Once hailed as a digital pioneer for bold investigative journalism, Julian Assange and the WikiLeaks organization he founded are painted as tools of Russian propaganda in a bipartisan report by a U.S. Senate committee on 2016 election interference.
Clocking in at almost 1,000 pages, the report (PDF) includes new information about WikiLeaks, as well as material that has been previously reported by news organizations or was disclosed in legal proceedings involving such allies of U.S. President Trump as political consultants Roger Stone and Paul Manafort. The report offers a detailed narrative of how Russian disinformation agencies hacked emails from the Democratic National Committee and fed them to WikiLeaks, which then coordinated their release with the Trump campaign.
Assange is currently in a London jail fighting an attempt to extradite him to the U.S., where he is charged with hacking into U.S. government computers. Whether the detailed Senate report on his legal case will have much impact remains to be seen. As of yet, he has not been charged with any crimes related to the leak of the DNC emails or WikiLeaks’ ties to Russia.
Assange and Russia
Still, the U.S. government has been trying to make the case in courts that Assange is a hacker and criminal and not a journalist entitled to First Amendment protections. The Senate report offers more details of just how closely Assange has worked with Russian organizations in recent years. That has included, according to the report, helping Russian allies in Belarus and other countries.
“WikiLeaks has passed information to U.S. adversaries, including approximately 90,000 U.S. Department of State cables to a Russian national named Israel Shamir,” the report says. “Shamir in turn provided them to Belarus’ Aleksandr Lukashenko, an authoritarian leader who relied on the documents to justify the arrest of opposition figures on allegations of spying for the United States.”
But the report focuses mainly on the 2016 U.S. presidential election.
Founded in 2006, WikiLeaks promised a radical new approach to investigative journalism that would involve leveraging the power of the internet to gather information from anonymous sources and whistleblowers, vet it with the help of crowdsourcing, and then disseminate it. For some early investigations, WikiLeaks partnered with such reliable news organizations as the New York Times to publish its work.
But in 2012 Assange sought asylum in the Ecuadoran Embassy in London to avoid being extradited to Sweden to face rape charges. He was subsequently indicted in the U.S. on hacking and spying charges. The committee’s report notes that funding for WikiLeaks began to suffer around this time. At some point, Russian sources stepped in to help with funding, including through contracts with RT (formerly Russia Today) that included support for an Assange TV show:
That partnership led to publication of the DNC emails Russia’s GRU propaganda agency had obtained.
Assange continued to deny that Russia had been the source, hinting that Seth Rich, a DNC staffer whose death has long been the source of right wing conspiracy theories, may have been the leaker. Assange later tried to strike a deal with President Trump to reveal the “real” source in exchange for assurances Assange would not be prosecuted.
Eventually, Assange established a connection with Stone, who became a conduit to the Trump campaign for information about the WikiLeaks emails and the timing of their release.
But it wasn’t just the Trump campaign that coordinated with WikiLeaks. Russian media outlets RT and Sputnik also promoted the release of the leaked emails.
Russia continues to deny it was behind the hacks. And WikiLeaks’ only response to the Senate report to date is a tweet highlighting a favorable court ruling last year that upheld its right to publish the emails.
According to Federal Judge, WikiLeaks' DNC publication was "plainly of the type entitled to the strongest protections that the first amendment offers". #RussiaReporthttps://t.co/HZi7rRtJtF pic.twitter.com/kM8iVJZCjE
— WikiLeaks (@wikileaks) August 18, 2020
For now, Assange’s greatest legal jeopardy remains WikiLeaks’ work in other areas, such as publishing U.S. Iraq War documents and diplomatic cables.