Assange’s project has always been about opposition research. WikiLeaks exists to find dirt in the servers of the powerful and bring them down by exposing it.
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.
US poll: Who will you vote to become President?— WikiLeaks (@wikileaks) July 29, 2016
Hillary Clinton's showy rewarding of corruption by DWS is an ill wind for the corruption-overton-window of a future presidency.— WikiLeaks (@wikileaks) July 24, 2016
This has puzzled some of the group’s supporters, and led to speculation that the site’s Australian founder, Julian Assange, had timed the release of emails hacked from the servers of the Democratic National Committee to drive a wedge between supporters of Sen. Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton. The publication of emails that revealed an anti-Sanders agenda inside the Democratic party was certainly welcomed by the Republican nominee, Donald Trump.
The Wikileaks e-mail release today was so bad to Sanders that it will make it impossible for him to support her, unless he is a fraud!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) July 23, 2016
But it should come as no surprise to anyone who looks back at the founding principles of WikiLeaks that Assange — who has clearly stated his distaste for the idea of the former secretary of state becoming president — would make aggressive use of leaked documents to try to undermine her.
As Raffi Khatchadourian explained in a New Yorker profile of the WikiLeaks founder in 2010, “Assange, despite his claims to scientific journalism, emphasized to me that his mission is to expose injustice, not to provide an even-handed record of events.” To Assange, Khatchadourian wrote, “Leaks were an instrument of information warfare.”
In other words, Assange’s project has been from the start more like opposition research than dispassionate reporting. His goal is to find dirt in the servers of powerful individuals or organizations he sees as corrupt or dangerous, and bring them down by exposing it. As he memorably told Der Spiegel in 2010, “I enjoy crushing bastards.”
His recent focus on “crushing” Clinton but not Trump has led some to ask Assange if he is worried about helping to elect someone who might be even more hostile to him — let alone to the causes of justice and peace that have motivated Wikileaks’ previous disclosures. Asked recently by Amy Goodman of “Democracy Now” if he does prefer Trump over Clinton, Assange replied, “You’re asking me, do I prefer cholera or gonorrhea?”
Speaking to Bill Maher on Friday night from the Ecuadorian Embassy in London, where he has been effectively confined for more than four years, Assange joked about hacking Trump’s tax returns, but added, “from the perspective of WikiLeaks trying to protect its sources, you have really two very bad presidential candidates.”
In an address to the American Green Party convention on Saturday, Assange reiterated that both major party candidates for the presidency were “horrific,” but argued that “it certainly doesn’t make as much difference as people say,” which of them gets elected. What is important, he said, is to build political pressure “to discipline and hold to account and check the abuses of power during the next four years.”
To better understand Assange’s recent intervention in the U.S. election, it helps to look more closely at a sort of manifesto he wrote as he was creating WikiLeaks. The same month that WikiLeaks.org went live, in December of 2006, Assange posted an essay on his blog, “Conspiracy as Governance,” in which he explained his theory that authoritarian regimes — and western political parties — maintain power by conspiring to keep the public in the dark, through “collaborative secrecy, working to the detriment of a population.” In order for the people to regain control of the political system, Assange argued, it is necessary to find ways of “throttling the conspiracy,” like disrupting the ability of the conspirators to communicate secretly.
With that in mind, Assange wrote, “let us consider two closely balanced and broadly conspiratorial power groupings, the US Democratic and Republican parties.” He continued, “Consider what would happen if one of these parties gave up their mobile phones, fax and email correspondence — let alone the computer systems which manage their subscribers, donors, budgets, polling, call centres and direct mail campaigns? They would immediately fall into an organisational stupor and lose to the other.”
A decade later, by releasing thousands of unredacted emails and voice-mail messages hacked from the Democratic Party — in a database that makes it easy to search for the social security numbers of donors, as well as their passport and credit card details — Assange was finally able to put his theory into practice, by attempting to throttle one of the “conspiratorial power groupings” that selects candidates to run the U.S. government.
Assange’s attack on the DNC certainly revealed hypocrisy within the party, and led to the resignations of four senior officials, but his decision to not redact personal information from those documents — or from a second cache of emails hacked from a Turkish political party — also led to criticism from some longtime supporters, including Edward Snowden, the NSA whistleblower.
My colleague Glenn Greenwald also told Slate last week that he was troubled by the fact that WikiLeaks had abandoned its previous policy of redaction. “There were tons of redactions when they were releasing Pentagon documents about the Afghanistan and Iraq wars,” he noted. “And they even wrote a letter to the State Department before they released the cables requesting the State Department’s help in figuring out which information ought to be withheld.”
Although Assange has spoken of the dumping of “pristine,” unedited documents as a philosophical principle — and his biographer Andrew O’Hagan reported that the collapse of his working relationship with the editors of the New York Times and the Guardian was partly fueled by disagreements about redaction — it seems possible that the intense pressure on the organization has also made it nearly impossible to carry out careful editing of every document it obtains. Assange continues to be confined to Ecuador’s embassy in London — which has been described as illegal, “arbitrary detention” by a United Nations panel — and Sarah Harrison, who was the site’s investigations editor, has chosen to live in exile in Berlin since helping Snowden get from Hong Kong to Russia, heeding legal advice that she could face prosecution if she tried to return to Britain.
Whatever the reason, it is difficult to see a public-interest argument for making public some of what was contained in the DNC files. One of the voice-mail recordings, for instance, was a conversation between a staffer and his young child during a visit to a zoo, which appears to have been left by accident, following a pocket-dial. The staffer’s phone number was made available, much to the delight of some Trump supporters.
The Wikileaks voicemail leaks are very damning now we have names and phone numbers and voices— Made In America ?? (@dileximan) July 30, 2016
As the Turkish scholar Zeynep Tufekci explained in the Huffington Post, a trove of Turkish-language emails WikiLeaks released last month, inaccurately presented as private messages from members of Turkey’s ruling party, the AKP, also included little of public interest but did reveal the private information of ordinary citizens.
To make matters worse, the WikiLeaks Twitter feed also shared a link to another cache of hacked Turkish documents that included home addresses or phone numbers for every female voter in 79 of Turkey’s 81 provinces.
You know the safety, privacy and misrepresentation of millions of people in other countries MATTERS too? Maybe not to Wikileaks, but to us?— zeynep tufekci (@zeynep) August 1, 2016
Unfortunately, for believers in the WikiLeaks project, Assange has responded to criticism of his redaction-free document dumps by attacking even longtime supporters who have spoken out. The @wikiLeaks Twitter account the site’s founder uses to annotate documents and rebut critics replied angrily to Snowden’s message about the desirability of some sort of selective editing, accusing the NSA whistleblower whom Assange helped get asylum in Russia of angling for a pardon from Clinton.
WikiLeaks also suggested, wrongly, that Tufekci is an “apologist” for Turkey’s president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan — a leader she has, in fact, frequently criticized for his opposition to internet freedom.
Of course, Assange is hardly alone in being quick to denounce his critics on Twitter, but the way in which he uses the @wikileaks account these days matters to the overall functioning of the organization because it is the only obvious way for outsiders to provide feedback on the annotation or analysis of the documents. Despite the site’s name, WikiLeaks never developed into a Wikipedia-like website that welcomes, or facilitates crowd-sourced annotation and vetting of the documents it obtains. If you spot an error on Wikipedia, you can fix it, but WikiLeaks does not allow for that kind of collaborative fact-checking.
That the site was originally intended to function more like a crowd-sourced, wiki platform was suggested by the Wikipedia-like annotation that accompanied the very first document uploaded by WikiLeaks in 2006. (Although it was described as a “leak,” that document — an order from an Islamist rebel leader in Somalia that the site’s editors could not verify as authentic — was not provided by a whistleblower, but stolen from Chinese hackers by a WikiLeaks activist who intercepted traffic flowing through a Tor network server he owned.)
Since the crowd-sourced aspect of WikiLeaks proved difficult to implement, and the site no longer relies mainly on collaborations with news organizations to vet and make sense of the vast troves of documents it obtains, Assange has, over time, taken on the role of the organization’s main analyst. Before the advent of Twitter, analysis and annotation written by Assange and his volunteers filled a section of the WikiLeaks website. Lately, though, most of the interpretation of the documents has been done only in short bursts on the WikiLeaks Twitter feed, where the site’s founder draws attention to items he thinks are important, and tries to provide some context and analysis.
The micro-blogging format has obvious limits, however, when it comes to making complex annotations. The generally hostile tone of the WikiLeaks Twitter feed in response to even well-intentioned efforts to fact-check the group’s work has also severely hampered the project’s ability to use crowd-sourcing to properly annotate and vet the documents it posts. (I know this from first-hand experience, having been denounced by @wikileaks last month for pointing to a factual error in one of the group’s tweets about a DNC email.)
This criticism might seem like a narrow, technical objection — and it is certainly the case that journalists independently continue to help verify and interpret the most significant documents Assange publishes — but WikiLeaks’ lack of scrutiny of the documents it obtains, and its founder’s hostility to constructive criticism from outsiders, could be a significant problem if it is ever duped into publishing a forgery.
What if, as the cybersecurity consultant Matt Tait asked last month in relation to the DNC emails, a source — like, say, a hacker working for a Russian intelligence agency — provided WikiLeaks with a cache of documents that was tampered with in order to smear a political candidate?
In a post on the blog Lawfare, Tait explained that he had spent some time looking through the DNC files for any signs of a fake email planted among the genuine ones:
The metadata analysis I did on the leaked documents that day was almost by accident. I was actually looking for evidence of something much more frightening and which still keeps me up at night: What if the documents were mostly real, but had been surgically doctored? How effective would a carefully planted paragraph in an otherwise valid document be at derailing a campaign? How easily could Russia remove or sidestep an inconvenient DNC official with a single doctored paragraph showing “proof” of dishonest, unethical or illegal practices? And how little credibility would the sheepish official have in asserting that “all of the rest of the emails are true, but just not the one paragraph or email that makes me look bad?”
WikiLeaks is justly proud of its record to date of not being duped by forgers.
“The materials that we release are pristine,” Assange told Bill Maher on Friday. “We’re really good at this, we have a ten-year perfect record of having never got it wrong in relation to the integrity of what we’ve released.”
Still, given that WikiLeaks is now unwilling or unable to closely scrutinize all of the documents it obtains, it is not hard to imagine a scenario where something like this could occur — and that possibility itself serves to diminish the group’s credibility as a source of unvarnished truth.
Even so, for an organization so wounded by official persecution, it remains capable of inflicting remarkable damage. Although the DNC leaks have so far failed to derail Clinton’s campaign, Assange has hinted in recent interviews that he has more material on the candidate that he plans to release soon. While it is unclear why Assange would hold on to any secrets that might torpedo Clinton, if he has something like that, the fear of a WikiLeaks-powered October surprise must still haunt the dreams of her advisors.