Former CIA Chief: We Must Keep Julian Assange From Becoming a Martyr

WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange after his arrest Thursday in London.

Source Jack Taylor/Getty

Why you should care

Because if this case turns into a debate over freedom of the press, it’s not good for the government.

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John McLaughlin

John McLaughlin is the former deputy director of the CIA. He writes a regular column on OZY called “Global Eye: Foreign Affairs Through an Intelligence Lens,” and teaches at the Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS).

In the wake of WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange’s arrest in London on Thursday — after spending years holed up in the Ecuadorian Embassy — OZY spoke with our resident intelligence expert, John McLaughlin, who served at the highest levels of the CIA, about Assange’s future and the impact of his disclosures over the years.

What’s next for Julian Assange after his arrest on Thursday morning?

John McLaughlin: The honest answer is we don’t know yet. The British have arrested him. There are signs that we’d like to request extradition of him for prosecution. It appears that he would be charged with aiding in the hacking of a Pentagon computer. In other words, it appears that Chelsea Manning, then Bradley Manning, sought his assistance to help decrypt a password or devise a password that would have allowed her to enter Defense Department computers and obtain more documents. The charge is definitely not about publishing documents. The U.S. government, I’m confident, is trying to avoid getting in the position of seeming to punish what some would regard as journalism. I don’t regard it as journalism but some will make that case, so I think the Justice Department is carefully walking a line here to charge only what they can credibly charge that is not a standard journalistic activity. Journalists are not permitted to assist people in hacking into government computers.

Why don’t you class WikiLeaks’ actions as journalism?

JM: I would put it more in the category of an intelligence activity. As then-CIA Director Mike Pompeo said back in 2017: “WikiLeaks walks like a hostile intelligence service and talks like a hostile intelligence service.” Assange does not scour the world looking for bad activities of all governments. He has occasionally mentioned some country other than the U.S., but the U.S. is overwhelmingly his main target, not Russia, China, Iran, Syria or North Korea — all of which have deplorable practices that he would spotlight if he were a serious journalist. And in his focus on the United States, we now know that he does this with the assistance and encouragement of the Russian intelligence service. I don’t call that journalism.

If it’s fair to break into Pentagon computers, then it’s fair to break into your computer and mine.

Real journalists, when they come upon material along the lines of what he has published, will call an intelligence agency and say, “We have acquired this material and we are going to publish it unless you can convince us that this will damage national security.” And you always have a chance to make your case. Sometimes you make your case successfully and they hold off; sometimes you don’t win your case and they publish it. I have examples in my career of both of those happening. He didn’t give anyone that chance. He just puts it out there, and even Edward Snowden said his last release of CIA hacking tools would be damaging.   

 

Do you think the U.S. government could and should charge him for publishing these secrets? 

JM: I think it’s a close call. Emotionally, I would say yes. He shouldn’t do this. Frankly, that’s such a legal question that if I were still in office, I would not answer that question in congressional testimony without clear legal guidance. 

I think what Assange is doing now and what he will do is he will seek martyr status. You can already see it in the reaction as he came out of the embassy saying, in effect, “I told you so” to his supporters who have been gathered outside. “See what they’re doing to me?’’ He will seek martyr status, and it will play to that crowd. Some people will buy it.

I’m sure they are printing up Julian Assange T-shirts now. Someone is going to try to make him a hero. There will be bumper stickers, T-shirts and cups. People need to understand one thing: This guy is not a hero. He is an anti-U.S. hacker. If it’s fair to break into Pentagon computers, then it’s fair to break into your computer and mine.

How damaging were these disclosures?

JM: I think there was varying damage. Some in the early years of WikiLeaks were embarrassing. They would publish things in which a U.S. diplomat was saying something unflattering about a foreign leader. On the intelligence front, one of the most damaging things he revealed — he somehow got his hands on hacking tools the CIA has devised, at least according to the press. The CIA has never admitted this. These tools are reportedly quite powerful and can be used by others, including a lot of the world’s bad guys.

Was he serving the public interest in any of these disclosures?

JM: I don’t think so. My view of this is of course formed by having spent so much time in the intelligence world, so I instinctively recoil from what he’s done. My view is if people believe that there is too much classification, the way to deal with that is legislatively.

Is there more Assange could tell us about what happened in 2016?

JM: Yes. I don’t know whether he would or not. In January 2017 the FBI, CIA and NSA said with high confidence — and that’s a term they don’t use lightly — that WikiLeaks was linked to the Russian military intelligence service, the GRU, and had put out the results of Russian hacking of the DNC databases using two online personages that are also linked to the Russian military intelligence service: Guccifer 2.0 and D.C. Leaks. So we have to remember that this is a guy who is responding to Russian intelligence service encouragement and support. 

There may be some basis for charging him also in connection with the hacking that occurred by the Russians during the 2016 election because of his having been ready to facilitate that somehow with publication in WikiLeaks. Again, that would raise the question of “What’s wrong with publishing?” Lawyers will have to weigh in on all of this, but maybe there is some way the Justice Department could hook him in with Guccifer and D.C. Leaks. The Mueller Report may clarify this when it finally comes out.

Are there high-fives going around at Langley today? 

JM: You’d probably like me to say high-fives [laughs]. I would say, yes, the American intelligence community probably takes a good deal of satisfaction at the thought that this guy has been apprehended.

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