You Don’t Have to Like Julian Assange to Defend Him

The effort to extradite and prosecute the WikiLeaks founder threatens the free media.

A person demonstrates in front of Ecuador's embassy in London, where Julian Assange was staying until his arrest.
A person demonstrates in front of Ecuador's embassy in London, where Julian Assange was staying until his arrest. (Alkis Konstantinidis / Reuters)

LONDON—You do not have to spend a long time in a room with Julian Assange to realize that he will be difficult. It takes a little longer, though, to realize just how difficult dealing with him can be. This was the lesson I learned in 2010, working first with Assange, and then for him at WikiLeaks, as we published tranche after tranche of bombshell material, leaked by Chelsea Manning.

That was the year Assange—and the whistle-blowing website he runs—came to the world’s attention. First it published the dynamite “Collateral Murder” video, showing an attack on a group of people, including two Reuters journalists, by American military helicopters in Iraq.

Though few knew it at the time, this was the first in a series of ever larger and more dramatic leaks of classified documents, shedding unprecedented light on how the United States conducted its wars, its diplomacy, and its detentions: the Afghan and Iraq War logs, the American diplomatic cables, and the Guantánamo Bay files. These were published in partnership with some of the world’s biggest news outlets, including The New York Times, The Guardian, and Le Monde. These organizations quickly learned Assange was not the kind of person they were used to dealing with.

On a personal level, the editors and reporters did not warm to him. He would turn up in their newsrooms wearing a stab vest and no shirt, tell lewd jokes, and make high-handed demands. They complained—sometimes in public. Yet these irritants were the least of their problems: News outlets quickly ran into serious ideological issues with Assange, primarily over the handling of material and how it would be redacted.

As an organization that believed in radical transparency, WikiLeaks wanted all the material in the public domain. Journalists, meanwhile, wanted to redact information from the reports that could put people named in them, most of whom had done nothing wrong, at risk. The clashes became bitter, but having handed over the material already, Assange was chained to what came to feel like a doomed marriage with his publishing partners.

This barely scratches the surface of the difficult relationships Assange has had with those he’s worked with. The real problems ran far deeper. As it rose in prominence thanks to the array of leaked documents, WikiLeaks internally had all but fallen apart. The six people who had done most of the work running the website had a major difference of opinion. It is telling that Assange, the sole holdout against what he saw as insubordination, was the one who stayed. That left WikiLeaks as a virtual one-man band, forced to bring in new acolytes largely in their early 20s (of which I was one) to run the show, a comically inexperienced team for a story that could not have been more complex.

All of which came before the most obvious of the impediments to working with Assange: In late 2010, he was arrested on allegations of sexual assault and rape—accusations he angrily denied, and which his supporters claimed were deep-state smears. Those working with, and for, him were now faced with trying to advance a story and a cause they believed in that were inextricably entwined with a man accused of serious sexual crimes.

As if all of that wasn’t enough, one of Assange’s close associates, introduced to me and other colleagues and associates as “Adam,” turned out in reality to be Israel Shamir, a pro-Putin anti-Semite who was photographed leaving the interior ministry of Belarus just days after being given 100,000 U.S. diplomatic cables. In a world that likes its morality to be black and white, that likes its heroes and villains to be distinct and discernible, Assange in 2010 gave no one what they wanted. He was both a confirmed annoyance and a possible criminal, but also a man who had enabled a new kind of journalistic collaboration and transparency, revealing previously unknown stories of the U.S. at war.

On the surface, Assange has since made himself easier to categorize. Despite his protestations that he was fleeing U.S. prosecution by taking sanctuary in the Ecuadorian embassy in London, the case he was facing at the time came from Sweden, in connection to the rape and sexual-assault allegation against him. Having exhausted every legal avenue against extradition, Assange used the asylum process to evade arrest, denying two women their day in court. One case has been dropped. The other is unlikely to get going, as the U.S., which has filed charges of conspiracy to commit computer intrusion, has taken precedence in extradition.

Not only did Assange evade the justice system that way, but per indictments filed by Robert Mueller’s team, WikiLeaks served as a cutout for Russian intelligence efforts to disrupt the 2016 U.S. presidential election, via its publication of hacked emails from the Democratic National Committee. Coupled with the revelation of Twitter correspondence between WikiLeaks and Donald Trump Jr., Assange’s estrangement from his onetime liberal base seems complete.

Indeed, on almost every level—personal, professional, and ideological—Assange has found himself with few longtime associates, and with plenty of people holding him in contempt.

So, then, the easy option is to shrug off his new arrest and the extradition effort that will follow it. Authorities on both sides of the Atlantic are clearly hoping few will rally to support him. By filing computer-misuse charges rather than relying on the Espionage Act, prosecutors are apparently trying to hive off free-speech and free-media concerns.

That effort should not be allowed to succeed. The charges leveled against Assange stem from the 2010 Manning leaks, which were judged to have been in the public interest by some of the world’s most significant and thoughtful news publishers, who ran some of the revelations in their pages. That material was received from a source who acted in what she perceived to be the public interest, and was not motivated by malice or personal gain.

The combination of an ideologically (rather than financially) motivated whistle-blower with firsthand knowledge of the material alongside the editorial judgment of major outlets forms the bedrock of public-interest journalism. Any attempt to swing the needle against that, or to criminalize it by tying it to hacking on a technicality, threatens quality journalism and threatens the free media. More simply than that, while Julian Assange might deserve punishment for other things he is accused of having done in his life, he does not deserve to be punished for what he published in 2010. Barring some new and major revelation, neither extradition nor prosecution over his work with WikiLeaks is merited.

Assange might be an asshole. Scratch that; Assange is an asshole. But we’re going to have to stand up for him anyway.