Free Press Group Ready to Cut Off WikiLeaks
The Freedom of the Press Foundation routed half a million dollars to WikiLeaks. But Assange’s embrace of Trump split the group’s board, and now it’s on the verge of a major break.
In the heat of the presidential election campaign last year, Xeni Jardin, a journalist and free speech advocate, developed a sickening feeling about WikiLeaks.
Jardin had been a supporter of the radical transparency group since at least 2010, when it published hundreds of thousands of U.S. military and State Department documents leaked by Chelsea Manning. In 2012, Jardin was a founding member of the board of the Freedom of the Press Foundation, a nonprofit established as a censorship-proof conduit for donations to WikiLeaks after PayPal and U.S. credit card companies imposed a financial blockade on the site.
But during the election season, Jardin noticed WikiLeaks veering violently off its original mission of holding governments and corporations to account. Beginning in July of last year, Julian Assange, WikiLeaks’ driving force, began releasing a cache of stolen email from the Democratic National Committee, and injecting WikiLeaks’ influential Twitter feed with the kind of alt-right rhetoric and conspiracy theories once reserved for Breitbart and InfoWars.
“Suddenly the voice of WikiLeaks seemed to be all about questioning one candidate—Hillary Clinton—and doing so in a way that was designed to benefit the other,” Jardin recalled to The Daily Beast. “The tone also seemed to echo some of the language on the far right. So when the guy in the Ecuadorian embassy in London, who is normally of the extreme left, is echoing Nazi publications, something is wrong.”
Her misgivings eventually led to a tense confrontation with Assange and touched off a year-long debate among the directors at the Freedom of the Press Foundation, which has handled around $500,000 in individual donations for WikiLeaks over the last five years. Now the foundation acknowledges it’s on the brink of ending its assistance to WikiLeaks, on the grounds that the financial censorship Assange faced in 2012 is no longer in place.
“At our last board meeting in October 2017, a consensus arose that we could not find any evidence of an ongoing blockade involving PayPal, Visa, or Mastercard,” wrote Trevor Timm, co-founder and executive director of the Freedom of the Press Foundation, in a statement to The Daily Beast. “We decided we would therefore formally notify WikiLeaks that unless they could demonstrate that a blockade was still in effect, we would no longer provide a mechanism for people to donate to them.”
The practical effect of the move is minimal—WikiLeaks donors in America may no longer be able to claim a tax write-off. The symbolic import is much larger. The Freedom of the Press Foundation is something of a Justice League for the online privacy, transparency, civil liberties, whistleblower, and press-rights communities. Its board of directors includes Edward Snowden, the National Security Agency whistleblower; Daniel Ellsberg of the Pentagon Papers; open-internet pioneer John Perry Barlow; Citizenfour filmmaker Laura Poitras and her fellow Intercept founder Glenn Greenwald, the two journalists to whom Snowden provided his trove; the actor/activist John Cusack; Electronic Frontier Foundation activism director Rainey Reitman; technologist Micah Lee; and journalist/activist Timm, who founded the group with Reitman. (See the disclosures at the end of this article.)
Several members of the board, including Snowden, have grown disenchanted with WikiLeaks. Snowden has for some time considered it to have strayed far from its laudatory transparency and accountability missions, sources familiar with his thinking have told The Daily Beast.
The foundation’s impending split with Assange is a microcosm of a broader anxiety over him amongst his erstwhile allies now that WikiLeaks has made common cause with extreme right-wing forces, principally Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin. Some consider WikiLeaks’ transparency mission to dwarf Assange’s personal crusades and transgressions—which go beyond politics and into allegations of sexual assault. Others consider Assange to have brought WikiLeaks, its ostensible principles, and its advocates into disrepute.
WikiLeaks’ claims to be a transparency organization suffered a body blow on Monday night. The Atlantic’s Julia Ioffe published portions of a Twitter direct-message conversation the @WikiLeaks account, an account controlled at least in part by Assange, held with Donald Trump Jr.
The correspondence lasted from at least September 2016 to July 2017. In a series of pitches to Trump’s son, @WikiLeaks provided the campaign with the guessed password of an anti-Trump political action committee. Just hours before Trump’s victory, @WikiLeaks pitched the son of the eventual president of the United States to refuse conceding the election in the event of a Trump loss and instead “CHALLENGING the media and other types of rigging that occurred.” Doing so would have plunged the U.S. into a political crisis that pundits were warning could easily turn violent.
After the election, when Trump’s fortunes had clearly turned, WikiLeaks took a new approach: It floated to Trump Jr. the trial balloon of convincing Australia to appoint Assange as its next U.S. ambassador.
The outfit that once prided itself on promoting transparency and accountability was now stirring election chaos. “It’s hard to see what principled cause is advanced by advising a losing presidential candidate to question the outcome of a democratic election,” said Ben Wizner, a senior ACLU attorney who also represents Snowden. “It was not easy for even former defenders of WikiLeaks’ mission to see Assange as a regular guest on Sean Hannity’s show,” he added.
Many of WikiLeaks’ left-wing and libertarian supporters have struggled over the years to reconcile the idea of WikiLeaks with the reality; to maintain a principled stand for free speech and transparency without seeming to endorse the whole of Assange’s personal and professional behavior.
Each WikiLeaks defender has their own internal red line. In 2010, Assange’s plans to post Army field reports that included the names of Iraqi informants led several of WikiLeaks’ key staffers, including Assange’s second-in-command, to shut down the site’s infrastructure and resign.
Later, a rape allegation in Sweden, and Assange’s decision to take refuge at the Ecuadorian embassy rather than confront the case, cost him more support, particularly as he dodged a reckoning and portrayed himself as a political prisoner. (Assange claims he evaded the case for fear Sweden would extradite him to the U.S.) Last year, Assange’s wholesale dumping of stolen DNC emails drew criticism from Edward Snowden. “Democratizing information has never been more vital, and @Wikileaks has helped,” Snowden tweeted. “But their hostility to even modest curation is a mistake.” The mild rebuke drew a sharp response from Assange: “Opportunism won’t earn you a pardon from Clinton.”
WikiLeaks’ support of Trump and the divisive rhetoric of the alt-right was the last straw for Jardin.
In July 2016, WikiLeaks began publishing the hacked emails stolen from the Democratic National Committee. In October it started rolling out the emails taken from Clinton campaign chair John Podesta. U.S. intelligence attributed both thefts to Russia’s military intelligence arm, the GRU.
But Assange didn’t content himself with the genuine news that emerged from the leaks. He supplemented it with occasional exaggerations and distortions that appeared calculated to appeal to Trump’s base. On July 22, for example, while Trump was bogged down in sexual assault allegations, Assange announced a “plot to smear @realDonaldTrump by planting fake ads for hot women in Craigslist.”
But the DNC email referenced in the tweet didn’t bear out WikiLeaks’ claim. Far from a “plot,” it was an internal proposal for a website that would highlight Trump’s record on gender issues.
In August 2016, Assange even fanned the right-wing conspiracy theory around slain Democratic Party staffer Seth Rich—a hoax that’s inflicted endless pain on Rich’s family—when he went out of his way in a television interview to imply that Rich was WikiLeaks’ source for the stolen DNC emails.
While WikiLeaks merged into the right lane, Donald Trump was increasingly drawing on the DNC and Podesta leaks on the stump, sometimes describing them accurately, sometimes not. And Trump was generous with his praise for WikiLeaks. “WikiLeaks, I love WikiLeaks,” he declared at an Oct. 10 rally in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania. Four days later in Charlotte, North Carolina: “The Hillary Clinton documents released by WikiLeaks make it more clear than ever just how much is at stake come November 8.” In the final month of the campaign, NBC reporters found, Trump referenced WikiLeaks 145 times.
Jardin, like many Americans, found Trump’s rallies deeply disturbing, with chants of “Lock Her Up,” protesters being ejected, and Trump describing his growing list of women accusers as liars. She was dismayed and angered to see WikiLeaks incorporated into the mix. She knew Assange’s embrace of Trumpism had been good for WikiLeaks’ bank account, bringing small donations back to the levels of the Chelsea Manning era for the first time in years, and it bothered her that a nonprofit she served was helping Assange reap that windfall.
She voiced some of her frustration in a tweet during the Charlotte rally. “Trump, his sons, and his surrogates are now dropping WikiLeaks into their anti-American rants like a hashtag,” Jardin commented. “Strangest of bedfellows.”
Assange was watching.
He responded in a series of direct messages to Jardin, at first referencing himself in the third person and the majestic plural, as he often does. “Since JA has never met or spoken to you we find it odd you should hold such a view,” read the message. “So what’s it based on?”
The messages went on to suggest Jardin praise Trump and his people for “doing something useful for once” by promoting WikiLeaks, “instead of, outrageously, suggesting that it is some form of anti-Americanism.”
“Hi there Julian. Is that a command?” Jardin shot back.
“If you can’t support the organization FPF [Freedom of the Press Foundation] was founded to support perhaps you should resign,” wrote Assange. After a pause, he repeated the suggestion. “You have a duty as a board member. If you can’t dispense it, perhaps you should resign.”
Knowing Assange’s reputation for vindictiveness, Jardin interpreted the messages as a personal threat.
She politely asked Assange not to contact her again, and then forwarded the exchange to the foundation’s board. “Oh my god,” replied Cusack, a friend of Jardin who’d joined the board at her invitation. “The only thing one can say is the pressure on him is incredible and everyone has a breaking point.” (Cusack declined to comment for this story; Assange did not immediately respond to a request to do so.)
The next month, nine days after Trump’s election victory, Freedom of the Press Foundation held its board meeting. Jardin brought up the issue of Assange, his messages to her, and the foundation’s continued support of WikiLeaks.
Much had changed since the foundation was formed. Today it has a $1.5 million annual budget and a staff of 15. Taking donations for WikiLeaks and other groups has become only a tiny part of the foundation’s work. In 2013, for example, the foundation took over development of SecureDrop, an open-source tool designed to make it safer for whistleblowers to submit information to reporters. Under the foundation’s stewardship, SecureDrop today is running in dozens of newsrooms, including The New York Times, The Washington Post, the Associated Press, and Bloomberg.
The question for the board at that post-election meeting was straightforward, if not simple: Should the foundation continue to process payments for WikiLeaks and Assange? Was there still a need, and was WikiLeaks still “a multi-national media organization and associated library,” as described on the foundation’s website, or had it become something else, something less journalistic, during the election?
“When the election reached its conclusion and WikiLeaks kept doing what it was doing publicly, I felt a sense of revulsion,” recalled Jardin, telling her story for the first time. “When our board meeting came up, I assumed that everybody else felt the same way.”
To Jardin’s dismay, they did not.
There was support and empathy on the board for Jardin, according to multiple sources, and a spectrum of perspectives on WikiLeaks. But Micah Lee was the only board member at the meeting to agree the time had come to cut ties. “Protecting free press rights for publishers we disagree with is important,” Lee told The Daily Beast, “but that doesn’t mean WikiLeaks should be able to harass our board members without consequences.”
While several on the board acknowledged that Assange had flown off the handle at Jardin, years of experience with the WikiLeaks founder had built up a certain emotional callus toward his histrionics. “At one point or another, we have all felt personally aggrieved by Julian,” Greenwald told The Daily Beast. Sympathy for Jardin over Assange’s DMs couldn’t become a reason for a free-press organization to take action.
“The contributions that WikiLeaks receives come from individual donors,” board member Rainey Reitman said in an interview. “We would be silencing readers of WikiLeaks who were trying to show their support.”
Similarly, WikiLeaks’ support for Trump could not become a reason for the foundation to cut off Assange. It would, several felt, set a dangerous precedent if the board tacitly affirmed that only some forms of published political content deserved press-freedom support. Such a move could risk undermining the Freedom of the Press Foundation.
But there was substantial support for taking up a more pragmatic question, one that hearkened back to the very reason the Freedom of the Press Foundation came into existence in the first place: whether WikiLeaks still needed the foundation to route donations to it.
In 2012, WikiLeaks had been facing financial strangulation after PayPal, Visa, and Mastercard bent to congressional pressure and stopped accepting donations for the secret-spilling site, and for the German Wau Holland Foundation, which handled most of WikiLeaks’ finances. That financial censorship, effectively imposed by the U.S. government, but without the checks and balances of a judicial process, appeared no less ominous four years later.
By all evidence, though, that financial blockade dissolved years earlier, in 2013, after an Icelandic technology firm that processed payments for WikiLeaks won a lawsuit against the credit card companies. An archived copy of WikiLeaks’ donation page from just before the 2016 board meeting shows the organization once again accepting credit card and PayPal donations through Wau Holland, in addition to taking contributions through Freedom of the Press. WikiLeaks was no longer even claiming the blockade was still an issue.
BitCoin, too, has emerged as a popular conduit for WikiLeaks cash, and records indicate the group has received a total of 4,025 BTC through its public wallet address—roughly $29 million by current exchange rates.
Lee argued to his fellow board members that the rationale for supporting WikiLeaks had become obsolete. By the end of the meeting, the board had agreed to study the issue. “We resolved as a board to investigate this question to determine whether such a blockade still existed,” Timm said.
Jardin says she felt unsupported in the meeting, and four days later she told the foundation she was taking a leave of absence. Jardin is a cancer survivor, and she was then battling life threatening side-effects from treatment. “There is nothing like the threat of death to help you clarify what you spend your time on,” she says. On Dec. 2, she quietly resigned from the board, citing her health.
After Jardin stepped down, the board continued to chew over the issues she’d raised, albeit slowly. By the board’s last meeting late this summer, it determined that it couldn’t verify that the blockade against WikiLeaks still existed. The foundation drew up plans to tell WikiLeaks that if it couldn’t present evidence of a blockade, the Freedom of the Press Foundation would end its WikiLeaks donation channel—a decision that will mark a milestone for both organizations.
The foundation hastens to point out that Assange’s personal actions and politics are irrelevant to its decision. “Like every board, our members have a variety of opinions,” said Timm, “but our primary motivation as an organization has never been whether we agree with everything that WikiLeaks does or says.” But there’s no denying that some on the board have soured on WikiLeaks. Snowden, sources close to him tell The Daily Beast, has felt for a long time that Assange has taken WikiLeaks far from a positive, constructive vision of what Snowden believes WikiLeaks could or should be.
The foundation’s angst mirrors that of the larger community of former WikiLeaks supporters. The leaked messages between Assange and Trump Jr. recently prompted Pierre Omidyar, the billionaire backer of The Intercept, to tweet that they “disqualify” WikiLeaks from being considered a media organization. After Assange defended his election-chaos pitch as intended to “generate a transformative discussion about corrupt media, corrupt PACs and primary corruption,” Omidyar shot back: “Isn’t this an invitation to conspire to knowingly and falsely accuse election officials and a variety of people of fraud?”
James Ball worked for WikiLeaks before becoming a journalist with The Guardian and BuzzFeed U.K. It has become astonishing, he said, to watch someone who has thundered against journalists for unethical behavior turn around and pitch a potential source on securing an ambassadorship for himself.
What Ball called “the tragedy of WikiLeaks” is that transparency and accountability “are good principles, and lots of people have defended WikiLeaks because they believe in those principles and hoped [Assange] did, too. This is the final mark of someone who’s in it for himself,” Ball said. “He’s a sad man in a broom cupboard.”
For her part, Jardin takes no satisfaction in WikiLeaks’ potential expulsion, which she thinks comes at least a year too late.
“I don’t think that Julian Assange should be in solitary confinement,” says Jardin. “I feel awful for him, I bear him no ill will. But my loyalty is to my country. My loyalty is to my community… You can’t fight the kind of repression Trump represents and indirectly assist it.”
DISCLOSURE: One of this article’s co-authors helped develop the open-source project that became SecureDrop, and later handed it off to the Freedom of the Press Foundation. Additionally, he formerly sat on the foundation’s technical advisory panel, and has made small donations to the organization. The other co-author reported on Edward Snowden’s leaks with Greenwald, Poitras, and Ball at The Guardian, where Timm is a columnist.