One of the most shameful episodes in the entire Russia hacking story was the attempt to claim a murdered DNC staffer named Seth Rich was the source of a leak of documents to Wikileaks. This conspiracy theory was unfortunately embraced by quite a few people in 2016 including Julian Assange himself. The Daily Beast pointed out in a story yesterday that, according to the Mueller report, Assange knew this claim was garbage even as he was promoting it back in 2016:
As laid out by Mueller, Assange’s involvement in Russia’s election interference began with a June 14, 2016 direct message to WikiLeaks’ Twitter account from “DC Leaks,” one of the false fronts created by the Russians to launder their hacked material.
“You announced your organization was preparing to publish more Hillary’s emails,” the message read, according to Mueller’s report. “We are ready to support you. We have some sensitive information too, in particular, her financial documents. Let’s do it together. What do you think about publishing our info at the same moment? Thank you.”
A week later, WikiLeaks reached out to a second GRU persona, Guccifer 2.0, and pitched WikiLeaks as the best outlet for the hacked material. On July 14, 2016, GRU officers used a Guccifer 2.0 email address to send WikiLeaks an encrypted one-gigabyte file named “wk dnc link I .txt.gpg.” Assange confirmed receipt, and on July 22 he published 20,000 DNC emails stolen during the GRU’s breach.
By then, it was no secret where the documents came from. The computer security firm CrowdStrike had already published its technical report on the DNC breach, which laid out a trail leading directly to Moscow and the GRU. Analysts at ThreatConnect independently presented evidence that Guccifer 2.0 and DC Leaks were fictional creations of that agency.
Weeks after receiving the hacked files, Wikileaks announced a $20,000 reward for information leading to the arrest of Seth Rich’s killer. The whole point of highlighting this random street crime was to add fuel to a fire already raging on Reddit (and elsewhere) that claimed Rich, not Russia, was the source of the leaked DNC files. Assange then went on a Dutch TV program and doubled down on the conspiracy:
Julian Assange: WikiLeaks never sits on material. Our whistle-blowers go to significant efforts to get us material and often very significant risks. There’s a 27-year-old, uh, 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.
Host: That was just a robbery I believe, wasn’t it?
Assange: No. There’s no finding.
Host: What are you suggesting, what are you suggesting?
Assange: I am suggesting that our sources take risks and they are…they become concerned to see things occurring like that.
Host: But was he one of your sources then? I mean…
Assange: We don’t comment on who are sources are.
Host: But why make the suggestion about a young guy being shot in the streets of Washington?
Assange: Because we have to understand how high the stakes are in the United States and that our sources are…our sources face serious risks, that’s why they come to us so we can protect their anonymity.
Host: But it’s quite something to suggest a murder, that’s basically what you’re doing.
Assange: Well, others have suggested that. We are investigating to understand what happened in that situation with Seth Rich.
A day after the Wikileaks reward offer, Rich’s family released a statement begging people to stop politicizing his death with a conspiracy theory but the claims dragged on for months. In 2017 the Russian Embassy tweeted this:
— Russian Embassy, UK (@RussianEmbassy) May 19, 2017
So the bottom line here is that Assange is a lying dirtbag who fueled a conspiracy theory about Seth Rich as a way to distract from the fact that he had gotten the material from Russia. The secondary point is this: The truest thing you can know in politics is that Russia lies.
Back in 2017, NY Times writer Jim Rutenberg credited me for foreseeing where Assange’s views of governments as conspiratorial networks might go. In a 2010 blog post I wrote, “You can take his example further by imagining what would happen to, say, the D.N.C., if it suffered a massive Wikileak of secret data. It seems entirely possible that a leak of the contents of their email for one month would be exceedingly damaging to them.” I wasn’t predicting what happened but I was predicting that something like it could happen. In that same 2010 blog post I also pointed out the essential flaw with Assange’s theory about the nature of governments:
Put aside for a moment the question of whether Assange has broken the law or merely acted as a journalist. I see a fundamental problem with his theory. The truly authoritarian regimes like Russia, which came off as a mafia state in the latest wikileaks, are past caring what their people think. As we’ve seen in the past two years, Russia has a bullet for every journalist who dares to criticize the state. The same is true in Saudi Arabia. The people there may not like their rulers speaking ill of Iran, but what are they going to do about it? There are a lot of places in the world where the pen is not mightier than the sword.
In fact, the only place where Assange’s theory could work is in a robust democratic society where people are already empowered to make changes based on new information. In other words, on a global scale Assange’s method of regime change will only affect those nation-states that need it least.
The Seth Rich conspiracy, backed by Assange and Russia in an effort to conceal Russia’s involvement in the hack, is a pretty strong example that his theories do in fact wind up being used by semi-autocracies like Russia to attack democracies like the United States. Maybe he wasn’t able to see it back then but it ought to be clear to him now.