In Election Hacking, Julian Assange’s Years-Old Vision Becomes Reality
By Jim Rutenberg
Jan 8 2017
At first blush, there’s a baffling, inside-out quality to Julian Assange’s latest star turn in our shambolic national story.
He belongs in jail for “waging his war” against the United States by exposing its secrets, the conservative Fox News host Sean Hannity has said of him. An “anti-American operative with blood on his hands,” Sarah Palin once called him.
Yet last week brought the sight of Mr. Hannity speaking with Mr. Assange in glowing terms about “what drives him to expose government and media corruption” through Clinton campaign hacks that American intelligence has attributed to Russia. And Ms. Palin hailed him as a great truth teller, even apologizing for previous unpleasantries. (Cue sound of needle sliding across record album.)
O.K., the fact that WikiLeaks’ election-year splash was bad for the Democrats and good for President-elect Donald J. Trump may have a teeny-weeny bit to do with their change of heart.
But what’s up with Mr. Assange, who seems equally comfortable being a hero of the American left as he is being one of the American right, or even of Russian Putinists? What does he want, anyway?
The answer has been in front of us all along. And the current imbroglio over Russia, WikiLeaks and their role in Mr. Trump’s victory — or, more to the point, Hillary Clinton’s loss — might be viewed as the realization of the vision Mr. Assange had when he started WikiLeaks over a decade ago.
Mr. Assange spelled it out in prescient terms in an essay he posted online in November of 2006, the year of WikiLeaks’ founding.
He wrote it long before becoming the polarizing figure he is today, a “cypherpunk” folk hero with an outsize reputation for being messianic, impetuous and all too cavalier with the personal data that come his way. (He’s currently living in the Ecuadorean Embassy in London, where he was granted asylum from Swedish authorities who are investigating a rape accusation against him that he says is false and politically motivated.)
Yet even his toughest critics acknowledge how clearly he saw the politically disruptive potential of technology, back when some of us were getting our first BlackBerries.
It’s what prompted him to start WikiLeaks, which “pioneered something extremely important and very dangerous to large organizations that keep lots of secrets digitally,” as the journalist Glenn Greenwald told me in an interview last week. From the start, Mr. Assange said WikiLeaks’ prime directive was to expose hidden data sets that “reveal illegal or immoral behavior” in government and big business.
But in the essay he also wrote in more ambitious terms about forcing regime change through data and technology rather than through the old, barbaric means of assassination.
As Mr. Assange saw it, power was held by vast networks of conspirators who shared vital information in secret, giving them a superior understanding of reality that enabled them to hold on to power. The technology revolution, he wrote, was providing the conspirators with the means to achieve what he called an even “higher total conspiratorial power.”
But it was also making them more vulnerable to sabotage, so that a governing conspiracy could be “slowed until it falls, stupefied; unable to comprehend and control the forces in its environment.”