Assange's Extremist Employees
Why is WikiLeaks employing a well-known Holocaust denier and his disgraced son?
Last week, I wrote that the widely-linked article positing that the CIA was behind a Swedish woman's accusation of rape against Julian Assange was authored by a Russian-born, Swedish-domiciled, multi-aliased anti-Semite and Holocaust denier currently writing under the name "Israel Shamir," a.k.a. Adam Ermash or Jöran Jermas. The broader point had little to do with the efficacy or morality of WikiLeaks—there are plenty of debates available on the narrower issue of government transparency; this isn't intended to be one of them—but was concerned with how ideology and confirmation bias (WikiLeaks is a good thing, therefore Assange must be defended, and the CIA has done bad stuff in the past so—cui bono?—Assange's accuser must be a Langley asset) can lead mainstream media figures into the fever swamps of Internet conspiracy theory.
It is worrying enough when journalists, either by accident or design, consort with vulgar figures like Shamir. But it has now been revealed that Israel Shamir, when he is not accusing Assange's accusers of setting CIA honey traps, works with WikiLeaks in an official capacity.
According to reports in the Swedish and Russian media, the broad strokes of which have been confirmed by a WikiLeaks spokesman, Shamir serves as the group's content aggregator in Russia, the man who "selects and distributes" the cables to Russian news organizations, according to an investigation by Swedish public radio. In the newspaper Expressen, Magnus Ljunggren, an emeritus professor of Russian literature at Gothenburg University, outlined Shamir's close ties to WikiLeaks and his position "spreading the documents in Russia." (The article is illustrated with a picture of Assange and Shamir in an unidentified office.)
During an appearance on Echo Moskvy radio, Yulia Latynina, a reporter at the independent newspaper Novaya Gazeta, wondered "What does it mean that Assange is allowing himself to be represented by an extremist?" Latynina also found that the Kremlin-friendly paper working with Shamir to promote the WikiLeaks material had already published "outright lies" Shamir claimed were supported by leaks. According to Latynina, Shamir faked a cable related to Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's speech to the United Nations, which supposedly showed collusion amongst those who walked out of the talk in protest. That he would invent such a cable is perhaps unsurprising, considering Shamir has previously written an encomium to the "brave and charismatic leader" of Iran.
So let us quickly recap the foulness of Shamir's political views. As I noted last week, he has called the Auschwitz concentration camp "an internment facility, attended by the Red Cross (as opposed to the US internment centre in Guantanamo)," not a place of extermination. He told a Swedish journalist (and fellow Holocaust denier) that "it's every Muslim and Christian's duty to deny the Holocaust." The Jews, he says, are a "virus in human form" and the Protocols of the Elders of Zion is real.
But wait, there's more!
The Swedish media has identified Shamir's son, a disgraced journalist named Johannes Wahlström, himself accused of anti-Semitism and falsifying quotes, as a WikiLeaks spokesman in Sweden. Indeed, Wahlström has authored stories based on the WikiLeaks material for the newspaper Aftonbladet and is credited as a producer on a recent Swedish public television documentary about the group.
But while being the son of a famous Holocaust denier is perhaps only suggestive—Wahlström is surely not responsible for his father's many sins—his celebrations of his father's work in print and his contributions to Shamir's website suggest ideological affinity.* Indeed, in 2005 Wahlström wrote a story for the leftist magazine Ordfront arguing that Swedish media, not known for being friendly to the Jewish state, was in fact being manipulated by Jewish interests on behalf of the Israeli government.
Three of the journalists interviewed for the story—Cecilia Uddén, Lotta Schüllerqvist, and Peter Löfgren—claimed that Wahlström falsified quotes, leading the magazine to withdraw the story and issue an apology. Heléne Lööw, a historian of fascism and European neo-Nazism, commented that the Wahlström story contained all the "elements that one would find in a classic anti-Semitic conspiracy theory."
A member of Ordfront's editorial board, writing in the newspaper Dagens Nyheter, lamented that the piece was ever published, citing Wahlström's "close working relationship with Israel Shamir," without pointing out just how close the two were.
Wahlström and Shamir, father and son, are the WikiLeaks representatives for two rather large geographic areas. According to Swedish Radio's investigation, Wahlström is the gatekeeper of the cables in Scandinavia, and "has the power to decide" which newspapers are provided access and what leaks they are allowed to see. (At the time of filing, Wahlström had yet to respond to an email request for comment.)
In Russia, the magazine Russian Reporter says that it has "privileged access" to the material through Shamir, who told a Moscow newspaper that he was "accredited" to work on behalf of WikiLeaks in Russia. But Shamir has a rather large credibility problem, so Swedish Radio put the question directly to WikiLeaks spokesman Kristinn Hrafnsson.
Swedish Radio: Israel Shamir…Are you aware of him? Do you know him?
Kristinn Hrafnsson, Wikileaks spokesman: Yes. Yes, he is associated with us.
SR: So what is his role?
Hrafnsson: Well, I mean, we have a lot of journalists that are working with us all around the world. And they have different roles in working on this project. I won't go into specifics into what each and everybody's role is.
SR: Are you aware of how controversial Israel Shamir is in an international context?
Hrafnsson: There are a lot of controversial people around the world that are associated with us. I don't really see the point of the question.
SR: Are you aware of the allegations that he is an anti-Semite?
Hrafnsson: I have heard those allegations…yes, yes. [Pause] What is the question really there?
SR: The question is, do you that that would [sic] be a problem?
Hrafnsson: No, I'm not going to comment on that.
Strip away the caginess and the obfuscation—remember, no one is allowed secrets but WikiLeaks—and Hrafnsson, who took over spokesman duties when Assange was jailed last week, confirms that WikiLeaks chose Shamir to work with their Russian media partners. After its investigation, the Swedish Radio program Medierna concluded flatly that "Israel Shamir represents WikiLeaks in Russia."
The forthcoming splinter group, OpenLeaks, led by WikiLeaks veterans tired of Assange's dictatorial style and obsession with being the organization's public face, claims to not be motivated by a particular set of political beliefs and promises to be transparent about its own operations and finances, something which WikiLeaks has been consistently—and credibly—attacked over. For those who think that leaking is, generally speaking, a positive thing, they should welcome an organization divorced from the ridiculous and amateur figure of Assange.
It's necessary for an organization like WikiLeaks, which claims to be creating new types of journalism (we do "scientific journalism," Assange declared triumphantly), to adhere to the basic principles of journalism. When asked about Shamir, Hrafnsson ducks and weaves, pretending that he is, like Assange, just a "controversial" figure, not an anti-Semite and semi-literate Holocaust denier with ties to both the extreme right and left and a well-documented penchant for lying.
So let's treat the WikiLeaks organization like the journalists they insist they are, and ask the question put forward by Novaya Gazeta reporter Yulia Latynina: Out of all the competent journalists who are sympathetic to the WikiLeaks mission, why have Wahlström and Shamir—one a disgraced journalist, the other an extreme racist—been trusted with the largest intelligence leak in history?
*—Soon after this piece was published, Wahlström told Swedish public radio that his "father is what I would call the Swedish equivalent to Salman Rushdie," noting that he is a "very polemical" person, which must contain both the most profane comparison and biggest understatement of the year.
Michael C. Moynihan is a senior editor of Reason magazine.