Julian Assange, Donald Trump, and Vladimir Putin: A Troika for Our Insane Era
It would almost be heart-warming that one media-obsessed megalomaniac has finally found his equal were it not for the fact that one is now within 6 percentage points of the American presidency and the other is Julian Assange.
The WikiLeaks founder and “editor in chief” took to CNN and NBC’s Meet the Press this weekend to explain his reason for releasing the Democratic National Committee’s hacked emails and to answer questions about whether they were obtained through the Russian intelligence services. In an answer to the first question, Assange told Anderson Cooper on Friday evening that he felt an obligation to WikiLeaks’ “readers” and that the decision to publish the emails just hours before Hillary Clinton accepted her party’s nomination was indeed opportunistic. “If we published after, you can just imagine how outraged the Democratic voting population would have been,” Assange said. “It had to have been before.”
Very well, then. On the question of how his organization came into possession of this privileged correspondence, Assange told Cooper that he “can’t comment on anything that might reflect on sourcing to rule things in or rule things out.” So he won’t say if Vladimir Putin’s domestic and military intelligence agencies hacked the DNC, as a growing list of U.S. officials, independent cybersecurity analysts, and now Clinton herself believe, and—as is farther from being proven—handed everything they found to a digital collective ostensibly committed to total “transparency,” for the purpose of influencing a foreign election.
Assange has made his contempt for Clinton explicit. In a recent interview with British ITV’s Robert Peston, he said he believed the former secretary of state was trying to have him indicted for publishing U.S. diplomatic cables and military documents five years ago. He also chided Clinton for her support of the Libya intervention and her record as a “liberal war hawk.” On the WikiLeaks website, he described her as the candidate for “endless, stupid war,” writing that Clinton “shouldn’t be let near a gun shop, let alone an army. And she certainly should not become president of the United States.”
When Peston asked about Trump, however, Assange was cagier, declining to say whether he prefers the Manhattan real estate developer as the next commander in chief. Trump, he merely submitted, is “completely unpredictable” against the known quantity that is Clinton.
There has been a surfeit of discussion and debate in the press lately about Trump’s financial and political closeness to the Putin regime, much of it centered on whether the GOP nominee is a “Manchurian candidate”—a navel-gazing and pointless exercise, as Mikhail Zygar, one of Russia’s top Kremlinologists, more or less showed in Politico last week. Trump is the ideal candidate for Putin because he is, in the Kremlin’s opinion, “extremely pragmatic, extremely unprincipled and extremely cynical—which makes him easier to reach an understanding with. Not to mention that Trump, unlike Clinton and just about the entire rest of the Washington foreign policy class, has explicitly expressed admiration and sympathy for Putin.”
Trump certainly campaigns increasingly as if he holds dearer Putin’s national security interests than he does America’s.
Leave aside the now-ancient scandal about defending Article V of the Atlantic Charter in the event that Baltic NATO allies are invaded by Russia. Trump has schizophrenically characterized a prior invasion as both no cause for bilateral discomfort and ontologically void.
At a press conference on July 27, following his own nominating convention, Trump claimed that he will be “looking into” whether the United States should end sanctions on the Russia over its invasion of a neighboring country and perhaps also recognize Crimea as Russian Federation territory, a position that not even Beijing has brought itself to espouse owing to its own fears of Russian meddling in the Far East.
In a separate interview just days later with ABC’s George Stephanopoulos, Trump actually denied that Russian soldiers are currently in Ukraine, against the logic of his prior statement and all evidence to the contrary—including Putin’s own belated admission about the seizure of Crimea through force two years ago. Moreover, Trump vowed that Putin is “not gonna go into Ukraine, all right. You can mark it down.”
Assange’s curious relationship with the Russian government is both older and more fully ventilated, although it’s worth reviewing in light of his return to the prime-time spotlight and refusal to disclaim that Putin’s spooks gave him his latest scoop.
Where WikiLeaks may have once advertised itself as a categorical enemy of state atrocities, hypocrisies, and lies—and once did indeed do a public service—it now behaves as if it honors this noble raison d’etre selectively. It had little regard for the massive “Panama Papers” disclosures of offshore asset-keeping, much of it belonging to Kremlin insiders. It tweeted, without evidence, that the disclosures were funded by the U.S. government through USAID as an “attack story on Putin.” (Assange is widely believed to personally man the organization’s social media account.)
Assange also had a short-lived talk show that was broadcast on the Kremlin-funded propaganda network RT, which has assiduously pushed Trump’s candidacy. The first guest was Hezbollah Secretary-General Hassan Nasrallah, a U.S.-designated terrorist who many sympathetic TV presenters in Middle East have not been granted access to but RT’s producers managed to reach in his hideaway bunker in Lebanon and beam his chubby visage into Norfolk, England, where Assange stayed prior to his arrival at the Ecuadorian embassy in London, where he has been holed up since 2012, evading extradition to Sweden on sexual assault allegations.
Not that the Ecuadorian government is terribly indulgent of its “guest.” According to the journal Focus Ecuador, within months of Assange’s asylum being issued by Quito, the country’s intelligence agency SENAIN started spying on him in the Knightsbridge embassy in an operation dubbed “Hotel.” According to Focus Ecuador, “In some instances, [Assange] requested that he be able to choose his own Security Service inside the embassy, suggesting the use of Russians. For the SENAIN agents, such choice would have meant, among other problems, the loss of control of the Embassy itself, leaving the ‘guest’ free access to control and manage the flow of information. The report even asserts that it would have been the equivalent of ‘a coup in the embassy.’” (A full English translation of that article can be found here.)
The periodical did not further speculate about why someone so concerned with being safe from the long reach of government spies and operatives was seeking the protection of a security service known for surveilling, kidnapping, and killing its own citizens, both at home and abroad.
Assange has also said it was his idea for Edward Snowden to seek asylum not in Ecuador but in Russia. “He preferred Latin America,” the Australian said in August 2015, “but my advice was that he should take asylum in Russia despite the negative PR consequences, because my assessment is that he had a significant risk he could be kidnapped from Latin America on CIA orders. Kidnapped or possibly killed.”
As proof that WikiLeaks played a role in orchestrating Snowden’s asylum case, Assange dispatched one of the organization’s representatives, the British journalist Sarah Harrison, to accompany the former NSA spy on his journey to Sheremetyevo Airport in Moscow. Harrison also turned up at a press conference with him there.
It remains a mystery how Harrison was granted a visa to Moscow when her employer boasts of its mission of stealing state secrets for publication and when investigative journalists on foreign passports who do far less than that are denied entry to Russia or get expelled or, in extreme cases, murdered.
We also have WikiLeaks’s one-time content aggregator in Putin-land, Israel Shamir, whose name was conspicuously absent on CNN until I mentioned it on Saturday.
As the organization’s former enlistee James Ball put in the Guardian, “a self-styled Russian ‘peace campaigner’ with a long history of antisemitic writing, Shamir was introduced to the team under the pseudonym Adam, and it was only several weeks after he had left—with a huge cache of unredacted [U.S. State Department] cables—that most of us started to find out who he was.”
This was a Google search’s worth of work, really. Shamir’s views seem to both anticipate and underscore those of the “alt-right” Trump support wing on social media. Daily Beast columnist Michael Moynihan ably catalogued his fascism in Reason magazine. Shamir believes that Auschwitz was not a Nazi death camp but rather a Red Cross-overseen “internment facility”; that all Muslims and Christians are duty-bound to deny that the Shoah ever took place; that The Protocols of the Elders of Zion is not a debunked tsarist fabrication but actually a Jewish manual for world domination; and that Jews themselves are a “virus in human form.”
Shamir’s son, the fabulist hack Johannes Wahlström, has also been identified as WikiLeaks’ spokesman in Sweden.
Father and son appear to have found a boss who has himself floated perilously close into the same orbit of bigoted lunacy. According to Ian Hislop, the editor of Britain’s Private Eye, Assange accused that venerable satirical weekly of being “part of a conspiracy led by the Guardian which included journalist David Leigh, [former] editor Alan Rusbridger and John Kampfner from Index on Censorship—all of whom ‘are Jewish.’” (In fact, Rusbridger is not Jewish, but Assange explained that he nevertheless qualifies as a member of the tribe by being the brother-in-law of David Leigh, another Guardianista, who is.) Assange denied saying any such things, but the WikiLeaks Twitter account, widely believed to be personally manned by Assange, has now taken to trafficking in overt anti-Semitism of its own. It recently referring to its critics as "establishment climbers" with "3 (((brackets around their names)))" and "black-rim glasses." (The brackets symbol is used by the pro-Trump alt-right to denote suspected Jews online; it has been reclaimed proudly by Jewish Twitter users as a symbol of defiance, which WikiLeaks/Assange has labeled "tribalist.")
The Guardian, meanwhile, long ago learned that its erstwhile media partner has a rather cavalier attitude about protecting innocents mentioned in classified texts he disseminates. Afghans who risked Taliban reprisals by working with U.S. and NATO forces were “informants,” Assange has said, according to Leigh and Luke Harding, a British reporter who was chucked out of Russia for writing truthfully about Putin. “So, if they get killed, they’ve got it coming to them. They deserve it.”
Which makes it rather adorable that Assange insisted to Brian Stelter that WikiLeaks had a “10-year record of presenting totally accurate information to the public.” Some members of the “public” have even got advance copies.
In December 2010, the odious Shamir went to Belarus with the bundle of unredacted cables Ball mentioned, all of which were drafted in Minsk. According to journalist Kapil Komireddi, Shamir then met with Vladimir Makei, the chief of staff of Belarusian dictator Alexander Lukashenko, and turned over everything he had, featuring the names of prominent Belarusian dissidents and opposition figures who had met with U.S. diplomats over the years. Then Shamir hung around to monitor the country’s forthcoming presidential election, which was as free and fair as you’d expect in a country whose secret police are still known as the KGB. Lukashenko of course “won,” with 80 percent of the vote, and imprisoned his closest rival, my friend Andrei Sannikov, who was subsequently tortured in jail.
As Komireddi noted, Shamir’s hand-delivery of cables to what was then an uncomplicated pro-Putin satellite regime was more to bolster a crackdown on political freedom after the fact rather than furnish an enemies’ list. “Soviet Belarus, a state-run newspaper,” Komireddi wrote, “began serializing what it claimed to be extracts from the cables gifted to Lukashenko by Shamir. Among the figures ‘exposed’ as recipients of foreign cash were Sannikov, the defeated opposition presidential candidate; Oleg Bebenin, Sannikov’s press secretary, who was found dead in suspicious circumstances months before the elections; and Vladimir Neklyayev, the writer and former president of Belarus PEN, who also ran against Lukashenko and is now under house arrest.”
Shamir, unsurprisingly, has nothing but praise for Putin. Ukraine’s Euromaidan revolution he calls a “Neocon-led conspiracy in Kiev” led by “Brown storm-troopers.” He also joyously presents the sham “referendum” held in occupied Crimea as almost unanimously in favor of joining Russia.
Since Russian occupation, Crimea has become a mafia statelet where activists are arrested and tortured, and Russia’s satrapy has banned the indigenous Tatar majlis (or legislature) and incarcerated several of that antique Muslim community’s most prominent figures—on the eve of the anniversary of Stalin’s 1944 deportation and genocide of Crimean Tatars, no less.
In our era of ideological insanity, I suppose we shouldn’t be surprised that a bizarre mind-meld has taken place among such a troika of world-historical solipsists: one in charge of 11 time zones and many nuclear weapons; one confined to a Third World mission and still hungry for press clippings; and one who thinks that wars only exist depending on the time of day and his own particular mood. Now we find Trump surrogates on CNN denying that Russia ever seized Crimea in the first place, which exculpates the Kremlin from any unpleasantness visited upon the peninsula, while Paul Manafort smiles and says he knows nothing about Russian hackers or any money trail leading from the campaign he manages back to Moscow. And don’t expect to find one, Manafort adds, as Trump won’t be releasing his tax returns, after all.