Truthdigger of the Week: Julian Assange, Publisher of the Clinton Campaign Emails
Every week the Truthdig editorial staff selects a Truthdigger of the Week, a group or person worthy of recognition for speaking truth to power, breaking the story or blowing the whistle. It is not a lifetime achievement award. Rather, we’re looking for newsmakers whose actions in a given week are worth celebrating.
Should we condemn Julian Assange for his recent interventions in U.S. politics?
The Australian hacker-turned-journalist became an international hero for free speech and government transparency in 2010 when he published through WikiLeaks, an organization he co-founded, a quartet of award-winning disclosures revealing the U.S. military behaving far worse in its wars in Afghanistan and Iraq than it had admitted and U.S. State Department officials speaking frankly about their allies and intentions around the globe.
Under threat of exposure, the Obama administration, led by Hillary Clinton’s State Department, leapt into action, opening a criminal investigation into Assange and pursuing him through its international allies to the Ecuadorean Embassy in London in 2012, where he remains to this day, functionally imprisoned under asylum. This week, while he was still coordinating his work with others, the Ecuadorean government suspended his internet access.
Now, after publishing searchable databases of thousands of emails over the summer hacked or leaked from the servers of Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton, the Democratic National Committee and Clinton campaign chairman John Podesta (messages that include transcripts of Clinton’s paid speeches to Goldman Sachs and give further substance to allegations of duplicity, disdain for activists and compromising self-interest that have followed her and her circle for more than a decade), Assange is under fresh attack from familiar adversaries representing the establishment and taking hard criticism from erstwhile allies.
Citing rationales that U.S. intelligence agencies have not made available to the public, Clinton and her aides assert—and their media allies uncritically report—that Assange is working with the Russian government to help Donald Trump win the presidency by strategically timing the release of the emails—the authenticity of which the Clinton camp has not denied—to cause maximum damage to her presidential campaign.
Relative newcomers to the critique of Assange are NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden, journalist, author and activist Naomi Klein and Harvard Law professor and civil liberties advocate Lawrence Lessig. They take issue with the failure of Assange and his colleagues to strip the leaked documents of information that is not essential to the business of informed democracy and which unnecessarily spotlights the personal lives of the people involved. In a conversation with The Intercept co-founder Glenn Greenwald (who maintains that public interest requires that powerful people, especially officials, forfeit a measure of their privacy), Klein eloquently expressed her concern “about the subjectivity of who gets defined as sufficiently powerful to lose their privacy,” adding that she is “absolutely sure there are plenty of people in the world who believe that you and I are sufficiently powerful to lose our privacy.”
“I’m not comfortable with anybody wielding that much power,” Klein said. “I’m not comfortable when it’s states, but I’m also not comfortable when it’s individuals or institutions.” As a high-profile role model to journalists and activists for his role in bringing Snowden’s NSA leaks to the public, Greenwald has a special responsibility to protect the ethics that underpin his efforts in public service. And that means criticizing Assange (whom Greenwald, a trained lawyer, ably defended in the press during WikiLeaks’ initial burst of activity in 2010) when Assange fails to meet his own ethical standards, or those he once claimed and practiced.In 2010, Greenwald explained, “WikiLeaks, contrary to the way they were being depicted by the U.S. intelligence community and their friends, was not some reckless rogue agent running around sociopathically dumping information on the internet without concern about who might be endangered. And in fact, if you look at how the biggest WikiLeaks releases were handled early on—the Iraq and Afghanistan war logs, as well as the State Department cables—not only did they redact huge numbers of documents on the grounds that doing so was necessary to protect the welfare of innocent people, they actually requested that the State Department meet with them to help them figure out what kind of information should be withheld on the grounds that it could endanger innocent people.”
But, “[s]omewhere along the way, WikiLeaks and Julian decided, and they’ve said this explicitly, that they changed their mind on that question—they no longer believe in redactions or withholding documents of any kind.”
Similarly, after WikiLeaks released a batch of DNC emails in July, Edward Snowden tweeted:
Democratizing information has never been more vital, and @Wikileaks has helped. But their hostility to even modest curation is a mistake.
— Edward Snowden (@Snowden) July 28, 2016
Following Assange’s writings in 2010, when he stated that he seeks to tip the balance of power away from powerful institutions and actors by depriving them of the ability to operate behind closed doors without fear of being exposed and terminally and legally reckoned with by the public, Assange, in his work this summer, clearly targeted Clinton, whom he regards as an enemy of the public for championing U.S. hegemony and a personal antagonist for pursuing his prosecution. “There is clearly a vendetta element going on,” Klein told Greenwald, “which is understandable, because Hillary Clinton is massively responsible for his lack of freedom.” But Klein “is very disturbed by [Assange’s] seeming willingness to burn it down” and “by the ego of seeing this election through one’s personal lens when the stakes are so incredibly high.”
Here’s a question few are asking: Would Assange, who set out to perform the honorable service of exposing government corruption, behave as he does today if he, a single individual with limited resources, had not been relentlessly pursued into the corner of a single room for 5½ years by people atop the most powerful state in civilized history? And can he, under burden of stress and loss of staff, associations and resources, be expected to fulfill the ethical obligations he once honored and still perform the service of making essential, willfully concealed information public? History is full of people who undertook to do good and were reshaped for the worse by the opposition they confronted. I’ve heard more than a few of Clinton’s progressive supporters casually justify her record of capitulation in the face of corporate and Republican forces in this way. Do honesty and decency not require that we regard people, including Clinton and Assange, complexly?
The difference between the two, of course, is that Clinton wields tremendous wealth and state power, whereas at terrific cost to himself, Assange succeeds in performing the essential service of revealing what leaders do in secret in our name. Because of Assange, we know that Clinton said politicians like her “need both a public and private position” when handling controversial matters, a comment that is as close to an admission of lying as we have heard from an official in recent years, and which should cast into doubt everything she has said or will say to voters.
Clinton’s supporters seem to expect that she’ll wield this trickiness in their interests. We hope they’re right. In the meantime, Julian Assange is our Truthdigger of the Week.