LONDON — WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange first outlined the hypothesis nearly a decade ago: Can total transparency defeat an entrenched group of insiders?
“Consider what would happen,” Assange wrote in 2006, if one of America’s two major parties had their emails, faxes, campaign briefings, internal polls and donor data all exposed to public scrutiny.
“They would immediately fall into an organizational stupor,” he predicted, “and lose to the other.”
A decade later, various organs of the Democratic Party have been hacked; several staffers have resigned and Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton has seen the inner workings of her campaign exposed to the public, including disclosures calling into question her positions on trade and Wall Streetand her relationship with the party’s left . Many of these emails have been released into the public domain by WikiLeaks.
Some see the leaks as a sign that Assange has thrown his lot in with Republican rival Donald Trump or even with Russia. But others who’ve followed Assange over the years say he’s less interested in who wins high office than in exposing — and wearing down — the gears of political power that grind away behind the scenes.
“He tends not to think about people, he thinks about systems,” said Finn Brunton, an assistant professor at New York University who has tracked WikiLeaks for years. “What he wants to do is interfere with the machinery of government regardless of who is in charge.”
WikiLeaks’ mission was foreshadowed 10 years ago in “Conspiracy as Governance,” a six-page essayAssange posted to his now-defunct blog.
In the essay, Assange described authoritarian governments, corporations, terrorist organizations and political parties as “conspiracies” — groups that hoard secret information to win a competitive advantage over the general public. Leaks cut these groups open like a double-edged knife, empowering the public with privileged information while spreading confusion among the conspirators themselves, he said. If leaking were made easy, Assange argued, conspiratorial organizations would be gripped by paranoia, leaving transparent groups to flourish.
When the group published 250,000 U.S. State Department cables in 2010, it helped launch a multimillion dollar quest to unmask insider threats at home while causing problems for U.S. diplomats overseas. The recent leaks have affected the Democratic National Committee in much the same way, with staffers advised to use caution when communicating about sensitive topics.
A national flag flies outside the Ecuadorian Embassy where WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange is taking refuge, in London, Britain September 16, 2016. Photo by Peter Nicholls/REUTERS
Clinton supporters say Assange is targeting her out of partisan bias. U.S. intelligence officials believe Russia is behind the hacks to interfere in the U.S. election.
“Wouldn’t it be good reading to see internal discussions (about) Trump’s taxes?” Clinton Press Secretary Brian Fallon tweeted recently. “Wikileaks isn’t targeting Trump. That tells you something.”
It’s possible that malicious sources are using WikiLeaks for their own ends, said Lisa Lynch, an associate professor at Drew University who has also followed Assange’s career. But she noted that a lifetime far from public service and an aversion to email make Trump a more difficult target.
“If Trump had a political career, he’d be more available for Wikileaking,” she said.
Assange did not return messages seeking comment, but he has described allegations that he’s in the service of the Kremlin as a conspiracy theory and has denied picking sides in the U.S. electoral contest.
He has targeted Republican politicians in the past; in the run-up to the 2008 election his group published the contents of vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin’s inbox. Her reaction at the time anticipated the Democrats’ outrage today.
“What kind of a creep would break into a person’s files, steal them, read them, then give them to the press to broadcast all over the world to influence a presidential campaign?” Palin wrote in her autobiography, “Going Rogue.”
In fact, Assange has long tried to influence presidential campaigns. In 2007, WikiLeaks published a long-suppressed corruption report ahead of Kenya’s national elections. It unleashed a wave of anger and, Assange oftenboasts , swung the vote.
In reality, the publication barely played a role in Kenya, according to Nic Cheesman, an associate professor of African politics at Oxford University. And it’s not clear whether the recent WikiLeaks revelations will fare differently. Clinton has a commanding lead in the polls despite the leaks.
Still, Assange appears game to try. Between the DNC emails and the inbox of Clinton campaign chairman John Podesta’s messages, his organization has published 46,000 messages from some of the most powerful people in Democratic politics. More is coming. When one Twitter user noted that WikiLeaks had not published any of Podesta’s emails dating past March 21, WikiLeaks responded .
“Well spotted,” it said. “Something to look forward to.”
Amid a seemingly incessant deluge of leaks and hacks, Washington, DC staffers have learned to imagine how even the most benign email would look a week later on the homepage of a secret-spilling outfit like WikiLeaks or DCLeaks. In many cases, they've stopped emailing altogether, deleted accounts, and reconsidered dumbphones. Julian Assange—or at least, a ten-years-younger and more innocent Assange—would say he's already won.
After another week of Clinton-related emails roiling this election, the political world has been left to scrub their inboxes, watch their private correspondences be picked over in public, and psychoanalyze WikiLeaks' inscrutable founder. Once they're done sterilizing their online lives, they might want to turn to an essay Assange wrote ten years ago, laying out the endgame of his leaking strategy long before he became one of the most controversial figures on the Internet.
In "Conspiracy as Governance," which Assange posted to his blog in December 2006, the leader of then-new WikiLeaks describes what he considered to be the most effective way to attack a conspiracy—including, as he puts it, that particular form of conspiracy known as a political party.
"Consider what would happen if one of these parties gave up their mobile phones, fax and email correspondence—let alone the computer systems which manage their [subscribers], donors, budgets, polling, call centres and direct mail campaigns. They would immediately fall into an organisational stupor and lose to the other."
And how to induce that "organisational stupor?" Foment the fear that any correspondence could leak at any time.
"The more secretive or unjust an organization is, the more leaks induce fear and paranoia in its leadership and planning coterie. This must result in minimization of efficient internal communications mechanisms (an increase in cognitive 'secrecy tax') and consequent system-wide cognitive decline resulting in decreased ability to hold onto power as the environment demands adaptation."
WikiLeaks would publish its first leak the same month as that blog post, a communication from a Somalian Islamic cleric calling for political assassinations. Three years later it'd put out the Pentagon and State Department leaks provided by Chelsea Manning, and six years after that, leaked emails from the Democratic National Committee and Clinton advisor John Podesta would lead to the ousting of DNC Chairman Debbie Wasserman Schultz and shake Hillary Clinton's campaign.
It was a crappy, annoying manifesto. And it was ahead of its time by many years.
Dave Aitel, former NSA analyst
The last decade has shown just how prescient Assange was. Take, for example, the Russian hackers who published private files from the World Anti-Doping Agency after Russia's athletes got banned from the Olympics for doping. "Now a group like WADA has to take everything they say to every person into account. They have to think, this could leak," says Dave Aitel, a former NSA staffer and founder of the security firm Immunity who focuses on cyberwar and information warfare. "The idea is, 'If we can prevent them from having secrets, they have to operate very differently.'"
That move comes straight from Assange. "It was a crappy, annoying manifesto," Aitel says. "And it was ahead of its time by many years."
A spokesperson for WikiLeaks says Assange's essay was a "thought experiment" that the organization still believes to be true. "Organizations have two choices (1) reduce their levels of abuse or dishonesty or (2) pay a heavy 'secrecy tax' in order to engage in inefficient but secretive processes," the spokesperson writes. "As organizations are usually in some form of competitive equilibrium this means that, in the face of WikiLeaks, organizations that are honest will, on average, grow, while those that are dishonest and unjust will decline."
The more secretive or unjust an organization is, the more leaks induce fear and paranoia in its leadership and planning coterie.
Julian Assange, writing in 2006
Of course, Assange's claim that a political party leaks in direct proportion to its dishonesty looks almost laughable after the last several months. WikiLeaks has published leaks exclusively damaging to Clinton and the Democratic Party, while publishing nothing from Donald Trump or his campaign. (Trump has, of course, faced the leaks of his 1995 tax returns and a damning video where he brags about sexual assault. But mainstream newspapers published both, and neither came from the sort of internal communications Assange wrote about. Trump himself also famously doesn't use email, as good a security measure as anyone could hope for.)
In fact, the Department of Homeland Security and the Office of the Director of National Intelligence have both said that recent WikiLeaks releases originated with Russian state-sponsored hackers seeking to influence US electoral politics. Assange's essay doesn't account for the possibility that a government might exploit or collude with a leak platform like WikiLeaks. (WikiLeaks' spokesperson denied that there has been any "official claim that any documents published by WikiLeaks have come from a state actor," somehow ignoring last week's DHS and ODNI announcement.)
The notion in Assange's essay that only corrupt conspiracies keep secrets is one that Clinton herself has argued against—ironically, something we know because she said it in a speech whose partial transcript WikiLeaks leaked last Friday. Speaking to the National Multi-Housing Council in 2013, Clinton cited how President Lincoln secretly promised jobs to lame duck Congressmen of the opposing political party if they agreed to vote for the 13th Amendment, which ended slavery. "If everybody's watching all of the backroom discussions and the deals, you know, then people get a little nervous, to say the least," she said. "So, you need both a public and a private position."
But the other point Assange makes—the "secrecy tax" that organizations pay when they try to avoid leaks—rings true. Any organization that has tried to encrypt all its communications, delete them, or throttle, quarantine, and compartmentalize them in the name of secrecy knows the toll that paranoia takes.
"An authoritarian conspiracy that cannot think efficiently cannot act to preserve itself against the opponents it induces.... When we look at a conspiracy as an organic whole, we can see a system of interacting organs, a body with arteries and veins whose blood may be thickened and slowed till it falls, unable to sufficiently comprehend and control the forces in its environment."
Let that be a warning to the Democratic Party and any other organization with secrets to keep. If the leaks don't kill you, the fear of them just might.