Wednesday, October 19, 2016

WikiLeaks Founder Julian Assange’s Isolation Deepens

Ecuador’s move follows recent releases of emails from Democratic Party leaders and aides to Hillary Clinton.

By Robert McMillan and Jennifer Valentino-DeVries
The Wall Street Journal
October 19, 2016

Ecuador’s decision to pull the plug on Julian Assange’s internet connection has highlighted the isolation of WikiLeaks, the organization he founded to expose the inner workings of governments and other powerful institutions.

Some former allies and observers say that after four years confined to the Ecuadorean Embassy in London, Mr. Assange is alienating former supporters and undermining WikiLeaks’ relevance. They cite a series of leaks that they say supported Russian efforts to disrupt the U.S. election and carelessly promoted Turkish government documents exposing the personal information of thousands of ordinary citizens.

WikiLeaks “has pioneered open government but has now gone off the rails in a way that damages the global transparency movement,” said Alex Howard, a senior analyst at the Sunlight Foundation, a group once sympathetic to WikiLeaks that backs open-government efforts in the U.S.

WikiLeaks’ relationship with Russia has come under particular scrutiny lately after the release of thousands of documents from the Democratic National Committee and allies of Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton. On Monday, WikiLeaks released a new batch of emails that it alleged were sent or received from John Podesta, a top campaign adviser for Mrs. Clinton.

U.S. government officials have accused Russia of conducting those intrusions as part of an effort to influence the U.S. election. Computer-security firm Kaspersky Labs ZAO said another set of documents published on WikiLeaks, known as the Saudi Cables, most likely came from the same hackers who breached the DNC.

There is no evidence of collusion between Russia and WikiLeaks, said Nicholas Weaver, a researcher at the International Computer Science Institute at the University of California, Berkeley. “However, Assange has made it very clear that he’s willing to be a useful idiot for any intelligence service, as long as it furthers his own agenda,” he said.

The Ecuadorean government, in a statement late Tuesday explaining its decision, said that the country doesn’t interfere in external electoral processes and so was temporarily restricting “access to some of its private communication network” within the embassy.

WikiLeaks had earlier accused the Ecuadorean government of severing Mr. Assange’s internet connection at the behest of U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry. A State Department spokesman on Tuesday rejected the assertion as false.

Mr. Assange still exerts vast influence on the global debate. Others conducting their own disruptive document leaks follow a game plan Mr. Assange sketched out a decade ago.

“Consider what would happen if one of these [political] parties gave up their mobile phones, fax and email correspondence—let alone the computer systems which manage their subscribers, donors, budgets, polling, call centers and direct mail Campaigns,” Mr. Assange wrote when founding WikiLeaks in 2006. “They would immediately fall into an organizational stupor and lose to the other.”

Representatives of WikiLeaks and Mr. Assange didn’t respond to multiple requests to comment.

WikiLeaks has long billed itself as a news organization. In its early days, it revealed documents ranging from secret Scientology manuals to the internal emails of climate researchers. But it became best known for information related to U.S. government policy.

The emergence of alternative outlets for publishing such material makes Mr. Assange less central. Others published two of the most important leaks in recent years—the Panama Papers documents taken from the Mossack Fonseca & Co. law firm and Edward Snowden’s treasure trove of NSA documents.

WikiLeaks once joined with major news organizations and used volunteers to purge personal information from data it published. But Mr. Assange later came to view former partners, including the New York Times and Britain’s Guardian, as enemies after disputes over their handling of WikiLeaks material, former Assange confidant and ghostwriter Andrew O’Hagan wrote in 2014. A Guardian representative said it last collaborated worked with WikiLeaks in 2010. Mr. O’Hagan and New York Times representatives didn’t respond to requests to comment.

In July, Turkish human-rights activists criticized WikiLeaks for a Twitter message that linked to a cache of documents containing sensitive information belonging to private Turkish citizens. Some academics and activists also faulted the organization for including phone numbers, credit-card information and passport numbers in other data releases it published this year.

Such actions have eroded WikiLeaks’ support among some advocates of transparency and privacy.

“Democratizing information has never been more vital, and @Wikileaks has helped. But their hostility to even modest curation is a mistake,” said Mr. Snowden in a June Twitter message.

Rainey Reitman, a co-founder of the Freedom of the Press Foundation, which helps people donate to WikiLeaks, said publishers, including WikiLeaks, have a right to publish leaks but “do have a responsibility to think through the privacy ramifications of everything they put up online.” She noted that WikiLeaks doesn’t conduct hacks itself, but publicizes material from hacks.

Backers of Russian President Vladimir Putin have pointed to the DNC emails as evidence that the U.S. isn't as democratic as it seems. “In America, there has been a gradual evaporation of democratic institutions, a seizure of power by the establishment,” Sergei Markov, a pro-Kremlin political commentator, said when asked about the hack of the DNC earlier this summer.

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