Julian Assange’s arrest and indictment should provide us with a moment of reflection. He is an awful man. He dumped American military secrets into the public domain without any regard for human life. He conspired with an American soldier to crack American security systems in the effort to deliver more secrets to the world public.
His co-conspirator, Chelsea (then Bradley) Manning, wasn’t a “whistleblower” — and neither was Assange. Manning didn’t carefully extract evidence of alleged wrongdoing from classified files and go to the press (a defensible, though still illegal, act). He just dumped hundreds of thousands of pages of classified files into Assange’s hands, and Assange posted them, en masse, on the Internet.
Any jihadist or enemy with Internet access could read the documents and not just learn about the identities of American allies on the ground (placing them at immediate, mortal risk) but also gain extraordinary insight into American military tactics and plans — including learning exactly how effective (or ineffective) their own weapons and tactics were.
Manning committed treason. Assange helped him. And there were Americans who celebrated both men. Manning got a Vogue profile. Assange was the object of admiration. Remember when Atlantic contributor David Samuels wrote that Assange had performed a “huge public service”?
Not since President Richard Nixon directed his minions to go after Pentagon Papers leaker Daniel Ellsberg and New York Times reporter Neil Sheehan — “a vicious antiwar type,” an enraged Nixon called him on the Watergate tapes — has a working journalist and his source been subjected to the kind of official intimidation and threats that have been directed at Assange and Manning by high-ranking members of the Obama administration.
Some even called Assange a “darling of the liberal left.” Republicans and mainstream liberals held a different view. The Obama administration condemned him, conservatives called him a traitor, and Donald Trump said WikiLeaks was “disgraceful,” adding that there should be the “death penalty or something” for its actions.
Fast-forward to 2016, and WikiLeaks enjoyed a reputational renaissance on the right. Why? Well, WikiLeaks was the same organization, but its target had changed. Rather than taking on alleged American imperialism, it was the conduit for an alleged Russian hack that was systematically embarrassing Hillary Clinton and the Democratic party in the middle of a hotly contested presidential election.
Even worse, the special counsel’s office has alleged that a “senior Trump Campaign official was directed to contact Stone about any additional releases and what other damaging information [WikiLeaks] had regarding the Clinton Campaign.” Trump “loved” Wikileaks, and his campaign allegedly endeavored to get information from WikiLeaks — the same organization that had just a few years before conspired with a traitor to place American soldiers and American allies in mortal danger.
Julian Assange intentionally and deliberately works against American interests. Yet there are Americans who will intentionally and deliberately share WikiLeaks information, wield it as a weapon against their political opponents, and even attempt to make contact with Assange himself when it serves their domestic political interests.
There is no virtue in Assange. Those who celebrated his “transparency” in the Manning document dumps forget that responsible reporters who gain access to classified material carefully vet that material to make sure that their disclosures do not needlessly endanger innocent Americans, and they carefully weigh the value of the disclosure against the gravity of the harm. Assange and Manning did not seem to care about the men and women they betrayed.
Those who celebrated Assange’s role in the DNC and Podesta hacks forget that he was playing a willing and even eager role in a foreign plan to disrupt an election and divide our nation — a plan that worked beautifully in large part because of the very celebration of the hacks themselves. In “Flight 93 elections,” I suppose, advancing Russian interests is a small price to pay for a news cycle or two that humiliates Hillary.
And, by the way, if one is going to rightly denigrate the role that Russian hacking had in swaying the American election, how can one also then claim that advancing Russian interests and magnifying Assange was somehow important enough to be worth the costs? Trump and his close allies celebrated an American enemy to gain a microscopic electoral advantage at the cost of significant American division and resentment.
It’s become increasingly clear that there exists a class of Americans who view their fellow citizens — including politicians from the opposing political party — as almost an existential threat to the American republic. In that case, the enemy of their enemy becomes their friend, even when that “friend” is the actual entity trying to undermine American security, divide American society, and even threaten American lives. Julian Assange was a window into America’s polarized soul, and the view he revealed is ugly, petty, and deeply dispiriting.