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The Summer WikiLeaks Went Crazy

The organization is fanning the flames of a conspiracy theory that Clinton murdered a DNC staffer. This isn’t whistleblowing—it’s madness

Like a lot of us, Julian Assange has had a weird summer. The editor-in-chief of WikiLeaks, leaker of Democratic National Committee (DNC) emails, and expert satellite interviewee added a cherry atop his recent sundae of provocative behavior earlier this week when, in an interview with a Dutch newscast called Nieuwsuur, he implied that a murdered DNC staffer had been a source for his organization.

“Whistleblowers often take very significant efforts to bring us material and often at very significant risks,” Assange said over satellite in his usual pixelated form. “There’s a 27-year-old who works for the DNC and who was shot in the back, murdered, just a few weeks ago, for unknown reasons as he was walking down the streets in Washington.”

Ok, duuuude. This is a totally insane connection to make, really; one Trump-esque in its reckless provocation. The victim, Seth Rich, did voter outreach for the DNC. On July 10, returning home to a townhouse in the Bloomingdale neighborhood of Washington, D.C., an apparent armed robbery culminated in his tragic murder. The case remains unsolved, and WikiLeaks joined the D.C. police department in offering a $20,000 reward for information that leads to a suspect’s capture.

[quote position="left" is_quote="true"][This is] weaponized transparency, where exfiltrated data is released to sabotage a political target.[/quote]

Wikileaks has since walked back Assange’s comments, but it’s the implication from Assange that Rich was somehow murdered because he was a WikiLeaks source or blown informant of the FBI that has raised so many disgusted eyebrows. WikiLeaks’ amplification of the thoroughly debunked conspiracy gives voice to amateur sleuths and social media kooks. Days after the shooting, the internet did its thing, pushing theories with no evidence to the absolute brink of believability. Conspiracies, by definition, should live on the fringes of society. Yet few can deny a wild story, and for bodies like WikiLeaks (or politicians like, say, Donald Trump), there’s newscycles to dominate by feeding the beast.

It’s yet another politicized move which shows the DNC and, in particular, the campaign of Hillary Clinton firmly locked in the transparency-spouting organization’s crosshairs. In a recent interview on Real Time With Bill Maher, Assange repeatedly hammered the DNC for conspiring against the presidential campaign of Bernie Sanders. The emails expressed derision, sure, and a few (like one from staff member Brad Marshall where he floats the idea of using Sanders’ atheism as a wedge issue) were downright offensive to the point that Debbie Wasserman Schultz, chair of the Committee, had to step down. But Assange has vastly overstated their damning qualities.

Those emails were undeniably newsworthy, but Assange’s extracurricular media-baiting has begun to undermine the credibility of his organization. Alex Howard, a senior analyst at the Sunlight Foundation, a nonprofit advocating for government transparency, explained to me how politicization could ruin WikiLeaks’ stated mission. “The hack of the Democratic National Committee was not the work of a whistleblower sharing private correspondence or records documenting corruption with a journalist,” he said. “We have referred to it as ‘weaponized transparency,’ where exfiltrated data is released to sabotage a political target.”

[quote position="right" is_quote="true"]The DNC is not a government agency, legislative body or court, subject to Freedom of Information laws.[/quote]

“In that vein,” said Howard, “some of Wikileaks' recent activity suggests the organization has evolved from being a platform for whistleblowers to securely leak documents that expose corruption or crime to playing a more overtly partisan political role, which has led to concerns within the open government world.”

WikiLeaks timed the DNC email leak so it would chew-up headlines during the Democratic National Convention. And now, as the general election kicks into high gear, Assange is suggesting they are somehow maybe connected to the murder of their own staffer? It’s like he recently completed an internship with Sean Hannity. One can’t trust in an organization that promises to hold all governments and parties accountable when it is so clearly bullying just one, even when that one requires deep scrutiny.

“The DNC is not a government agency, legislative body or court, subject to Freedom of Information laws,” Howard continued. “It is, however, the organizing body of one of the two major political parties of the United States. Its operations, legitimacy, and policies have a significant impact on our society. Accountability for the party is therefore critically important, but it must be done in a thoughtful way that minimizes harms and maximizes the public interest.”

It’s in navigating the path for this “thoughtful way” where WikiLeaks can veer off course. The organization’s document dumps often include personal information on private citizens. It infamously refuses to redact or, as famed whistleblower Edward Snowden recently put it while criticizing their techniques, “curate” its information. This means its leaks can put regular, innocent people in danger if they fall into the wrong hands.

Assange has chosen being a troll over being thoughtful. WikiLeaks provides an invaluable service for citizens all over the world, yet it’s also now a threat to their privacy as well as their governments. It’s no wonder many hackers and whistleblowers have chosen competing outlets for their document leaks in recent years. Assange, with his provocative timing and embrace of conspiracies, makes that choice even easier. Howard’s characterization of “weaponized transparency” is right.

WikiLeaks has gone from an untampered spotlight to a weapon, and as long Assange has his satellite primed, it’s best to make sure he is denied the ammunition he needs to survive.

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