafter, Assange began to accuse the paper of collusion with the U.S. government. In July, WikiLeaks published a hoax "Bill Keller" column, an act that doesn’t exactly lend credibility to an organization that prides itself on the accuracy of its information.
But the biggest problem with WikiLeaks is that it has become far too associated with the "crazy white haired aussie," as Manning once referred to him. An organization is rarely helped when its leader stands accused of sexual assault, but WikiLeaks might have been able to survive the allegations against Assange more easily if he weren’t so completely identified as the group’s public face — a state of affairs that seems to be very much his own doing.
"I am the heart and soul of this organization, its founder, philosopher, spokesperson, original coder, organizer, financier and all the rest. If you have a problem with me, piss off," Assange wrote to one of his Icelandic volunteers, Herbert Snorrason, according to chat logs obtained by Wired.
Snorrason did just that, along with many of Assange’s other early allies. "I believe that Julian has in fact pushed the capable people away," Snorrason told Wired. The departed included his German spokesman, Daniel Domscheit-Berg, who left to found a rival site and deleted 3,500 unpublished cables on his way out the door. Domscheit-Berg has emerged as one of Assange’s most outspoken and effective critics.
For several months in 2010, WikiLeaks was the biggest and most exciting story in international politics, as media outlets and readers anxiously awaited each day’s new revelations. With 250,000 diplomatic cables to pour through, plus, presumably, even more leaks to come from Assange’s empire of secrets, WikiLeaks seemed like a genuine game-changer. It appeared inevitable that the mainstream media would spend years playing catch-up to the anonymous online leakers.
It didn’t happen that way. It quickly became clear that the vast majority of the cables were innocuous. WikiLeaks’ much-hyped follow-ups — Stratfor, Syria — failed to impress. Copycat sites like Domscheit-Berg’s OpenLeaks have failed to make an impact. And WikiLeaks itself has been sidelined by a legal case that — much as Assange may claim otherwise — has little to do with the site’s mission.
Could WikiLeaks have been a more credible and successful whistle-blowing organization without Assange as its driving force and public face? We’ll never know. But however the standoff at the Ecuadorean embassy ends, the keepers of the world’s most sensitive secrets likely feel a lot more comfortable today than they did two years ago.