Julian Assange: Scapegoat or villain?

Mon 16 Jan 2017

One of the most banal tropes of Hollywood blockbuster trailers is about one man pitted against an all-powerful enemy, and ultimately prevailing. The figure of the lone ranger battling on with his back to the wall is a popular figure of American pop culture. How ironic, then, that this very figure seems to have become the bane of the country’s righteous political establishment.

So one man, holed up in the embassy of a tiny Latin American nation, a man who hasn’t seen much sunlight in four years, who is under round-the-clock surveillance, and is subject to arbitrary denial of Internet access, has managed to swing the presidential election of the most powerful country in the world in a direction it ought not to have gone. Or so we are told by influential sections of the Western press.

From revolutionary to villain

The past week or so has seen a spate of articles on the so-called unravelling of Julian Assange, the editor-in-chief of WikiLeaks. They suggest that Hillary Clinton lost the U.S. presidential election because of him. Backing this logic is the allegation that WikiLeaks served as a conduit for disseminating documents obtained by hackers working for Russian President Vladimir Putin.

The leaked emails and documents of the Democratic National Committee (DNC) published by WikiLeaks were damaging enough to spark the resignation of top Democratic Party officials, including the DNC chair and the communications director. These leaks, the argument goes, ruined Ms. Clinton’s electoral prospects, thereby paving the way for Donald Trump’s triumph.

The Democrats have been saying since July 2016 that their servers were attacked by Russian hackers. Last week, the U.S. intelligence community (USIC) officially confirmed the allegation. Kremlin has dismissed the USIC’s charges as “unfounded”. While President-elect Donald Trump seemed to acknowledge that Russia may have been involved in the cyber-attacks, he has maintained that it had no impact on the elections. Mr. Assange has denied that he got the leaks from Russia, and claims that his source was not a state party. In such a scenario, what one believes boils down to who one believes, which, in turn, depends on one’s political or ideological allegiances — the quintessential “post-truth” situation.

However, the extraordinary spectacle of erstwhile liberal hero Assange and current liberal nightmare Trump on the same side of the American political divide, with each appearing to endorse the other’s claim that Russia had nothing to do with the DNC leaks, had one immediate outcome: it prompted the American liberal elite to question Mr. Assange’s motives, and cast him as the villain who collaborated with Mr. Putin to interfere in the U.S. elections and ensure a Trump victory. For them, the USIC’s official statements are proof of Mr. Assange’s culpability, attesting to his metamorphosis from idealistic cyber-revolutionary to opportunistic charlatan.

It must, no doubt, be tempting, and rather convenient, for Democrat supporters to pin the responsibility for Ms. Clinton’s defeat on anyone but the Democrats themselves. But there are several problems with this narrative.

Flaws in the ‘trial’

For starters, both the declassified report of the USIC and the “Russian dossier” leaked allegedly by a private firm make claims of Mr. Putin’s involvement in the DNC hacks without presenting supporting evidence. The excerpts from the latter, published by some media outlets, were unverified quotes by anonymous spies. None of the claims has been independently authenticated by a media outlet. And no reason has been given why reports of Western intelligence agencies should carry more credibility than the denials of the Russian Foreign Ministry.

Second, are Mr. Assange’s motives or credibility the issue here? If we assume that they are, then we cannot avoid subjecting his accusers — the American press and intelligence agencies — to the same test.

In the 10 years of its existence, WikiLeaks has published more than 10 million classified documents. Till date, there is not a single instance where its material has been found to be false or inauthentic. On the other hand, sitting in judgment on Mr. Assange today are the same media outlets and the same intelligence community that sold to the public what is arguably the most egregious lie in the history of journalism — about weapons of mass destruction in Iraq — which helped justify a needless, destructive war that consumed tens of thousands of civilian lives, dismembered a country, and hatched several terrorist organisations.

Perhaps it is because the authenticity of the DNC leaks is beyond question, and their content raises difficult questions about the Democratic Party establishment — questions easier avoided -- that the response has turned ad hominem , focussing on Mr. Assange instead.

It may or may not be true that Mr. Assange worked with Russia to publish the DNC leaks with the aim of ensuring a Clinton defeat. Let us assume that he did. Does it then constitute an act of villainy or moral trespass?

One could respond, as Mr. Assange has, with two arguments. First, that American interference in the democratic processes of other countries is well documented. Therefore, it is not tenable to hold that other nations do not have the right to pay back in kind.

Second, Mr. Assange believes that it is his moral responsibility to do whatever he can to prevent a Clinton victory. He has said many times that Ms. Clinton is a warmonger, that her victory would lead to greater American military involvement outside its borders, and thereby impose greater misery on the people of the world.

Liberal commentators have dismissed his statements as his “Clinton obsession” and the delusional ranting of a paranoid eccentric. And yet, a recent report in The Guardian cites U.S. Defence Department data to the effect that in 2016 alone, the Obama administration dropped 26,171 bombs, or three bombs an hour. In this context, it is hardly immoral for anyone to want to deploy his resources to steer America’s presidential choice toward a candidate who he thinks might be less of a military interventionist. From this viewpoint, which Mr. Assange appears to hold, undermining the Clinton campaign by sharing secret information that is of public interest constitutes a perfectly legitimate enterprise. Interestingly, Dean Baquet, the executive editor of The New York Times has acknowledged that the internal DNC emails published by WikiLeaks were newsworthy, and it is quite likely that mainstream publications would have published them had they got hold of them first.

It was about new information

What Mr. Assange did — the act for which he is undergoing trial-by-media — was to supply relevant but new information about an electoral candidate so that the American voter could make an informed choice. One could argue that he did what the mainstream media was supposed to do but wasn’t doing enough of.

In the event, it was the American voter who made the final choice, a choice that may or may not have been influenced by the material published by Mr. Assange. At any rate, thanks to the leaks, it was a choice made with more information than less. No one who believes in the accountability of political parties should have a problem with that. Therefore, to blame Mr. Trump’s victory on Mr. Assange or, for that matter, on Russia, not only amounts to a refusal on the part of the Democrats to take responsibility for the defeat, it is also an insult to the American public that has delivered a mandate from the limited choices it was given.

If Mr. Assange must be criticised, it must be for not giving enough bang for the buck, as it were, for his whistle-blowers. He ought to be doing more to ensure that his data troves are systematically analysed and organised in a user-friendly format, with the significant bits sifted out from the routine ones. But the bulk of the data on WikiLeaks’ servers continues to be inaccessible to the public even as they remain in the public domain. Second, he is yet to match the scale of his U.S.-centric leaks with similar disclosures on its geopolitical rivals such as Russia or China.

However, to blame him for Ms. Clinton’s defeat, or to brand him a Trump supporter, is to wilfully disregard his track record. Mr. Assange’s politics has been clear from the day he founded WikiLeaks, and it hasn’t changed since. He believes that the biggest threats to democracy and freedom are the twin phenomena of mass surveillance for the powerless and secrecy for the powerful. He has made a career out of reversing this paradigm: transparency for the powerful and anonymity for the dissenting citizen. His personal motive for publishing the DNC leaks, whatever it may be, is evidently not one that is inconsistent with his stated mission of making secrecy a losing proposition for governing elites.



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