Reports that Donald Trump offered to pardon WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange if he could prove that Russia didn’t hack Democratic National Committee caused a good-sized media storm when they came out in a British court last week. But then Dana Rohrabacher, the ex-US congressman supposedly serving as a go-between, issued an all-points denial, and the tempest blew over as fast as it arose.
But that doesn’t mean that the Russia-WikiLeaks story is kaput. To the contrary, it’s still brimming with unanswered questions no matter how much the corporate media wishes they would go away.
The most important question is the simplest: why didn’t Special Prosecutor Robert Mueller sit down with Julian Assange and ask him about the 20,000 DNC emails himself?
It’s not as if Assange would have said no. According to Craig Murray, the former British diplomat who serves as an unofficial WikiLeaks spokesman, he “was very willing to give evidence to Mueller, which could have been done by video-link, by interview in the [Ecuadorean] Embassy, or by written communication.” While Assange refuses as a matter of policy to disclose his sources, he had already made a partial exception in the case of the DNC by declaring, “Our source is not a state party.” Conceivably, he had more to say along such lines, information that Mueller might have then used to determine what role, if any, Russia played in the email release.
But he didn’t bother. Without making the slightest effort to get Assange’s side of the story, he assembled page after page of evidence purporting to show that WikiLeaks had collaborated with Russian intelligence in order to disseminate stolen material. Rather than an organization dedicated to exposing official secrets so that voters could learn what their government was really up to, WikiLeaks, in the eyes of the special prosecutor, was the opposite: an organization seeking to help Russia pull the wool over people’s eyes so they would vote for Donald Trump.
This is the super-sensational charge that has roiled US politics since 2016. Yet there is little to back it up.
Even though Mueller is confident that the Russian military intelligence agency known as the GRU routed the emails to WikiLeaks, for instance, he still hasn’t figured out how. “Both the GRU and WikiLeaks sought to hide their communications, which has limited the [Special Prosecutor’s] Office’s ability to collect all of the communications between them,” his report confesses on page 45. “The Office cannot rule out that stolen documents were transferred to WikiLeaks through intermediaries who visited during the summer of 2016,” it adds on page 47. “For example, public reporting identified Andrew Müller-Maguhn as a WikiLeaks associate who may have assisted with the transfer of these stolen documents to WikiLeaks.”
But Müller-Maguhn, a German cyber-expert who has worked with WikiLeaks for years, dismisses any such suggestion as “insane,” a claim the Mueller report makes no effort to rebut. The public is thus left with a blank where a dotted trail the GRU and WikiLeaks ought to be. Then there’s the issue of chronology. The Mueller report says that a GRU website known as DCLeaks.com reached out to WikiLeaks on June 14, 2016, with an offer of “sensitive information” related to Hillary Clinton. Considering that WikiLeaks would release a treasure trove of DNC emails on July 22, less than seven weeks later, the implication that the GRU was the source does not, at first glance, seem implausible.
But hold on. Although the report doesn’t mention it, Assange told a British TV station on June 12: “We have upcoming leaks in relation to Hillary Clinton, which is great.” Either he was amazingly clairvoyant in foreseeing an offer that the GRU would make two days hence or he got the material from someone else.
To be sure, the Mueller report adds that an alleged Russian intelligence “cutout” known as Guccifer 2.0 sent WikiLeaks an encrypted data file on July 14, which is to say eight days prior to publication. But since WikiLeaks didn’t confirm opening the file until July 18, this means that it would have had just four days to vet thousands of emails and other documents to insure they were genuine and unaltered. If just one had turned out to be doctored, its hard-earned reputation for accuracy would have been in shreds. So the review process had to be painstaking and thorough, and four days would not be remotely enough time.
Nothing about the Mueller account – timing, plausibility, the crucial question of how the stolen DNC emails made their way to WikiLeaks – adds up. Yet Mueller went public with it regardless. Which leads to another question: why?
One reason is because he knew he could get away with it, at least temporarily, since it was clear that corporate media howling for Trump’s scalp would accept whatever he put out as gospel. But another is that he’s a dutiful servant of the ruling class. After all, Mueller is the person who, as FBI director from 2001 to 2013, spent much of his time covering up Saudi Arabia’s not-inconsiderable role in 9/11, as investigative reporter James Ridgeway has pointed out on a number of occasions. Mueller is also the man who assured the Senate Intelligence Committee in February 2003 that “Iraq’s WMD program poses a clear threat to our national security,” a claim that the upcoming Iraqi invasion would reveal as fraudulent to the core.
Toeing the official line is therefore more important in his book than telling the truth. This is why he didn’t sit down with Assange – because he was afraid of what he might tell him. In January 2017, the CIA, NSA, and FBI officially reported that “Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered an influence campaign in 2016” and “that Russian military intelligence … used the Guccifer 2.0 persona and DCLeaks.com” to relay stolen computer data to WikiLeaks. Four months later, then-CIA Director Mike Pompeo went even farther by describing WikiLeaks as “a non-state hostile intelligence service often abetted by state actors like Russia.”
This was the official narrative that Mueller felt dutybound to defend when he was appointed special prosecutor a month after Pompeo made his remarks. Even though the CIA account would not hold up to close inspection, his self-perceived mission was to disregard certain facts and cherry-pick others in order to convince the public that it was true.
This leads us to a third question: how do Americans get themselves out of the hole that Mueller has dug for them? Not only does Assange face 170 years in prison for espionage, but the impact in terms of freedom of the press will be devastating. The prosecution’s case rests on an explosive theory that receiving inside information is effectively the same thing as supplying it. Just as a fence encourages people to steal, the idea is that a journalist encourages insiders to hack computers and rifle through file cabinets by offering to publish what they come up with. If upheld, it means that journalists would have to think twice before even talking to an inside for fear of incurring a similar penalty. Armed with such a legal instrument, Richard Nixon would have had no trouble dealing with Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein. He would merely have charged them with espionage and locked them away until the break-in was forgotten.
If Assange goes down, in other words, democracy will take a major hit. Yet by labeling him a Russian agent, Mueller has seen to it that liberals are as unsympathetic to his plight as the most militant conservative, if not more so. He transformed Assange into the perfect scapegoat for Democrats and Republicans to bash with bipartisan glee.
This is why a defense based purely on the First Amendment will not do. Rather, it’s important to deal with the charge of Russian collaboration that – completely unjustly – has turned him into an object of public opprobrium. It’s time to give the Mueller report the scrutiny it deserves before its collective falsehoods undermine democracy even more than they already have.