The arrest of WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange in London last week after the withdrawal of his asylum at the Ecuadorian embassy has generated a variety of reactions, including Donald Trump’s amnesia about his affection for WikiLeaks as an ally against Hillary Clinton. Today, Trump’s Justice Department is prosecuting Assange for conspiracy for his alleged role in the theft of classified documents WikiLeaks published, and many on the left see this as an assault on freedom of the press. Libertarians, too, are inclined to see Assange as a hero who fought a valiant battle to hold governments accountable and expose malfeasance.
But one can strongly support limited government and accountability, and even agree that some WikiLeaks disclosures have been beneficial, and still regard the 47-year-old hacker/journalist as one of the bad guys.
In 2011, when Assange faced off against conservative British journalist Douglas Murray in a debate on whistleblowers sponsored by the London-based New Statesman magazine, Murray argued that WikiLeaks itself lacked accountability. Democratic governments, Murray said, may be far from perfect as arbiters of what information should be kept secret, but they are still better suited for that role than self-appointed watchdogs with no checks and balances. “Governments are elected,” Murray said. “You, Mr. Assange, are not. Who guards the guardians?”
This might be a bit too full-throated an endorsement of “government knows best.” Nonetheless, a look at Assange’s career suggests Murray had a point. As Canadian journalist Terry Glavin notes in Maclean’s magazine, even the exposé that made WikiLeaks famous in 2010 — a video that showed footage of a 2007 U.S. airstrike in Baghdad that killed more than a dozen civilians, including two journalists — was edited to obscure the fact that the soldiers thought the group included armed insurgents.
Critics also point out that WikiLeaks has released information that had little public-interest value but could be damaging to U.S. and allied troops, such as details of an Army system for jamming radio signals used to set off explosive devices. Just as reprehensibly, Assange and his team have shown little regard for the lives of Afghans named in classified documents as assisting NATO forces, or for the safety of people living under authoritarian regimes.
It is worth noting that authoritarian states have drawn little of Assange’s ire. He has a notoriously friendly relationship with the Kremlin; in 2012, he even hosted a show on its propaganda network, Russia Today. Several years ago, WikiLeaks turned down a trove of classified Russian documents many of which would have exposed Moscow’s illegal war against Ukraine. When the Panama Papers — leaked documents on the operation of offshore bank accounts — were made public in 2016, Assange criticized the coverage of the story for too much “Putin bashing North Korea bashing.”
Assange supporters see him as a brave crusader against the powers that be. But in the real world, democratic governments — which are capable of abuses of power — are pitted not only against whistleblowers and other righteous rebels, but against terrorists, dictators of various stripes, and other political forces hostile to human rights. When rebels effectively ally themselves with those forces, they lose all claim to righteousness.
Assange’s alliance with the Kremlin included, according to indictments by U.S. special counsel Robert Mueller, the use of WikiLeaks as a tool in disseminating documents that damaged Clinton during the 2016 election, thus aiding the Trump campaign. The fact that Assange is now being prosecuted by the administration he may have helped bring into existence has an undeniable element of poetic justice.
Cathy Young is a contributing editor to Reason magazine.