How the liberal tide turned against Julian Assange and WikiLeaks

WikiLeaks co-founder Julian Assange's image as an independent champion for transparency has lost its lustre, observers say. If there was a turning point, it may have been his role in leaking damaging emails from Democrats during the 2016 U.S. presidential election.

Assange 'proselytized about radical transparency' but some critics call him a 'pawn'

WikiLeaks co-founder Julian Assange is seen in a police van after he was arrested by British police in London on Thursday. (Henry Nicholls/Reuters)

To some, he was a truth seeker bent on exposing government misdeeds. To others, he was a high-tech menace who helped Russian hackers deliver the 2016 U.S. presidential election to Donald Trump.

But Julian Assange hasn't necessarily changed, his critics say, even if perceptions of the WikiLeaks co-founder have.

After evidently overstaying his welcome as an asylum-seeker at the Ecuadorian Embassy in London, Assange now faces extradition to the United States and the possibility of up to five years in an American prison. A British judge on Thursday found the 47-year-old Australian computer programmer guilty of jumping bail in the United Kingdom, after Ecuador revoked his asylum status and opened the doors to London police for his arrest.

The U.S. Attorney's Office for the Eastern District of Virginia has charged Assange with "conspiracy to commit computer intrusion" related to the leaking of hundreds of thousands of U.S. diplomatic cables in 2010.

Heavily bearded and pale as he was hauled out of the embassy by officers, Assange reportedly shouted, "The U.K. must resist." 

But even before he emerged into the London daylight, observers say, Assange's once-polished image as an independent champion for transparency had already lost much of its lustre.

If there was an inflection point, it was around Assange's role in leaking Democratic National Committee emails in July 2016, said Lisa Lynch, who has studied WikiLeaks as an associate professor of media communications at Drew University in New Jersey.

"What happened in 2016 broke a lot of people's hearts."

Assange looks out from the balcony of the Ecuadorian embassy in London, May 19, 2017. (Matt Dunham, File/Associated Press)

Assange "proselytized about radical transparency," she said, only to be used by other forces for their own interests — like Russian hackers seeking to meddle in a U.S. election.

According to an indictment by the U.S. special counsel last summer, Russian government hackers stole tens of thousands of emails from the campaign of Trump's presidential Democratic opponent Hillary Clinton before passing them on to WikiLeaks for publication.

Trump made it clear he was game.

"I love WikiLeaks," he proclaimed during a campaign in which he would go on to cite the website more than 160 times.

In 2017, Assange denied to Fox News host Sean Hannity that the hacked documents came from the Russian government. Special Counsel Robert Mueller's team found differently, moving in 2018 to indict 12 Russian intelligence officers over the DNC and Clinton campaign hacking.

'Assange didn't change'

Liberal outrage over the Trump-Assange alliance showed a misunderstanding of who Assange was all along, despite his reputation in the media as a darling of the libertarian left, Lynch said.

"Assange didn't change. He has been appropriated by those who have warped the initial stated aims of his organization. But Assange was always fundamentally a contrarian, and fundamentally deeply anti-American."

To consider him a "hero or villain," Lynch said, places too much focus on Assange as an agent in control of a narrative.

"I find Assange to have been a pawn in a lot of games," she said. "I think of him more as a tragic figure."

WikiLeaks made its splash in 2010 with the release of "Collateral Murder," leaked footage showing a 2007 Baghdad airstrike that showed the purportedly "indiscriminate" killings that left a dozen people dead, including two Reuters journalists.

Recognizing the value in such leaks, investigative journalists with publications such as the Guardian and the New York Times partnered with WikiLeaks in 2010 to publish hundreds of thousands of U.S. diplomatic cables, some of which were classified and redacted by publications to preserve sensitive intelligence information. The incident became known as CableGate.

Nearly a decade since Collateral Murder, the libertarian and liberal progressive embrace of Assange has softened, Lynch said.

"Right now, yes — we all think of Assange very differently."

WikiLeaks did not prove to be the engine of democratic change that liberal idealists had hoped for, she said. And then came the 2016 election.

Supporters of Assange hold placards as they stand outside Ecuador's embassy in London last week. (Simon Dawson/Reuters)

Craig Unger, author of House of Trump, House of Putin, said unlike the leaks of the Baghdad tape or the CableGate affair, which exposed potential war crimes and gave insights into how the State Department conducts global diplomacy, the DNC emails stolen by Russian hackers and posted by WikiLeaks served one purpose.

"This was designed to elect Donald Trump," he asserted.

Assange's relationships with notable journalists have also deteriorated, reportedly owing in part to what former collaborators described as a combative style and paranoia. The Guardian broke off its partnership with him in 2010, reportedly after he threatened legal action over the publication of a batch of documents the newspaper had obtained outside of WikiLeaks.

The Oscar-winning filmmaker Laura Poitras, who had previously won the trust of National Security Agency whistleblower Edward Snowden and interviewed him for the film Citizenfour, soon soured on Assange during the filming of her Assange-focused documentary, Risk. One scene captures Assange brushing off the allegations of two Swedish women who accused him in 2010 of sexual assault, calling them lesbians who he believes are involved in a "radical feminist conspiracy." The cases were later dropped, but Swedish prosecutors are reportedly considering reopening the investigation into a rape allegation.

From 'freedom fighter' to 'destructive conduit'?

Assange was "already in a sinkhole" over reports he had alienated people in newsrooms with an overbearing style," said David Szakonyi, a Russia specialist and professor at George Washington University.

"Then you add in the rape accusations."

Among liberals, support for Assange has plummeted since he first came to the world's attention as "a combination of investigative journalist, plus freedom fighter, plus transparency advocate," he said. 

Today, Szakonyi sees Assange as a gear in the Russia propaganda machine who has fashioned himself into a "destructive conduit for information that maybe shouldn't have been out in the public sphere." He questions the civic value behind publishing the stolen DNC emails, which showed the party leadership's bias toward Clinton for the Democratic nomination over her then-rival Bernie Sanders.

Wikileaks founder Julian Assange is shown on Nov. 2, 2011 outside the High Court in London. (Andy Rain/EPA)

That makes it difficult to predict how Assange will be viewed through the long lens of time, says Brian Palmer, a social anthropologist whose research focuses on whistleblowers.

Palmer, a Sanders supporter in 2016, looks back on 2010 as an era in which WikiLeaks "was courageous, heroic and very skilful" in how they released data.

"They were creating a new way of doing journalism, or assisting journalism by making it easier for people who witnessed terrible crimes to alert the world about them," he said.

While he admires Assange for "contributions of enormous value," he said the hacktivist's possible contribution to Trump's victory in 2016 "is regarded with a lot of disgust."

Snowden called his fellow whistleblower's arrest "a dark moment for press freedom." But Snowden has also criticized WikiLeaks in the past for editorial carelessness, commenting shortly after the DNC leaks that the "their hostility to even modest curation is a mistake."

Assange has a loyal defender in Swedish journalist Al Burke, who has spoken with Assange and visited him in London a few years ago. Burke suspects media outlets and the Central Intelligence Agency will seek to further tarnish the WikiLeaks founder.

"I think he will be besmirched. He will be regarded as various negative things. Like a pawn, a rapist, and so on and so forth. I don't think he'll get a fair shake."

Burke called the rape accusations against Assange "manufactured" and believes Ecuador's decision to revoke the WikiLeaks founder's asylum was motivated by a desire to distract from corruption allegations faced by the Ecuadorian president.

"A little part of me found almost relief because he's now going to get some fresh air and some sunlight," Burke said of Assange's arrest and eviction from the embassy.

"In terms of his physical condition, it's clearly an improvement for him. But in many other ways, it's a disaster."


Matt Kwong


Matt Kwong was the Washington-based correspondent for CBC News. He previously reported for CBC News as an online journalist in New York and Toronto. You can follow him on Twitter at: @matt_kwong