Julian Assange insists, against all evidence, that the hacked Democratic emails WikiLeaks published didn't come from Russian intelligence services. “Our source is not the Russian government,” he said in a Tuesday interview with Fox News’s Sean Hannity.
This is a touch hard to believe. Publicly available evidence, including unique code and Russian writing in the hacked documents themselves, links the document theft to Russian state-sponsored hacks. Every US intelligence agency that has investigated the issue has concluded Russia is, in fact, responsible. Leaks from their analyses, reported by CNN and the Washington Post, indicate that the US has identified the go-betweens used by Russia to hand documents to WikiLeaks. Assange is either lying or willfully blind to the facts.
Indeed, when it comes to Russia, Assange doesn’t have a ton of credibility.
Throughout WikiLeaks’ existence, the allegedly pro-transparency group has had strange, shadowy, but very well-documented connections to the Russian state. The connections range from sharing purloined documents with a pro-Russian dictator to Assange receiving money for appearing on Russian state TV to WikiLeaks’ key involvement in NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden ending up in Russia.
These incidents don’t prove, as some have alleged, that Assange is some kind of paid Russian agent, or that WikiLeaks is a Russian front organization. But they do show that WikiLeaks, an organization purportedly devoted to transparency, is at a minimum okay with helping out the world’s most aggressively authoritarian leader.
The Kremlin is just as friendly. Russian officials, up to and including Putin himself, have defended Assange and WikiLeaks — with one Russian official even suggesting Assange deserves a Nobel Peace Prize. It’s a strange relationship: a secretive quasi-dictator lining up alongside a group that says it's dedicated to revealing state secrets. But it's the relationship Putin appears to have turned to when he was looking for a trusted ally to leak the emails hacked from Clinton’s circle.
“I don’t necessarily think he’s some sort of paid agent for the Russians,” says Chris Zappone, an editor at the Age newspaper in Assange’s native Australia who has covered Assange’s Russian ties extensively. “But I do think he’s being manipulated by the Russians.”
The curious case of Israel Shamir
WikiLeaks first came to international attention in 2010, when it published secret US government footage showing American helicopters in Iraq firing at journalists. By the end of the year, it had also published tranches of US military documents on the Afghan War as well as State Department diplomatic cables.
These disclosures established what would become a clear pattern: WikiLeaks disclosures would, disproportionately, reveal secrets about the United States and its allies. They also established the group as a major player on the international stage, bringing it in for a level of scrutiny it had never received before.
One of the things reporters uncovered was the strange past of one WikiLeaks employee: a professional anti-Semite named Israel Shamir.
Shamir, who has gone by six names over the course of his life, was born Izrail Schmerler, in Russia. He converted from Judaism to the Greek Orthodox Church later in life, and turned viciously on his former co-religionists. He has denied the Holocaust, called Jews “a virus in human form,” and, in 2010, published a book titled Breaking the Conspiracy of the Elders of Zion.
Shamir was also a longtime friend of Julian Assange, who tasked him with helping to disseminate WikiLeaks documents in his native Russia in early 2010.
“Shamir has a years-long friendship with Assange, and was privy to the contents of tens of thousands of US diplomatic cables months before WikiLeaks made public the full cache,” James Ball, a former WikiLeaks staffer, wrote at the Guardian the next year. “Shamir aroused the suspicion of several WikiLeaks staffers — myself included — when he asked for access to all cable material concerning ‘the Jews,’ a request which was refused.”
The first thing Shamir did with the documents was hand some off to Russian Reporter magazine, a Kremlin-friendly newsweekly. He then offered to sell access to them to the highest bidder, David Leigh and Luke Harding write in the book Wikileaks: Inside Julian Assange’s War on Secrecy.
But what he did next was exceptionally curious. Shamir traveled to Belarus, a country ruled by dictator Alexander Lukashenko and perhaps Putin’s staunchest ally in Europe. Shamir was a fan of Lukashenko; in a 2010 piece, he called Belarus “the Shangri-la of the post-Soviet development.”
In Belarus, Shamir shared State Department cables pertaining to the country with government officials — in unredacted, unedited form.
In January 2011, Belarusian state-run media began publishing what it said were US diplomatic cables from Shamir’s cache, alleging that Lukashenko’s opponents were funded abroad. According to several Belarusian dissidents who spoke to Tablet, the names in the cables were also used to identify lower-level dissidents.
“The extent to which WikiLeaks and Israel Shamir have endangered the lives of pro-democracy activists in Belarus will become chillingly clear as innocent men and women continue to disappear,” Kapil Komireddi, author of the Tablet piece, writes.
WikiLeaks issued a weak public disavowal of Shamir’s Belarusian caper in February 2011, saying “obviously it is not approved.” But according to Ball, the internal discourse on Shamir was somewhat different.
“Assange shamefully refused to investigate [the Belarus incident],” Ball recalled in his Guardian piece. “The two [Shamir and Assange] remain close.”
This isn’t a direct link between Assange and the Kremlin, per se. But it established what would soon become a clear pattern: Assange and WikiLeaks providing cover to authoritarians, especially those allied with Putin.
Assange claims to be a radical opponent of authoritarianism and state oppression. But he allowed Shamir to hand off documents to a pro-Kremlin publication, exclusively, and then use his documents to aid a state-sponsored crackdown on dissidents. Assange showed no meaningful remorse afterward.
Assange was literally paid by the Russian government
As all this was going on, Russian officials began praising Assange and WikiLeaks at an increasingly loud volume. It was becoming clear that Assange’s disclosures targeted and embarrassed the United States far more than any other power — music to the Kremlin’s ears.
In December 2010, shortly after Shamir handed off cables to Belarus, an anonymous Kremlin official suggested that Assange should be given the Nobel Peace Prize. The next day, Vladimir Putin personally defended Assange against charges, filed in Sweden, that he had raped two women. According to Putin, the allegations were politically motivated and not credible. (Swedish courts disagree.)
"If it is full democracy, then why have they hidden Mr. Assange in prison? That's what, democracy?" the Russian leader said at a press conference. The next month, the Russian government offered Assange a visa — an opportunity to live in a country that would not likely extradite him to Sweden.
In April 2012, the relationship between Assange and Russia became direct for the first time. Specifically, Assange became a star on Russia Today (RT), Russia’s state-funded English-language propaganda outlet.
“With WikiLeaks’ funding drying up — under American pressure, Visa and MasterCard had stopped accepting donations — Russia Today began broadcasting a show called ‘The World Tomorrow’ with Mr. Assange as the host,” the New York Times reported in a 2016 piece on Assange’s Russian ties.
The exact nature of the arrangement between RT and Assange has never been very clear. Assange and WikiLeaks insist that Assange was never employed by RT, and that RT was only one of many broadcasters that bought rights to air Assange’s show. Either way, though, Assange was paid by the Kremlin. According to the Times, the amount of money he received has never been disclosed.
The World Tomorrow had a decidedly anti-American bent, in keeping with much of RT’s programming and Assange’s own writing. Its first episode was a polite interview with Hassan Nasrallah, the head of the Iranian-backed Lebanese terrorist group Hezbollah. In the interview, Assange refers to Nasrallah as a “freedom fighter,” telling him “you have fought against a hegemony of the United States.”
That this was serving an ideological purpose could have been lost on Assange. RT is designed to be the voice of the Russian state in the English-speaking world, particularly America. It’s part of a broad-based Russian propaganda effort aimed at whitewashing Putin’s government, using attacks on alleged US misdeeds as a key strategy.
It’s an old tactic used by Soviet apologists, called “whataboutism.” Whenever an American criticized the Soviet Union, the Soviet apologist would say, “What about the bad things America does?” This wasn’t a genuine moral criticism of the United States, which was often quite deserved, so much as a debating tactic aimed at deflecting a moral critique of Soviet policy.
Assange eagerly participated in an extended campaign of whataboutism. Not just that, in fact: He was paid by an authoritarian government, one that kills and arrests dissenters, for doing so. His principles as a transparency activist seem not to have gotten in the way.
From Snowden to Trump
After Assange’s brief stint on RT — The World Tomorrow only lasted 12 episodes — links between Assange and Russia kept cropping up. A few notable examples:
- Assange claims to have inspired Snowden to flee to Russia: “I thought, and in fact advised Edward Snowden, that he would be safest in Moscow,” he told Democracy Now. A WikiLeaks employee, Sarah Harrison, literally flew with Snowden from Hong Kong (where he had been living) to Moscow.
- In order to avoid extradition to Sweden, Assange holed up in the Ecuadorian embassy in London. According to the Ecuadorian publication Focus Ecuador, Assange asked for control over the selection of his bodyguards, and insisted that they be Russian.
- Assange used the WikiLeaks Twitter account to attack the 2016 Panama Papers leaks, which disclosed a $2 billion overseas account of Vladimir Putin’s. Assange labeled the leak a US-sponsored plot to undermine Putin and Russia.
Again, none of these even hint that Assange is a Russian agent. What they do show, when put together, is that Assange doesn’t see Russia as an enemy or a target. He instead seems to see them as something akin to “the enemy of my enemy” — the “enemy,” in this case, being the US and its allies. As a result, he is more than happy to work with them in situations where their interests align.
Which brings us to the 2016 election hack and Assange’s denial of Russian involvement.
Assange’s history shows that he is not an impartial arbiter when it comes to Russia and the United States. He is more than willing to carry water for the Russian state, as evidenced by his stint on RT. In the absence of public evidence supporting them, his denials should be given very little weight — he is merely repeating the line set out by his friends in the Kremlin.
Now, this could be because Assange is actively lying. My own suspicion is a little different: that he’s in something more like willful denial. The Russian go-between that handed him the documents likely posed as anonymous, and Assange probably didn’t ask too many questions (as is standard practice at WikiLeaks).
It would be inconvenient for him to admit that the evidence shows Russia gave him the documents. He’d be conceding far more brazen collaboration between WikiLeaks and an authoritarian power than we’ve seen in the past, which would further damage the group’s already fraying credibility. It also would embarrass said authoritarian state, perhaps WikiLeaks’ most reliable partner on the world stage, for Assange to contradict its public line.
But I can’t prove it either — Assange didn’t respond to an interview request for this piece. The thing I am quite sure of, however, is that Julian Assange has proven, beyond a reasonable doubt, to be very much less than clear-eyed when Russia is involved.
Correction: An earlier version of this piece referred to Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko as Alexander Poroshenko. We regret the error.