Argument

How WikiLeaks Blew It

The sad downfall of Julian Assange and his empire of secrets.

The story of WikiLeaks, once an exciting tale of overcoming government secrecy and empowering online activists and journalists, is now a story primarily concerned with the vagaries of diplomatic immunity, British-Ecuadorean relations, and Swedish rape laws. It's a safe bet that it's not the scenario that Julian Assange -- who is reportedly now holed up in a windowless backroom of the Ecuadorean Embassy in London, sleeping on an air mattress -- had in mind when he founded the whistle-blowing website six years ago.

As Assange remains in international legal limbo, granted asylum in Ecuador but with no foreseeable way to get there, and as WikiLeaks struggles to stay afloat in the face of money problems and denial-of-service attacks, it's worth reflecting on how we got here. How did an organization that once touted itself as the future of journalism -- and for a time seemed to have a credible case for the claim -- devolve into one man's soap opera? If one looks back, several key tactical errors landed WikiLeaks in its current predicament.

One mistake WikiLeaks has made is that, over time, it has allowed itself to be associated with a particular political agenda -- notably Assange's. Obviously, leaks including the "Collateral Murder" video, the Afghanistan war logs, and, of course, the tens of thousands of secret U.S. State Department cables were going to provoke the ire of the U.S. government no matter what the site did. Assange has claimed that he doesn't see the site as anti-American, but, rather, as universally anti-secrecy, and to be fair, it hasn't targeted the United States exclusively; his first leak that brought major international attention was a report exposing government corruption in Kenya. And it has deviated at times from left-wing politics, notably in publishing the "Climategate" emails from researchers at Britain's University of East Anglia.

Since 2010, however, it has been pretty hard to make the case that WikiLeaks is a neutral transmission system. Nearly all its major operations have targeted the U.S. government or American corporations. When WikiLeaks released U.S. government cables, its stated purpose was to reveal "the contradictions between the US's public persona and what it says behind closed doors." By contrast, when it released Syrian government cables in July, Assange was quick to point out, "The material is embarrassing to Syria, but it is also embarrassing to Syria's opponents." This at a time when 14,000 people had already been killed in the uprising against Bashar al-Assad's regime.

Assange also hasn't improved his credibility with his TV talk show, The World Tomorrow -- particularly with its first episode, a softball interview with Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah. It doesn't help that the show is aired by RT (formerly Russia Today), a network funded by the Russian government. And in an ironic twist, the transparency advocate has now cast his lot with Ecuadorean President Rafael Correa, a past World Tomorrow guest and a leader with a less-than-sterling record on press freedom.

The U.S. government might always have viewed Assange as a threat, but more Americans might have been willing to hear him out if he weren't so easy to paint as a purely anti-American figure. Even Americans who are highly critical of their government's foreign policy have a hard time getting on board with a man who promises to hasten "the total annihilation of the current U.S. regime."

Assange could have combated the charge of double standards by leaking some material about a government hostile to the United States, such as China or Russia. In October 2010, he promised in an interview with the Russian paper Izvestia, "We have [compromising materials] about Russia, about your government and businessmen.… But not as much as we'd like.… We will publish these materials soon.… We are helped by the Americans, who pass on a lot of material about Russia." But "Kremlingate" has never materialized, which suggests either that it wasn't a major priority for WikiLeaks or that Assange was bluffing.

Overpromising on leaks the site can't deliver, as well as overhyping the ones it can, has been another hallmark of Assange's work. This year, WikiLeaks released more than 5 million emails from the global intelligence firm Stratfor, touting it as a "private CIA" operating outside the law in cooperation with the U.S. government. In reality, if the emails revealed anything, it's that Stratfor's marketing to its corporate clients has somewhat overstated the glorified intelligence firm's own level of access and expertise. Take, for example, Stratfor Vice President of Intelligence Fred Burton's prediction of a flood of 9/11-type attacks heading America's way after the fall of Egypt's Hosni Mubarak. And emails purporting to prove that the U.S. Department of Homeland Security was spying on the Occupy Wall Street movement turned out to be less than meet the eye (though an extended dialogue about the theft of pesto tortellini from the company fridge was at least amusing).

The Syria emails may have shown some Western companies and politicians being a bit too quick to engage with the Assad regime, but the documents had little damaging information that hadn't already been reported in outlets like Bloomberg and the Wall Street Journal. Readers were duly underwhelmed, and the story disappeared quickly from headlines.

Even WikiLeaks' crowning achievement -- Cablegate -- may have been embarrassing to the State Department and put some U.S. government sources at risk, but didn't actually reveal much in the way of nefarious doings by U.S. diplomats. If anything, it often revealed them to be a bit more informed about their postings than their public statements might suggest. Yes, cables detailing the personal excesses of the Tunisian ruling family were one of several factors that helped spark protests in that country in early 2011, but WikiLeaks' claims that the Arab Spring was a direct result of its work doesn't pass the laugh test.

WikiLeaks has also repeatedly proved itself fairly unreliable when it comes to handling secret information. In a 2009 email, by accidentally using the CC instead of BCC field, Assange reportedly revealed the names of the organization's first 58 supporters to one another, an action that may have set in motion the chain of events that led to the arrest of accused leaker Bradley Manning. WikiLeaks even failed to keep control of its crown jewels -- the U.S. cables likely obtained from Manning -- allowing them to leak to a Norwegian newspaper that was not part of the original publication agreement in December 2010. According to some reports, Assange had given one Icelandic volunteer access to the full archive. Eventually, WikiLeaks turned its back on its media partners and simply published the entire archive without redacting the names of sources, revealing the identities of dissidents who had confided in U.S. officials.

WikiLeaks' defenders often complain about the organization's hostile treatment in the mainstream media. The Aug. 16 New York Times story on the Ecuador standoff, which manages to find a way to work in past stories of Assange not flushing toilets and abusing cats, will probably bolster their claim. But WikiLeaks has also contributed to its own bad coverage by undermining its relationships with its media partners. WikiLeaks alienated its first publishing partner, the Guardian, by going behind editors' backs to share material with a competing news outlet. In the case of the New York Times, Assange soured on the paper and its editor at the time, Bill Keller, after it published what he saw as an unflattering profile of him; and soon thereafter, Assange began to accuse the paper of collusion with the U.S. government. In July, WikiLeaks published a hoax "Bill Keller" column, an act that doesn't exactly lend credibility to an organization that prides itself on the accuracy of its information.

But the biggest problem with WikiLeaks is that it has become far too associated with the "crazy white haired aussie," as Manning once referred to him. An organization is rarely helped when its leader stands accused of sexual assault, but WikiLeaks might have been able to survive the allegations against Assange more easily if he weren't so completely identified as the group's public face -- a state of affairs that seems to be very much his own doing.

"I am the heart and soul of this organization, its founder, philosopher, spokesperson, original coder, organizer, financier and all the rest. If you have a problem with me, piss off," Assange wrote to one of his Icelandic volunteers, Herbert Snorrason, according to chat logs obtained by Wired.

Snorrason did just that, along with many of Assange's other early allies. "I believe that Julian has in fact pushed the capable people away," Snorrason told Wired. The departed included his German spokesman, Daniel Domscheit-Berg, who left to found a rival site and deleted 3,500 unpublished cables on his way out the door. Domscheit-Berg has emerged as one of Assange's most outspoken and effective critics.

For several months in 2010, WikiLeaks was the biggest and most exciting story in international politics, as media outlets and readers anxiously awaited each day's new revelations. With 250,000 diplomatic cables to pour through, plus, presumably, even more leaks to come from Assange's empire of secrets, WikiLeaks seemed like a genuine game-changer. It appeared inevitable that the mainstream media would spend years playing catch-up to the anonymous online leakers.

It didn't happen that way. It quickly became clear that the vast majority of the cables were innocuous. WikiLeaks' much-hyped follow-ups -- Stratfor, Syria -- failed to impress. Copycat sites like Domscheit-Berg's OpenLeaks have failed to make an impact. And WikiLeaks itself has been sidelined by a legal case that -- much as Assange may claim otherwise -- has little to do with the site's mission.

Could WikiLeaks have been a more credible and successful whistle-blowing organization without Assange as its driving force and public face? We'll never know. But however the standoff at the Ecuadorean embassy ends, the keepers of the world's most sensitive secrets likely feel a lot more comfortable today than they did two years ago.

Peter Macdiarmid/Getty Images

Argument

Don't You Forget About Me

Former French President Nicolas Sarkozy is not about to go quietly into the night.

A notoriously hard worker, Nicolas Sarkozy recently took time away from his vacation in Cap Nègre on the Côte d'Azur for a 40-minute phone conversation with Syrian opposition leader Abdulbaset Sieda to discuss how best to overthrow Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. They compared their (similar) analyses of the situation in Syria: essentially that Assad is Muammar al-Qaddafi 2.0 and that France should be playing a greater role in international efforts to isolate the dictator in Damascus. On Aug. 7, in the midst of the gaping holiday news hole in France, they issued a joint statement to publicize word of their consultation, as heads of state often do in such situations.

Given that Sarkozy's presidency ended in May, the French can be forgiven for wondering why he's still making statements on their country's foreign policy.

A generally obeyed rule of post-presidential etiquette in France, as in the United States, is that former presidents should avoid complicating the efforts of their successors. (Sarkozy had suggested, at the end of his five-year term, that he would return to his law practice, look for fresh opportunities in the private sector, and keep a low profile on the political front.) In France, the issue is even somewhat codified, with presidents enjoying automatic appointment to the Constitutional Council -- a sort of Supreme Court-lite. Being on the council requires an obligation de reserve, which means avoiding expressing public judgment on issues that have, or that might, come before the body. Particularly on foreign policy, where French presidents enjoy broad formal political autonomy, etiquette is everything.

So the response to Sarkozy's post-presidential freelance policy foray was stinging. Laurent Fabius, the foreign minister appointed by President François Hollande, quickly retorted in an interview with Le Parisien newspaper published on Aug. 9: "I am surprised that Nicolas Sarkozy wants to stir up controversy on such a grave subject; you would expect something more from a former president."

Fabius went on to argue that the situation in Syria is, in fact, entirely different from that in Libya prior to the collapse of the Qaddafi regime -- a collapse that was inarguably hastened by Sarkozy's diplomatic efforts and NATO air power. Among other things, Syria has chemical weapons and is a small and densely populated country bordering Iraq, Lebanon, Turkey, and Jordan -- meaning that the risks of regional contagion are far greater. And unlike in Libya, Fabius noted, no major powers have yet called for outside military intervention.

Then France's top diplomat became, well, a bit less diplomatic, as he attempted to discern Sarkozy's motivations. Fabius suggested that the former head of state wants "to avoid being forgotten." Sticking the knife in deeper, Fabius recalled Sarkozy's warm welcome of Assad to France to preside over 2008's Bastille Day ceremonies. (Sarkozy also invited Qaddafi to France in 2007; the Libyan leader ended up pitching his Bedouin tent a stone's throw from the Champs-Élysées, which turned into a source of shame for Sarkozy until Qaddafi's ouster.)

While Fabius's motivation was surely to protect his boss from allegations of lethargy as Syrians die, he is hardly the only person in French politics who has doubted Sarkozy's ability to exist outside the limelight following his recent rejection at the polls.

Parliamentarian Nicolas Dupont-Aignan, who left Sarkozy's political movement to start his own conservative party several years ago, tweeted on Aug. 9 that "go-to-war" stances are dangerous and that "Sarkozy has once again missed a chance to shut up!"

So what was he thinking? Why would he break with well-established post-presidential protocol?

Part of the answer is that Sarkozy's political career -- including his five-year presidency -- has involved stepping on all manner of French political tradition. It was part of the Sarko brand; he isn't restrained by the same taboos as previous French leaders. He oozed personal ambition in a country where politicians are supposed to act as though they are entirely at the service of a higher cause: the nation. His sweaty jogs around the elegant presidential palace gardens grated in a country where previous leaders were seen in more gentlemanly pursuits -- writing, in the library, or in cultural settings. And whereas French presidents are supposed to play a pacifying and unifying role in French society, Sarkozy relished simply trying to shake things up.

In reality, the confrontational-by-nature Sarkozy was never going to evolve into a consensual figure like other modern French presidents who saw their popularity skyrocket once they left politics firmly behind. (President Jacques Chirac, who was as unpopular of a president as Sarkozy, quickly benefited from soaring approval ratings once he retired, despite an array of corruption cases that dragged on against him for years. Disappointment in Chirac, the president, faded almost immediately after his political career did, allowing the French to remember the warm, friendly fellow who had been a part of French political life for nearly half a century.)

Given that Sarkozy was always different, the real answer is actually embedded in another question: Why now?

A bit of the response is universal. All presidents endure awkward moments in defeat. How could they not when they descend from being, say, the head of state of a nuclear power with a U.N. Security Council veto and a key role in international diplomacy to pacing around in their kitchen, virtually overnight? But in France, there is no tradition of building presidential libraries, starting foundations, cashing out by joining corporate boards, and stepping out onto the big-dollar lecture circuit. The implicit expectation, even if there are a few modern exceptions, is that presidents retire, gradually prepare their memoirs, and remind the French why they liked them in the first place.

In Sarkozy's case, the awkwardness is more extreme. He has long come across to the French as a needy man. He wasn't just at the center of the action; he needed to be the center of attention. And perhaps he still does. So even if he knows that it would be tactically smart to go into a lengthy period of political seclusion, it doesn't mean that he is personally capable of doing so.

Another issue: Sarkozy is only 57, and while his ambitions may have shifted, he still has plenty of them. He isn't preparing for retirement; he's preparing for the next stage of his career. And that will largely be beyond France's borders. Sarkozy plans to pursue a post-presidential palace model inspired by the likes of Bill Clinton, Tony Blair, and others who can wield influence and drive initiatives on the global stage, and earn a fortune doing it.

Then there's the nostalgia factor. One of Sarkozy's few truly victorious presidential moments came when he stepped to the forefront of efforts to drive out Qaddafi. That tactical success is in stark contrast with muddier efforts to save the country of Georgia from Russian invasion in 2008 (Putin's troops remain parked on Georgian soil four years later) and his frustrating high-profile efforts to lead Europe out of an economic crisis that outlasted him.

Sarkozy has also acknowledged recently watching, and enjoying, a documentary, Le Serment de Tobrouk (The Oath of Tobruk, which is a port town in Libya near the Egyptian border) made by France's multimillionaire pop philosopher, Bernard-Henri Lévy. The film details the overthrow of Qaddafi and lauds Sarkozy's role in making that happen. Lévy, who voted against Sarkozy but has thanked him profusely for his Libya gamble, agrees with the former leader that Hollande needs to do more in Syria. In an interview on France Inter radio on the heels of Sarkozy's statement, Lévy lamented, "French diplomacy seems to be on vacation today, lost in a sort of holiday stupor, and I rejoice that Nicolas Sarkozy has taken the time to listen to this man." (Sarkozy's statement also followed earlier comments by Lévy that Hollande hasn't kept his "promises" in the face of one of the great historical, political, and moral challenges of his presidency.)

France recently sent a pair of medical surgery teams to the Syria-Jordan border to treat people wounded in fighting in Syria; while on the diplomatic front, Paris intends to use its presidency of the U.N. Security Council to push for a solution to the crisis in Syria. An Aug. 30 ministerial gathering at the United Nations, overseen by Fabius, is supposed to find ways to support the Syrian people, avoid greater regional instability, and bring about a democratic transition in Damascus.

It remains to be seen how firm or focused Paris will be on Damascus, though, as France struggles with zero economic growth, looming tax increases, and steep budget cuts. The truth is that there is currently little appetite among the French public for another war, even as they wait for their soldiers to return from Afghanistan, a withdrawal that was a key plank in Hollande's presidential campaign.

On France's right, Sarkozy's foreign-policy outburst highlights an absence of meaningful leadership. As the divided French right's main political movement prepares to choose its new leader this fall, Sarkozy has succeeded in reminding the various contenders that he is the only true heavyweight. Given the strong possibility of a divisive leadership struggle set to involve Sarkozy's former prime minister, François Fillon, and the ambitious but unpopular current party leader, Jean-François Copé, among others, calls for Sarkozy to return to unify the opposition could well become louder. That said, Sarkozy's Syria plea is clearly the sort of foray that could help unify his party now, before the leadership void is filled, in opposition to the current president.

On that front, while it may be smart politics, it is not very post-presidential.

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