As recently as, let’s say, a year ago, WikiLeaks proprietor Julian Assange was still generally treated by right-wing, centrist, and center-left American politicians and pundits as a cyberterrorist who puts lives at risk by exposing national security secrets. On the flip side, many leftists and libertarians believed that he’d contributed to the laudable project of exposing an illegal, encroaching surveillance state. But now Assange is doing softball interviews on Fox News, being praised by Sarah Palin and criticized by left-wing investigative journalists, and, for some reason, threatening to sue CNN. What’s going on?
1. Assange did an interview, of which one portion was aired Tuesday night, with Fox News’ Sean Hannity in which he denied that Russia provided WikiLeaks with email archives hacked from the Democratic National Committee and Hillary Clinton campaign chairman John Podesta. WikiLeaks, of course, published those archives during the 2016 campaign to the great chagrin of the Democratic Party. Said Assange: “We can say, we have said repeatedly over the last two months, that our source is not the Russian government and it is not a state party.”
(The Fox interview was shot at the Ecuadorian embassy in London, where Assange has spent the past four years after Ecuador granted him asylum from extradition to Sweden, where he is the subject of an ongoing rape investigation. Assange believes that if he’s sent to Sweden he could then also face extradition and prosecution in the United States, which is possible but is not certain. He has not been formally charged with any crimes by U.S. authorities.)
2. The idea that Russian intelligence services did not help Donald Trump get elected by (illegally) exposing the unsavory inner workings of the Democratic Party is currently a useful one to Trump and his boosters. Assange is therefore now a hero to them.
Palin’s apology is presumably for having said in 2010 that Assange should be pursued by U.S. security forces “with the same urgency we pursue al-Qaeda.” Trump suggested at the time that individuals responsible for WikiLeaks releases should face the death penalty.
Note in any case that Assange is only denying that Russia was the source that passed the email archives on to WikiLeaks. He doesn’t appear to have ever unequivocally denied that Russian actors were involved in the original hacking of the accounts.
3. Paul Ryan appeared on Hugh Hewitt’s radio show Wednesday. While speaking to Hewitt—a Reagan conservative who supported Trump but has pushed back a bit against the Republican Party’s sudden admiration for Putin—Ryan called Assange “a sycophant for Russia” who “steals data and compromises national security.” My guess at the angle here is that calling out Assange personally helps Ryan signal his sympathy to the GOP’s establishment/national-security wing without committing to any sort of congressional investigation into Russian hacking that might damage the party politically. In any case, Ryan and Hewitt will eventually come around to Trump’s view of Assange and Russia because that’s what they do.
4. A former CIA official appeared on CNN on Wednesday and called Assange a “pedophile who lives in the Ecuadorian embassy in London.” (Recall that the CIA and FBI do believe Russia was responsible for hacking the email accounts that ended up on WikiLeaks.*) The pedophilia accusation seems to be based on bizarre public statements made by the mysterious proprietors of a possibly fake dating site and does not appear credible. WikiLeaks’ Twitter account subsequently threatened to sue CNN for defamation.
5. This is not breaking news, but if you’re just catching up on the Assange saga, it might be of interest: Intercept co-founder and Edward Snowden leak reporter Glenn Greenwald has been publicly critical of WikiLeaks’ decision to release the DNC/Podesta archives in their entirety without redacting personal information and other material not relevant to the public interest. Meanwhile Matt Taibbi, who’s also covered WikiLeaks sympathetically in the past, said in Rolling Stone recently that he has “no problem believing that Vladimir Putin,” who he describes as “gangster-spook-scum,” tried to influence the U.S. election. (Taibbi also writes that the evidence of Russian involvement in the hacks might be being overhyped for “ass-covering” purposes by embarrassed Democratic and/or Clinton operatives.)
6. I just watched the first half of the Bourne sequel Jason Bourne the other day, and it involves a scene in which a character obviously modeled on Assange attacks Bourne with what looks like a 40-pound dumbbell and then gets beaten unconscious. Just throwing that out there—though I should note that Jason Bourne is (probably?) not a real person.
Anyway, it’s quite a situation.
*Correction, Jan. 5, 2017: This post originally misstated that the FBI and CIA “reportedly” believe Russia was responsible for the DNC/Podesta hacks. The FBI has made its conclusion on the matter public, and the CIA has also formally presented its findings to legislators.