Opinion

Julian Assange and WikiLeaks did a disservice to whistleblowing

It is one thing to receive the proverbial anonymous brown envelope under the door (or, more likely, in an email inbox). It is quite another, and beyond the pale, to hack into protected systems.

The classic principles of whistleblowing involve righting a specific wrong through targeted exposure

It is one thing to receive the proverbial anonymous brown envelope under the door (or, more likely, in an email inbox). It is quite another, and beyond the pale, to hack into protected systems. (Victoria Jones/PA via AP)

Julian Assange, the founder of WikiLeaks, faces the darkest chapter of his life — his worst nightmare on the brink of becoming true. He has long feared the prospect of extradition to the United States, and found safe haven in the Ecuadorian embassy in London as a protection for the past seven years.

The Ecuadorian government finally tired of their house guest, after escalating irritants, minor and major. They opened the embassy doors to the British police, who hauled out a bearded and protesting Assange, blinking in the glare of a new reality. The Russian government promptly protested the manhandling of Assange.

The final straw for the Ecuadorian regime of Lenin Moreno was a belief that Assange was not just breaking the rules of his guest stature in the embassy, but was actively working against the interests of Ecuador by accusing the regime of spying on him, and having WikiLeaks launch investigations into corruption at the highest levels of the Ecuadorian government. Biting the hand that fed him.

Assange now faces extradition to the United States, on a single and narrow charge of criminal conspiracy, with a maximum sentence of five years. According to an unsealed U.S. grand jury indictment, Assange actively assisted a U.S. intelligence analyst, Chelsea Manning, in trying to break into classified U.S. government computer systems in 2010.

Chelsea Manning's 35-year prison term was commuted by President Barack Obama. (Ford Fischer/News2Share via Reuters)

Manning was WikiLeaks original star leaker, bringing the organization to prominence on the world stage. Manning worked in a secret intelligence facility in Iraq and provided WikiLeaks with an unprecedented dump of classified documents, ultimately some 700,000 in number, including records on U.S. military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, on Guantanamo detainees, and on U.S. global diplomacy. It was whistleblowing on an unprecedented, industrial scale. Manning ultimately paid the price with a lengthy 35-year prison term, later commuted by President Barack Obama.

It is a safe bet that the British will extradite Assange to the U.S. There will be a legal battle over that and stiff resistance from Assange's lawyers and supporters, but the outcome seems pre-ordained. He has few fans in the current U.K. government and they will want to send him packing.

Any future Assange trial on U.S. soil, and especially one held during the Trump administration, will be a "show trial." It will, for better or worse, force a renewed public debate around how we understand whistleblowing, how we define a media organization in this brave new cyber and social media world, and what we make of Assange himself.

WikiLeaks, starting with the Manning data dump in 2010, has forever changed the nature of whistleblowing. The sheer scale of the Manning leak pointed the way to the future (including for Edward Snowden) where whistleblowing would be broadband rather than narrowly and carefully focused. In so doing, it undermined some of the classic principles of whistleblowing: the idea of exposing and righting a specific wrong or abuse of power, through targeted exposure of dark secrets, in the high public interest.

Industrial-scale whistleblowing in the cyber age is a different kind of beast. It has a much more generalized definition of wrongs to be exposed and fought, and its definition of the public interest is often fuzzy. Targeted exposure is frequently replaced with unregulated outpouring. WikiLeaks, paradoxically, has itself done a disservice to whistleblowing.

WikiLeaks' claim that it is a media organization is a highly dubious one. (Hannah McKay/Reuters)

Assange and his allies will try to rally the global media community around them in defence of press freedoms. But WikiLeaks' claim that it is a media organization is a highly dubious one. WikiLeaks, especially under Assange's highly personal rule, is more interested in making the news than in reporting it. It is also unlikely that journalists will embrace the legitimacy of breaking into classified government databanks. It is one thing to receive the proverbial anonymous brown envelope under the door (or, more likely, in an email inbox). It is quite another, and beyond the pale, to hack into protected systems.

Assange the man will also be on public trial. He has always generated very polarized views. It may be, however, that during his long and mostly isolated sojourn in the Ecuadorian embassy, the tides of his popularity have shifted. Suspicions have mounted about his ego, his opportunism, his absence of principles and lack of moral compass. Much of this shift is rooted in the activities of WikiLeaks during the U.S. presidential campaign in 2016, where the organization went from being a one-time darling of the left, to a cherished, if temporary, ally of the right, for its role in leaking Clinton campaign emails.

The U.S. charge (and there may be many more, given the ongoing grand jury investigation) that would paint him as a black hat hacker, manipulator, and opportunist, may just stick in the public mind. That would be the ultimate irony for a man and organization that, when it was founded back in 2006, proclaimed itself the captain of a principled crusade against closed governments and walled-off secrets.


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About the Author

Wesley Wark is a visiting professor at the Graduate School of Public and International Affairs at the University of Ottawa and an expert on national security and intelligence issues.

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