Wikileaks founder Julian Assange claims that Australian officials confiscated his passport. He added, ominously, that Australian police questioned him about his past. Was it payback for the time Wikileaks published a secret government document? We call bullshit.
Since releasing a video of journalists being killed by U.S. helicopters in Iraq, the tiny website has been lionized for embarrassing the world's biggest military power. Now, Assange says that Wikileaks' publishing of classified Australian documents has led to government intimidation. Assange told the Austrialian newspaper The Age that he was entering Australia at Melbourne Airport last week when officials confiscated his passport because "it was looking worn." After 15 minutes, custom officials returned his passport and told him it was going to be canceled. 30 minutes later, police approached him and "searched one of his bags and asked him about his criminal record relating to computer hacking offences in 1991."
Assange (who is Australian) is clearly suggesting that Australian officials harassed him because of his work with Wikileaks, without ever saying it explicitly. Last year, Wikileaks leaked a list of websites that might be blocked by Australia's proposed national Internet filter. And Wikileaks biggest cheerleader, Salon's Glenn Greenwald, sees this episode as ""a reminder that one can't run around exposing the secrets of the most powerful governments, militaries and corporations in the world without consequences."
We're highly skeptical. Assange has a long history of making vague conspiratorial claims of harassment that don't stand up to scrutiny. Here are just three we know of:
Earlier this year, a few weeks before publishing their Iraq helicopter video, Wikileaks tweeted that they were "under an aggressive US and Icelandic surveillance operation," including "following/photographing/filming/detaining." The most impressive claim was that a Wikileaks volunteer had been detained by Icelandic police for 20 hours and questioned about Wikileaks activity. But Assange later backed off this claim: It turned out that the Icelandic police were actually questioning the guy because they thought he stole a laptop from Wikileaks. If anyone was out to get the organization, it was this sticky-fingered volunteer. The other evidence Wikileaks claimed to have was pretty weak: airline records that showed two State Department employees were on the same flight as Assange to a conference in Norway. ("We have airline records of the State Dep/CIA tails. Don't think you can get away with it. You cannot. This is Wikileaks.") Couldn't they have just been going to Norway?
Facebook group deletion
Last month, Wikileaks claimed that Facebook deleted their fan page. They tweeted: "WikiLeaks facebook page dleted together with 30,000 fans... boiler plate response includes "...promotes illegal acts.." Here again, Assange (or whoever runs Wikileaks' twitter) makes the claim vague enough that it's not exactly claiming Facebook deleted their group because of its "illegal acts"—but he makes it very, very easy to come to the conclusion it did. But there was not Facebook conspiracy: A spokesman told us they had shut down the page because it wasn't run by an official Wikileaks representative; a couple days later Facebook set up a new page for Wikileaks and migrated all of their fans.
Kenyan "assassination attempt"
Assange has repeatedly claimed that a group of six gunman invaded his home in Kenya and tried to kill him as payback for Wikileaks' role in exposing government-sponsored killings there. However, Assange only paints the incident with the barest of details, and those he provides suggests that it might very well have been a robbery as any shadowy attempt on his life: For example, the gunmen were scared away by a single guard. Some assassins.
These past incidents—and the fact that Wikileaks gets great publicity every time it claims to be the victim of conspiracy—suggest we should take Assange's passport confiscation claim with an enormous grain of salt. The Age reports that "passports are routinely taken from travellers for short periods by immigration officials if they are damaged." So, if Assange's passport is actually damaged (which would be unsurprising, given his globe-trotting) a 15-minute confiscation would be nothing unusual. The police questioning also is no surprise: What's more surprising would be if they didn't apply extra scrutiny to someone with a criminal record. But throw in a mention of Wikileaks' antagonism of the Australian government, and you've got the image of some Stasi henchmen trying to silence a radical dissident. The Australian case seems to fit the model Assange favors: Take an innocuous event, pair it with the ominous specter of governmental payback, and let people come to the conclusion you want them to.
Wikileaks' helicopter video was criticized for leaving out the larger context surrounding the killings it showed. Like that video, the sleight-of-hand Assange uses to cook up conspiracies shows that sometimes what matters more than the bare facts is how they're presented.