Founder’s belief that regime change can be achieved through technology has now been demonstrated says Jim Rutenberg
He belongs in jail for “waging his war” against the US by exposing its secrets, the conservative Fox News host Sean Hannity has said of him. An “anti-American operative with blood on his hands,” Sarah Palin once called him.
Yet last week brought the sight of Hannity speaking with Assange in glowing terms about “what drives him to expose government and media corruption” through Clinton campaign hacks that US intelligence has attributed to Russia. And Palin hailed him as a great truth teller, even apologising for previous unpleasantries. (Cue sound of needle sliding across record album.)
OK, the fact that WikiLeaks’ election-year splash was bad for the Democrats and good for president-elect Donald Trump may have a teeny-weeny bit to do with their change of heart.
But what’s up with Assange, who seems equally comfortable being a hero of the American left as he is being one of the American right, or even of Russian Putinists? What does he want, anyway?
The answer has been in front of us all along. And the current imbroglio over Russia, WikiLeaks and its role in Trump’s victory – or, more to the point, Hillary Clinton’s loss – might be viewed as the realisation of the vision Assange had when he started WikiLeaks more than a decade ago.
Assange spelled it out in prescient terms in an essay he posted online in November 2006, the year of WikiLeaks’ founding.
He wrote it long before becoming the polarising figure he is today, a “cypherpunk” folk hero with an outsize reputation for being messianic, impetuous and all too cavalier with the personal data that come his way. (He is currently living in the Ecuadorean Embassy in London, where he was granted asylum from Swedish authorities investigating a rape accusation against him he says is false and politically motivated.)
Yet even his toughest critics acknowledge how clearly he saw the politically disruptive potential of technology, back when some of us were getting our first BlackBerries.
It is what prompted him to start WikiLeaks, which “pioneered something extremely important and very dangerous to large organisations that keep lots of secrets digitally,” as journalist Glenn Greenwald told me last week. From the start, Assange said WikiLeaks’ prime directive was to expose hidden data sets that “reveal illegal or immoral behaviour” in government and big business.
But in the essay he also wrote in more ambitious terms about forcing regime change through data and technology rather than through the old, barbaric means of assassination.
As Assange saw it, power was held by vast networks of conspirators who shared vital information in secret, giving them a superior understanding of reality that enabled them to hold on to power. The technology revolution, he wrote, was providing the conspirators with the means to achieve what he called an even “higher total conspiratorial power.”
But it was also making them more vulnerable to sabotage, so that a governing conspiracy could be “slowed until it falls, stupefied; unable to comprehend and control the forces in its environment”.
As an example, he pointed to “two closely balanced and broadly conspiratorial power groupings,” the Democratic and the Republican parties in the US.
“Consider what would happen if one of these parties gave up their mobile phones, fax and email correspondence – let alone the computer systems,” he wrote. “They would immediately fall into an organisational stupor and lose to the other.”
The essay got new attention when WikiLeaks, working in tandem with The Guardian, The New York Times and other outlets, released extensive diplomatic cables in 2010, making WikiLeaks more of a household name.
No-one seemed to grasp what Assange was hinting at more clearly than conservative writer John Sexton, who foresaw the events of 2016 in a post that was published on Breitbart News and his own blog in 2010.
“You can take his example further by imagining what would happen to, say, the DNC [Democratic National Committee] if it suffered a massive Wikileak of secret data,” Sexton wrote, referring to Assange’s essay. “It seems entirely possible that a leak of the contents of their email for one month would be exceedingly damaging to them.”
And here we are, over six years later. Assange’s essay has resurfaced yet again, after major data breaches of the email accounts of the DNC and Clinton adviser John Podesta, committed, allegedly, by Russian-sponsored hackers and fed to the world via WikiLeaks.
Political scientists will debate for years to come how decisive the leaks were in the election outcome. But the emails were undeniably in the mix of an election decided by fewer than 100,000 votes in three key swing states.
So, in the end, one political party was technologically compromised in a way the other wasn’t, and that party did indeed “lose to the other.” It’s a straight line from Assange’s initial essay.
But if WikiLeaks’ disclosures abetted Trump, how does that square with Assange’s goals to undercut “authoritarian conspirators” and create incentives for “more humane forms of governance”?
Trump was less transparent than Clinton during the campaign (we are still waiting for those tax returns), and he made a number of authoritarian-like statements (“lock her up!”) that were unique to modern American politics.
A WikiLeaks journalist, Sarah Harrison, recently wrote in The Times that WikiLeaks was a news organisation committed to disclosing vital information, not picking political sides.
Assange addressed the question differently in an interview last month with Italian journalist Stefania Maurizi of La Repubblica.
“Hillary Clinton’s election would have been a consolidation of power in the existing ruling class of the United States,” he said.
Trump and his allies, he said, “do not by themselves form an existing structure, so it is a weak structure which is displacing and destabilising the pre-existing central power network within DC.” That, he said, could herald change, good and bad.
© 2017 New York Times News Service