Julian Assange is back in the news again, and proving as controversial as ever
For some, they are heroes fighting a noble war against the establishment and challenging corruption. For others, they’re a dangerous nuisance.
Many others will fall somewhere between the two poles, but it would be hard to find someone entirely indifferent to Wikileaks and its founder Julian Assange.
The whistle-blowing website was established by Assange in 2006, but it was 2010 before the organisation became a household name. Its leak of confidential material related to the Iraq War - including footage showing US soldiers shooting dead 18 civilians from a helicopter - remains arguably its highest-profile leak to date. Later that year, it was also involved in the publication of thousands of classified cables from US embassies, with The Guardian saying the leak sparked a "global diplomatic crisis."
It was the stuff of high drama, and indeed several major films and documentaries have already been made about that period in Wikileaks' relatively short history, albeit rarely in a way Assange himself approves of.
While the organisation has continued to leak and release documents, in recent years its work has arguably been overshadowed. A number of other major leaks, such as Edward Snowden’s revelations about NSA programmes and the recent Panama Papers, have dominated headlines.
Most media outlets have been more fascinated by the protracted drama surrounding Assange and his refuge in the Ecuadorian Embassy in London than anything he has helped leak.
The Wikileaks founder is wanted for questioning in Sweden over claims he sexually assaulted two women during a visit to the country in 2010. He denies all allegations against him.
Only this week, Ecuador said it would allow Swedish prosecutors to question Mr Assange in its London embassy.
Inevitably, Assange’s resources have also been limited due to the reality of life holed up in one building.
Over the last month, however, Wikileaks has been in the news again in a big way. First came its release of a searchable database of Hillary Clinton’s leaked emails. Then, only days after the attempted coup in Turkey, they released almost 300,000 emails connected to the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP).
In another major leak mere days after the Turkey one, Wikileaks published thousands of emails sent or received by members of the US Democratic National Committee (DNC) - documents that showed Democrat headquarters actively favouring Clinton over Bernie Sanders during the primaries. The revelations led to the swift resignation of the party chair Debbie Wasserman-Schultz - as well as other DNC officials - and dominated the opening days of the party’s national convention.
The 're-emergence' of Wikileaks has led to a fresh debate about both the motives and methods of Assange and his organisation. The DNC leak was understandably welcomed by many critics of Clinton and supporters of Sanders, as well of those who more generally advocate for greater transparency in politics and institutional reform. US Green Party presidential candidate Jill Stein said there is "no question" Assange was a hero.
It will come as little surprise that Republican candidate Donald Trump was also among the most prominent figures to welcome the publication of the emails:
Leaked e-mails of DNC show plans to destroy Bernie Sanders. Mock his heritage and much more. On-line from Wikileakes, really vicious. RIGGED— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) July 23, 2016
Indeed, in general the DNC leak has been seen by many observers as a release very much in the public interest, even amid allegations by US authorities that Russia was the source of the leak. As journalist Glenn Greenwald told Slate: “In terms of the content of the material itself, whether it has been stolen by a whistleblower, or hacked by an adversarial government for nefarious ends, or for fun by some hacker, I ask one question: Is it in the public interest? And if the answer is yes, that’s the end of the inquiry.”
However, in the same interview, Greenwald highlights some of the concerns that have been raised about Assange and Wikileaks recently. He argues: “[Wikileaks] no longer believe, as Julian says, in redacting any information of any kind for any reason - and I definitely do not agree with that approach and think that they can be harmful to innocent people or other individuals in ways that I don’t think is acceptable.”
Greenwald's comments follow the revelations that the personal information of Democratic donors was included in the leaked files, alongside emails from staff and officials. Whistleblower Edward Snowden even expressed some reservations about the all encompassing nature of the leak, arguing that Wikileaks’ “hostility to even modest curation is a mistake”.
Democratizing information has never been more vital, and @Wikileaks has helped. But their hostility to even modest curation is a mistake.— Edward Snowden (@Snowden) July 28, 2016
The Turkey leak was also the subject of controversy over privacy issues, after claims the Wikileaks Twitter account shared a link to a database containing details of millions of Turkish citizens. Those reports have been denied by Wikileaks:
The Turkish academic who wrote the Huffington Post article about the offending links later shared screenshots of Wikileaks tweets describing her as an 'apologist' for Turkish president Erdogan:
I am ... printing this one and putting in my wallet next time I'm in Turkey. "Hi, I'm an Erdogan apologist." 😂 pic.twitter.com/mduPcb9qlV— Zeynep Tufekci (@zeynep) July 25, 2016
Such incidents bring to the fore issues that have long been a point of contention with Assange and the various partners he has worked with over the years. Andrew O’Hagan, Assange's 'ghostwriter', suggests disagreements over redaction helped fuel the breakdown of Assange's working relationship with The Guardian newspaper, for example.
The paper reportedly wanted to redact some information to protect informants and 'bystanders'. "I never believed [Assange] wanted to endanger such people, but he chose to interpret the Guardian’s concern as ‘cowardice’," O'Hagan observes. He further claims that Assange's relationship with the New York Times was 'every bit as toxic' as his one with The Guardian.
Numerous concerns have been raised about Wikileaks' reluctance to work with others - whether that's the media or the public - to help 'vet' its publications. "WikiLeaks’ lack of scrutiny of the documents it obtains, and its founder’s hostility to constructive criticism from outsiders, could be a significant problem if it is ever duped into publishing a forgery," Robert Mackey of The Intercept argues.
Critics of Wikileaks have also questioned why the group has focused so aggressively on Clinton. Indeed, a quick glance at their recent Twitter feed highlights a very clear opposition to the Democrat.
Does "Board after party" image illustrate HRC's poor WikiLeaks poll results--entitled, uncool and unaware of it? pic.twitter.com/ht01ZlP8Z0— WikiLeaks (@wikileaks) July 30, 2016
It’s something that has won them the support of many Trump fans. As referenced in the image above, 50% of respondents to a Twitter poll conducted by Wikileaks said they will vote for the Republican, compared to only 22% for Clinton (being a Twitter poll, it should obviously be taken with several pinches of salt).
The group has also won the support of conservatives through comments such as its support for the right-wing journalist Milo Yiannopoulos following his Twitter banning.
(In another recent 'Twitter controversy', Wikileaks was accused by some commentators of anti-semitism)
Wikileaks has teased it is holding back some more surprises ahead of November’s election. In fact, the DNC leak is described by the group as “part one of our new Hillary Leaks series”.
In contrast, their most recent tweet about Trump is in fact debunking the reports that they are working on hacking the businessman’s tax returns:
WikiLeaks isn't 'working on' hacking Trump's tax-returns. Claim is a joke from a comedy show. We are 'working on' encouraging whistleblowers— WikiLeaks (@wikileaks) August 6, 2016
In another, they say cables they released reveal that Trump's campaign manager Paul Manafort was a secret US embassy source in Ukraine. There is little doubt, though, that the Clinton campaign has been the target of most resistance from Wikileaks.
However, they recently retweeted a comment from Greenwald that advises there's no need to repeatedly stress 'criticism of Clinton' is not equal to 'support for Trump':
Is it really necessary to spend next 6 months pointing out that "criticism of Clinton" ≠ "support for Trump"? Just get a different tactic.— Glenn Greenwald (@ggreenwald) April 29, 2016
Assange has indeed long been critical of both major US parties. In an essay on ‘Conspiracy as Governance’, he described the Republicans and Democrats as “two closely balanced and broadly conspiratorial power groupings."
In a paragraph that helps contextualise many of his actions over the last decade, he wrote: “To radically shift regime behavior we must think clearly and boldly, for if we have learned anything, it is that regimes do not want to be changed. We must think beyond those who have gone before us and discover technological changes that embolden us with ways to act in which our forebears could not.”
Acting against establishment structures has been a key component of the Wikileaks modus operandi since its inception, and the leaks targeting Hillary Clinton and the Democratic party very much fit those motivations.
He has also been characteristically blunt in his comments on the election. In a Democracy Now interview, he was asked about Trump, Clinton and their respective parties. He responded: “Well, you’re asking me, do I prefer cholera or gonorrhea?”
Wikileaks has very much re-established itself as a force to be reckoned with over the last few weeks. But it has also reignited the controversies and debates that have traditionally surrounded it, and even started a few new ones. And, if their promises are to believed, there could be a whole lot more to come.
Perhaps you believe Assange and Wikileaks are doing vital work challenging the establishment. Maybe you admire their intentions but question their methods. Or perhaps you just wish they'd go away. But it increasingly seems like they're here to stay, and it is almost inevitable that they will continue to infuriate, surprise and provoke - for better or worse.