Modern field guide to security and privacy

Is Julian Assange becoming a folk hero for Trump supporters?

As WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange casts doubt on US claims about Russian hacking, many conservatives have warmed up to the antisecrecy site that Republicans once criticized.

Peter Nicholls/Reuters/File
WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange spoke from the balcony of the Ecuadorian Embassy in London on Feb. 5.

On the heels of a declassified US intelligence report alleging Russia exploited WikiLeaks to damage Hillary Clinton's presidential bid, founder of the antisecrecy site Julian Assange has rebuffed US intelligence agencies findings as highly "speculative" and containing "literally zero" evidence. 

Mr. Assange has also remained steadfast in denying one of the key findings in the intelligence briefing: Russia supplied the hacked Democratic National Committee (DNC) documents and emails from John Podesta, Mrs. Clinton's former campaign chairman, that his site published. It wasn't Moscow, or any of its proxies, Assange said this week.

Regardless of the source, the exposed documents had a profound impact. They rattled and embarrassed the Clinton camp and the Democratic establishment throughout the election, leading to resignations of top party leaders. 

In an interview with Fox News, Assange suggested "a 14-year-old kid could have hacked Podesta," mocking him and the party for lax digital security. President-elect Donald Trump echoed those and Assange's other assertions on Twitter:

Trump and Assange are indeed unlikely allies in the chorus of critics casting doubt on the Obama administration's allegations that Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered the election hack. Over the past decade, conservatives regularly excoriated Assange as a criminal and his WikiLeaks site as a terrorist operation.

The site gained notoriety for publishing leaks from former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden, scores of classified military documents from former US Army soldier Chelsea Elizabeth Manning, and leaked State Department documents. At one point, Sarah Palin called Assange "an anti-American operative with blood on his hands." Recently, however, she apologized to Assange. 

Newt Gingrich, who in 2010 described Assange as a terrorist engaged in information warfare, last week complimented him as a "down to Earth, straight forward interviewee," referring to a Fox News interview with Sean Hannity. And Mr. Hannity once denigrated Assange for harming national security and foreign relations: "Five months ago, 75,000 documents were released, including the names of 100 Afghans that are helping us privately identify Taliban leaders, so all their lives have been put in jeopardy."

Trump did recently distanced himself from Assange.

But the general backing for Assange's views and tactics is also translating into more support for WikiLeaks among conservatives in general. 

A poll by YouGov indicates Republicans feel a lot more warmly about Assange’s operation now, with Wikileaks rating a +27 favorability score among the GOP versus a -28 ranking among Democrats. In June 2013, after the Snowden leaks, the popularity of the site among Republicans was -47.

That dramatic shift in support could give Assange a new and unlikely constituency for his vision of radical transparency: US conservatives. 

"Considering how Donald Trump spoke approvingly of the group's actions during the election and WikiLeaks' negative revelations about the Clinton operation, it's not hard to see why Republicans have changed their tune," says Geoffrey Skelley, a political analyst at the University of Virginia Center for Politics. "As for how this is playing with the military and intelligence community, I don’t have much to say about that except I guess it's probably playing very poorly."

Assange launched Wikileaks in 2007 with a mission to expose oppressive regimes in the former Soviet bloc, Asia, and the Middle East, as well as unethical behavior in western governments and corporations. In 2010, when Clinton served under President Obama, WikiLeaks exposed a tranche of sensitive diplomatic cables that contained private State Department gossip about foreign leaders, as well as the identities of informants.

Some of the more significant releases, for example, include a video showing the killing of civilians by a US Army Apache helicopter in Baghdad. In 2011, WikiLeaks published diplomatic cables that disputed the US Army's claim that a 2006 airstrike killed 10 Iraqi civilians. Instead, the cables provided evidence that US troops executed the civilians. Then Salon columnist Glenn Greenwald wrote in 2011 that the documents "likely played some significant role in thwarting an agreement" to keep US troops in Iraq.

Mr. Greenwald would go on to work with other journalists and civil liberties activists to coordinate the release of the Snowden documents, one the most significant leaks of classified US documents that led to surveillance reforms. 

Now, as Assange gains credibility among Trump supporters, Obama administration officials and many Washington lawmakers have stepped up their rhetoric against Assange and WikiLeaks.

Armed Services Committee Chairman Sen. John McCain (R) of Arizona cited the WikiLeaks founder's reputation as a US adversary during a Senate hearing last week on US allegations of Russian hacking.

"The name Mr. Assange has popped up and I believe that he is one who is responsible for publishing names of individuals that work for us that put their lives in direct danger," he said, before eliciting confirmation from Director of National Intelligence James Clapper.

"He's holed up in the Ecuadorian Embassy in London. Because he's under indictment, I believe by the Swedish government for sexual crime," Mr. Clapper testified about Assange. "I don't think those of us in the US intelligence community have a whole lot of respect for him."

Swedish authorities are engaged in an ongoing effort to extradite Assange from London on charges that he raped two women.  

On Tuesday, via the online discussion board Reddit, members of the site were able to ask Assange questions that he later answered live on the internet. Assange continued to poke holes in the US intelligence report on Russian hacking that he equated to a press release designed for political effect that was absent of the structure of an authentic intelligence report.

Previously, Assange said, the US intelligence community appears to be at a loss regarding how WikiLeaks operates and where and when it obtained the hacked Democratic documents. "There seems to be a great fog in the connection to WikiLeaks," he said.

But despite his insistence that Russia didn't pass documents to WikiLeaks, a careful read of Assange's past public statements seems to show he has allowed room for the possibility an intermediary delivered stolen emails on behalf of Moscow. 

In a December 2016 interview on Hannity's radio program, Assange said, "Who is behind these, we don’t know," adding, "These look very much like they’re from the Russians. But in some ways, they look very amateur, and almost look too much like the Russians."

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