WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange waves after landing at RAAF air...

WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange waves after landing at RAAF air base Fairbairn in Canberra, Australia, Wednesday, June 26 2024.  Credit: AP/Rick Rycroft

A notorious saga that reads like a political spy thriller and sparked intense debate for years has come to an end with Australian hacker and activist Julian Assange pleading guilty to espionage in a deal with the United States Justice Department. The 52-year-old founder of WikiLeaks, who could have faced a lengthy prison term if extradited to the U.S. — and who already spent five years in a British prison and seven years under de facto house arrest in the Ecuadorian embassy in London — has returned to Australia as a hero to some and a villain to others.

Assange’s admirers across the political spectrum regard him as an intrepid truth-teller, a man who held governments accountable and championed transparency. But he also has ferocious detractors. They point to his publication of documents that endangered people’s lives — including the lives of dissidents and members of persecuted minorities under tyrannical regimes — and to his coziness with Vladimir Putin’s regime in Russia. In 2012, he hosted a talk show on the Kremlin propaganda channel Russia Today, now RT, and was behind the WikiLeaks publication of documents stolen by Russian hackers from the Democratic National Committee and the Hillary Clinton campaign in 2016 as part of an effort to damage Clinton.

There is no question that Assange and his network helped expose some real abuses. Among other things, WikiLeaks released a trove of materials documenting the full extent of the abuse of detainees by American troops at the infamous Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq. Yet overall, Assange’s career is marked by a cavalier attitude toward human rights abuses by forces hostile to the United States and the West.

In 2010, classified military documents from the war in Afghanistan released online by WikiLeaks included the names of thousands of Afghanis working with international forces. Human rights organizations voiced alarm; Assange blamed the U.S. government for failing to cooperate with him to redact the names. Two British journalists claim that he told them the Afghanis were “informants” who “got it coming.” The names were eventually removed, but the harm was already done.

WikiLeaks has also exposed the personal data of vulnerable people in Turkey and Saudi Arabia, including rape victims and gay men. But perhaps its most scandalous collaboration with a repressive regime was in Belarus, where then-WikiLeaks associate and Assange pal Israel Shamir (a Russian-Jewish-born Holocaust denier with white supremacist ties) turned over American diplomatic cables with information on Belarusian dissidents to the staff of dictator Alexander Lukashenko. Some of them were subsequently jailed.

Assange has strenuously denied being a Russian asset. Yet when asked in a 2016 interview about WikiLeaks’ lack of interest in exposing the Putin regime, he cited “vibrant” Russian media that were already doing the job.

There is little doubt that Assange’s crusade against state power and for transparency is primarily about hostility to what he sees as the American empire and its satellites — that is, to liberal democracies. No wonder his fans run the gamut from the anti-American left to the anti-liberal right.

In some cases, as with Abu Ghraib, Assange’s work helped liberal democracies police their own abuses. Far more often, though, he has helped enemies of freedom and human rights. And while one can defend the plea deal on the grounds that Assange has already paid a fairly steep price for his actions, any genuinely pro-freedom person who sees him as a hero should learn more and reconsider.

Opinions expressed by Cathy Young, a writer for The Bulwark, are her own.


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