select all

Explaining the Viral Rumor That Hillary Clinton Wanted to Drone-Strike Julian Assange

Photo: Getty Images

If you spend enough time online today or tomorrow, at some point you’ll likely come across a shocking allegation: In 2010, Hillary Clinton wanted to drone-murder Julian Assange, who at the time wasn’t yet holed up in the Ecuadorian embassy in London.

The rumor comes from a little-known website called True Pundit, which published an article yesterday with the headline “Under Intense Pressure to Silence Wikileaks, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton Proposed Drone Strike on Julian Assange.”

The author, erm, “admin,” explains:

Clinton’s State Department was getting pressure from President Obama and his White House inner circle, as well as heads of state internationally, to try and cutoff [sic] Assange’s delivery of the cables and if that effort failed, then to forge a strategy to minimize the administration’s public embarrassment over the contents of the cables. Hence, Clinton’s early morning November meeting of State’s top brass who floated various proposals to stop, slow or spin the Wikileaks contamination. That is when a frustrated Clinton, sources said, at some point blurted out a controversial query.

“Can’t we just drone this guy?” Clinton openly inquired, offering a simple remedy to silence Assange and smother Wikileaks via a planned military drone strike, according to State Department sources. The statement drew laughter from the room which quickly died off when the Secretary kept talking in a terse manner, sources said. Clinton said Assange, after all, was a relatively soft target, “walking around” freely and thumbing his nose without any fear of reprisals from the United States. Clinton was upset about Assange’s previous 2010 records releases, divulging secret U.S. documents about the war in Afghanistan in July and the war in Iraq just a month earlier in October, sources said. At that time in 2010, Assange was relatively free and not living cloistered in in [sic] the embassy of Ecuador in London. Prior to 2010, Assange focused Wikileaks’ efforts on countries outside the United States but now under Clinton and Obama, Assange was hammering America with an unparalleled third sweeping Wikileaks document dump in five months. Clinton was fuming, sources said, as each State Department cable dispatched during the Obama administration was signed by her.

Even setting aside the logistical difficulties of a hypothetical drone strike targeting a guy who, at the time, was traveling largely in U.S.-friendly countries, there are a boatload of reasons to be skeptical about this. The most compelling is sourcing: Who are these incredible anonymous sources that True Pundit has access to? Who is running TP, for that matter? The site appears to be published by a Twitter personality going by Thomas Paine, or @Thomas1774Paine, whose bio reads as follows: “*Gerald Loeb Award Recipient …*2-Time Pulitzer Prize Investigative Reporting Nom … *In tradition of SOC Matt Mills; Gary Webb; Jessica Savitch.” Paine follows about 46,000 accounts and is followed by about 43,300. The TP account itself, meanwhile, follows about 17,500 people and is followed by about 21,000, and its bio reads simply “Taking on the Liberal Media Complex and bringing integrity back to journalism and America.” The site itself offers no further clues as to Paine’s identity. Pulitzer finalists usually don’t hide that fact. And generally speaking, anonymous sources — especially anonymous sources saying explosive things — are only used by established journalists writing under their own names, and even then this can be a controversial practice. By the norms of journalism, an anonymous journalist reporting an anonymous source’s account of some incredible event has as much credibility as a rumor a preschooler excitedly whispers in your ear.

There’s other weirdness, too. Below the claims about Clinton, TP makes a big deal of the fact that, at around the same time Clinton was supposedly speaking openly of her desire to drone-strike Assange, Anne-Marie Slaughter, then a State employee, sent out an email with the subject line “an SP memo on possible legal and nonlegal strategies re wikileaks.” This is a major red flag to TP. “‘Nonlegal strategies,’” they write. “How did that phrasing make it into an official State Department email subject line dealing with solving Wikileaks and Assange?” Well, because “non-legal” doesn’t mean the same thing as “illegal” — rather, it’s a fairly common term in government, and it can refer to basically anything that doesn’t directly involve the legal system. If you run Google searches over the websites of the White House or the State or Justice Departments, for example, those searches will yield a handful of hits in which the U.S. government speaks openly of “nonlegal” this or that, none of which are open admisions of lawbreaking. So to believe the TP article, you have to believe that (1) TP is such a sourced-up journalist they have access to a sensational story no one else does; and (2) TP is unfamiliar with fairly basic government vernacular. That seems unlikely.

So how did such a shaky post blow up? It got noticed by outlets that don’t care that much about fact-checking, and which like to take shots at Hillary whenever possible. First was Wikileaks itself this morning:

Then, in the afternoon, Russia Today picked up the story as well: “Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton reportedly wanted to drone Wikileaks founder Julian Assange when she was secretary of state,” went the lede of that unbylined item. Given a nice kickstart by WikiLeaks and RT, now the story is flying through the fever-swamp internet, amplified by Alex Jones and everyone else on down the crazy chain.

Further fueling things was Assange’s decision, citing “specific information” pertaining to his safety, to postpone a press appearance he was supposed to make on the balcony of the Ecuadorian Embassy today. Logically, it doesn’t make sense that a “revelation” from 2010 would bear on Assange’s safety on a balcony today, but that hasn’t stopped media outlets like Fox News, Heat Street, and others from reporting both things at the same time, helping to spread the drone rumor to a huge audience.

This is all similar to what happened recently with another zombie quote: the rumor that Assange had said he was in possession of an email that would lead to Clinton’s indictment. In that case, too, there was zero evidence the quote had ever been uttered, and yet it spread rapidly through the fever swamps — including, early on, RT — because it was too good and too anti-Hillary a story to check before publishing and sharing (the difference was that that time, it wasn’t just the fever swamps — mainstream outlets up to and including the New York Times got fooled). Today, in fact, my story tracing the origin of that non-quote appears to be getting a mini second life, trafficwise, solely from the sudden uptick in Google searches mentioning Assange and Hillary. A lot of people are ravenous for news about how their hero Assange is going to take down that globalist she-beast Hillary — there’s a market for this sort of content, verified or otherwise.

One final interesting wrinkle: True Pundit seems to have some talent at this game, given what they’ve been able to pull off twice in a single month. Here’s Mediaite on September 8, in a blog post headlined “Fox News Now Reporting Anonymously Sourced Theory About Clinton’s ‘Earpiece’”: reports in a lead story that Clinton wore a secret earpiece at the NBC town hall Wednesday night. The canard was previously broadcasted by Alex Jones’ InfoWars and, subsequently, on Drudge Report. Donald Trump Jr. even got in on it, as did Trump’s senior campaign adviser A.J. Delgado. cites as its only source a website called True Pundit, which, in turn, cites unnamed NYPD sources and (also unnamed) “experts familiar with the technology.” The InfoWars article also cited True Pundit as its only source.

In both instances, the site got so much traffic that it went down for a bit. So while @Thomas1774Paine might not know much about how the State Department works, they’re certainly fluent in the paranoid language of 2016 social media.

Clinton Probably Didn’t Say She Wanted to Drone Assange