Carl Court/AFP/Getty Images
WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange attends a press conference in central London on February 27.
Joshua E. Keating is an associate editor at Foreign Policy.
The story of WikiLeaks, once an exciting tale of overcoming government secrecy and empowering online activists and journalists, is now a story primarily concerned with the vagaries of diplomatic immunity, British-Ecuadorean relations, and Swedish rape laws. It's a safe bet that it's not the scenario that Julian Assange — who is reportedly now holed up in a windowless backroom of the Ecuadorean Embassy in London, sleeping on an air mattress — had in mind when he founded the whistle-blowing website six years ago.
As Assange remains in international legal limbo, granted asylum in Ecuador but with no foreseeable way to get there, and as WikiLeaks struggles to stay afloat in the face of money problems and denial-of-service attacks, it's worth reflecting on how we got here. How did an organization that once touted itself as the future of journalism — and for a time seemed to have a credible case for the claim — devolve into one man's soap opera? If one looks back, several key tactical errors landed WikiLeaks in its current predicament.
One mistake WikiLeaks has made is that, over time, it has allowed itself to be associated with a particular political agenda — notably Assange's. Obviously, leaks including the "Collateral Murder" video, the Afghanistan war logs, and, of course, the tens of thousands of secret U.S. State Department cables were going to provoke the ire of the U.S. government no matter what the site did. Assange has claimed that he doesn't see the site as anti-American, but, rather, as universally anti-secrecy, and to be fair, it hasn't targeted the United States exclusively; his first leak that brought major international attention was a report exposing government corruption in Kenya. And it has deviated at times from left-wing politics, notably in publishing the "Climategate" emails from researchers at Britain's University of East Anglia.
Since 2010, however, it has been pretty hard to make the case that WikiLeaks is a neutral transmission system. Nearly all its major operations have targeted the U.S. government or American corporations. When WikiLeaks released U.S. government cables, its stated purpose was to reveal "the contradictions between the US's public persona and what it says behind closed doors." By contrast, when it released Syrian government cables in July, Assange was quick to point out, "The material is embarrassing to Syria, but it is also embarrassing to Syria's opponents." This at a time when 14,000 people had already been killed in the uprising against Bashar al-Assad's regime.
Assange also hasn't improved his credibility with his TV talk show, The World Tomorrow — particularly with its first episode, a softball interview with Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah. It doesn't help that the show is aired by RT (formerly Russia Today), a network funded by the Russian government. And in an ironic twist, the transparency advocate has now cast his lot with Ecuadorean President Rafael Correa, a past World Tomorrow guest and a leader with a less-than-sterling record on press freedom.
The U.S. government might always have viewed Assange as a threat, but more Americans might have been willing to hear him out if he weren't so easy to paint as a purely anti-American figure. Even Americans who are highly critical of their government's foreign policy have a hard time getting on board with a man who promises to hasten "the total annihilation of the current U.S. regime."
Assange could have combated the charge of double standards by leaking some material about a government hostile to the United States, such as China or Russia. In October 2010, he promised in an interview with the Russian paper Izvestia, "We have [compromising materials] about Russia, about your government and businessmen.... But not as much as we'd like.... We will publish these materials soon.... We are helped by the Americans, who pass on a lot of material about Russia." But "Kremlingate" has never materialized, which suggests either that it wasn't a major priority for WikiLeaks or that Assange was bluffing.
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