The Radical Evolution of WikiLeaks

While the revelation of an apparent indictment against Julian Assange sets an ominous precedent for news organizations, it also serves as a reminder of his group’s stark transformation.

Via video conference, Julian Assange addresses supporters of the Catalonian independence referendum in 2017.
Via video conference, Julian Assange addresses supporters of the Catalonian independence referendum in 2017. (Jon Nazca / Reuters)

Before the WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange was an international fugitive, he was running a little-noticed experiment in radical transparency. In the early 2000s, his then-obscure site WikiLeaks was mainly concerned with posting small batches of previously private documents ranging from Swiss bank documents to Sarah Palin’s emails.

Then, in 2010, WikiLeaks posted a graphic video depicting the killing of perhaps a dozen Iraqis, including two Reuters journalists, at the hands of the U.S. military. The video brought the organization acclaim from civil libertarians and transparency advocates, and infamy within the U.S. military and elsewhere. Soon after its release, WikiLeaks posted its largest-ever cache of leaked material: a set of diplomatic cables and Army documents, many of which concerned the conduct of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. If WikiLeaks began as a mere internet curiosity when it was founded in 2006, within four years, national-security officials in the United States were publicly depicting it as a threat.

Now it looks as if the U.S. government is preparing its most direct action yet against Assange. On Thursday, an unrelated court filing referred to secret charges against Assange for unspecified crimes. Assange, who has been living in London’s Ecuadorian embassy since 2012 to avoid extradition to Sweden in connection with an unrelated, now-dropped investigation of rape allegations, had long voiced the fear that the U.S. would seek to charge and possibly extradite him if he ever left the compound.

The revelation put a new twist on the saga of an organization that, after becoming famous in 2010, became notorious in 2016 for its role in publishing hacked emails that were apparently obtained by Russian intelligence in an effort to sway the U.S. presidential election. Today the WikiLeaks story isn’t just about the line between transparency and security, but about the question of when the mere act of releasing information becomes information warfare.

The video of the killings of the Iraqis, dubbed the Collateral Murder video, appeared on the WikiLeaks site in the spring of 2010. It records, through a helicopter’s gun-sights, the moment in 2007 when the crew fired on a group of Iraqi men walking down a street in a Baghdad suburb, killing perhaps a dozen people—including two Reuters journalists whose camera gear they had mistaken for weapons.

In the uproar that followed the video’s release, the military said that it had investigated the incident in 2007 and found the killings to be unintentional. It faulted WikiLeaks for its packaging: Its editing of the footage left out the fighting occurring in the same neighborhood that day, making it seem as if the killings came out of nowhere; the Iraqi men appearing in the video are not engaged in any kind of violence, and appear to be casually strolling down the street. And still it was true that the U.S. military had killed journalists and had initially, and falsely, characterized their killing as a consequence of ongoing hostile action.

In retrospect, the moment suggested that WikiLeaks was changing. “WikiLeaks used to seem a lot simpler,” said Clint Hendler, a senior editor at Mother Jones who reported extensively on WikiLeaks in its early days for Columbia Journalism Review. “It used to seem to … be something pretty close to what its outward rhetoric was”—that is, a mere clearinghouse for secret documents.

The leaks of diplomatic cables and Army documents about the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan followed later that year, cementing WikiLeaks’ place in U.S. history as the conduit for what was then the country’s largest-ever leak of classified information.

The tension between national security and the public’s right to know was a familiar one dating back well before the famous Pentagon Papers case of the 1970s, when a leaker made public a cache of documents about the U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War. But new technology, and with it new capabilities to steal vast troves of information at once, brought new complexity to a debate that remains unsettled.

The legal question is no less difficult. The same year that WikiLeaks published the video, a confidant of the leaker, Chelsea Manning, turned her over to authorities; she would serve seven years in prison for providing it, along with the cables and Army documents. The Obama administration and, now, the Trump administration have aggressively prosecuted leakers, even as journalists and others warn of the ramifications for their ability to report on matters of public interest.

In the meantime, though, WikiLeaks has been accused of turning into something much worse than a mere purveyor of information, however uncomfortable—or even, some would argue, dangerous—for its subjects. For WikiLeaks’ role in releasing hacked emails stolen by Russian intelligence from the Democratic National Committee, then–CIA Director Mike Pompeo in 2017 declared it to be the agent of a “hostile intelligence service.”

In that case, too, it appeared that many of the documents released were authentic chronicles of real disputes within the DNC about the conduct of the 2016 primary contest between Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton. Yet even true information can paint a distorted picture: The publication of a large volume of information detrimental to Clinton and not to Trump seemed to align with what the intelligence community identified as Russia’s intent to help Trump win.

Over the years, the common thread connecting WikiLeaks’ biggest stories, from Collateral Murder to the DNC leaks, is that even what’s billed as anodyne “transparency” is seldom neutral. The choice to publish anything of consequence will always have political effects. And mere “information” may be something less than the truth if it comes without context about who is wielding that information and to what end. Even a massive document dump never quite tells the full story.

It remains unclear whether the purported charges against Assange pertain to the cables’ release or to WikiLeaks’ role, witting or not, in Russian election meddling. But Hendler says that absent clear information about contacts Assange may have knowingly had with Russian intelligence, his organization is still fundamentally engaged in acts of publishing.

From the perspective of news organizations, treating that activity as a crime would set a frightening precedent.