National Security

Trump’s dilemma on WikiLeaks: Hail Assange or haul him before a judge?

WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange speaks in a video made available Thursday, March 9, 2017.
WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange speaks in a video made available Thursday, March 9, 2017. AP

For a few years there, Julian Assange seemed to have faded from relevance. He took refuge in the Ecuadorean Embassy in London’s Knightsbridge district in 2012, fleeing a Swedish probe into sexual assault. There, he’s been deprived of sunlight, and even endured cuts to his internet access.

But for a man holed up in an embassy, fighting off possible prosecution, the Australian founder of the anti-secrecy group WikiLeaks has managed to re-emerge as remarkably relevant to U.S. politics, first during the presidential campaign last year and now with a new dump of leaked documents, this one from the CIA.

Once again, Assange is waving the flag as champion of transparency and a thorn in the side of the U.S. government, and touting the latest release as “an enormous journalistic scoop.”

His re-emergence presents President Donald Trump with a dilemma. Trump once praised Assange but now faces the consequences of the CIA leak, and must decide whether to bring him to justice. Federal prosecutors long have been rumored to have a sealed criminal indictment against Assange for publishing classified U.S. military and diplomatic documents in 2010 and 2011. The existence of an indictment has never been confirmed, and the Justice Department did not respond to a request for comment.

Assange’s new prominence also underscores the impact he’s had on public institutions and politics since he founded WikiLeaks in 2006. His group espouses radical transparency – and radical it has been. Disgruntled employees now see the theft and delivery of documents to WikiLeaks as a way to get back at unaccountable bosses and institutions. Encryption has become de rigueur. The contours of privacy have changed.

WikiLeaks has really transformed the media and political landscape, and not necessarily for the better.

Nicco Mele, director of the Shorenstein Center at Harvard

“There’s absolutely no doubt in my mind that WikiLeaks has really transformed the media and political landscape, and not necessarily for the better,” said Nicco Mele, director of the Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy at the Harvard Kennedy School.

“If you are a leader of any kind, whether a publicly elected official, a CEO or a president of a university, you now operate under the assumption that anything you put in writing electronically can find its way to the public domain,” Mele added, “and that’s a sobering and dramatic change.”

For sectors of a global citizenry that believe that those in power have become less accountable, Assange is a hero. Nearly every year, he is nominated for a Nobel Prize.

And for politicians running against the establishment, as Trump did in 2016, WikiLeaks and its relentless publication of documents and campaign emails of opponents are a bonanza.

“I love WikiLeaks,” Trump told a campaign rally last Oct. 10 in Pennsylvania. “It’s amazing how nothing is secret today when you talk about the internet.”

WikiLeaks’ latest publication involved 8,761 documents from a CIA unit engaged in global hacking. The documents revealed the unit’s abilities to take over smartphones, activate microphones in smart television sets and implant malicious code even on devices unconnected to the internet. It helped feed a narrative of an untrustworthy government interfering with individuals’ freedom and capable of eavesdropping in our living rooms, bedrooms and offices.

Not everyone sees Assange’s influence as benevolent, however. Jamie Winterton of the Global Security Initiative at Arizona State University said she thought Assange was neither as impartial as he liked to make himself out to be nor as careful as he suggested the organization was in curating leaked material.

Those types of things don’t really add to transparency or government openness. They just put people in danger.

Jamie Winterton of Arizona State University

“I do think WikiLeaks has been a little careless in some of the ways they’ve gone about that,” Winterton said, noting examples of personal data in the publications. “Those types of things don’t really add to transparency or government openness. They just put people in danger.”

Assange has plenty of U.S. enemies.

“Julian Assange should spend the rest of his life wearing an orange jumpsuit,” Sen. Ben Sasse, a Nebraska Republican, said Thursday in response to the purported CIA documents that WikiLeaks published. “He’s an enemy of the American people and an ally to (Russian leader) Vladimir Putin.”

While Trump has not spoken about Assange since taking office Jan. 20, Vice President Mike Pence was highly critical of WikiLeaks’ spilling of the leaked CIA documents.

“Trafficking in national security information, as is alleged WikiLeaks has done here, is a very serious offense,” Pence told Fox News’ “Special Report” on Thursday night.

Still, the world has embraced the WikiLeaks model of seeking anonymous information. The New York Times and The Washington Post seek “confidential” news tips on their websites, including anonymous drops for databases. The Panama Papers, last year’s investigation of offshore corporations that McClatchy and hundreds of journalists worldwide participated in, was based on millions of documents leaked from a Panamanian law firm and delivered to a German newspaper.

When WikiLeaks began in 2006, it seemed to usher in an age of optimism that transparency and enforced sunlight in the digital age would be a tonic for unaccountable and unresponsive government worldwide.

Some disclosures provided fodder for innumerable news stories, like the late 2010 leaks of more than 250,000 U.S. diplomatic cables. A U.S. Army private stationed in Iraq, Bradley Manning, downloaded those cables from a classified computer network and was eventually convicted of violating the espionage act and given a 35-year sentence. President Barack Obama commuted the sentence Jan. 17 and the perpetrator, now known as Chelsea Manning, is to be released in May.

“We didn’t actually learn very much from those cables that we didn’t know except arguably that the State Department does a pretty good job,” Mele said.

Other leaked material had deep impact: A secret compendium of war logs included video of a U.S. airstrike in Baghdad that showed the targeting of civilians, including two members of the staff of the Reuters news agency.

Assange proclaims that he’s fulfilling a journalistic mission, providing raw source material for people to make up their own minds. He brags that he has a perfect track record of producing verifiable documents, and WikiLeaks says it offers safety for government whistleblowers, although its material is often obtained by computer hacks. The group rarely says how it gets its material.

Julian Assange is not exactly a bastion of truth and integrity.

Jonathan Liu, CIA spokesman

Following publication of the CIA leaks earlier this week, Assange accused the CIA of a “historic act of devastating incompetence” for losing control of what he said was a cache of cyber weapons. CIA spokesman Jonathan Liu responded that “Julian Assange is not exactly a bastion of truth and integrity.”

If Assange is feeling ill at ease over his immediate future, he does not display it, even as there are indications he might lose his embassy refuge. Ecuador will hold a runoff presidential election April 2, and the conservative candidate running ahead in polls has said he’ll pull the welcome mat.

In recent years, Assange has managed to turn some supporters into opponents and has drawn questions about what some perceive as an anti-Western position.

“They started off with a lot of trust, radical but in a different way,” said John Wonderlich, executive director of the Sunlight Foundation, a nonpartisan advocacy group for transparency in government.

He called the group “a brand and a banner that captured market share for disruptive data releases.” But as time went on, Wonderlich said, Assange expressed his desire to abolish traditional political parties and his anti-U.S. views.

“For people who see the United States as their primary adversary in the world, they would see WikiLeaks as an ally,” Wonderlich said.

Wonderlich said Assange in 2016 voiced his clear distaste for the candidacy of Hillary Clinton, and WikiLeaks engaged in what Wonderlich called “reckless insinuation” over the unsolved murder of Seth Rich, a Democratic National Committee staffer who was gunned down on a dark Washington street on July 10.

“They were clearly insinuating that the staffer was their source (for leaks on DNC emails) and murdered in retribution, and I felt that was reprehensible,” Wonderlich said.

Assange and his supporters have also shown a thin skin for criticism, he said.

“They are a bully, and any questioning of their intentions tends to lead to immediate threats,” Wonderlich said.

For his part, Mele said Assange had played his hand astutely.

“Assange is taking advantage of the moment history has provided him to exert his influence on how power understands its reach in the 21st century,” Mele said.

As insiders attempt to hold those at the top of the pyramid accountable, Mele said, behavior has changed, secrecy is rarely assumed and pressure to enforce transparency will exact an eventual cost.

“I mean, do you think anyone is ever going to put anything important in email again? How does that affect historians and the way we understand what is happening in our institutions?” he asked.

CORRECTION: This version has been revised to delete an inaccurate reference to the publication of Turkish voter rolls. WikiLeaks did not publish those lists, but referred to them only in a tweet.

Tim Johnson: 202-383-6028, @timjohnson4