Julian Assange Is Under Arrest. Will WikiLeaks Continue To Be Relevant? Julian Assange probably won't have access to his laptop computer for a while, but that may not mean that the organization he created won't still release secrets and, potentially, affect elections.
NPR logo

What Does Julian Assange's Arrest Mean For WikiLeaks And U.S. Elections?

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/712666465/713799034" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript
What Does Julian Assange's Arrest Mean For WikiLeaks And U.S. Elections?

What Does Julian Assange's Arrest Mean For WikiLeaks And U.S. Elections?

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/712666465/713799034" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

Three years ago, WikiLeaks played a major role in the attack that Russia waged on American democracy. When cyber attackers stole emails from the Democratic National Committee and from Hillary Clinton's campaign staff, they used WikiLeaks to release them. Well, now that group's founder, Julian Assange, is in the hands of British authorities. And so what does that mean for the future of WikiLeaks, and what's it mean for potential election interference in this country?

NPR's Miles Parks covers voting and election security. He's in our studios this morning. Hi, Miles.

MILES PARKS, BYLINE: Good morning.

GREENE: So as officials are thinking about security in the 2020 election, is WikiLeaks prominent on their minds?

PARKS: Yeah. So the first thing that needs to be said here is basically that 2016 is not being viewed as a one-off. The sort of cyberattacks that gave Russia access to the Democratic National Party's emails, as you mentioned, they continue to be very, very popular forms of cyberattacks. Even just last year, former Senator Claire McCaskill, in the middle of a very tight Senate race, said Russian attackers sent her campaign staff fake emails trying to gain access to passwords and trying to gain access to her data.

In these sorts of schemes, when thieves do get access into a server, and they get a hold of this data, they need a place to release it. And that's where WikiLeaks comes in.

GREENE: So was WikiLeaks special in some way? Like, why is that the organization that Russia chose?

PARKS: There's a couple things. The first thing is reach. WikiLeaks has a brand that people know, and that matters when you want your data to make a splash. The second thing is credibility. They've spent the last more than a decade posting leaks - Guantanamo Bay-related, Iraq War-related - that have kind of been sort of viewed as holding power to account in the U.S. And they've, more importantly, been viewed as authentic. So when Russia wanted these emails to be viewed in the same light, they went - going to WikiLeaks made sense.

I talked to Jake Williams, who runs a cybersecurity firm called Rendition Infosec. And he said, though, that WikiLeaks' reputation for that credibility may actually take a hit here.

JAKE WILLIAMS: Wikileaks does have a, you know, reputation for credibility. They also have a reputation for being a mouthpiece of the Russian government.

GREENE: When you talk about reputation, I mean, how much of the reputation of WikiLeaks was connected to Julian Assange? How much of a hit could WikiLeaks now take because he's in custody in the U.K.? And what does it mean for the future of the organization - maybe its role in what cyber attackers are trying to do?

PARKS: So what I heard from multiple people is that the actual infrastructure of WikiLeaks may not be affected all that much by the arrest of Assange. And cyber attackers in the very near term, people who want to make a difference in the cyber realm, may actually be motivated in the short term by Assange's arrest.

But looking at the big picture, WikiLeaks is now really closely associated with the Russian government because of their role in the 2016 election, and that may kind of taint the information that they post in the future. So most - excuse me - most whistleblowers want the information that they publish to be sort of free of political bias. They want it to be focused on just the information. So what I heard from multiple sources is that WikiLeaks may not be the best place for publishing that sort of whistleblower information in the future.

GREENE: And Miles, we're getting a redacted version of special counsel Robert Mueller's report this Thursday - at least, we're told. I mean, this is an important moment on your beat, covering voting and election security. What are you looking for? Could you learn a lot about 2020?

PARKS: Yeah, absolutely. I think a lot of focus has been spent on collusion and obstruction up to this point. I'm going to be focused more on the big picture - not necessarily President Trump's role in all of this, but Russia's role in how they targeted - any more details we can learn about how Russia targeted our election infrastructure is going to be important playing defense in 2020 and going forward.

GREENE: NPR's Miles Parks. Miles, thanks as always.

PARKS: Thank you.

Copyright © 2019 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.