Julian Assange really, really doesn’t like Hillary Clinton. His bile for the Democratic presidential nominee is so uncontainable that it even spewed onto fellow antisecrecy icon Edward Snowden, whom the WikiLeaks founder has accused of sucking up to Clinton in hopes of gaining a future presidential pardon. At a time when many on the left are wrestling with whether to vote for Clinton despite her well-known shortcomings or risk that He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named will somehow win the presidency in November, Assange evinces no doubts: Hillary must go down. Meanwhile, Assange himself is under fire from gays in Saudi Arabia, dissidents in Turkey, and nonconformists elsewhere who complain that WikiLeaks’ unredacted release of their names and personal information has exposed them to persecution from the very authorities that Assange claims to oppose.
Assange and WikiLeaks (the two are indistinguishable) landed a punishing blow against Clinton on July 22, with the release of hacked e-mails from the Democratic National Committee revealing that the supposedly neutral party organization had deliberately favored Clinton over Senator Bernie Sanders during the primaries. Assange brushed off concerns that damaging Clinton might help elect the man whose nasty, racist, unhinged rhetoric has repelled even lifelong Republicans. Appearing on Democracy Now!, the WikiLeaks founder seemed to argue that Trump is no worse than Clinton. “Well, you’re asking me, do I prefer cholera or gonorrhea?” he said.
Invoking a sexually transmitted disease to describe a political opponent might not be the best choice of words for someone two women have accused of rape. But Assange, the white-haired Australian whose disclosures of sordid official secrets have repeatedly rocked the established order since WikiLeaks’ emergence in 2010, revels in sharp-tongued provocation. (Assange denies the accusations of rape, which he attributes to unnamed “enemies” and “a mad feminist conspiracy.” A request by Swedish authorities for his extradition to face questioning in the cases led him to take refuge in the Ecuadoran embassy in London four years ago; Sweden has now accepted Ecuador’s proposal that Assange be questioned inside the embassy.)
Assange promises more embarrassing disclosures about Clinton in the run-up to the election, and he is willing to pay for them. WikiLeaks has announced a $20,000 reward for information leading to the killer of Seth Rich, a 27-year-old DNC staffer who was felled by two gunshots to the head on July 10. Roger Stone, a veteran black-ops propagandist who occasionally advises Donald Trump, has declared, without evidence, that Hillary Clinton ordered Rich killed to prevent him from talking to the FBI. Assange doesn’t go that far, but his offer of reward money helps legitimize such conspiratorial talk. The police suggested the killing resulted from a robbery gone wrong, an opinion shared by Rich’s grieving parents. “I don’t want to play WikiLeaks’ game,” the dead man’s father told The Washington Post. Nevertheless, Assange hasn’t withdrawn his reward offer.
As for Snowden, he attracted Assange’s wrath after daring to disagree with the same WikiLeaks tactic now drawing criticism from ordinary citizens who have been involuntarily outed by the group. In a July 28 tweet, the National Security Agency whistle-blower praised WikiLeaks’ role in “democratizing information” but cautioned that its “hostility to even modest curation is a mistake.”
The criticism hinted at a long-standing divergence between Snowden and Assange regarding how official secrets should be made public. WikiLeaks releases its material “raw,” without curating or editing it in any way. No information is removed, no context provided; the documents are simply posted online for all to see. “We don’t contaminate the evidence,” Assange has explained.
By contrast, from the time Snowden leaked top-secret documents in June 2013 revealing that the US government was engaged in the illegal electronic surveillance of millions of people in the United States and around the world, he has favored the standard journalistic practice of redaction. Thus, he held back certain documents and removed specifics from others rather than release information that might compromise the privacy or personal safety of the individuals named in them, be they government officials or individuals suspected, rightly or wrongly, of collaborating with them.
The Guardian worked closely, on separate occasions, with Assange and Snowden. Guardian journalists David Leigh and Luke Harding reported in their book WikiLeaks: Inside Julian Assange’s War on Secrecy that the newspaper clashed with Assange over publishing the names of Afghan civilians accused of being informants for the US military. The journalists wanted to redact the civilians’ names out of concern for their safety and in case the accusations were false. The WikiLeaks founder refused, they said, reportedly arguing, “Well they’re informants. So, if they get killed, they’ve got it coming to them. They deserve it.” Assange subsequently denied having said those words and portrayed the charge as an effort to smear him and WikiLeaks. In the end, the names were not published.
For his part, Snowden argues that democratic governance does not mean that the public has to know the details of each surveillance target or intelligence operation of the US government. Rather, it means “we as Americans and members of the global community have a right to know the broad outlines of government policies that have a significant impact on our lives.”
In the case of the DNC e-mails, Snowden phrased his criticism of WikiLeaks as a professional difference of opinion; Assange responded with a personal attack. One didn’t need emojis to detect Assange’s sneer of contempt for his erstwhile antisecrecy comrade: “@Snowden Opportunism won’t earn you a pardon from Clinton & curation is not censorship of ruling party cash flows.”
But how exactly does Snowden’s stating a different view about how to release confidential information amount to currying favor with Hillary Clinton? And how does Assange justify WikiLeaks’ release of the medical records and other personal information of ordinary citizens whose names happen to appear in secret government documents? An Associated Press investigation published on August 23 concluded that WikiLeaks has compromised the privacy of hundreds of such individuals, including victims of rape and other forms of sexual abuse. “Publishing personal stuff like that could destroy people,” a Saudi man accused of homosexuality—a “crime” punishable by death in Saudi Arabia—told the AP. “They published everything: my phone, address, name, details. If the family of my wife saw this…” Assange did not reply to The Nation’s request for comment.
The question of whether to vote for the lesser of two evils has vexed and confounded the American left for decades. Julian Assange’s is hardly the only prominent voice saying that Clinton doesn’t deserve any decent person’s support in 2016. But the lamentable fact is that the US political system is a two-party monopoly, and it’s bound to remain so through Election Day. As a practical matter, that means the next president will be either Clinton or Trump. That choice is considered a no-brainer by Bernie Sanders, by Elizabeth Warren—even by such an uncompromising critic of the status quo as Noam Chomsky, who says one needn’t ponder five minutes about voting for the lesser of two evils in 2016, given the very real possibility that a President Trump might push the nuclear button in a fit of personal pique. The Working Families Party explained the strategy behind its endorsement of Clinton (after leading the charge for Sanders throughout the primaries) this way: “We’ll need to work to hold her accountable to her campaign’s promises. But we need to elect her first.” If Assange and others have an equally compelling argument for defeating Clinton, they haven’t shared it.