WikiLeaks, the transparency organization that has played a major role in the 2016 election, has released a strangely defensive closing statement on the US election. In it, WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange defends the group’s decision to publish private emails stolen (almost certainly by Russian agents) from Hillary Clinton allies.
According to Assange, WikiLeaks wasn’t trying to hurt Clinton or help Donald Trump (or Russia). It was simply trying to provide the US public with information on the two candidates.
“Irrespective of the outcome of the 2016 US Presidential election, the real victor is the US public which is better informed as a result of our work,” he writes.
This is, in a word, bullshit.
Assange’s data dumps have confused the American public as much as they’ve helped, helping to make innocuous campaign activity look like a dark conspiracy. WikiLeaks’ own interpretations of the emails, published on its Twitter feed, have clearly fueled this hysteria — like the time the organization suggested (falsely) that one of the emails it published proved that top Clinton aide John Podesta participated in a bizarre ritual involving the consumption of sundry bodily fluids:
While WikiLeaks’ dumps have not (on net) helped inform the public about the election, they have clearly damaged Hillary Clinton’s image. Which was the point: WikiLeaks really, really hates Hillary Clinton, and — wittingly or not — played an important role in a Russian plan to attack her campaign.
How WikiLeaks spread disinformation
The problem with WikiLeaks’ tactic of publishing a ton of emails is that it wrenches things out of context. Individuals’ emails might mean something in the context of private communication that isn’t obvious when read by a third-party observer.
The result is that journalists combing through WikiLeaks’ disclosures, and WikiLeaks itself, can end up misinterpreting emails in an attempt to hype up their news value. People hostile to Clinton, like Trump allies, have a clear reason to read these emails as saying something terrible about Clinton. So you get tweets like the one above, accusing Podesta of vampirism.
Now, some emails revealed genuinely troubling stuff, like one Democratic National Committee staffer suggesting an attack Bernie Sanders’s religion (that didn’t happen).
But the vast majority disclosed either banal stuff, like Podesta giving advice on cooking risotto, or normal campaign activity. Yet even these simple disclosures still garnered press coverage. Examples include Neera Tanden, head of the ideologically friendly think tank Center for American Progress, emailing the Clinton campaign to talk about coordinating a Supreme Court message, and the full transcripts of three Clinton speeches to Goldman Sachs (which were pretty bland, it turned out).
There's nothing illegal or improper in the Tanden emails or Goldman speeches, but given the sheen of secret information and cynical interpretations from Clinton opponents, it comes across as a secret conspiracy to a lot of Trump supporters. The more we find out about secret actions by the campaign, released only because hackers and WikiLeaks took some initiative, the more it seems like US politics really is a dark conspiracy.
The press, by signal-boosting these disclosures, makes these accusations more credible to voters who don’t really understand that these disclosures, however problematic, are pretty run-of-the-mill. They just see plotting and conspiracy.
The result is that WikiLeaks has misinformed roughly as much as it has informed, convincing Americans of nefarious behind-the-scenes plots that weren’t happening. And its own aggressive spinning on Twitter, clearly trying to hype up evidence of Clinton malfeasance in its own disclosures, hasn’t helped.
“In recent months, the WikiLeaks Twitter feed has started to look more like the stream of an opposition research firm working mainly to undermine Hillary Clinton than the updates of a non-partisan platform for whistleblowers,” the Intercept’s Robert Mackey wrote in August.
WikiLeaks hates what Clinton stands for
In his Election Day statement, Assange insists he has no dog in the Clinton-Trump fight, and that his release of the Clinton emails had nothing to do with any plan to affect the race. “This is not due to a personal desire to influence the outcome of the election,” he writes.
This is very hard to believe. Assange has an extensive record of saying nasty things about Hillary Clinton, and it’s nearly impossible to believe that this didn’t animate his actions during the election.
WikiLeaks’ overriding ideology, at least publicly, is one of “radical transparency”: a deep belief that modern politics is undemocratic, with the important decisions made behind closed doors by elites and bureaucrats, and that the public deserves to know what’s actually going on.
But there’s always been another consistent element of the group’s thinking: suspicion of the United States and its role in global politics. This stems from the thinking of its founder and leader, Assange — which helps explain why the group seems to despise Clinton.
The organization’s 2015 book The WikiLeaks Files: The World According to US Empire contains the most in-depth catalog of Assange’s thoughts on the United States. They’re not positive: Assange sees the United States as a malign empire, one that has spent the decades since World War II unjustly interfering in other countries and killing their citizens. He sees the work of WikiLeaks, particularly publishing classified US documents, as a way to expose the inner workings of imperialism.
“Only by approaching this corpus holistically — over and above the documentation of each individual abuse, each localized atrocity — does the true human cost of empire heave into view,” Assange writes.
WikiLeaks’ operations, in keeping with this philosophy, have heavily targeted the US. “It has been pretty hard to make the case that WikiLeaks is a neutral transmission system,” journalist Joshua Keating wrote in 2012. “Nearly all its major operations have targeted the US government or American corporations.”
It makes sense that someone with Assange’s views would hate Clinton. She’s widely seen, with some justification, as someone who’s pretty comfortable with using American military power. She has been consistently in the interventionist wing of the Democratic Party on such issues as the Iraq War, the Libya intervention, and arming the Syrian rebels.
When the UK’s ITV asked Assange whether he’d prefer Trump as president, this was a core part of his answer. In fact, he implied that Clinton’s record made her even more dangerous than Trump.
“Trump is a completely unpredictable phenomenon. You can’t predict what he would do in office,” Assange said. “Hillary was overriding the Pentagon’s reluctance to overthrow Muammar Qaddafi. ... She has a long history of being a liberal war hawk, and we presume that she’s going to proceed.”
Assange clearly sees Clinton as a representative of the worst parts of the American empire. Moreover, he thinks that she, personally, would use the power of the US government to go after his organization.
“Hillary Clinton is receiving constant updates about my personal situation; she has pushed for the prosecution of WikiLeaks,” he told ITV. “We do see her as more of a problem for freedom of the press generally.”
In Assange’s telling, Clinton is an authoritarian imperialist who directly threatens the well-being of his organization and maybe even his person. No wonder Assange seems to think she’s worse than Trump.
Assange’s statements about Russia are not credible
Finally, Assange categorically denied any connection between his organization and Russia.
“The Clinton campaign, when they were not spreading obvious untruths, pointed to unnamed sources or to speculative and vague statements from the intelligence community to suggest a nefarious allegiance with Russia,” he writes. “The campaign was unable to invoke evidence about our publications — because none exists.”
This is a bit much, as WikiLeaks has clear ties to the Russian state. Assange used to have a television show on RT, Russia’s English-language propaganda outlet. His close friend of many years, a notorious anti-Semite named Israel Shamir, used WikiLeaks-acquired information to assist Belarus’s pro-Russian dictator in cracking down on dissenters. The Sydney Morning Herald’s Chris Zappone has put together several other examples.
That being said, Assange is right that there is no evidence that he is intentionally coordinating with Russia on the Clinton emails. But to a certain extent, that’s irrelevant. The issue isn’t whether Assange and Russian agents are sitting in a room plotting; it’s whether WikiLeaks publishing the emails is abetting a Russian attempt to interfere in the US election.
And it clearly is.
The evidence that Russia hacked the Democratic National Convention is about as airtight as it gets in cybersecurity.
"The forensic evidence linking the DNC breach to known Russian operations is very strong," Thomas Rid, a professor at King’s College who studies cybersecurity, wrote at Vice. "The forensic evidence that links network breaches to known groups is solid: used and reused tools, methods, infrastructure, even unique encryption keys."
Similarly, the evidence that Russia hacked Podesta’s email is pretty compelling. The attack worked by tricking Podesta into clicking on a publicly available hyperlink, from the link-shortening site Bitly. That Bitly account that made the link, according to cybersecurity firm SecureWorks, belongs to Fancy Bear — a hacking organization that’s known to be a front for Russian intelligence, and one that was also linked to the DNC breach.
In other words, the Russians hacked the emails, which means only they could have handed them off to WikiLeaks.
Assange’s statement is phrased carefully to avoid denying this outright. All it rebuts is the weaker claim that WikiLeaks works for Russia, which is impossible to prove or disprove. This straw-manning of the case for Russian involvement ends up covering up Russia’s real role in the US election — and the way that it, an authoritarian power, has manipulated WikiLeaks, an alleged transparency organization, to influence a democratic election.