When WikiLeaks surged to global prominence six years ago, it was for its work posting hundreds of thousands of pages of secret government documents about the U.S. wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, followed by a quarter million confidential cables by American diplomats. Working with major news organizations, including the New York Times, the Guardian and Der Spiegel, the site was associated both with accountability and a bold new version of “radical transparency.”
That has changed. With the publication of emails expressly aimed at damaging Hillary Clinton’s presidential candidacy, WikiLeaks has shifted from a global platform for whistle-blowers to something less exalted — and lately, a bit strange. Julian Assange, the site’s founder, hinted darkly in a Dutch television interview on Tuesday that a young Democratic National Committee staffer who had been murdered in Washington, D.C., on July 10 had been killed because he had provided information to WikiLeaks, which posted a $20,000 reward for information on the July 10 death of Seth Rich. “Whistle-blowers go to significant efforts to get us material and often very significant risks,” Assange said. “There’s a 27-year-old who works for the DNC who was shot in the back, murdered, just a few weeks ago, for unknown reasons as he was walking down the streets in Washington.”
Assange offered no support for the incendiary suggestion — “We don’t comment on who our sources are,” he coyly replied, when the Dutch interviewer pressed for details on his guest’s insinuation. Nor was the suggestion welcomed by Rich’s family, which subsequently issued a statement praising the efforts of the D.C. police, who have said they are investigating the slaying as a mugging gone bad. Rich, who had worked at the DNC since 2014, was killed at 4 a.m. while walking home, and was on the phone with his girlfriend when the fatal encounter began. “Some are attempting to politicize this horrible tragedy, and in their attempts to do so, are actually causing more harm that good and impeding on the ability for law enforcement to properly do their job,” said the statement released by Brad Bauman, a Democratic communications consultant representing the family. “For the sake of finding Seth’s killer, and for the sake of giving the family the space they need at this terrible time, they are asking for the public to refrain from pushing unproven and harmful theories about Seth’s murder.”
The episode — coming on the heels of the DNC emails Assange held for release on the eve of the Democratic convention — is seen by critics of WikiLeaks as a sign that once lauded enterprise no longer qualifies as an independent platform promoting openness. “It’s become something else,” says John Wonderlich, executive director of the Sunlight Foundation, a Washington nonprofit that advocates for transparency. “It’s not striving for objectivity. It’s more careless. When they publish information it appears to be in service of some specific goal, of retribution, at the expense of the individual.”
“On the death of staffer, that’s just to me so far over the line,” Wonderlich adds. “If they feel like they have a link to the staffer’s death, they should say it and be responsible about it. The insinuations, to me, are just disgusting.”
One measure of the uneasiness that now surrounds WikiLeaks is the difficulty of finding people who will talk about it these days. TIME approached a half dozen groups and prominent individuals who work on the same issues. Only the Sunlight Foundation responded, having earlier posted a detailed critique of the DNC leak, titled On Weaponized Transparency. The article emphasized that, by failing to hold back private information like email addresses and credit-card information, WikiLeaks poses a similar threat to privacy — if not a greater one — as the government agencies it rails against. “The Center for Responsive Politics was able to report that the DNC asked the White House to reward donors with slots on boards and commissions without exposing unnecessary personal information,” the post noted.
“I’m more afraid of WikiLeaks than I am of the NSA,” says one American privacy advocate, who would speak only without being further identified, partly out of concern about retribution. “When they first burst into our consciousness, they were acting like publishers and journalists. The idea that these rascals were turning the tables on the deep state had great emotional relevance to me. But they turned out not have any principles.”
Efforts to reach a WikiLeaks spokesperson, by phone, text and email, to comment produced no response. But both Assange and the site have been spirited to the point of anger in defending their enterprise. After a Turkish academic based in North Carolina took the site to task last month for a posting links that exposed the personal emails and phone numbers of some 20 million Turkish women, WikiLeaks pushed back hard, tweeting: “A journalist that cannot take responsibility for their errors, in this case, a catastrophic error, will not work in journalism again.” And when Edward Snowden tweeted that WikiLeaks’ “hostility to even modest” redaction of documents “is a mistake,” WikiLeaks accused the fugitive of trying to curry favor with the Democrat it has targeted: “Opportunism won’t win you a pardon with Clinton,” the site tweeted in reply.
Snowden has been living in Moscow since 2013, having accepted refuge from President Vladimir Putin — with the help of a WikiLeaks lawyer — after U.S. authorities issued an arrest warrant for his massive disclosure of National Security Agency operations. And Assange is on the run as well — albeit while staying in the same place: since 2010, the Australian has holed up in Ecuador’s embassy in London, where this week authorities finally made arrangements to set a date for an interview with Swedish authorities investigating a sexual-assault allegation that Assange calls punishment for his work. The two fugitives, both youthful and fair-haired and wanted for exposing government secrets, are frequently confused, as John Oliver found before traveling to Russia to sit down with Snowden. But they are quite different in their aims, says the privacy advocate who asked not to be named.
“Snowden is a reformer,” the advocate notes. “Assange really is an anarchist revolutionary who just wants to blow the whole thing up. In his view, whatever comes in its place will be better.”