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A Look At Julian Assange's Legacy — And The Surprising Reach Of His Influence


For nearly seven years, WikiLeaks co-founder Julian Assange has been holed up in Ecuador's Embassy in London. That ended earlier today when Assange was forcibly taken into custody and dragged out of the embassy by London police. U.S. authorities are charging him with conspiring to break into a government computer and stealing classified documents, documents he later posted. NPR media correspondent David Folkenflik walks us through Assange's legacy and the surprising reach of his influence.

DAVID FOLKENFLIK, BYLINE: As a candidate, Donald Trump told voters he loved WikiLeaks - loved them - in 2016 as it dumped thousands of emails sent by top Democrats online and damaged Hillary Clinton's campaign in the process.


PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: This WikiLeaks stuff is unbelievable. It tells you the inner-heart. You've got to read it.

FOLKENFLIK: Questioned by reporters today. The love was gone.


TRUMP: I know nothing about WikiLeaks. It's not my thing. And I know there is something having to do with Julian Assange. I...

FOLKENFLIK: Earlier today, British police dragged Assange out of the Ecuadorian Embassy, his look disheveled, his beard long and white and as unkempt as David Letterman's. You'll hear Assange's voice here.


JULIAN ASSANGE: They must resist. The U.K. will resist. Resist this (inaudible) by the Trump administration.

FOLKENFLIK: For years, WikiLeaks has posted big caches of information often causing uproars and calls for government reform. Now Assange finds himself dubbed a narcissist by a British judge who says Assange violated his bail terms there. Assange appears likely to be extradited to face charges here in the United States, saying that he conspired with a source in 2010 to hack into secret government accounts to gain access to classified military records.

Nine years ago, I did a story for NPR to ask the question - was Assange an activist and whistleblower, or was he a journalist? Assange gave himself the journalistic title of editor-in-chief. Here's Glenn Greenwald, a Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter and frequent critic of the U.S. national security establishment. He spoke to NPR earlier today.


GLENN GREENWALD: Prosecuting Julian Assange in connection with publishing secret documents that showed U.S. war crimes is one of the gravest threats to press freedom possibly imaginable.

FOLKENFLIK: Some American officials contend Assange is a criminal. Here's what we know. Assange is a 47-year-old Australian, basically an anarchist deeply distrusting of authority, even more deeply critical of U.S. secrets and the consequences of U.S. military interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Former U.S. Army intelligence analyst Chelsea Manning served seven years in jail for her role in giving more than 700,000 secret documents and records to WikiLeaks, but she would not testify against the group or Assange. And WikiLeaks influenced a raft of digital document leaks, national security leaks that toppled governments, set journalistic agendas and defined political debates around the world...


UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #1: Our breaking news this evening - his name is Edward Snowden. He's an American former CIA employee and computer technician. Today he came out as the leaker of classified NSA documents that spell out a secret surveillance program.

FOLKENFLIK: ...And financial scandal known as the Panama Papers, implicating politicians and business leaders.


DAVE DAVIES, BYLINE: The leak of more than 11 million records is the largest in the history of journalism. The material was analyzed for a year by more than 370 journalists from over 40 countries.

FOLKENFLIK: In those cases, leakers worked with established news organizations which vetted and verified the information they posted. During the 2016 campaign, WikiLeaks posted the emails from the Democrats on its own authority. And Assange suggested the leaks came from a slain Democratic staffer named Seth Rich, killed in summer 2016.


ASSANGE: We don't comment on who our sources are.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #2: Then 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.

FOLKENFLIK: Assange's remarks in that Dutch TV interview and elsewhere were shown to be deeply misleading. U.S. intelligence chiefs and a Senate panel have concluded that the Russians were behind the hacks and that they ensured WikiLeaks got the Democratic documents - though that's not related to the charge he would face here in the United States. A journalist, an activist, a whistleblower, a tool of foreign powers - all questions unlikely to be settled in court. David Folkenflik, NPR News, New York. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

David Folkenflik was described by Geraldo Rivera of Fox News as "a really weak-kneed, backstabbing, sweaty-palmed reporter." Others have been kinder. The Columbia Journalism Review, for example, once gave him a "laurel" for reporting that immediately led the U.S. military to institute safety measures for journalists in Baghdad.
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