How Julian Assange evolved from pariah to paragon
President-elect Donald Trump tweeted some praise on Tuesday for a man most Republicans wanted nothing to do with. He had seen Julian Assange, the founder of WikiLeaks, defend himself during an hour of friendly, prime-time questions on Fox News. And he was impressed.
“Julian Assange said a ‘14-year old could have hacked Podesta,’ ” Trump wrote. “Why was DNC so careless? Also said Russians did not give him the info.”
It wasn’t the first time Trump had praised WikiLeaks. During his campaign for president, Trump had gleefully highlighted emails stolen from the Democratic National Committee and Hillary Clinton’s campaign. By October, just the mention of WikiLeaks could start a roar of applause at Trump’s rallies.
Since then, Trump has continued praising the radical transparency group, harshly criticized by President Obama and other officials for what they describe as damaging national security leaks. He has defended its founder, who has lived in the Ecuadoran Embassy in London since August 2012 to avoid extradition on a rape allegation in Sweden. And Trump has been in sync with conservative media, once critical of WikiLeaks, which increasingly embraces Assange as a hero.
Republicans have been slow to climb on board. In interviews, members of the congressional intelligence committees either declined to comment on WikiLeaks or made it clear that they wanted the organization shut down.
“Julian Assange is no hero,” said Sen. James Lankford (R-Okla.) “Someone who steals property is not bringing transparency — he’s taking information that’s not his to give.”
In a statement, Rep. Will Hurd (R-Tex.), a former CIA officer, said that Assange was not a “credible source” for Trump or anyone else.
“The same people who condemned Secretary Clinton for making sensitive and classified information vulnerable by using an unsecure server should be equally outraged that Assange continues to carelessly leak sensitive documents,” Hurd said.
On CNN, Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.) — a Trump critic who has asked for hearings into possible Russian meddling in the election — urged the incoming president to look more closely at Assange’s tactics and motivations, and to take seriously U.S. intelligence estimates that contradict Assange’s descriptions of the hacks.
“It’s the Democrats today; it could be the Republican Party tomorrow,” he said. “None of us should be gleeful when a foreign entity hacks into our political system to interfere with our elections, and that’s what the Russians did.”
Increasingly, reactions like those don’t jibe with the way Assange is portrayed by the sort of conservative sources that generally give Republicans glowing treatment. Assange’s interview with Fox News was conducted by Sean Hannity, who had evolved from a critic to a frequent booster. From Assange’s room in London, Hannity presented WikiLeaks in its favored terms — as a source of true, incorruptible journalism, bringing down the political elite.
Hannity, who told Assange last month that he had “done us a favor,” said Tuesday that he believes “every word” Assange says.
“You exposed a level of corruption that I for 30 years on the radio as a conservative knew existed, and I was shocked at the level of corruption, duplicity, dishonesty, manipulation,” Hannity told Assange. “Knowing what WikiLeaks revealed about the Podesta emails on Clinton corruption, on pay to play, on Bernie Sanders being cheated, all of this is revealed. Not a lot of this was covered.”
With little pushback from Hannity and just as little demand for proof, Assange denied that Russian hackers had anything to do with its troves of hacked Democratic emails. With Hannity’s urging, Assange said he was surprised that “elites” had failed to elect Clinton; he had said, before the election, that Trump would “not be allowed” to win.
“We are happy to have credit for exposing the corruption and behavior that was occurring in that Clinton team and the DNC fixing things against Bernie Sanders,” Assange said. “We are quite happy to accept that.”
The Fox interview won other fans: Sarah Palin, who had once compared Assange to the editor of an al-Qaeda magazine, apologized on Facebook and credited him with releasing “important information that finally opened people’s eyes to democrat [sic] candidates and operatives.”
At less-mainstream news outlets, where Trump’s run and victory were celebrated, this praise had been echoing for months. The Drudge Report has linked videos with speculation that Assange has been aided by government insiders; Alex Jones’s InfoWars, which once criticized Assange for slow-walking the stolen Clinton campaign documents, is rife with rumors that Assange has been silenced by the government, and full of mockery for the Republicans who criticize him.
This treatment of Assange is a stark departure from what was, until recently, a near-universal condemnation of the Australian by conservative pundits and politicians as well as the national security establishment. Assange has inspired both admiration and hatred — sometimes by the same individuals — since his anti-secrecy organization first made global headlines in 2010.
That was the year that WikiLeaks published thousands of stolen, heavily classified Pentagon documents that shed light on U.S. actions in the Iraq War. Most famous were the “Iraq War logs,” which included cockpit video footage of American helicopter pilots opening fire on two Reuters journalists after mistaking them for insurgents.
That same year, WikiLeaks published the first of more than 250,000 pilfered State Department cables containing sensitive and often candid assessments of foreign governments and politicians. Obama administration officials said publicizing the confidential records damaged relationships with key allies and put diplomats and intelligence operatives at risk.
Assange, a former computer programmer and journalist who founded WikiLeaks in 2006, has defended the organization’s tradition of publishing massive volumes of unfiltered intelligence, calling the release of confidential material a necessary antidote against excessive government secrecy.
In a news release issued on the eve of last year’s U.S. presidential election, Assange said of his group’s goals: “We publish material given to us if it is of political, diplomatic, historical or ethical importance and which has not been published elsewhere. When we have material that fulfills this criteria, we publish.”
The releases that started in 2010 prompted calls in conservative media for Assange’s prosecution, or worse. Conservative commentator Jeffrey Kuhner, in a Washington Times op-ed piece that year, suggested that the U.S. government should have him assassinated.
“Julian Assange poses a clear and present danger to American national security,” Kuhner wrote. “The WikiLeaks founder is more than a reckless provocateur. He is aiding and abetting terrorists in their war against America. The administration must take care of the problem — effectively and permanently.”
On Fox News, legal experts debated the best legal course against Assange, who was decried by one guest as a “deeply flawed individual.” A column in the conservative publication National Review Online questioned why Assange wasn’t dead already — perhaps “garroted in his hotel.” Trump himself, in one of his then-frequent calls to Fox, called WikiLeaks “disgraceful” and added that “there should be like death penalty or something” for its releases.
Lawmakers and national security officials were only slightly less harsh. Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) described WikiLeaks’ publication of Pentagon and State Department documents the “greatest, most damaging security breach in the history of this country.” Rep. Peter T. King (R-N.Y.), who would become chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee, suggested that WikiLeaks be designated as a terrorist organization.
As recently as late 2015, Rep. Mac Thornberry (R-Tex.), the chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, said WikiLeaks’ publication of classified documents had “certainly helped our primary adversaries” and inflicted “just enormous” damage to the country. Director of National Intelligence James R. Clapper Jr., who oversees U.S. intelligence collection, went further, accusing Assange of putting lives at risk, particularly intelligence operatives working abroad.
Assange’s most fervent praise in the United States did not come from Democrats. It came from libertarians. Then-Rep. Ron Paul (R-Tex.), who ran for president in 1988, 2008 and 2012, asked in a floor speech “which has resulted in the greatest number of deaths: lying us into war or WikiLeaks revelations or the release of the Pentagon Papers?”
Assange, who does not often talk about domestic politics, appeared to notice where his defenders were coming from.In a 2013 discussion, streamed live from the Ecuadoran Embassy, Assange brushed aside the idea that Democrats or political independents were capable of reforming the United States.
“The Republican Party, insofar as how it has coupled together with the war industry, is not a conservative party at all,” Assange said. “The libertarian aspect of the Republican Party is presently the only useful political voice in the U.S. Congress.”
In the 2016 Republican primaries, the party’s libertarian wing lost badly. But elements of their ideas, especially Paul’s criticism of the national security state, were adopted successfully by Trump.
The rest of the Republican Party has been slower to adopt or adapt. In 2010, as the ranking Republican on the House Intelligence Committee, then-Rep. Pete Hoekstra had called for decisive action against WikiLeaks and Assange. In an interview Wednesday, he said it should still be a goal to “do everything we can, legally, to shut down his networks.”
But Hoekstra argued that Trump was not praising or egging on Assange’s publication of hacked material. “I feel bad for John Podesta that he got his emails hacked,” Hoekstra said. “I’d feel bad if mine were hacked. The reality in today’s world is that if you’re not extremely careful, you’re vulnerable.”