Published by The Lawfare Institute
in Cooperation With
Julian Assange’s arrest was a long time coming. After seven years hiding in Ecuador’s London embassy and a number of false alarms, the WikiLeaks founder was finally evicted from the building and passed to British law enforcement on April 11. Though journalists and commentators have long speculated that U.S. charges against Assange might stem from Assange’s role in coordinating the release of Democratic Party information hacked by the Russian government, the truth turned out to be very different: The United States unsealed an indictment charging Assange with conspiracy, dating back to his 2010 exchanges with Chelsea Manning that led to the release of 250,000 classified U.S. diplomatic cables.
Assange’s time in the Ecuadorian Embassy—where he hid in order to shield himself from what he argued was a politically motivated investigation by the Swedish government into alleged sexual assaults—coincided in its later years with a harsher public perception of WikiLeaks and its founder. Within the embassy, he seems to have become the world’s worst houseguest: Ecuador lost patience after he meddled with the embassy’s internet, skateboarded around the building and failed to abide by basic rules of personal hygiene. Outside it, his role in Russia’s election interference seemed to move WikiLeaks even further away from the initial idealism of the project’s self-image as an organization devoted to freedom and transparency.
The indictment and arrest created a natural opportunity to look back over the controversies that have long swirled around Assange. In the days after his arrest, I sat down to watch two documentaries on the WikiLeaks founder: “We Steal Secrets,” a 2013 film by Alex Gibney, and Laura Poitras’s 2017 “Risk.” Though the documentaries are very different, both are accounts of the filmmakers’ darkening view of Assange, who goes from a maverick hero to a much more difficult and complicated figure over both features’ running time. Poitras, in fact, recut her entire movie to show Assange in a harsher light following the 2016 election.
Poitras had the benefit of releasing her documentary after Assange’s involvement in Russia’s election interference was well-known, but in retrospect, Gibney’s increasing skepticism toward Assange foreshadowed a great deal of what was soon to come. Assange’s detractors have always been many, and even to his supporters, his public persona has long had an ugly tinge. But Assange’s story—especially in the years since 2016—is to a large extent the story of the ugliness subsuming the whole. It is also, not coincidentally, the story of how the utopian promise of the internet turned into something much bleaker and more frightening. The idea that the free flow of data could save the world now seems hopelessly naive in the face of concerns over the spread of disinformation.
It would be giving Assange far too much credit to identify him as the sole driver of this shift. The uglier aspects of his personality and work were always there, but they were easier to ignore in a world with more optimism and less trepidation about the internet. Yet through his role as a conduit for release of information hacked by the Russian government, Assange may have inadvertently contributed to the turn in public opinion away from that optimism.
When “We Steal Secrets” was first released, Assange denounced it as “erroneously” implying that “Assange may be guilty of ‘conspiring’ with [Chelsea] Manning”—an allegation that turns out to have been the substance of the indictment against him. At the movie’s beginning, Gibney seems cautiously sympathetic to Assange’s view of the world and his vision for WikiLeaks: “[W]e help to get the truth out,” Assange says in an early clip. “We want to enable information to go out to the public that has the greatest chance of achieving positive political reform in the world.” Later, the British journalist James Ball, who briefly worked for WikiLeaks, explains to Gibney:
The internet in the digital era lets governments get more information and more power and more communication than they ever have before. But it lets citizens do the same. Governments are more powerful and more vulnerable at exactly the same time. The fight on our hands is who gets to control the internet, who gets to control information?
Six years later, this is a familiar argument—even a commonplace one. But from the vantage point of 2019, it’s a reminder of how revolutionary the internet was. Gibney situates WikiLeaks as an outgrowth of the techno-utopianism of early hacker culture, hopeful that the internet would allow individuals to erase state borders and for the first time have a fighting chance of rising up against the perceived injustices of their governments. The 2010 release of classified State Department cables by WikiLeaks was, Gibney suggests, this ideology in action: He describes the cables as “fuel[ing] exploding popular anger against repression” and contributing to the Arab Spring, while also revealing the “fraud” and corruption of U.S. relationships around the world.
“WikiLeaks may become the most powerful intelligence agency on earth,” Gibney quotes Assange as saying, “an intelligence agency of the people.” Assange seems to have liked this line. In a 2010 exchange with Manning, he wrote:
WikiLeaks described itself as the first intelligence agency of the people. Better principled and less parochial than any government intelligence agency, it is able to be more accurate and relevant. It has no commercial or national interests at heart; its only interest is the revelation of the truth. Unlike the covert activities of state intelligence agencies, WikiLeaks relies on the power of overt fact to enable and empower citizens to bring feared and corrupted governments, and corporations to justice.
Where things start to go wrong, from Gibney’s perspective, is with Assange’s unwillingness to grapple with the downsides of total transparency. In one of the film’s most disturbing moments, Nick Davies—who worked with Assange in his capacity as a reporter at The Guardian—describes Assange’s cavalier response to journalists’ concerns that releasing certain information could endanger the lives of Afghan civilians who had provided information to coalition forces. Assange, Davies tells Gibney, “said if an Afghan civilian helps coalition forces he deserves to die.” Other releases by WikiLeaks produced similar concerns.
Gibney also seems disturbed by Assange’s hostile approach to the women accusing him of sexual assault in Sweden and his insistence on conflating the Swedish investigation into him personally with what Assange sees as the political persecution of WikiLeaks as a whole. Gibney dwells at length on Assange’s treatment of Manning, who comes off as a lonely and deeply vulnerable person in need of much more than Assange deigned to give her. After President Obama commuted Manning’s sentence in January 2017, Assange suggested that the president had done so in order to “make life hard” for him.
There are hints throughout the film that Assange may be more similar than he would like to admit to the government agencies he despises. “We Steal Secrets,” which on first read seems to describe WikiLeaks, is actually a quote from former National Security Agency and CIA director Michael Hayden describing the work of the intelligence community. Assange, for all his insistence on transparency, is unwilling to share information about his and WikiLeaks’ activities. The year after Gibney released the film, Andrew O’Hagan—who ghostwrote Assange’s autobiography, which was later released over its subject’s objections—published an essay describing the WikiLeaks founder as glorying in “spy-talk” and “Cold War tropes.” Assange, in O’Hagan’s telling, “borrowed techniques from the spymasters he purports to find criminal,” recording those around him in search of evidence of “duplicity.” And in “Risk,” Poitras muses, “Julian runs the organization like an intelligence agency, using code names, denial and deception, compartmentalization.”
Poitras’s film is more intimate than Gibney’s, both in terms of her close access to Assange—who did not participate in “We Steal Secrets”—and in how “Risk” lays bare Assange’s distasteful personal behavior. It also situates that behavior, particularly Assange’s sexual misconduct, within a broader pattern of mistreatment of women in the hacker and activist communities of which Assange is a part. The activists building the new world, it turned out, were weighted down by the pathologies of the old one.
What makes the film complicated is that Poitras is a part of that community, too. She is best known for her involvement in the Snowden revelations and her film “Citizenfour,” chronicling her time with Edward Snowden, Glenn Greenwald and Guardian reporter Ewen MacAskill in Snowden’s Hong Kong hotel room. Both before and after she made “Citizenfour,” she was filming the material that would eventually become “Risk.”
By Poitras’s own admission, “Risk” is a different, more frustrating movie than the one she set out to make. A completed version of the documentary, which the Los Angeles Times describes as an “up-close, lionizing portrait of Assange,” screened at Cannes in 2016. But you can’t watch that documentary anywhere, because Poitras recut the entire film after 2016 into something much “tougher,” in her own words, and less flattering of Assange. (She has said that WikiLeaks’s involvement in the 2016 election was not the deciding factor.) The new cut is interspersed with voiceovers from Poitras reading from her production journal, expressing her doubts about who Assange is and what he is doing.
“I thought I could ignore the contradictions,” Poitras says at one point. “I thought they were not part of the story. I was wrong. They’re becoming the story.”
Assange’s contempt for women, an undercurrent in “We Steal Secrets,” is unavoidable here. In a bizarre exchange with Helena Kennedy, a British barrister trying to coach Assange through dealing with the assault allegations against him, Assange declares that he is being targeted by a “radical feminist conspiracy” and suggests that if the case goes to court, the women involved “will be reviled forever by a large segment of the world population.” (In a 2017 New Yorker profile, writer Raffi Khatchadourian quotes Assange similarly describing the Swedish legal system as plagued by “crazed radical feminist ideology.”)
This is a thread that runs throughout the film. Poitras shows the technologist and Tor developer Jacob Appelbaum berating Egyptian internet service providers for censorship during the Arab Spring. But Appelbaum, as she notes in the film, was forced to quit his work at the Tor Project after numerous allegations of sexual harassment and assault surfaced against him. (Poitras was also involved romantically at one point with Appelbaum, and she identifies a friend among those whom he allegedly assaulted.) She shows other technologists and privacy activists struggling with how to respond to the allegations against Appelbaum.
One way to read the film is as Poitras’s effort to come to terms with the uglier side of this community of technologists and internet activists, no longer a utopia. She includes earlier footage of Appelbaum briefing a group of activists on cybersecurity: In an uncomfortable moment, he compares shoring up security gaps to preventing a condom from breaking. One of the women who accused Assange of assault told Swedish police that, after he forced her into sex, he had purposefully torn a condom when she had insisted he wear one.
Online, Assange routinely dabbles in language dismissive of women. In October 2017, he tweeted a suggestion that men accused of sexual assault were comparable to lynching victims and described “self-proclaiming male ‘feminists’” as “sex traitors.” In leaked private chats on Twitter, he made a crude joke about WikiLeaks committing a sex act on Hillary Clinton. As Raffi Khatchadourian writes, “[o]nly Assange knows whether sexism informed his dislike” of Clinton, but it was striking to watch his ceaseless attacks on her during a presidential campaign punctuated by chants of “Lock Her Up!”
Recently, he suggested that Trump won the presidency because of “millions of young men, stripped of romance ... vent[ing] their disappointment via memetic warfare against an avowedly feminist candidate.” This is an idiom familiar to anyone who has spent time in the recesses of the internet. The idea that young men turn toward both the internet and far-right politics to vent sexual frustration is a mainstay of online communities of “incels,” short for “involuntarily celibate”—men who believe they are owed sex and hate women for denying it to them. Ten people died in Toronto in April 2018 after a man who identified himself as an incel drove a van into a crowd of pedestrians. The driver cited a manifesto written by Elliot Rodger, who killed six people in 2014 after uploading a manifesto that quickly became a bible for other incels.
None of this, of course, is Assange’s fault. But it is striking that he dabbles in the same language as the incels. He’s toyed with other tropes familiar to the far-right internet, including a July 2016 tweet from the WikiLeaks account reading, “Most of our critics have 3 (((brackets around their names))) & have black-rim glasses”—a reference to the triple brackets that many Jewish Twitter users had incorporated into their names to push back against anti-Semitic harassment. That triple-bracket meme was one of the earlier instances of a new far-right extremism, festering in the corners of the internet and nurtured by the bile of the 2016 presidential campaign, spilling over into the public eye. Assange soon deleted the tweet, claiming to have done so because it was “intentionally miscomprehended by pro-Clinton hacks and by Neo-Nazis.”
The problem of distasteful behavior and political views online and in communities tied closely to the internet is far from new. But it has received far more attention and alarm in the wake of the 2016 election. The efficiency of disinformation spread across platforms over the course of the 2016 election and the blurring distinction between hateful rhetoric nurtured online and actual violence—all this has increased recognition of the power of the internet, though perhaps not in the way the early internet evangelists would have hoped. The free flow of information and the ability to connect with like-minded people and explore ideas can be ugly and harmful as well as liberating. And while extremist movements often incorporate some desire to control women, misogyny is a particularly weighty presence among newer forms of extremism cultivated online. “It’s all kind of out in the open now in a way that it wasn’t before,” the terrorism researcher J.M. Berger told me. “A lot of newer extremist adherents are wearing their hostility [to women] on their sleeves.”
In 2010, Paypal and other financial services stopped processing donations to WikiLeaks’s website—a decision Assange describes as “arbitrary and unlawful,” though the blockade was never entirely successful. James Ball criticizes the ban in “We Steal Secrets,” telling Gibney, “Visa and MasterCard will happily process payments for the Ku Klux Klan.” But nine years later, payment-processing services ban objectionable websites from their platforms all the time—in fact, customers will often complain if they don’t. Paypal and Stripe, for example, banned donations to the alt-right social networking site Gab after Robert Bowers murdered 11 people at a Pittsburgh synagogue in October 2018 after continuously posting anti-Semitic content to the website. The ban on Gab was a microcosm of the broader cultural shift toward greater involvement by technology companies in moderating the content that appears on their services, which is taking place as platforms grapple with the use of their services to spread harassment, violence and disinformation.
The more common demand is now for more curation and moderation—what Assange would call censorship—not less. (Assange curates as well; a 2012 document release reportedly excluded material relating to a bank transfer between the Syrian government and a Russian-owned bank, and according to Foreign Policy, in the summer of 2016 WikiLeaks turned down an offer of documents containing information on the workings of the Russian government.) The free flow of information, it turns out, can do a great deal of damage to things other than governments—particularly if it is selective in its freedom. It can help cultivate extremism. It can spread disinformation. What Assange offers is not so enticing anymore. Despite the controversy over what indicting Assange means for a free press, his detractors within the U.S. government might reasonably argue that public opinion on WikiLeaks has caught up to their skepticism.
The internet, at least in theory, at first appeared to complicate older notions of sovereignty. This was Assange’s “intelligence agency for the people,” using the internet to reorganize the relationship between government and citizen. The irony is that the intelligence agency for the people was employed by the Russian intelligence apparatus and subsumed into a traditional conflict between two Westphalian states. The internet’s initial promise of democratization succeeded in lessening the authority of the traditional gatekeepers, but the dynamics of power were never entirely flattened.
Near the end of “Risk,” Poitras asks Assange what is motivating him. From context, it seems that she’s asking after the leaks of Russian-hacked information in the summer of 2016, though it’s not entirely clear. “I don’t think I had a choice, really,” Assange tells her. “I was in a lucky position that—the new thing, that element which is really causing the world to globalize, that element which is producing most the changes we see—including the bad ones—I was an expert in.”
Poitras is unsatisfied. She says: “But isn’t it also something about power?”