After weeks of near-daily WikiLeaks releases of embarrassing emails plundered from the inbox of Hillary Clinton’s aides, her campaign team, and the wider Democratic Party, Julian Assange’s hosts at the Ecuadorian embassy in London have taken the ultimate step: like parents of a teenage child, driven so mad by their kid’s late night Snapchat habit that they finally turn off the wifi, the Ecuadorians have shut off the Internet to prevent their incorrigible long-term guest from doing any more leaking.
Were Julian Assange not confined to the embassy—he’s been living there since 2012, rather than succumb to a request from the Swedish authorities to interview him over an allegation of rape—you could imagine him suing his hosts for violating his human rights. He might even have a decent case that, in today’s world, access to the Internet amounts to a core component of free speech, that it is impossible to enjoy true free expression if you can’t get online.
But Assange is unlikely to press that claim. Besides his other legal headaches, it’s probably awkward for him to hit out too hard at the nation that has sheltered him all this time. It might look a little ungrateful. More to the point, there will be plenty who sympathize with the Ecuadorian foreign ministry’s decision. And of course the move may turn out to be mostly symbolic (WikiLeaks has released material since the Ecuadorian embassy’s announcement).
First, consider the realpolitik. Quito will have seen the US opinion polls and have concluded that Hillary Clinton is on her way to winning the White House. Why not try to earn some credit with the presumed incoming president by taking action against the man who is causing her such trouble? By turning off his Internet, Ecuador hopes to stop Assange causing any more damage to the Democratic candidate. Doubtless they hope their good turn will be remembered when Ecuador needs the help of the second President Clinton.
Which is not to say that the foreign ministry can justify its action only in terms of pragmatic self-interest. It believes a principle is at stake too. As it declared in its statement on Tuesday, Ecuador “respects the principle of non-intervention in the internal affairs of other states.” In its mind, WikiLeaks’s publication in recent weeks of “a wealth of documents, impacting on the US election campaign,” has represented a violation of that no-meddling rule.
And Ecuador has a point. The traffic in leaked texts has been entirely one-way: it’s been all Clinton, all the time. In July, Assange signaled a glum even-handedness when asked whether he backed Trump or Clinton: “You’re asking me, do I prefer cholera or gonorrhea.” But that’s not how it’s played out. WikiLeaks has not released, say, the elusive tax returns of Donald Trump—which might have confirmed his all-but-admitted non-payment of federal income tax over the last two decade—or those much sought-after outtakes from The Apprentice, which are rumored to supply yet more proof of his boorish, if not predatory, attitude to women. Or indeed anything which would discomfort both candidates rather than just one.
Instead, WikiLeaks has devoted itself exclusively to the release of documents that might damage Hillary Clinton, documents that independent analysts as well as the US government say were most likely hacked by, or on behalf of, Vladimir Putin’s Russia.(The exact nature of the relationship between WikiLeaks and Moscow is hotly contested.)
It would be a mistake to view this merely as an anti-Clinton intervention in the US election. It is positively pro-Trump. That’s borne out not only by the one-sided nature of the disclosures but also by Trump’s curious comments about them. In July, he seemed to applaud the Russian hack of the DNC, calling on Russia to go further and find Clinton’s missing emails. (Admittedly, he had changed tack by the second presidential debate, insisting that, “I know nothing about Russia.”)
But even more revealing is the timing. Supporters of Bernie Sanders are left ruefully imagining what these revelations could have done if WikiLeaks had made them during the primary season. What if Democratic voters had been shown these documents—testifying to Hillary Clinton’s intimacy with Wall Street, her advocacy of unrestricted free trade, her admission that the Clintons’ fabulous wealth had left her “kind of far removed” from the experience of ordinary Americans—when they still had a choice? As RoseAnn DeMoro, leader of a pro-Sanders nurses’ trade union, put it to The New York Times, “I think they should have put the damn emails out before the primaries were over.” Of course, this presumes not only that the documents would have changed millions of Democratic minds—far from certain—but also that Assange had access to them back then. Perhaps he didn’t. (Though it seems the hack took place earlier this year.)
But if he did, then releasing them in the spring would have hurt Clinton and helped Sanders. By timing their release for the last month of the campaign—as an October surprise—the only conceivable goal was to hurt Clinton and help elect Donald Trump. That impression only hardens when one considers the publication of, for example, Clinton’s well-remunerated speeches to Goldman Sachs bankers. WikiLeaks put those online on October 7, minutes after the release of the notorious Access Hollywood video, in which Trump was heard boasting of his modus operandi when it came to sexual assault. To the naked eye, that looked a lot like a very deliberate attempt to shift an unflattering spotlight away from Trump.
Why would Assange want to do that? Some speculate that Assange, who has said he fears the death penalty were he ever to be extradited to the US, hopes he would be treated leniently by a Trump administration. Others suspect the heart of the matter is the Russian connection: Assange, like Trump, seems strikingly comfortable with Putin. A former host of a talk show on Putin’s propaganda channel, Russia Today, Assange once requested his own private security detail within the Ecuadorian embassy, nominating Russians for the task.
He also has a long-running grievance against Hillary Clinton, who he believes wants him indicted for the leaks of more than 250,000 diplomatic cables—during her watch as secretary of state—that made his name. As he has written of Clinton, “She shouldn’t be let near a gun shop, let alone an army. And she certainly should not become president of the United States.”
So this is no mere journalistic venture of Assange’s. It is a clear attempt to intervene in the US election, tilting the outcome in favor of Donald Trump. You can hardly blame Assange’s long-suffering hosts for finally losing their patience and pulling the plug. As for Russia, they may have lost a valuable outlet with ready access to the Western media. But given the resourcefulness they have demonstrated in apparently getting access to the Democratic Party’s innermost secrets, it’d be a surprise if they couldn’t find a way to supply such a useful ally with an Internet connection.
Jonathan Freedland is an editorial-page columnist for The Guardian. In 2014 he was awarded the Orwell Special Prize for Journalism. (September 2016)