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WikiLeaks Has Always Been a Weapon

Julian Assange’s organization hasn’t changed — it’s just found new targets

Getty Images/Ringer illustration
Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Remember when WikiLeaks published the hacked emails of a much-loathed female candidate running in the U.S. presidential election? Remember the uproar over how she had been using her personal email to conduct official business? Good memory. I’m glad you recall the Sarah Palin secret email scandal of 2008, because it’s important context for making sense of what’s going on with WikiLeaks and politics right now.

Let’s review: In September 2008, two months before the general election, WikiLeaks published a portion of GOP vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin’s emails from her time as the governor of Alaska. It didn’t get them from a government whistleblower. It didn’t get them from Bristol Palin in a pregnancy-hormone-induced bout of I HATE YOU MOM rage. It got them from Anonymous. Yes, that fragmented constellation of hacking collectives that keeps declaring war on stuff on YouTube. That Anonymous.

By the time these emails were released, Palin had already mostly metamorphosed from folksy, charming Alaskan upstart to an incoherent Tina Fey–shaped husk. The leaked emails didn’t destroy her credibility, because it had already been shredded by people hearing her talk.

The next major female contender in a presidential race was also a WikiLeaks target. A few months ago, WikiLeaks published an easily searchable database of Hillary Clinton’s emails while she was secretary of state. They were not leaked by Anonymous, or a still-furious Bristol Palin. They were not leaked at all. The U.S. State Department had published them already, following a Freedom of Information Act request. These emails were the center of a controversy that recalled a hugely amplified version of Palin’s debacle; like Palin, Clinton had been conducting business using a private email address, and had been accused of undue secrecy and/or insufficient security. Clinton’s bad email behavior was far more extreme, prompting an FBI investigation and its admission that she had, in fact, emailed classified information. It is one of the biggest scandals of her career.

But that’s far from the only scandal around the Democrats right now. Last week, WikiLeaks published a trove of emails between key players in the Democratic National Committee. The DNC emails were leaked, and they showed DNC staffers making fun of and undermining the Bernie Sanders campaign. It had immediate aftershocks. After their release, DNC Chairwoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz resigned. WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange told CNN that WikiLeaks may release “a lot more material” related to the U.S. election. (WikiLeaks followed up on Wednesday night by publishing some DNC voicemails.)

While the source of this particular DNC email leak has not been confirmed, the Clinton campaign told ABC News that it heard from experts who are pointing a finger at Russia, and U.S. intelligence officials have also cited Russia. The GOP chimed in as well. “Russia, if you’re listening, I hope you’re able to find the 30,000 emails that are missing,” Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump said at a press conference on Wednesday.

Eight years passed in between the Palin leaks and the Clinton leaks. During that time, the U.S. military killed Osama bin Laden. ISIS congealed into a global threat. Facebook ate the media. Brexit. Obama. I could list more key figures and geopolitical events, but I’ll start drifting into “new version of ‘We Didn’t Start the Fire’” territory, so let’s focus on things that happened that directly relate to leaking hacked or stolen information:

  1. WikiLeaks published some of its most consequential work. It won an Amnesty International Media Award for publishing a horrifying report on extrajudicial killings in Kenya. It published video that proved the U.S. military had killed Reuters journalists — video that proved the military lied when it claimed that the Reuters journalists were killed in a firefight with insurgents.
  2. Edward Snowden became the most valorized and villainized whistleblower ever by leaking documents exposing widespread government surveillance to journalists, who then published the files at legacy outlets such as The Guardian.
  3. E V E R Y B O D Y got hacked. Target, Sony, eBay, AOL, the IRS, UPS, Ashley Madison, JPMorgan Chase, LinkedIn, Tumblr, Home Depot, NASDAQ. 2009 to 2016 has brought one data breach after another.
  4. Some of these data breaches were dumped online, and WikiLeaks expanded its role of providing easily searchable archives to previously released material. (Example: Sony.)
  5. Julian Assange became a rape-allegation fugitive and holed up indefinitely in an Ecuadorean embassy in London.

WikiLeaks went into a fallow period after 2010. Assange was on the lam, the organization faced problems accepting donations, and its staff squabbled. For a while, the most exciting WikiLeaks news was about Benedict Cumberbatch’s casting as Assange. (Just kidding, The Fifth Estate sucked.) But those years are important to its story. The Snowden leaks started a conversation about privacy at the same time that many people and institutions’ supposedly private digital information was breached. We have never been so vulnerable to having our private information stolen and published; we have never been so aware of that vulnerability.

The DNC leak wasn’t the only hyped WikiLeaks data dump this month. The organization also released “the Erdoğan emails” shortly after a failed coup in Turkey. WikiLeaks packaged the cache of emails between members of Turkey’s ruling party, the AKP, as a way to expose that ruling party as it committed political purges. Publishing correspondences between political players is WikiLeaks’ bread and butter. The diplomatic cables it published in 2010 were a major victory for the organization, and an event that influenced activists to organize in an effort that became known as the Arab Spring.

The AKP leak was not well-received by many Western media outlets. Zeynep Tufekci, a prominent writer and academic born in Turkey, led the English-language backlash against the leak, pointing out that Turkish journalists have found no trace of President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s emails in the so-called “Erdoğan emails,” and that the emails are mainly from ordinary party members rather than high-ranking officials. Tufekci also criticized WikiLeaks for tweeting out a link to a separate cache of documents that contained a database that exposed the personal information of millions of Turkish voters. (Originally, Tufekci accused WikiLeaks of publishing the database; though she corrected and adjusted her critique, many other digital outlets reported on her original accusation.) Ordinary people got screwed by the DNC leak, too. WikiLeaks did not bother to redact the credit card numbers and Social Security numbers of regular people who donated to the DNC.

WikiLeaks’s laissez-faire attitude toward releasing the personal information of private citizens has created blowback against the organization. Some headlines:

“How WikiLeaks Has Changed: From Whistleblower to Weapon”

“WikiLeaks Has Officially Lost the Moral High Ground”

These pieces argue that WikiLeaks has changed, that it is some devilish adulteration of an older, purer form. They were only into WikiLeaks’s early shit.

It is puzzling to read stories like the ones above. Not because it is nutty to suggest that WikiLeaks is operating immorally, but because it is strange to suggest that an organization that is continuing to carry out its mission in the same way it has operated since its inception has somehow undergone an ideological corruption, without altering its goals or the way it publishes. WikiLeaks has never simply acted as a neutral conduit, partly because it is staffed by humans who decide which information to seek and release, and partly because those staffers have always had an explicit political agenda. (And partly because its leader shares much in common with Trump — both Assange and the Republican nominee for president are agents of chaos who bask in controversy and tweet recklessly.)

The WikiLeaks mission has always been to publish documents that have been kept from the public. Full stop. The mission is not “publish documents that have been kept from the public that we receive from really nice bipartisan guys who love America” or “publish documents that have been kept from the public that will be unanimously received as vital to the public’s understanding of the world.” The source’s intentions are not a primary motivator; WikiLeaks has always operated with fierce and often powerful detractors who say it is dangerous, illegal, even terroristic. (Joe Biden compared Assange to a “high-tech terrorist” back in 2010.)

WikiLeaks has also never promised to redact. In fact, it has been publishing personal information without regard to consequences for most of its run. In 2010, for instance, WikiLeaks published a government report that included a list of names of Afghan civilians, including Afghan citizen sources for NATO troops. This left the named sources in danger of retribution from the Taliban. This caused a fight between staffers and Assange, who wanted the names published.

WikiLeaks has always been a soup of contradictions, bluster, and ego. The only consistent underpinning is its adversarial relationship to people in power and the institutions they inhabit. Its leaks have catalyzed investigations and influenced politics. It has added to the public’s understanding of power, war, and both government and corporate wrongdoing — WikiLeaks has exposed lies and coverups and hypocrisy. That does not mean that its methods do not also raise valid privacy concerns at the same time. That does not mean WikiLeaks is nice. It does not mean it is above politics.

Maybe Assange has a deranged vendetta against Hillary Clinton; maybe he has a completely legitimate one; maybe he hates everyone in power equally and the DNC emails just came through quicker than anything from the RNC; maybe his true dream is to eventually publish the thing that ruins Trump. It doesn’t matter.

What is important: Within the DNC hack, there’s a deeply ironic email exchange in which staffers mock a BuzzFeed report about their shitty cybersecurity. Yet, of course, the DNC was vulnerable to a breach, just like everybody else. The breadth of hackable information out there — as well as information that has already been breached and has yet to be published — is incredible. WikiLeaks is ready and willing to publish data from many of those breaches, and these past few data dumps show that it is prepared, just as it was before 2010, to pursue government targets aggressively, above all else. It has been a wild few weeks for WikiLeaks, and I suspect the organization will be releasing more data than usual as the U.S. election season continues.

WikiLeaks is a flawed organization, and it is Julian Assange’s weapon. Sometimes he hits targets that deserve it. Sometimes, just like the U.S. military, he fucks up royally and hits bystanders. And just like with the military, those attacks leaves collateral damage in their wake.