From Capitol Hill to Donald Trump’s Twitter feed, cyber-security is all the buzz this week, thanks to WikiLeaks, a self-described non-profit media organization that publishes leaked documents, news and classified information from anonymous sources. The man behind Wikileaks is Julian Assange and, although he’s been under fierce fire from American political leaders in the recent past, a few are warming up to him — starting with President-elect Trump, who once went so far as to say Assange should face “the death penalty or something” for his crimes.
Who is Julian Assange?
Assange is the Australian leader (and alleged founder) of WikiLeaks. The organization first rose to international prominence in 2010, when they published classified documents pertaining to the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, leaked by former U.S. Army intelligence analyst Chelsea Manning, who was convicted in 2013 under the Espionage Act and is currently serving out a 35-year prison sentence.
Though Assange, 45, is Australian born, he’s lived at the Ecuadorean Embassy in London for four and a half years, avoiding extradition to Sweden, where he’s been charged for allegedly raping a woman. Two additional charges of sexual assault and coercion were dropped when they passed the statute of limitations. The statute of limitations on the rape charge will run out in 2020. Assange also fears extradition to the United States, where he would likely be prosecuted for his role in leaking sensitive and confidential U.S. government documents.
Why are people talking about him?
WikiLeaks played an indisputable role in shaping the 2016 election when the group published emails from the Democratic National Committee and from the inbox of John Podesta, Hillary Clinton’s campaign chairman. With recent findings by the U.S. intelligence community that Russia did the hacking into DNC and Clinton campaign accounts, the Senate Armed Services Committee held a hearing Thursday about Russian interference in America’s 2016 presidential election.
Assange, in an interview with Fox News’s Sean Hannity that aired on Tuesday, denied that the Russian government—or any state party—was Wikileaks’ source for the hacked DNC and Podesta emails.
What does Donald Trump think of him?
In a 2010 interview with CNN, the businessman called Wikileaks “disgraceful” and added: “there should be like death penalty or something” for Assange.
But on Twitter this week, Trump implied that he trusts Assange’s word more than that of U.S. intelligence officials.
By the next morning, Trump was backpedaling on his stated vote of confidence in Assange and blaming “the media.”
But the damage was already done with intelligence officials. Hours after Trump’s shift in tone on Assange, Director of National Intelligence James Clapper Jr., pointedly told the Senate Armed Services hearing that there was “a difference between healthy skepticism” and “disparagement.” Worth noting: “healthy skepticism” is the term Vice President-elect Mike Pence used this week to defend Trump’s criticism of U.S. intelligence.
What does Assange think about American politics?
Though Assange doesn’t speak often about American politics for someone who has played such a large role in shaping their future, has said that he believes Libertarians (or rather, the “libertarian aspect of the Republican Party”) are “presently the only useful political voice in the U.S. Congress.”
This statement shouldn’t come as a huge surprise: One of the country’s most famous libertarians, Ron Paul, has previously come out in support of Assange. According to the Washington Post, he once said: “Which has resulted in the greatest number of deaths: lying us into war or WikiLeaks revelations or the release of the Pentagon Papers?” Up until recently, that’s more good press than any other U.S. politician had ever given him.
Assange also said that he believes Clinton’s loss wasn’t a result of WikiLeaks, but rather, the work of the Democratic Party.
“The genuine reason, to my mind, for the loss, is because of the rigging of the primary process,” he said. “They didn’t pick the strongest candidate. There’s an internal market, the primary process, you battle it out with different contenders. And the idea is the strongest, you send off into the general election. That didn’t happen.”
What do other Republican leaders have to say about Assange?
Assange remains Public Enemy Number One with a number of other prominent Republicans:
- “I think Assange has done enormous damage to our nation security. I would not be praising him under any circumstances.” — Ted Cruz to conservative radio host Hugh Hewitt
- “Julian Assange is no hero. Someone who steals property is not bringing transparency — he’s taking information that’s not his to give.” — Oklahoma Senator James Lankford
- “The same people who condemned Secretary Clinton for making sensitive and classified information vulnerable by using an unsecure server should be equally outraged that Assange continues to carelessly leak sensitive documents. It’s the Democrats today; it could be the Republican Party tomorrow.” — Texas Representative Will Hurd
However, in the weeks and months since Wikileaks trained its sights on Hillary Clinton and released piles of internal campaign emails that proved damaging to her presidential bid, Trump wasn’t the only one to change his tune about Assange.
There was also Hannity himself, who once accused Assange of “waging war against the U.S.,” and Sarah Palin, who wasn’t especially happy with Assange after Wikileaks published her own private emails.
“To Julian Assange: I apologize. Exposing the truth re: the Left having been oh-so-guilty of atrocious actions and attitudes of which they’ve falsely accused others. The media collusion that hid what many on the Left have been supporting is shocking. This important information that finally opened people’s eyes to democrat candidates and operatives would not have been exposed were it not for Julian Assange. I apologize for condemning Assange when he published my infamous (and proven noncontroversial, relatively boring) emails years ago.” — Former Alaska Governor and Vice Presidential candidate Sarah Palin, in a post on Facebook.
“Look, I was a very early critic of [Assange]. He’s well aware that I thought he was waging war on the United States. My opinion on it has evolved in large part because of what I have seen that he has done in ten years. Nothing he has published has ever been proven false. Nobody’s even questioned the veracity or truthfulness of what he’s doing.” — Fox News anchor Sean Hannity.