WikiLeaks has been in the news again in the run up to the 2016 US Presidential election. Many readers are praising it as a scion of open information… while others condemn the motives behind its potentially damaging revelations. If you haven’t heard about the emails released from the Democratic National Committee and John Podesta’s email account — or you just want an overview of what’s going on — you have a lot to learn.
Note — I’m going to keep this as politically neutral as I possibly can. This is a highly charged issue, and people on all sides are going to have really strong opinions. That being said, I’ve done everything I can to keep this as factual and unbiased as possible.
To really understand what’s going on in this complicated situation, it’s important to have a grasp on the current political climate in the United States. At the time of this writing, the 2016 presidential election is only a few weeks away. The campaign has been one of the nastiest in recent memory.
Critics have lambasted Donald Trump as a bigot, a misogynist, and a lackluster businessman who’s as prepared to run the country as he is to fly to the moon. Others have ruthlessly criticized Hillary Clinton as dangerously secretive, unlikeable, corrupt, in the pocket of Wall Street, and extremely careless when it comes to digital security.
Voters are deeply divided, wanting on one hand to elect a candidate that doesn’t represent the long-powerful establishment of career politicians and on the other to not give the keys to someone who could do serious long-term damage.
On top of all of this are the allegations that Russian state-backed hackers have been attempting to sway the outcome of the election by obtaining and releasing documents. Some accuse Donald Trump of being complicit in this activity, while others simply criticize him for encouraging it.
In short, it’s really ugly here, and tensions are running extremely high.
The Democratic National Committee
For those who aren’t familiar with US politics, the Democratic National Committee (DNC) is the governing body of the Democratic party. They take organized action to make sure that Democratic candidates get elected around the country in various levels of government. They also run the national conventions in which presidential candidates are confirmed.
In July of 2016, WikiLeaks posted over 19,000 emails and 8,000 attachments from the DNC. These emails came from seven accounts belonging to high-ranking members of the Committee. The documents are from the time between January 2015 to May 2016.
What was in those emails? Where to begin? Some indicate that the Committee used ethically-questionable tactics against Bernie Sanders to make sure Hillary Clinton got the presidential nomination. (This later resulted in the resignation of the DNC’s chairwoman, Debbie Wasserman Schultz.) There’s evidence that a super political action committee paid Clinton supporters to push back against Sanders supporters online.
A reporter at Politico sent an article to the DNC for review before he sent it to his own editors. The DNC created a fake — and extremely sexist — Craigslist job post for women who wanted to apply to one of Trump’s organizations. Emails from CNN indicate that the DNC may have been feeding them interview questions. There’s some evidence that the DNC planned to reward significant donors with political appointments. (Which, to be fair, is standard practice in the US.)
The details of some donors were also posted. if you donated to the DNC, you may want to check to see if your information is available in the database.
With just shy of 20,000 emails, there’s a ton of information to go over. The points mentioned above are simply ones that I’ve seen talked about online. I’m not saying that these are necessarily the most important, or even that they’re all accurate. This is just what people are talking about. And, of course, much of the information going around has been inferred from email conversations, which can be very difficult. It’s all a big mess.
The John Podesta Emails
On October 7, 2016, WikiLeaks began releasing emails from the account of John Podesta, Hillary Clinton’s campaign chairman. These might be confused with the DNC emails, but they’re distinct. The fact that Podesta is within the campaign, instead of a “neutral” facilitating partner, is important. He also has long-standing ties to the Clintons, having served as a staff member of the (Bill) Clinton administration.
Much like the DNC emails, the sheer volume of Podesta’s communications makes it difficult to work through. To date, Wikilieaks has released over 15,000 emails from Podesta’s account, and they release more daily.
Again, the emails contain things that readers could interpret as incriminating. Several deal with allegations that the Clintons used their charitable foundation improperly while Hillary Clinton was Secretary of State. Others revealed transcripts of paid Clinton speeches to Goldman Sachs, where she was less critical of Wall Street banks than she has been on the campaign trail.
Still others revealed Clinton criticizing environmental activists and supporting hydraulic fracturing, a controversial practice in natural gas mining. Commentators have also criticized the campaign for the language it used when discussing minorities who would add diversity to the campaign.
I’ll reiterate an important point again: these are just things that people have been talking about. There’s a huge amount of data in this leak, and I’m not implying that these things are the most important, or even that they’re necessarily true. They’ve been drawn from emails in the leak, but interpretations on specific language may differ.
WikiLeaks has aggressively protected their sources, as they’ve done with the sources of other leaks. As mentioned previously, there’s been a great deal of speculation that Russian state-sponsored hackers were behind the breach of the DNC. And after their recent success in Ukraine, that doesn’t seem too far-fetched.
Guccifer 2.0, the hacker generally credit with the DNC attack, states that he’s Romanian and works alone. However, cybersecurity experts have found a number of signs that Guccifer 2.0 may, in fact, be a group of Russian hackers, a claim that he (or they) has vehemently denied. We do not know that he’s not Guccifer (real name Marcel Lazar Lehel), the hacker who claimed to have hacked Clinton’s private email server.
Julian Assange, the editor of WikiLeaks, also implied in a recent interview that Seth Rich may be the source. An unknown assailant shot Rich, a DNC staffer, in the back while he was walking down a Washington street in July. Police believe the murder was related to a robbery, but the assailant didn’t take Rich’s wallet, watch, or phone. Did the DNC murder Rich for his role in the leak? It looks like that’s what Assange wants us to believe.
Of course, this is the only evidence we have that this might be the case. WikiLeaks has put up a $20,000 reward for anyone who has information on the murder. But they’ve also stated that the reward “should not be taken to imply that Seth Rich was a source to WikiLeaks or to imply that that his murder is connected to our publications”.
What about the Podesta emails? Podesta himself said that he is the victim of Russian intelligence services. The Wall Street Journal also reported that the FBI suspects Russia in the hack. We haven’t seen any proof that this is the case, but it’s certainly been a consistent line since various Democratic emails started seeing the light of day.
Is Russia trying to influence the U.S. presidential election? Are they trying to help Trump because he would be a friendlier ally than Clinton? There’s plenty of speculation, but there’s no way to know for sure. Nonetheless, it’s an interesting thought, and something we’ve heard about a lot during the campaign.
WikiLeaks itself, with its “Hillary Leaks” series, certainly doesn’t seem too excited about a potential Clinton presidency. Has the transparency organization become a political one? Are they pushing for a Trump presidency? Why? These questions have been on many people’s minds since they started releasing Clinton- and DNC-related emails, and they continue unanswered as we see new Podesta emails every day.
It’s notable that the government of Ecuador has cut off Julian Assange’s internet access from his residence in the Ecuadorian Embassy in London. They released this statement explaining their actions:
The Government of Ecuador respects the principle of non-intervention in the internal affairs of other states. It does not interfere in external electoral processes, nor does it favor any particular candidate.
Accordingly, Ecuador has exercised its sovereign right to temporarily restrict access to some of its private communications network within its Embassy in the United Kingdom. This temporary restriction does not prevent the WikiLeaks organization from carrying out its journalistic activities.
So Ecuador certainly seems to think that Assange is doing this to influence the election. How that aligns with — or runs counter to — the journalistic principles of WikiLeaks is up for debate.
Are the Emails Real?
A number of people have speculated on whether political agents faked these emails. The most notable challenge to the veracity of the WikiLeaks emails came from Kurt Eichenwald, a prolific tweeter and acerbic anti-Trump journalist. You can read the whole story at Snopes, but the short version is that a Russian publication called Sputnik mis-sourced a document written by Eichenwald and attributed it to Sidney Blumenthal, a long-time Clinton confidante.
The ensuing tweetstorm from Eichenwald and others accusing WikiLeaks of faking documents (or, at the very least, of Sputnik intentionally misreporting in the intent of damaging Clinton’s campaign) was one of epic proportions. Eichenwald even went so far as to say — with no evidence — that Trump recited false information at a rally, and that Russian intelligence services gave him that information. It was not a proud day for journalism.
Russia govnt falsified an email. Then Trump recited the falsified email at a rally. Only those two knew it. How? https://t.co/1d5qvU01Yi
— Kurt Eichenwald (@kurteichenwald) October 11, 2016
Glenn Greenwald wrote an article looking at how other members of the media and campaign staff echoed and amplified Eichenwald’s claims. Read the article if the debacle interests you. It’s a good one.
To sum it all up, a number of people have made unsubstantiated claims that political agents faked some of the emails. Or at least significantly altered them. So far, though, we’ve seen no indication that this is the case. Of course, with this many thousands of emails available, it’s going to be hard to make any calls on their veracity. But as of yet, there are no good reasons to doubt that they’re real.
Is It Illegal to Look at Leaked Emails?
The media establishment and journalism in general have taken a lot of hits during this campaign, and, thanks to CNN, this trend doesn’t look likely to stop. Here’s how Chris Cuomo opened a segment on the WikiLeaks emails:
Also interesting is, remember, it’s illegal to possess these stolen documents. It’s different for the media. So everything you learn about this, you’re learning from us.
Here’s the clip:
At the same time as journalists and advocates of free and open information were shaking their heads in dismay, other experts were weighing in. As you might expect, most of them disagreed with Cuomo. Here’s a great reply from Avery on Stack Exchange:
In current U.S. case law, it might be illegal to publish stolen documentary material, but prior case law rules it legal if the material is “of great public concern”, which I think most media would claim the Podesta emails to be. Obviously it is legal to possess what you publish, so it is legal to read it as well.
If the Podesta material contains extensive creative work such as books or music, there could be copyright issues involved with downloading those specific files, but as per the previous source, “e-mails would be seen as predominantly factual rather than highly creative.”
Whether Avery is a legal expert is up for debate. But his statement aligns very well with what we’ve been hearing from most other legal sources.
Who Should You Trust?
As you might expect, with voters on both sides (especially the right) being rather fed up with the establishment, which includes the media, this looked like a brutally blatant attempt to make sure that all information about the DNC and Clinton’s campaign would be filtered through pro-Democratic sources before reaching the public.
That might be true, and it might not. Clinton’s campaign, as we saw, does seem to be friendly with CNN. Either way, it rankled a lot of citizens, especially those who already don’t trust the media.
Here’s our advice: if you want to read the emails, go for it. Don’t copy, download, or distribute them if you want to completely shield yourself from legal action. Even if you do, you almost certainly won’t face repercussions, but we can’t make any guarantees. We’re not telling you trust — or to not trust — any media sources. As always, though, be critical and skeptical of what you hear, regardless of the source.
How Much Weight Should We Be Giving These Emails?
When it comes down to it, this is the question on a lot of people’s minds. These emails are controversial on both sides for all sorts of reasons, and they’re causing quite the furor in some circles. Other groups ignore them in favor of more anti-Trump rhetoric. So what should you do? Buy into the outrage? Ignore them?
As always, we encourage you to be informed but critical. Reading second-hand information on a topic this controversial always comes with the risk of biased reports. Very few media outlets can make a reasonable claim to being neutral in reporting on issues like this, especially during such a divisive election.
When you read about these emails, check the sources. Reputable articles will give you links directly back to the emails, so you can read them yourself to see if you agree with their interpretation. Seek out different interpretations and opinions from different experts. Be wary of misinterpretation and ranting-and-raving Eichenwald-like types. Find journalists you trust. I consider Glenn Greenwald to be pretty trustworthy. You might not — that’s totally fine. Just be ready to back up your choices and assertions.
When it comes down to it, this whole thing is a big mess, and everyone is interpreting it just like you’d expect during a presidential campaign. Both sides are trying to make the best of it. It’s really up to you in the end. Be critical, read a lot, and have meaningful, civil conversations.
What do you think of the newest batch of WikiLeaks emails? Do you think they’re real? Is Assange trying to help Donald Trump? Should we be ignoring the whole thing? Share your thoughts in the comments below!