In a small room in the Ecuadorian embassy, just behind Harrods department store in central London, Julian Assange is sitting on a crate of hand grenades. Every few days he lobs one across the Atlantic, sowing destruction in the U.S. presidential election.
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The WikiLeaks founder has been in that room for four years, taking advantage of the embassy’s diplomatic extraterritoriality to avoid extradition to Sweden, where he has been accused of sexual offenses against two women. In the meantime, he plans his revenge on the Democratic Party’s presidential candidate, Hillary Clinton, whom he believes is partly responsible for his situation.
Assange has thrown two grenades over the past week. The first was the publishing of 19,252 emails stolen from the computers of the Democratic National Committee (DNC), including details of how party officials – who were required to remain neutral during the primaries – intervened on Clinton’s behalf against the socialist candidate, Bernie Sanders. Detonating over the weekend, on the eve of the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia, it brought about the resignation of DNC Chairwoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz. It also increased the already strong feelings of frustration and disenfranchisement among some of Sanders’ supporters, who are not eager to vote for Clinton in November.
The second grenade landed on Wednesday evening, shortly before the main convention speeches of Clinton’s running mate, Tim Kaine, and President Barack Obama. This one contained 29 voice recordings, also taken from DNC computers. But the 14 minutes of recordings yielded only banal messages. This grenade was a dud. But it has done little to allay Democrats’ fears of what lies in store.
Assange claims to have more grenades in his ammunition box – and on this count at least, there is no reason to disbelieve him.
In addition to more DNC documents, there may also be files from the computers of the Clinton Foundation, which was also reportedly hacked. And, of course, there are the thousands of emails sent and received by Clinton during her four years as secretary of state through her now-infamous nonsecure, private email server.
Assange is convinced, probably rightly, that Secretary Clinton was one of the leading figures in the Obama administration who tried to have him extradited and put on trial in the United States after he posted hundreds of thousands of classified State Department diplomatic cables in 2010. (U.S. soldier Chelsea – then Bradley – Manning is already in jail after stealing them and sending them to WikiLeaks.)
Members of the Clinton campaign are terrified by what the next data dumps could contain. They have weathered the first explosion – largely thanks to the speedy resignation of Congresswoman Wasserman Schultz and the U.S. media’s focus on the ties that may, or may not, exist between Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin.
The question of whether Russian intelligence was responsible for hacking the DNC computers, and the Kremlin’s perceived interest in seeing a President Trump in the Oval Office, has proved of greater interest than the actual contents of the emails. So far. But that could change if the next online barrage contains more damaging information on Clinton. Her campaign at this point seems powerless to prevent the next data dump, and has no choice but to wait and expect the worst.
Assange himself is not a hacker. He is a conduit through which sources who hold “stolen” materials – purloined from the computer systems of governments, political parties and corporations – can gain the maximum public attention for these materials.
In the decade since he founded WikiLeaks, he has transformed the media organization into one of the most prominent platforms in the world. Of course, anyone can post stuff online or hand it over to journalists, just as the anonymous source of the so-called Panama Papers did. But the internet is so vast that random pieces of information receive little attention, and established news organizations have their own rules and standards on how to publish such material. They take time to verify, edit, curate and redact sensitive details from leaked documents.
WikiLeaks dumps tens of thousands of documents en masse, quickly and with great fanfare. It is a force multiplier for anyone seeking maximum publicity for their materials and anonymity for their own identity.
However, this also makes it impossible to assess the selectivity and motives of both the sources and WikiLeaks itself. There is no way of knowing whether information has come from brave whistle-blowers, partisan political activists or foreign governments.
While a number of respected analysts and cybersecurity companies believe the hackers of the DNC computers were working on behalf of Russian intelligence services, it is still unclear whether the hacking and release of the documents through WikiLeaks was part of a broader strategy to influence the outcome of the presidential election.
Some of the same analysts believe that the hasty fashion in which the operation was carried out, and the abundance of telltale traces, points to this having been just a general attempt by the Russians to gather intelligence and muddy the waters, rather than a planned campaign. Now that the potential for disrupting the election is much clearer, though, any further data dumps will almost certainly be the result of more serious planning.
There is nothing new about foreign interference in election campaigns. As far back as 1924, the “Zinoviev letter” – purportedly from a senior Soviet official to members of the British Communist Party, instructing them to cooperate with the U.K. Labour Party – was published by the Daily Mail just four days before the general election. The letter, which was almost certainly a forgery, sent shock waves through the British political system, which were felt for decades.
Throughout the Cold War, both the Soviet Union and the United States sought to influence elections around the world, working behind the scenes with secret donations to favored parties and the spreading of disinformation.
And closer to home, Yitzhak Rabin, both as Israel’s ambassador to Washington and later as prime minister, openly supported the Republican candidate in three consecutive presidential elections, as Benjamin Netanyahu did in 2012, in the belief that they were “more pro-Israel” than their Democratic rivals. U.S. officials, at various levels, also sought to influence election campaigns in Israel – usually trying to unseat Netanyahu.
But what we may be seeing in the 2016 U.S. presidential election could be manipulation on a totally different scale. A hacking operation by Russia – or any other nation with significant cyber capabilities – and the selective dissemination of stolen materials through an organization with the global platform of WikiLeaks, has massive potential to disrupt what, thanks mainly to Trump, is already a chaotic and highly unpredictable campaign. A WikiLeaks election could change the way electoral politics works.
Every well-funded election campaign invests significant resources in “opposition research” – digging up dirt to be used against the rival candidate and party. But that’s nothing compared to the damage a major hacking operation, backed by the resources of a nation’s spy services, can inflict – especially on a candidate like Hillary Clinton, who has such a long and checkered past in the highest echelons of government.
Of course, Trump has no lack of dirty secrets hidden away, and it’s probably no coincidence that he departed from the practice of past candidates and refused to disclose his tax returns. But for now, at least, WikiLeaks, or any other organization, doesn’t seem intent on publishing information hacked from his computers.
Prof. Thomas Rid of King’s College, London, is the author of the just-released “Rise of the Machines: A Cybernetic History” and has been researching cyberwarfare for many years. He also wrote a much-cited article this week pointing out the various indications that the DNC hack was carried out by groups linked to Russian intelligence.
“We are used to thinking of cyberwarfare as attacks on hardware infrastructure like the electricity grid,” he says. “But an attack on the integrity of the democratic process is perhaps our society’s most critical infrastructure.”
This is uncharted legal territory. Governments are still undecided on whether cyber sabotage of its infrastructure by a foreign state constitutes an act of war, as it would in the case of sabotage by explosives. So what would an attempt to subvert a nation’s election mean? And does the U.S. government now have a justification to act in order to prevent WikiLeaks from dumping more files on the web, by whatever means at its disposal? Is that preserving the integrity of its democratic process, or just favoring one side in the election?
At the very least, it should mean a new approach to protecting political campaigns. “The Secret Service provides physical protection for the main candidates,” says Rid. “It is now clear that candidates and political parties must also have digital protection,” in order to prevent compromising information on potential presidents falling into the hands of hostile governments.
The 2016 election was already unlike any that preceded it, before Assange threw his first grenade. Now it is also the first election of the WikiLeaks age, when every bombshell coming from that little embassy room in London can influence the result.