You almost have to feel sorry for Julian Assange. Shut in at the Ecuadoran embassy in London without access to sunlight, the founder of WikiLeaks is reduced to self-parody these days.
Here is a man dedicated to radical transparency, yet he refuses to appear before a Swedish court to defend himself from rape charges. His organization retweets US president-elect Donald Trump, who once called for him to be put to death. He spreads the innuendo that Seth Rich, a Democratic National Committee (DNC) staffer, was murdered this summer because he was the real source of the e-mails WikiLeaks published in the run-up to November’s election. And now he tells Fox News’ Sean Hannity that it is the US media that are deeply dishonest.
This is the proper context to evaluate Assange’s claim, repeated by Trump and his supporters, that Russia was not the source for the e-mails of leading Democrats distributed by WikiLeaks.
We all know that the US intelligence community is standing by its judgement that Russia hacked the Democrats’ e-mails and distributed them to influence the election. And while it’s worrisome that Trump would dismiss this judgement out of hand, this also misses the main point. Sometimes the spies get it wrong, like the “slam-dunk” conclusion that former Iraqi president Saddam Hussein was concealing Iraqi weapons of mass destruction.
The real issue is Assange. The founder of WikiLeaks has a history of saying paranoid nonsense. This is particularly true of Assange’s view of former US secretary of state Hillary Rodham Clinton. His delusions have led him to justify the interference in the US elections as an act of holding his nemesis accountable to the public.
Former New York Times executive editor Bill Keller captured Assange’s penchant for dark fantasy in a 2011 essay that described him casually telling a group of journalists from the Guardian that former Stasi agents were destroying East German archives of the secret police. A German reporter from Der Spiegel, John Goetz, was incredulous.
“That’s utter nonsense,” he said. “Some former Stasi personnel were hired as security guards in the office, but the records were well protected,” Keller recounts him as saying.
In this sense, WikiLeaks’ promotion of the John Grishamesque yarn that Seth Rich was murdered on orders from Clinton’s network is in keeping with a pattern. Both Rich’s family and the Washington police have dismissed this as a conspiracy theory. That, however, did not stop WikiLeaks from raising a US$20,000 reward to find his “real” killers.
Add to this Assange’s approach to Russia. It is well known that his short-lived talk show, which once aired a respectful interview with the leader of the Lebanese terrorist group Hezbollah, was distributed by Russian state television. WikiLeaks has also never published sensitive documents from Russian government sources comparable to the US State Department cables it began publishing in 2010, or the e-mails of leading Democrats last year.
When an Italian journalist asked him last month why WikiLeaks has not published the Kremlin’s secrets, Assange’s answer was telling.
“In Russia, there are many vibrant publications, online blogs, and Kremlin critics such as [Alexey] Navalny are part of that spectrum,” he said. “There are also newspapers like Novaya Gazeta, in which different parts of society in Moscow are permitted to critique each other and it is tolerated, generally, because it isn’t a big TV channel that might have a mass popular effect, its audience is educated people in Moscow. So my interpretation is that in Russia there are competitors to WikiLeaks, and no WikiLeaks staff speak Russian, so for a strong culture which has its own language, you have to be seen as a local player.”