What Julian Assange has left behind


WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange is now a free man in his native Australia, after a deal with the US saw him plead guilty to one charge of seeking to obtain and disclose classified material.

So now that his 14-year saga is coming to an end, we figured it’s time to reflect on what Assange and his mostly defunct WikiLeaks have left behind. The truth is it’s complex, and we’re a teeeensy bit wary of anyone who claims otherwise.

  1. The US

Assange started out publishing all kinds of secrets from Somalia, Kenya, Peru, a Swiss bank, Tibet, and beyond. But his 2010 decision to start disclosing hundreds of thousands of classified US files put him on a collision course with Washington.

The revelations ranged from the mundane to the damning (the infamous ‘Collateral Murder’ video), and changed the way many Americans saw their own government and its role abroad. They also raised some tough political and legal questions in the US:

  • Politically, Assange has found favour both among parts of the left (sceptical of US power abroad) and parts of the right (sceptical of US power at home), and
  • Legally, he’s found favour among journalists and free speech advocates alike who see Assange as one of them.
  1. Russia

The role of Wikileaks has also evolved over the years, as has its ties with Russia:

  • Assange briefly hosted a talk show on Russian state TV in 2012
  • He’s published US files that were first hacked by Russian intelligence
  • Russian intelligence also rehearsed exfiltrating him from London, and
  • Wikileaks has reportedly declined to publish revelations against Russia, though it did so in 2017 (with info that was largely already public).

Assange’s supporters say points like the above are attempts to discredit him, and Assange himself has suggested Wikileaks had a limited role in Russia due to its lack of Russian speakers, plus the existing work of people like Alexei Navalny. But of course, the Russian opposition figure is now dead.

  1. Australia

While Canberra has mostly avoided the Wiki-spray, Assange has still had an impact back home in some similar ways to the US politico-legal dynamic above (Australia’s conservatives tend to back the US alliance with a tad more gusto).

And after years of struggling to draw attention to his son’s case, Assange’s father eventually got a meeting with his local member of parliament, who ended up becoming prime minister. Without weighing into the legal merits of the case, that prime minister (Anthony Albanese) has long called for the case’s conclusion, reflecting a similar – if mixed – evolution in Australian public opinion.

So now that this case has wrapped, Assange’s plea deal has:

  • Removed an irritant between Australia and its allies, and
  • Eroded a common talking point that authoritarians have long used when democracies advocate for political prisoners abroad (“if you care about rights, why are you persecuting Assange?”)
  1. And beyond

We’ve barely scratched the surface here, but Assange’s revelations are also credited with helping spark the Arab Spring, shining a light on oil corruption in Nigeria, and exposing a multinational’s dumping of chemicals in the Ivory Coast.

But a lingering debate has always been whether Assange caused undue personal harm along the way. The US judge yesterday noted her understanding that “the dissemination of this information did not result in any known physical injury“.

But we can think of a few folks who’ll have views: like the Saudis who Wikileaks seemingly outed as gay; the hundreds in Afghanistan outed as anti-Taliban; Assange’s two female accusers in Sweden who never got their day in court; the pro-democracy leader from Belarus who blames Wikileaks for his jailing. And so on.

So the man – like his legacy – is complicated. But we’ll leave you to make up your own mind whether he’s a hero or a villain (and we’d love to hear in today’s poll).

INTRIGUE’S TAKE

If you’ve been reading Intrigue for a while, here are two things. First, thanks! And second, you’ll know by now that:

  • We’re not too interested in left or right, though we’ve dealt with both types of governments in our former careers, and
  • We’re neither journalists nor spooks, though we are ex-diplomats who now write a daily briefing for ~100,000 fine people.

The result is that we tend to see the world less in shades of red or blue, and more in shades of grey and awesome. That’s why we founded Intrigue. So here are some suitably grey closing thoughts:

  • The ongoing saga (regardless of Assange’s own role in dragging it out) was starting to do more damage than good for any US interests
  • Diplomats need to be able to have chats with sources without fearing that some computer whiz will later blast them out across the internet
  • Several Wikileaks revelations have served the public interest, though others have served the interests of authoritarians like Putin who care little for the values Assange says he cherishes, and
  • Democracies need to be able to keep secrets, though Assange’s leaks have shown we’re over-classifying some stuff, under-protecting other stuff, and sometimes using classification to avoid valid scrutiny.

Also worth noting:

  • The US soldier who leaked almost 750,000 documents to Wikileaks was pardoned in 2017 after serving seven years of a 35-year sentence.
  • After landing in Australia overnight, Assange told the Australian prime minister, “you saved my life”.
  • On the same day Assange returned home, a Russian court commenced the espionage trial of Wall Street Journal (WSJ) reporter, Evan Gershkovich. Evan, the WSJ, and the US reject the charges.
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