Assange emerged as a key player in the 2016 election
He has a controversial history
President-elect Donald Trump picked a fight with the US intelligence community in recent days, elevating the statements of WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange and Russian President Vladimir Putin over his own nation’s top spies.
His position, conveyed via Twitter, sent various intelligence officials and hawkish public figures reeling.
“Somebody needs to march into his office and explain who Julian Assange is,” former House Intelligence Committee Chairman Mike Rogers, a Republican and CNN contributor, offered Wednesday, in the wake of the controversy.
Assange has cast a wide, blurry shadow over the center of US politics from his seclusion in the Ecuadorian Embassy in London, where he remains holed up to avoid facing sexual assault charges in Sweden and a potential extradition to the United States. And just days before Trump takes office, Assange has become a dividing line in the GOP’s emerging intra-party fight over national security.
On Thursday, Trump tweeted the “dishonest media” had said falsely he was in agreement with Assange and that in fact, he was reiterating Assange’s comments “for the people to make up their own minds.”
But many Republicans have made up their minds about Assange and reached the opposite conclusion as Trump.
“I have really nothing (to say) other than the guy is a sycophant for Russia. He leaks. He steals data and compromises national security,” said House Speaker Paul Ryan when asked about Assange on Hugh Hewitt’s radio show Wednesday morning.
Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman John McCain asked Director of National Intelligence James Clapper during Thursday’s hearing on Russia’s alleged hacks: “Do you think that there’s any credibility we should attach to this individual?”
“Not in my view,” Clapper said.
So who is Julian Assange?
A brief history of WikiLeaks
WikiLeaks is the self-styled “radical transparency” organization Assange founded in 2006 with the stated goal of exposing the secrets of the powerful and upholding human rights.
It was set up as a repository and distributor of leaked information, vowing to uphold the anonymity of its sources.
In 2007-2008, it posted a wide range of materials from Guantanamo Bay, the Church of Scientology and some of 2008 Republican vice presidential nominee Sarah Palin’s stolen emails.
In 2010, WikiLeaks made available a classified video of a 2007 US helicopter attack killing civilians and journalists in Iraq. The video, known as “Collateral Murder,” generated an uproar from human rights activists against the US for killing innocent people and from US defense officials against WikiLeaks for generating anti-US sentiment.
The US military detained Army Pvt. Chelsea Manning, then known as Bradley Manning, for sending the footage to WikiLeaks. Over the next few months, WikiLeaks published hundreds of thousands of classified military documents and State Department cables.
When the Swedish government pursued sexual assault charges against Assange in 2010, several members of WikiLeaks called for him to leave the organization. When he did not, some split from the organization.
WikiLeaks continued for years to release millions of documents, including emails from Stratfor – a global intelligence company – and Syrian politicians, before lying relatively low for years.
Then in July 2016, WikiLeaks launched itself into the middle of the US presidential election when it posted thousands of emails from the Democratic National Committee just days before the party’s nominating convention began.
The emails from several senior staffers demonstrated bias against Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders in favor of former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton during the primary and threatened to throw the entire convention into turmoil. Before the weekend was out, Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz said she would resign her position as chairwoman of the DNC.
But WikiLeaks’ part in the election was not yet over: A month ahead of Election Day, the organization began posting emails from Clinton campaign chairman John Podesta. The steady release of emails brought renewed scrutiny to Clinton and her inner circle, particularly regarding the controversy over her use of a private email server to conduct State Department business.
The US government said Russia was behind the hacks that led to both of these document dumps, an allegation Assange has denied.
Up to speed on Assange
Born in 1971, the native Australian became a hacker and activist before founding WikiLeaks in 2006.
His espoused views against the power structures of Western government and corporate behemoths made up the public persona of the organization, one that became inseparable from Assange himself.
As WikiLeaks’ dumps quickly reached the hundreds of thousands, the sheer volume of documents Assange’s organization released, along with his provocative statements, made him a famous – or infamous – figure on the international stage.
Then at the height of WikiLeaks’ largest drop ever, during the summer of 2010, Swedish authorities called for Assange’s arrest over sexual assault accusations from two WikiLeaks members.
Assange resided in London as the charges progressed and submitted himself to UK authorities. He was taken into custody and then put under house arrest. Sweden called for his extradition from the United Kingdom, a request Assange took to the UK Supreme Court.
About two years into this process, Ecuador used its diplomatic authority to grant Assange asylum. While this afforded Assange the ability to stave off going to Sweden, where he risked prison time over the sexual assault charges, it left him stuck in the Ecuadorian Embassy in London, where he remains to this day as he continues his leadership of WikiLeaks and navigates the criminal process facing him.
Well before he was accused of sexual assault, Assange faced the ire of people the world over.
Some argued WikiLeaks’ use of stolen documents was unethical and others said its disclosures harmed the national security of countries involved. Others argued Assange had an immoral, anti-American agenda.
A more nuanced debate grew out of those sympathetic with Assange’s aims over whether what WikiLeaks was doing constituted journalism. Assange has regularly argued WikiLeaks is a journalistic organization, performing a journalism function through its leaks. But others, including former media partners of Assange, The New York Times and the Guardian, viewed WikiLeaks as a source for information, rather than a news outlet. Although WikiLeaks once worked with those organizations in advance of publishing documents, it has since moved to make its findings available on its site, without a media partner or intermediary such as The Times.
Many journalists and advocates said massive document troves must be sorted through before they are released so as to avoid the unneeded exposure of personal information potentially put people in harms way.
In the face of WikiLeaks’$2 2010 disclosures, a Pentagon spokesman said the documents contained 300 names of Iraqis who were “endangered by their exposure.” And a letter from the State Department to WikiLeaks said the organization’s document dumps were done “without regard for the grave consequences” the leak entailed.
Assange has asserted his organization’s actions have not put people in harm’s way.
But other leakers have argued against the mass dumps Assange favors. Edward Snowden, the man behind the National Security Agency leaks, worked with journalists Laura Poitras and Glenn Greenwald for the stated reason of avoiding improper information going out alongside newsworthy documents. Even though WikiLeaks helped Snowden to find safe harbor in Russia, the former contractor took to Twitter in the summer of 2016 to make the argument in favor of “curation” over massive data dumps.
WikiLeaks fired back, accusing Snowden of cozying up to the Democratic Party for a pardon.
Who is on his side?
In the years since WikiLeaks’ founding, Assange has built a massive global backing. The independent organization is able to fund itself off the donations of its supporters and its online following stands in the millions.
Its supporters used to come from largely left-leaning circles, human rights groups opposed to the Western military-industrial complex and the power of a handful of US corporations, like Google.
Meanwhile, national security hawks of all political stripes had for years railed against him.
Even Trump in 2010 on Fox News’ Brian Kilmeade radio show said of WikiLeaks in the wake of the Manning-fueled releases: “I think it’s disgraceful. I think there should be like death penalty or something.”
But by 2016, as WikiLeaks’ disclosures of the DNC and Podesta emails took its toll on Democratic Party unity and Clinton’s poll numbers, major Republican figures turned around.
Trump said he “loved” WikiLeaks at an October campaign rally, and Fox News commentator Sean Hannity praised Assange repeatedly.
Following Assange’s recent sit-down interview with Hannity, Palin – once the target of a WikiLeaks disclosure – apologized to the WikiLeaks founder and threw in a recommendation for Oliver Stone’s movie “Snowden.”
What about the Russians?
The US intelligence community has uniformly said the Russian government was behind the Democratic Party hacks and is the source of WikiLeaks’ blockbuster 2016 disclosures.
Assange has denied this, but the US government has said it is certain, and a private cybersecurity group called Crowdstrike has also said Russia was behind the hacks.
The declassified version of the Intelligence Community’s comprehensive review ordered by President Barack Obama into hacks connected to the US election is expected to be released Monday, US officials told CNN.
And accusers have pointed to Assange’s regular appearances on Russia’s English-language news channel RT – where he hosted a show – as well as WikiLeaks’ lack of Russian disclosures and role in delivering Snowden in Moscow as evidence of their collusion.
In a recent interview, Assange denied he was soft on Russia and argued would-be leakers of Russian secrets had better outlets than WikiLeaks to go to, in part because no one at WikiLeaks speaks Russian.