Why Wikileaks Matters

Why Wikileaks Matters

The lesser-known Wikileaks scoops, from Honduran drug cartels to Hillary Clinton’s private acknowledgement that American allies are hotbeds of fundraising support to al Qaeda and ISIS.

Wikileaks founder Julian Assange, as of this writing, faces a final attempt to appeal his extradition from the U.K. to the U.S. If he fails, he faces Espionage Act charges that could lead to living out the remainder of his life in federal prison.

The case is a flashpoint for the future of journalism. Press freedom groups around the world argue that if Assange is extradited and successfully prosecuted for espionage, it would create a dangerous precedent for the government to suppress future reporting.

I absolutely share these concerns. If you’re a reader of this Substack, you know that I often publish inside government, corporate, and political files that shed light on the powerful. What separates us from authoritarian states is our ability to question the decisions of our government, even those deemed as classified or confidential. And that’s not possible without protections for journalists and the right to publish.

Every major publication is at risk. The New York Times has a long and storied record of publishing classified materials going back to the 1971 Pentagon Papers, which showed the true history of the Vietnam War. More recently, the Washington Post and other outlets reported on the Discord intelligence leaks, revealing that Pentagon officials had suspected that the Ukrainian counter-offensive against Russia would fail to gain significant territory, among many other revelations.

While Assange is accused of providing technical assistance to his sources, similar methods are relatively common. Reporters routinely help sources and whistleblowers. Look at this page from the Times that offers detailed ways to provide tips to the newspaper while avoiding detection.

Even voices within the U.S. Justice Department have conceded that the Assange case rests on the “New York Times problem.” In 2013, DOJ officials noted that the legal theory used to prosecute Assange would apply almost equally to most major newspapers with a history of reporting on government secrets, such as the many news outlets that covered Edward Snowden’s disclosures about warrantless NSA mass surveillance of Americans.

Assange is an unorthodox figure, no doubt. I disagreed with his decision to go forward with data dumps that often included sensitive personal information. Sometimes, Wikileaks seemed too willing to publish documents before carefully vetting them for news value. But his contributions to the public interest are absolutely undeniable. Wikileaks has provided a vital view of how the world really works with almost no modern parallel.

Most major news items about Assange in recent days recount his biggest releases, including 2007 footage of a U.S. military helicopter gunning down 12 people, including 2 Reuters journalists, in Baghdad. But that barely scratches the surface.

I’ve utilized Wikileaks documents for at least fifteen different news articles and investigations over the years. I was looking through my old reporting that cited Wikileaks and was reminded of many lesser-known revelations worth revisiting.

Take the U.S. relationship with Saudi Arabia, an ally that American policymakers herald as crucial for U.S. interests in the fight against terrorism. When she served in office, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton praised the Saudis, thanking them as champions in the fight to “deny terrorists safe haven and access to funding, particularly in Afghanistan and Pakistan.” Over the last two decades, the U.S. signed multiple arms deals agreements with the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, and supported Saudi-led initiatives throughout the Middle East.

Yet behind closed doors, there was another view. In 2010, diplomatic cables released by Wikileaks showed a memo signed by Clinton that noted, “Saudi Arabia remains a critical financial support base for al-Qaida, the Taliban, LeT,” a reference to Lashkar-e-Taiba, the Pakistan-based Islamist terror group. “Donors in Saudi Arabia constitute the most significant source of funding to Sunni terrorist groups worldwide,” she wrote, according to the cable. The candid observation contrasts sharply with Clinton’s public remarks about the Saudi Kingdom.

During the height of power of the Islamic State, when the Sunni terror group won significant territory in Iraq and Syria and began launching attacks on Western targets, Clinton privately revealed that U.S. allies backed the militants. In 2014, Clinton wrote to a trusted political adviser about her concern that Qatar and Saudi Arabia were “providing clandestine financial and logistic support” to ISIS and "other radical Sunni groups,” according to a 2016 release of Democratic emails by Wikileaks.

The cables provide a fascinating window into U.S. foreign policy for other regions still plagued by instability and conflict.

Wikileaks, for instance, shows a more complicated view of Ukraine-Russia relations than what is popularly portrayed in most Western media. High-level diplomats had long warned that U.S. involvement in Ukraine, particularly the push to bring the nation into the NATO alliance, would threaten Russian security and provoke conflict.

The diplomatic cables released by Wikileaks reveal that French and German officials repeatedly warned that such measures could lead to war, and many encouraged caution. America’s top diplomats were also well aware of the danger. In 2008, then-U.S. ambassador to Russia William J. Burns, now serving as President Biden’s CIA chief, warned that Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov feared Western encirclement and viewed Ukraine’s move towards joining NATO as a “potential military threat.” The memo listed various reasons for Lavrov’s concerns, including Russian military-industrial assets within Ukraine. Burns declared the threat was serious, calling it a “redline.”

“While Russian opposition to the first round of NATO enlargement in the mid-1990’s was strong, Russia now feels itself able to respond more forcefully to what it perceives as actions contrary to its national interests,” Burns wrote, discussing Ukraine.

The Wikileaks diplomatic cables on Honduras show another fascinating contrast between purported U.S. interests and private concerns that undermined the public narrative. The small Central American country maintains close relations with the American government, and the conservative National Party of Honduras and its leadership has been praised as a regional partner by President Barack Obama and President Donald Trump.

But behind the public embrace of Honduran political figures, especially the center-right National Party, American policymakers have long known about cartel ties. Wikileaks revealed that the State Department was well aware that Miguel Facusse – a powerful Honduran tycoon who helped install a National Party government in the 2009 coup d’état – allowed a private plane carrying 1,000 kilograms of cocaine to land on one of his private airstrips.

The clues revealed by Wikileaks about the extent of narco-political power in Honduras are now very well known. In 2022, the former National Party president, Juan Orlando Hernandez, was apprehended by U.S. law enforcement and now stands trial in New York for his extensive ties to cartels. While claiming he was helping to crack down on criminal gangs and migrants, Hernandez allegedly used American military assistance to advance his own drug trafficking network, which partnered closely with Mexican cartels.