New York, Once hailed by the left as the champion of transparency and reviled by the right as a leaker of state secrets, Julian Assange is now trapped between them having played a role in the rise of a right-wing president and in the spread of hidden information embarrassing to the progressives.
As the founder of WikiLeaks, Assange, was among the first to demonstrate the tremendous power of the Internet and digital technology to pierce the secrecy of governments and impact politics and society.
The media fed off WikiLeaks data dump that he facilitated, even as it stayed a hands breadth away from legal complicity in obtaining the classified information for which others – and now Assange – paid the price.
Assange straddled the worlds of cyber activism and journalism as WikiLeaks is viewed as a media platform of which he had been the publisher.
Now the media is torn by his arrest, whether to defend him or to walk away, also has to calculate the impact on the profession.
Democratic Party Representative Tulsi Gabbard tweeted: “The arrest of Julian Assange is meant to send a message to all Americans and journalists: be quiet, behave, toe the line. Or you will pay the price.”
A writer in the Columbia Journalism Review warned: “Going forward, journalists will need to be vigilant. Assange’s case is specific, but the way the Justice Department responds to his arrest could have serious implications for all of us.”
The American Civil Liberties Union also highlighted the threat to journalists. One of its project directors, Ben Wizner, said: “Any prosecution by the US of Assange for WikiLeaks’ publishing operations would be unprecedented and unconstitutional, and would open the door to criminal investigations of other news organisations.”
So far, the US government has not charged him with espionage or aiding the enemy, which could directly involve the journalistic aspects of the leaks. He was charged in a federal court near Washington with only “conspiracy to commit computer intrusion” for allegedly helping the former Army intelligence analyst Chelsea Elizabeth Manning crack passwords to ultra-secret computer networks that she used to get the information for him.
WikiLeaks and Assange became central to the allegations of Russian interference in the 2016 US elections and collusion with President Donald Trump that have dominated American politics since then.
Special Counsel Robert Mueller, who investigated the allegations, found that Russia had meddled in the polls through the leak of embarrassing material about the Democratic Party and Hillary Clinton, but he has absolved Trump of involvement.
This makes Assange less of a sympathetic character to the progressives and Democrats – and the media – because of Clinton’s defeat.
Assange had first earned the wrath of the conservatives and the type of people forming Trump’s base because of the government secrets he got from Manning, before she underwent sex-change and was then known as Bradley, in 2010. Of the more than 750,000 documents and other material she gave Assange in 2010, the most damaging to the US were videos of military action in Iraq involving civilians.
The Australian computer geek-turned-activist, Assange, shared them with media organisations producing hundreds of investigative stories around the world, not only on military affairs, but also diplomatic operations and internal political and economic affairs of many countries including India. These made enemies for him around the world.
But the trove of emails and documents purloined from Democratic party officials showing a bias in the party’s leadership against Bernie Sanders, the leftist challenging Clinton, marked a turn of events. The disclosures led to the resignation of Democratic National Committee Chair Debbie Wasserman Schultz and other officials.
The upheaval that followed and the disenchantment of Sanders supporters is blamed for Clinton’s defeat by President Donald Trump.
The Moscow’s had was seen behind the leaks making Russia central to her defeat in the eyes of her supporters and Special Counsel Robert Mueller was appointed to investigate if Trump had colluded with Russians.
Although Assange denied he got them from the Russians, Mueller charged Russian hackers known as Guccifer 2.0 with the hack.
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo exemplifies the dichotomy about Assange. On Thursday, he said about his arrest: “I don’t have anything to say. There’s a legal proceeding now.”
But as the Central Intelligence Agency director in 2017, he called WikiLeaks “a non-state hostile intelligence service often abetted by state actors like Russia”. He added that US intelligence had determined that the Russian military intelligence agency GRU had used WikiLeaks to release information it had gotten through hacks against the Democratic National Committee.
The WikiLeaks disclosures about India, mostly from US diplomatic cables going back several years, included material about contacts between politicians, public figures, journalists and civil society contacts with diplomats as well American diplomats’ views of Indian developments right down to the microlevel of happenings in states.
Assange’s accomplice in the court filings in the US, Manning was court martialed on 22 charges including aiding the enemy and was sentenced in 2013 to 35 years in a military prison. However, former President Barack Obama commuted to seven years before he left office and freed how.
But she is back in prison after a judge last month ordered her held indefinitely for refusing to testify before a court panel, known as a grand jury, investigating Assange and WikiLeaks.
Now in British custody, Assange like other fugitives such as Nirav Modi and Vijay Mallya, will try to fight the extradition to the US or Sweden using the British judicial system.
Trump, meanwhile, has refused to be drawn into a discussion of his arrest or role. “I don’t really have an opinion. The Attorney General will be involved in that and he will make a decision,” he said.