Julian Assange: Free-speech crusader or threat to the West?

Julian Assange poses during a portrait shoot on May 21, 2010 in Melbourne, Australia
Julian Assange will finally be free from more than a decade of legal troubles after cutting a plea deal with the US this week - Fairfax Media/Getty

Julian Assange has been one of the more divisive figures of modern times. To his supporters, the WikiLeaks founder is a champion of free speech and press freedom; a crusader for truth, justice and accountability, who defied establishment efforts to keep the public in the dark about important secrets. “A hero for the ages,” in the words of Matt Kennard, the co-founder of Declassified UK.

To his detractors, however, Assange is anything but a responsible journalist – instead a renegade whose indiscriminate information dumps put lives at risk and imperilled national security. Critics have branded some of the releases on the WikiLeaks website as misguided, irresponsible and even reprehensible.

Such debate over his legacy is raging anew now the 52-year-old has walked free, having pleaded guilty to a single charge under the Espionage Act. He was sentenced to time served after reaching a plea deal with US authorities.

Assange the ‘truth teller’: ‘We are entitled to know the dealings of those that govern us’

Julian Assange attends a seminar at the Swedish Trade Union Confederation headquarters in Stockholm,on August 14, 2010
Assange was rarely out of the headlines around 2010, travelling the world to promote WikiLeaks at conferences and events - Bertil Ericson/Getty

When Assange set up WikiLeaks in Australia in 2006, he was a relatively unknown journalist and transparency campaigner – albeit one on a mission. His open-source website was designed to serve as a repository for secret information shared by whistleblowers who wanted to get it into the public domain. The website’s lofty mission statement: to produce a more just society based upon truth. To this end, WikiLeaks says it has published more than 10 million classified files over the years.

“WikiLeaks is a giant library of the world’s most persecuted documents,” Assange told German newspaper Der Spiegel in 2015. “We give asylum to these documents, we analyse them, we promote them and we obtain more.” Some of the secrets revealed by these documents were explosive and a wide spectrum of supporters – from transparency campaigners and civil liberties activists to celebrities – felt Assange was right to put them in the public domain.

Among the most significant files published by WikiLeaks were hundreds of thousands of US Army intelligence documents relating to US military action in Afghanistan and Iraq. Leaked in 2010, these suggested the US military was responsible for killing hundreds of civilians in incidents during the war in Afghanistan that had hitherto gone unreported. Files on the Iraq war revealed that 66,000 civilians had been killed (a higher number than previously reported) and that prisoners had been tortured by Iraqi forces.

Assange gives a presentation in 2010 to detail the leaks of US military documents
He gave a presentation in 2010 to detail the leak of US military documents - Dan Kitwood/Getty

One particularly shocking revelation came in the form of a video from a US military helicopter showing civilians and two Reuters journalists being shot dead. All this information, said supporters, told an important story about how the US waged war, and allowed the public to see what was really going on and judge accordingly. This was public service journalism writ large, said defenders of the project.

“WikiLeaks has revealed that we have been told a great many lies about the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and that there has been little accountability,” the screenwriter and producer Jemima Goldsmith wrote in 2010. “The best justification governments can find to shut down information is that lives are at risk. In fact, lives have been at risk as a result of the silences and lies revealed in these leaks.”

Reporters Without Borders has hailed Assange for exposing war crimes and human rights abuses. They welcome his release as a victory for press freedom. Making the case for its own existence, the WikiLeaks website has declared in the past: “We believe that transparency in government activities leads to reduced corruption, better government and stronger democracies.” All governments can benefit from increased scrutiny by the world community and their own people, it argued. “We believe this scrutiny requires information.”

Certainly, they had information, and lots of it. In 2008, WikiLeaks published the names, addresses and contact details of more than 13,000 British National Party members. In 2015, it leaked more than 170,000 emails and 20,000 documents from Sony Pictures revealing, among other things, that the actresses Jennifer Lawrence and Amy Adams were paid less than their male co-stars in the film American Hustle.

But by then, Assange was already fighting off what he and his supporters saw as high level attempts to silence him. In 2010, he was accused by the Swedish authorities of raping one woman and molesting another while living there. He has always denied the allegations, which were later dropped, but the UK’s Supreme Court decided he should be extradited to Sweden for questioning.

Wife of Julian Assange, Stella Morris leaves the City of Westminster Magistrates Court in London
Assange's wife, Stella, a human rights lawyer, has spent years fighting the extradition charges - Rasid Necati Aslim/Getty

Assange took refuge in the Ecuadorean embassy in west London, where he remained for seven years. He feared the real goal of this “politically motivated smear campaign” was to extradite him to the US to face charges of espionage. So began a protracted legal battle that kept Assange in limbo for 14 years.

Appalled at what they saw as an attempt to incarcerate an innocent man – and a threat to free speech and press freedom – high-profile supporters stepped in to offer sureties when Assange made an unsuccessful plea for bail in 2010. They included Khan Goldsmith, the filmmaker Ken Loach, who offered £20,000 and the journalist John Pilger. “I think we are entitled to know the dealings of those that govern us,” said Loach.

Assange the info anarchist: ‘He endangered the lives of our troops’

A bearded Assange grins and winks at the camera through a car window
Assange gestures to the press after being arrested inside the Ecuadorian embassy in London in 2019 - Jack Taylor/Getty

The criticism of Assange is at least as vociferous as the support. “Julian Assange is no journalist,” said John Demers, the then-top US Justice Department national security official, in 2019. “No responsible actor, journalist or otherwise, would purposely publish the names of individuals he or she knew to be confidential human sources in war zones, exposing them to the gravest of dangers.”

His argument lies at the heart of much of the criticism of Assange: that his reckless publication of sensitive material endangered the lives of US military personnel and the security of the country. Assange, his critics said, showed no regard for how his actions could impact others. Names of Afghans and Iraqis who provided information to US and coalition forces were included in some of the published documents, they pointed out.

Assange leaves Belmarsh Magistrates' Court flanked by police
Leaving Belmarsh Magistrates' Court in 2011 after a hearing concerning the allegations made against him in Sweden - Lefteris Pitarakis/AP Photo

Both soldiers and citizens were put at serious risk of harm, torture and death, said the US authorities, who charged him with 18 offences under the Espionage Act of 1917. Human rights activists, religious leaders and dissidents in repressive regimes were also exposed by some of the diplomatic cables leaked on his site.

“Julian Assange endangered the lives of our troops in a time of war and should have been prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law,” Mike Pence, the former Republican vice-president, wrote on Tuesday.

Meanwhile, James Clapper, a former US director of national intelligence, told CNN: “He’s paid his dues.”

As time went on, even some of Assange’s early supporters fell away, including some of the journalists who had worked with him. James Ball, a former WikiLeaks employee and “no fan of Assange” (in his own words), wrote in The Atlantic in 2019: “You do not have to spend a long time in a room with Julian Assange to realise that he will be difficult. It takes a little longer, though, to realise just how difficult dealing with him can be.”

Ball went on to detail how the journalists Assange worked with wanted to redact information in the leaked documents that could put innocent people at risk, while WikiLeaks wanted to publish everything regardless.

Assange shows off his ankle security tag
Under house arrest near Bungay, England, before he sought refuge at the Ecuadorian embassy - AP Photo/Kirsty Wigglesworth

In the run-up to the US presidential election in 2016, WikiLeaks released a cache of damaging emails hacked from the account of John Podesta, the campaign boss for Democrat candidate Hillary Clinton. The documents had been stolen by Russian government hackers.

The following year, Mike Pompeo, the then CIA director, said: “It is time to call out WikiLeaks for what it really is: a non-state hostile intelligence service often abetted by state actors like Russia.”

Assange had just published an opinion piece in the Washington Post, in which he wrote: “WikiLeaks’s sole interest is expressing constitutionally protected truths.”