By David Leigh and Luke Harding, with staff of the Guardian
By staff of the New York Times, Edited by Alexander Star
Grove Press, 2011
By Daniel Domscheit-Berg
Random House, 2011
lets just say *someone* i know intimately well, has been penetrating US classified networks, mining data…sorting the data, compressing it, encrypting it, and uploading it to a crazy white haired aussie who can’t seem to stay in one country very long… God knows what happens now. hopefully worldwide discussion, debates, and reforms. Or maybe I am just young, naïve, and stupid…
-Private First Class Bradley Manning, May 2010
Soon after writing those words on AOL Instant Messanger, Bradley Manning was arrested in Iraq, and is now in the custody of the American military. Julian Assange, the “crazy white haired aussie,” is under house arrest at the mansion of a supporter in Britain, fighting extradition to Sweden on charges of sexual abuse. WikiLeaks, the vehicle for the release of all that data, has published only one new leak since the cavalcade of secret documents that made it notorious. Many of its original staff have left in anger. It’s trove of diplomatic cables has been made available through the negligence of the site’s principals, endangering the lives of hundreds of informants. It is not currently accepting submissions.
Three recent books approach WikiLeaks from different angles. WikiLeaks, by David Leigh and Luke Harding of the Guardian, is a narrative of the site, its creator, and the British paper’s role in one of the biggest stories of the decade. Open Secrets is a anthology of coverage by the New York Times: profiles, reportage, op-eds, and analysis, sometimes divergent but all overwhelmingly preoccupied with the fate of America and its foreign policy. Inside WikiLeaks, by Daniel Domscheit-Berg, is a memoir by a former colleague of Assange, who left the site at the end of 2010, frustrated with the its direction and its leader. Each offers an original cross-section of the Wikileaks phenomenon, something that raises uncomfortable questions about the security of information, the future and freedom of the media, and even the maintenance of democracy. The story began in the South Pacific about forty years ago.
The little city of Townsville lies at the southern edge of the tropics, where Australia’s northeast coast crests into the remote Cape York Peninsula. Travelers have long been drawn to it; always hot and never long plagued by rain, it is a fine place to decamp for the Great Barrier Reef, fifty miles off shore. It is also an administrative hub for the Queensland province and plays host to several military bases, a legacy of Second World War, as are the local rumors of secret air raid shelters and hidden tunnels. Off the coast is Magnetic Island, a quixotic mix of wealthy vacationers and hippies searching for a place to fit in. This area, thrumming with tourists, rotating troop deployments, shuffling bureaucrats, and spiritual adventurers, is a fitting starting point for our young century’s most infamous itinerant.
Julian Paul Assange was born in Townsville on the third of July, 1971, into a life dominated by unseen forces and sudden departures. His mother, Christine, was about seventeen. She’d sold her youthful artwork for a motorcycle and a tent, and met his father, John Shipton, at an anti-war rally. After a short while she left, and little is known about him, save that Julian reconnected with him decades later and registered the WikiLeaks domain under his name. Soon after they broke up, Christine married a theater director named Brett Assange, and together the couple formed a traveling puppet theater company and took their son with them wherever they went. That son, who romanticized his life long before the world would, believes his proclivity for wandering might be genetic. Probably it’s all he’s ever known.
The place the young Assange family returned to most often was Magnetic Island. There, Christine remembered, “I rented an island cottage for $12 a week in Picnic Bay … I lived in a bikini, ‘going native’ with my baby and other mums on the island.” Julian was often home-schooled, as was his half-brother, who is a decade younger. His mother told the New Yorker‘s Raffi Khatchadourian that she “didn’t want their spirits broken.” Julian claimed he lived in over 50 towns and attended 37 schools by the time he was fourteen. Assange, as we shall see, is prone to hyperbole, but if this is an exaggeration it at least conveys the gist of their existence. What classmates and teachers he did have uniformly recall Assange as smart and drawn to science, a shy and compassionate child, who, one fellow student said, “was the sort of kid who moved a spider and let it free when the others wanted to kill it.” For this notion of ethics Julian credits his step-father, from whom he inherited sayings like “Capable, generous men do not create victims: they nurture them.” That note of heroic paternalism still colors his rhetoric today.
Assange as a young boy
One of the houses Julian and his mother lived in sat opposite an electronics shop. The young boy, about 14, was fascinated by their Commodore 64, that primitive mainstay of underfunded schoolrooms across the America. He took to it naturally, and when he got his first modem two years later, became drawn into hacking. There was no Internet in the mid-eighties, but there were basic networks linking personal, private and government computers. Institutional security twenty years ago was even more incompetent than it has shown itself to be today, and the nascent hacker broke into bank networks and government websites, not to destroy anything but to find information, for the challenge, and for the hell of it.
Julian was attending a school for gifted children and grew comfortable being an outcast: he described himself and a friend as “bright sensitive kids who didn’t fit into the dominant subculture and fiercely castigated those who did as irredeemable boneheads.” At 18 he met a girl two years his junior, who he later told the Guardian was “introverted and emotionally disturbed.” (This may have been true, but Assange has a habit of describing his adversaries as defective in some basic way.) Echoing his mother’s youth, they soon married and had a son named Daniel. The relationship’s brevity hewed to the family pattern, too, and the couple battled for custody of Daniel.
At the same time his reputation as a hacker was growing. In 1991 his house was raided by the Australian police, and though he wasn’t charged, Assange followed his instincts and fled, joining a squatters’ union with his girlfriend. He was part of a trio called the International Subversives, and they broke into the Department of Defense and the Los Alamos National Laboratory networks, among others. Assange called himself Mendax, from splendide mendax in Horace’s third book of odes. It means “nobly untruthful,” though it was often used ironically for the the most unashamed of liars. Years later Assange related their code:
Don’t damage computer systems you break into (including crashing them); don’t change the information in those systems (except for altering logs to cover your tracks); and share information.
These “bright sensitive kids,” disaffected teenagers, and social misfits formed a subculture huddled against the world, with a strong sense of community and an air of romantic mystery; the same combination that would later draw in an idealistic German hacker named Daniel Domscheit-Berg, and a lonely soldier name Bradley Manning.
The police raid turned out to be part of a much larger investigation. Three years after the raid Assange was charged with over two dozen counts of hacking. It was another two years before he went to court. The prosecution wanted a prison sentence but the judge, agreeing with the defense that malicious intent was absent, fined Assange $2,100. His response to the judge’s leniency, recounted in WikiLeaks, gives a flavor of his ideological temperament, and his hubris. Having received the result he wanted, Assange stood up to dispute the veracity of the charges he had just plead out. “Your Honor,” the transcript reads, “I believe the prosecution has made several misleading claims in terms of the charges and therefore I elect to continue this defense if Your Honor would so let me…I feel a great misjustice has been done.” The judge interrupted and advised defense counsel to silence his client.
Ten years later, just before Wikileaks was launched, Assange posted this blog entry:
If there is a book whose feeling captures me it is First Circle by Solzhenitsyn. To feel that home is the camaraderie of persecuted, and in fact, prosecuted, polymaths in a Stalinist slave labour camp! How close the parallels to my own adventures! … Such prosecution in youth is a defining peak experience. To know the state for what it really is! To see through that veneer the educated swear to disbelieve in but still slavishly follow with their hearts! … Your belief in the mendacity of the state … begins only with a jackboot at the door. True belief forms when led into the dock and referred to in the third person. True belief is when a distant voice booms ‘the prisoner shall now rise’ and no one else in the room stands.
In fact the real scars from this period came from his divorce. His wife left with their son Daniel around the time his house was raided. Assange and his mother were convinced his wife and her new boyfriend were a danger to the boy but couldn’t get the state to remove him from their custody. So they formed an organization called Parent Inquiry Into Child Protection, secretly taping meetings with Health and Community Services and distributing fliers encouraging child-protection workers to come forward with information. “We had moles who were inside dissidents,” Assange later told the New Yorker.
A custody-sharing arrangement was finally worked out in 1999, but the episode was trying: Julian was admitted to a hospital for depression and spent time sleeping east of Melbourne in the forests of Dandenong Ranges National Park, wandering amongst the eucalyptus trees. The color drained from his hair. Christine is “sure that Jules has some P.T.S.D. that is untreated” as a result.
Assange occupied himself in many ways over the next decade, never long committed to anything. He motorcycled across Vietnam, worked odd jobs (even, for a time, as a computer-security consultant), and studied physics, math, philosophy and neuroscience at the University of Melbourne for three years. Computers, the one constant in his life, began to dovetail with larger concerns. Broadly, the hacker philosophy seeks to bleed power from the center by making common property of information, but it was born with a Western, almost bourgeois flavor. Hackers like Julian Assange spent their time invading the computer systems of American and European governments and conglomerates, the traditional locus of the hard left’s scorn. But as the 1990’s wore on, advances in telecommunications widened the horizons of activists everywhere (as they continue to do today). So too the common aspirations of hackers, whose methods were well-suited to assisting human rights activists across the world. This nexus began to pull Assange in.
To those hackers who believe that information should be free and plentiful, it is logical that computer programs – and therefore the code they are written in – should be, too. Assange co-authored several admirable programs, inlcuding one called Rubberhose, an encryption system designed, the Guardian reports, to allow “human rights activists who faced torture [to] surrender a password to one layer of information. Their torturers would not realise another layer was beneath.” The program was spurred by Assange’s meetings with human rights advocates working in third world nations. The website for the program read:
We hope that Rubberhose will protect your data and offer a broader kind of protection for people who take risks for just causes…Our motto is: ‘Let’s make a little trouble.’
At the same time Assange was toying with the idea of a website for leakers. He registered the domain name leaks.org in 1999 but did nothing and it apparently lapsed. In 2006, at the age of 35, he started a blog, which lasted into the next year, after the birth of Wikileaks. As the profile of Assange in the New York Times anthology relates,
he expounded on the social difficulties faced by brilliant children, presenting graphs and statistics to back up his points about maladjustment. He wrote of carbon offsetting and of Kurt Vonnegut, and he quoted the science fiction writer Douglas Adams.
But as the blog developed, his attentions turned to injustice and action, conspiracies and leaks, peppered with mathematical phrases and an underlying sense of his own mission.
The article goes on to quote a post, rendered in Assange’s awkwardly showy prose, from New Years Eve 2006, which many see as a kind of manifesto for Wikileaks:
The more secretive or unjust an organization is, the more leaks induce fear and paranoia in its leadership and planning coterie. This must result in the minimization of efficient internal communications mechanism (an increase in cognitive ‘secrecy tax’) and consequent system-wide cognitive decline resulting in decreased ability to hold onto power as the environment demands adaptation. Hence in a world where leaking is easy, secretive or unjust systems are nonlinearly hit relative to open, just systems. Since unjust systems, by their nature induce opponents, and in many places barely have the upper hand, mass leaking leaves them exquisitely vulnerable to those who seek to replace them with more open forms of governance. Only revealed injustice can be answered; for man to do anything intelligent he has to know what’s actually going on.
A few days later he wrote a post more reminiscent of his stepfather’s maxims: “Every time we witness an injustice and do not act we train our character to be passive in its presence and thereby eventually lose all ability to defend ourselves and those we love.”
The blog, which can still be searched out, is a fascinating chronicle, but there’s an entry I’m surprised I’ve never seen quoted. Perhaps it shouldn’t be read too far past callow, self-absorbed musing. Nevertheless it shows a less humanistic, more utilitarian side of Julian Assange, one that sees people as pieces in a big, necessarily bloody game:
Thu 22 Jun 2006 : Moshe and the glass eye
Sometimes my eyes are lovingly full of Eastern European tragedy. The surest escape from the mundane is to teleport into the tragic realm. To topple kings someone must die. One soon revels in the carnage of change; whatever flowers grow at the end of Lear or Hamlet we know they blossom into a different world, stronger for the corpses under their roots.
Shades of this hardness, to say nothing of egotism, would appear throughout the first five years of Wikileaks’ existence and render it vulnerable to the same charge it has flung at others: that of disregarding the human cost of the actions it takes.
an early sketch for the WikiLeaks logo, obtained by Cryptome
In the year before that New Years post, Assange was busy designing the mechanics of Wikileaks. To what extent they are his doing and his alone we don’t know; he calls himself the site’s “original programmer.” At base the site is designed to be a safe place to anonymously drop secret information on the Internet. Assange registered the domain name in February of 2006. The site went live in December, claiming to be a collaborative effort between “Chinese dissidents, journalists, mathematicians and start-up company technologists, from the US, Taiwan, Europe, Australia and South Africa.” Its first leaked document was a purported directive to assassinate government officials signed by Sheikh Hassan Dahir Aweys, of the Islamic Courts Union of Somalia, a militant Islamic group. One of the founding planks of Wikileaks was that volunteer citizen journalists would help determine the authenticity of documents, but the veracity of its first posting remains ambiguous, and the interactive “Wiki” features of the original site were soon abandoned. Assange’s suspicions, though, were crudely obvious. The document was accompanied by a question for the digital void: “Is it a bold manifesto by a flamboyant Islamic militant with links to Bin Laden? Or is it a clever smear by US intelligence, designed to discredit the Union, fracture Somali alliances and manipulate China?”
A better question (doubtless one among many) is whether this document was actually leaked. Usually when data is sent online it is split into parts, each with identifying information, all to be reassembled at their destination. These are the increments on your download bar. But spies and hackers can easily monitor a sender or receiver to determine who is on the other end. To counter this, at least at the beginning, Wikileaks moved its data through a system called Tor, which was developed by the US Naval Research Laboratory in the mid-1990s. It is a vast network of thousands of volunteer servers linked by a piece of free software. A file sent through it is wrapped in multiple layers of encryption, one of which is peeled off every time it goes through a node on the way to its end point. Each layer only relates which node the data came from and which one it’s heading toward, so no one can track or decipher the file. But it must exit somewhere, and if it’s not well-encrypted before it enters the Tor system, anyone at one of these exit nodes sufficiently proficient and curious can copy and read the data. Assange or someone from his team – which was quite small in those days – came upon Chinese and other intelligence agencies pulling this data out, tens of thousands of pages a day, and surreptitiously copied what they had stolen. This is how Wikileaks got its first cache of documents – most still unreleased – and what allowed Assange to claim that they had “received” more than “one million documents from 13 countries.” It may even by why Wikileaks was formed when it was.
Assange had been toying with the idea for years, but WikiLeaks has other predecessors. In 1996, the website cryptome.org was created by architects and activists John Young and Deborah Nastios as a home for secret documents. Their website states:
Cryptome welcomes documents for publication that are prohibited by governments worldwide, in particular material on freedom of expression, privacy, cryptology, dual-use technologies, national security, intelligence, and secret governance—open, secret and classified documents—but not limited to those.
What WikiLeaks attempts to do with this model is graft onto it more advanced technology and a more pro-active approach to dissemination. In fact, John Young, along with other journalists, activists and tech experts, was invited to join the site’s advisory board. Young was skeptical. The second WikiLeaks-related leak was actually released on Cryptome: the e-mail chain between Young and Assange about getting the latter’s site up and running. The former ends the exchange by implying that Assange is a stooge for the CIA. Young has since maintained qualified support, but Cryptome has kept its distance, publishing a prescient critique of WikiLeak’s security methods in 2010. In any case, the advisory board was largely chimerical. Most members said they had little contact with the site. As Assange has boasted many times, to his own people and the world alike, WikiLeaks is his project. The drawbacks of his sloppy institution-building and megalomania would later become obvious.
But in January of 2007 Assange and three friends, full of optimism, traveled to the World Social Forum in Nairobi, Kenya, five months after Senator Barack Obama’s massively popular visit to the country. He networked, gave a talk, and passed out fliers. As the Guardian authors note, here was the other wellspring of WikiLeaks’ character, what they call “anti-capitalist radicals – the community of environmental activists, human rights campaigners and political revolutionaries who make up what used to be known in the 1960s as the ‘counter-culture.’” Assange was so enamored of the country, and what you could call its activist scene, that he spent much of the next two years there, living with members of Médecins Sans Frontières and other organizations.
His ambition to be a towering figure among such people, a hint of which was visible when he was prosecuted for hacking a decade before, was now quite bald, as can be seen in a contemporaneous e-mail, where Solzhenitsyn again figures:
A substantial portion of Social Forum types are ineffectual pansies who specialise in making movies about themselves and throwing ‘dialogue’ parties for their friends with foundation money…This quote from Solzhenitsyn is increasingly germane: ‘A decline in courage may be the most striking feature that an outside observer notices in the west today. The western world has lost its civic courage … Such a decline in courage is particularly noticeable among the ruling intellectual elites.’
Kenya would be the source of WikiLeaks’ first meaningful leak, and the first hint of how WikiLeaks would most effectively function: as a facilitator of more traditional actors. The president of Kenya at the time was Mwai Kibaki. His government had a long and detailed report about the corruption of his predecessor but would not release it, apparently for political reasons. The report fell into the hands of Mwalimu Mati, a member of a local anti-corruption group who had by coincidence just volunteered with WikiLeaks at the urging of a German friend. His group could not publish the document for fear of retribution, but WikiLeaks could. Yet instead of simply posting it on the webpage, WikiLeaks shared the report with the Guardian. The story created a furor in Kenya, and Assange later claimed to have shifted the results of the 2007 elections by ten percent and caused the ouster of all those named in the document. The truth is unverifiable: the elections were heavily corrupt, touching off violence that killed nearly a thousand.
WikiLeaks leaked little else in 2007, save the release of the 2003 and 2004 official procedures for the US detention facility at Guantanamo Bay. Again the contents were mirrored on the Guardian website. The manuals revealed the restrictions placed on the inmates, as well as the fact that some were designated off-limits for contact with the Red Cross, something the Bush Administration had previously denied. Between the two years one sees the military responding to press scrutiny and the criticism of a chaplain who worked there: public relations personnel were to be sunnier; security procedures were tightened. The story, unfortunately, didn’t gain much traction, and WikiLeaks limped towards the new year with a quiet reputation. This post, not a year into the site’s existence, marked the beginning of a slow shift of interest toward the United States, and away from secrets hidden elsewhere.
“WL is the best thing that ever happened to me,” writes Daniel Domscheit-Berg in Inside Wikileaks. He has since gone on, with other former members of WikiLeaks, to co-found OpenLeaks, a rival created to account for what they see as irredeemable flaws in the structure and management of WikiLeaks. His book is emotional and impressionistic: Assange was the central force in his life for three years, and he quit the group only five months before the book was published. He hasn’t finished processing these feelings, but to his credit at least, he doesn’t hide them:
We used to be best friends, Julian and I – or, at least, something like friends. Today, I’m not sure whether he even knows the concept. I’m not sure of anything anymore. Sometimes I hate him so much that I’m afraid I’d resort to physical violence if our paths ever cross again. Then I think that he needs my help. That’s absurd, after everything that’s happened. Never in my life have I known such an extreme person as Julian Assange.
So imaginative. So Energetic. So brilliant.
So paranoid, so power-hungry, so megalomaniac.
Despite his withdrawal and haste, Domscheit-Berg has thrown together a fascinating and, by all indications, a reliable book: none of his substantive claims have been credibly challenged. (Inside Wikileaks is also, inexcusably, the only book with a timeline.)
In mid-2007 he was an after-hours hacker, tech enthusiast and network and security engineer for a large IT company who had never heard of WikiLeaks. He learned about it from a friend who shared his enthusiasm for cryptome.org. The release of the Guantanamo handbooks convinced him that WikiLeaks was “a great idea” that “had the potential to become much, much bigger than Cryptome.” So he signed onto a chat room on the WikiLeaks web page and offered his services.
“I got the sense immediately,” he writes, with sentiments Assange could have expressed twenty years before when he discovered hacking, “that these people were the same as me. They were interested in the same issues….They talked about social problems and believed that the Internet offered previously unimaginable solutions.” After two days Assange appeared and offered him some basic file compatibility and site formatting work. Berg did whatever he was given and soon proposed that Assange fly to Berlin so the he could give a presentation at the 24th Chaos Communication Congress. It was put on by the Chaos Computer Club, a group of tech activists and hackers based in Germany. Funded by a bequest from their founder Wau Holland, the group is famous in Europe and tech cirlces for publicly exposing security loopholes in the public and private sector, and advocating transparency, free information and public communications infrastructure, they could be a valuable source of talent and connections.
But WikiLeaks was new and lecturing was likewise new to Assange: he spoke as pretentiously as he wrote and the presentation was sparsely attended, so little impact was made on the few dotting the seats.
Berg “learned after the fact that there’d been a lot of trouble with the organizers, and Julian had quarreled with many of my acquaintances,” a sentiment which could be echoed by virtually every organization that’s ever had a relationship with the man. But Domscheit-Berg was enamored and they bonded: “My first thought upon seeing him was: Cool guy. He was wearing…attire that distinguished him from the rest of the congress participants. The way he walked was both energetic and carefree…It was fun watching him…We talked for hours. Then we would simply sit side by side, saying nothing, Julian absently working away at his computer.” In this mode Assange was careless of his appearance and his health, behavior which prompted the concerned dotage of his followers that reporters and other outsiders would observe.
Domscheit-Berg, who was highly proficient technically, advanced quickly, but soon discovered that his virtues weren’t the only reason: WikiLeaks was short-staffed and low on money. “Even when we gave [volunteers] something concrete to do,” he writes, “only one out of a hundred, if even that, would ever get back in touch.” “Surely,” Assange complained to the Guardian,
all those people that are busy working on articles about history and mathematics and so on, and all those bloggers that are busy pontificating about…human rights disasters…surely those people will step forward…No. It’s all bullshit. It’s all bullshit. In fact, people write about things…because they want to display their values to their peers, who are already in the same group. Actually, they don’t give a fuck about the material.
Funding was no better. In March 2008, there were less than 2,000 euros in WikiLeaks’ Paypal account, their main spigot for donations.
2008 saw more activity than the previous year, and WikiLeaks would have its first and only legal challenge for the next three years. On January 14 it published hundreds of internal documents from Julius Bär Bank implicating it in shielding hundreds of millions of its clients’ money from taxes. Julius Bar’s California law firm sent a threatening e-mail the next day, asking WikiLeaks to remove their clients’ information from the website. Domscheit-Berg and Assange asked them to be more specific, so they could assign one of their attorneys to the case. “In reality, of course, we were light-years away from having a pool of attorneys at our beck and call. To be precise, we were in contact with one female attorney who had offered us her services for free….But to the outside world, we always pretended to have a huge legal department.”
They needn’t have worried. Julius Bär obtained an injunction in a San Francisco court, but several organizations, including the Electronic Frontier Foundation and the ACLU, succeeded in getting it overturned, supported by amicus briefs from a dozen news organizations, including the Los Angeles Times and the Associated Press. But the injunction was useless even when it was in effect: WikiLeaks had several mirror sites across the globe, and the bank documents remained available during the months legal issues were decided.
Then in March WikiLeaks published a series of Scientology documents detailing companies affiliated with the sect and “rehabilitation” procedures used on members who strayed from the hive. This made public for the first time methods used on Lisa McPherson, a woman who died in 1995 after being removed from the hospital by fellow Scientologists and subject to an isolating procedure called an Introspection Rundown. WikiLeaks received assistance processing the documents, and possibly the documents themselves, from an anarchic hacker group called Anonymous, who claimed they formed in order to expose and destroy Scientology and have since widened their horizons. Today members of this group occasionally attack the websites of government agencies and companies like PayPal, who have under political pressure refused to service WikiLeaks.
The rest of the year saw a steady trickle of releases, trivial and revelatory. About the same time as the Scientology dump, WikiLeaks posted three dozen videos of unrest in Tibet censored by the Chinese government. Two months later it was a ritual handbooks for American fraternities. (The Sigma Chi, in their 136-page manual, prudently recommend “several lighting techniques and appropriate music selection” to help attain “an atmosphere of solemnity, beauty and dignity” for their ceremony. Several diagrams are provided.) September, in the middle of the American presidential campaign, saw the publishing of e-mails from Sarah Palin’s Yahoo account, which caused a brief stir. In November WikiLeaks made public the membership of the far-right British National Party. They also posted another document from Kenya, a suppressed report, originating from the Kenya National Commission of Human Rights, on extra-judicial killings by police. WikiLeaks later received an award from Amnesty International for making the report available. Two of the report’s investigators, prominent human rights activists in Kenya, were later assassinated.
WikiLeaks was still underfunded. At one point Assange tried to auction exclusive access to the supposed e-mail messages of one of Hugo Chavez’s speechwriters. No one bit. The money would have been useful. WikiLeaks has always projected an image of technological impregnability. Of course there is no such thing, but the site was in fact quite fragile. “We had to give the impression that we had a broad infrastructure,” Domscheit-Berg writes. “The truth was, our technology was junk. Or we’d been unprofessional or neglected something.” Aside from himself and Assange, WikiLeaks had only one full time computer technician for the first two years. He was, along with a journalist Assange paid 600 euros to analyze the Julius Bär records, the only one to draw a paycheck the first few years, though he never had complete access to WikiLeaks’ server; Assange’s paranoia imposed its limits. Another technician, who Domscheit-Berg calls the “architect,” came on in early 2009.
The architect couldn’t believe his eyes when he was allowed a look at our system. Amid all the threats and little fights that would later envelop WL, the real scandal in the eyes of the architect was the jungle of extraneous lines in our programs and the dilapidated state of our infrastructure. What he saw was a chaos of insufficient resources and overly vulnerable, dillentantishly improvised stuff that showed no sign of clearly defined processes or proper workflows.
For the first time, Wikileaks devised relatively clear roles for its four regulars: Assange and Domscheit-Berg were responsible for the content; and the architect and the technician were responsible for technology. The public never learned about this, and neither did potential leakers, who were sold the false hope of guaranteed anonymity.
Assange and Domscheit-Berg
In 2009 WikiLeaks made a more concerted effort to attract attention and funding. Domscheit-Berg quit his job after negotiating a year’s severance. The site’s team traveled to conferences to spread the message and make more contacts. The number of leaks increased again, while the site’s visibility and the controversy around it grew. Four leaks highlighted the dilemmas inherent in their conviction that all information should be free: a database of supporters of US Senator Norman Coleman, a second membership list of the British National Party, and the e-mail correspondence of David Irving, reviled historian of the Second World War. The last and most comical WikiLeaks release was their own list of donor e-mail addresses, published unknowingly after someone mischievously sent it to their the in-box. “Publishing everything we received was part of our concept of transparency,” Domscheit-Berg explains.
What else could we do if we didn’t want to open ourselves up to accusations of playing favorites? …Admittedly, some of our publications went pretty far….But in order to remain impartial, our desire for transparency had to become an ironclad principle…
For Julian in particular, principles were more important than anything else. When one of our sources discovered [the donor data for Senator Norm Coleman], Julian wanted to publish not only the names of Coleman’s campaign supporters but their exact credit card details including security codes as well.
After an internal debate, the card information was published with the last few numbers blanked out, allowing the WikiLeaks team to retain their sense of purity.
WikiLeaks was coming into its own as a multi-national political organization. They became directly involved in freedom of information debates in several countries. Internet filter lists, from Australia and Thailand, had already been released by the site. But in Germany they took part in an ongoing political debate. In April of 2009 the German government presented a draft of something called the Access Impediment Law, a bill ostensibly designed to combat child pornography but so broadly written that it could be construed to invest the government with sweeping powers of censorship. There was significant local opposition to the law, and Domscheit-Berg wrote to one of the ringleaders to offer WikiLeaks’ assistance. He helped her put up posters, took her to a hacker conference so she could draw on their supporters, and he implies in the book that they helped her with research. The law was waylaid, then passed and ignored, and finally repudiated earlier this year. The WikiLeaks effect, here as in so many other things, is uncertain.
In the middle of 2009, two years into the worldwide financial crisis, WikiLeaks received documents that seemed to show that the owners of Kaupthing Bank, Iceland’s largest, had pillaged its stores right before it collapsed. They were contacted by local activist, historian and WikiLeaks volunteer Herbert Snorrason, who invited them to a conference on digital liberties. Domscheit-Berg took to him immediately: “Herbert knew the anarchist classics that are also on my unofficial list of favorite works of world literature, and I was excited to find a kindred spirit in such a faraway place.” Later Snorrason would leave with him to found OpenLeaks.
“Officially we were there for the conference only,” Domscheit-Berg writes, “but news of our arrival had gotten around…. We had become something like folk heroes for leaking the machinations at Kaupthing Bank.” The first night they were there, Assange, Domscheit-Berg, Sorrason and a friend sat talking for hours at a restaurant and hit upon an idea: “making Iceland into a haven for freedom of the press, with the most progressive media laws in the world,” a Cayman Islands for leakers and journalists. Inspiration came from a science fiction novel by Neal Stephenson called Cryptonomicon, in which a data haven is created beyond the reach of all authority in the world. They unfurled the idea on the tiny country’s most popular talk show, and met Birgitta Jónsdóttir, who would sponsor the proposed law in the Icelandic Parliament, and become a close advisor to WikiLeaks. It passed unanimously a year later, and Iceland became the home base of choice for Assange and co.
They continued to gain notoriety. In early 2009 WikiLeaks publication of 6,780 reports from the Congressional Research Service, the well-funded department that produced studies for members of Congress. The CRS does not, strangely, release these directly to the public, despite the fact that they spend $100 million of its money every year and rarely deal with highly privileged information. Near the end of the year WikiLeaks released 570,00 pager messages sent on September 11, 2001, which are believed to come from a NSA database. Soon came a report on a toxic waste spill in the Ivory Coast and secret contracts for Germany’s toll collection system, both of which were major scandals in Europe. In December they returned to the Chaos Communication Conference in Berlin, where two years before they were a non-event. This time they were the keynote speakers. Across the Atlantic, though, attention had waned.
As a new decade loomed, it seemed likely WikiLeaks wouldn’t pick up again. WikiLeaks’ infrastructure was still unreliable; they had to stagger the release of the 9/11 messages for fear of shorting out their server. Fundraising was still inadequate. They lost a $2 million application for funding from the Knight Foundation, which gives tens of millions a year to journalistic projects. Money was instead awarded to a project called Documentcloud, “designed,” the Guardian reports, “to set up a public database of the full documents behind conventional news stories.” It was backed by journalism non-profit ProPublica, and by the New York Times, who would soon be working uneasily alongside Assange’s upstart website.
On December 23rd, 2009 WikiLeaks went offline. “We wanted to send a message to the world,” Domscheit-Berg writes. “If you want us to continue, you’ve got to give us a bit of support. It was like a kind of strike.” They needn’t have bothered. The Chaos Communication Conference was two days later, and they received a rapturous response. Their German account alone, managed by the Wau Holland Foundation (which also funded the CCC), received $200,000 in the next three months. Donations made in Germany were even tax-deductible. WikiLeaks was back online in less than a month and quickly received the first of the four most provocative troves they had ever released.
They came from someone who, like Domscheit-Berg and Assange, didn’t fit in and found solace in the community of hackers and computer geeks. In late 2009 Bradley Manning, an Army private, had just been deployed to Iraq. Ginger Thompson, in a workmanlike profile collected in the New York Times anthology, provides context:
He spent part of his childhood with his father in the arid plains of Central Oklahoma where classmates made fun of him for being a geek. He spent another part with his mother in a small, hardscrabble corner of southwest Wales, where classmates made fun of him for being gay. Then he joined the Army, where his social life was defined by the need to conceal his sexuality under the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy, and he wasted brainpower fetching coffee for officers.
But it was two years ago [the article was written in mid-2010], when Private First Class Bradley Manning visited Cambridge, Mass., to see a man with whom he had fallen in love, that he finally seemed to have found a place where he fit in, joining a circle that included politically motivated computer hackers and his boyfriend, a self-described drag queen.
Assange was livid at this article (the drag queen reference seems coarsely placed; these are the first paragraphs of the piece), and others have criticized the focus on Manning’s sexuality and personal life. But there is no evidence his political opinions and motivations for leaking are disingenuous or lightly-worn – only that he had further reasons to feel alienated, and that perhaps those feeling were catalytic.
Despite being a private, Manning had access to the Secret Internet Protocol Router Network (the requisite acronym is SIPRNet), a system used by the State and Defense departments to transmit data classified data up to the designation SECRET. This extremely open system was a legacy of post 9/11 security reform, which aimed to replace the pre-September 2001 world’s cloistered redoubts of information with a vast interconnected system of cooperative and communicative agencies. SIPRNet has over a half million users, and, at least in Manning’s case, security measures were lax: he had access to documents he would never have cause to use, and the station where he works was poorly monitored. He simply pretended to by copying some Lady Gaga music onto a disc, and made away with the largest store of secret government data in history.
Not long after arriving in Iraq, while trolling the network, Manning came upon a two-year-old, 39-minute video taken from an Apache helicopter flying over Baghdad. The attack killed between 12 and 18 people, including two Reuters reporters, who’s cameras were apparently mistaken for weapons. The footage is punctuated by sinister chatter between the helicopter’s crew. Two Army investigations cleared the soldiers involved, but to Manning, and to many who would see it once it became public, it looked like a war crime.
According to chats recorded by Adrian Lamo, the ex-hacker who turned Manning in, the latter contacted WikiLeaks a few days after the 9/11 pager messages were released. But he didn’t send any documents right away, and the site was down barely a month later. Assange denies contact with him, to the obvious legal benefit of both, but the text indicates otherwise. First Manning gave them what he called a “test document,” from the U.S. Embassy in Reykjavik, which WikiLeaks published on February 18, 2010. It was the first document published after coming back online. A month later came a 32-page Department of Defense report on WikiLeaks, which Assange posted with the absurd title “U.S. Intelligence Planned to Destroy WikiLeaks.” It argued for deterring government employees from leaking. Two weeks after that were State Department profiles of Icelandic politicians.
Relations between Assange and Domscheit-Berg were souring. This was prompted, the latter writes, by “banalities like open windows.” The real issues, it seems, were ego and hierarchy:
We also had a very unpleasant discussion about who was senior and who was junior in our ranks. Julian set up a pecking order of who was allowed to criticize whom, with himself at the apex of the pyramid. That was justified by his intelligence and experience…
Julian apparently didn’t like us sharing thoughts among ourselves. He said that if we started discussing things on our own, the truth would become ‘asymmetrical.’
Things deteriorated further, and Domscheit-Berg decided to book a flight home to Germany. He wouldn’t see Assange again. They would communicate through the chat room. Assange’s self-absorption and need for control would ultimately lead to real defections down the line, but for now volunteers were plentiful.
WikiLeaks was finally attracting sustained attention from American and European media; from now on everything they couldn’t hide would be in the public eye. And as WikiLeaks became more powerful, its potential, its faults and its peculiarities would be accentuated.
A sense of the bigness of what they were doing fed Assange’s paranoia and the sometimes dramatic, sometimes comical lengths he would go to conceal his location and identity. In late-March the New Yorker profiler was in Iceland with them as they prepared to release the Apache helicopter video:
“We are journalists,” he told the owner of the house [which they were renting]. Eyjafjallajökull had recently begun erupting, and he said, “We’re here to write about the volcano.” After the owner left, Assange quickly closed the drapes, and he made sure that they stayed closed, day and night. The house, as far as he was concerned, would now serve as a war room; people called it the Bunker.
Top WikiLeaks staff spoke on encrypted phones and were not supposed to leave their equipment unattended. Later, as the spotlight further brightened, Assange would drag a camera man around to document any malfeasance from his enemies, real and imagined, or he would dress like a woman, wig and all.
The video that came out of the little house in Reykjavik resembles nothing we would conceive of today as journalism: the professionalism and the attempt at objectivity (the often excessive devotion to even-handedness) are wholly absent. WikiLeaks revolts against them. Despite its violent moments, the Apache helicopter video contains long stretches of hovering and idle radio chatter. Many of WikiLeak’s previous releases failed to gain traction in the press. Conscious of this, and eager that the video’s reception accord with their political aims (“maximum political impact,” Assange later said), the video was edited and given a title: “Collateral Murder.”
The apache strike was actually three separate attacks from the same helicopter: a dozen men walking slowly down a street, some armed, with two Reuters reporters among them, one carrying a camera, are shot to pieces by the airship’s chain gun; two men exit a van that has come upon the scene to help the lone survivor, a Reuters man, and the helicopter fires once more, killing all three and wounding two children who were sitting in the van; finally, the helicopter crew fires three Hellfire missiles into a building with a half-dozen suspected insurgents inside, which turns out to have housed civilians. Two unarmed men had just entered the building, and pedestrians are subsumed by dust and debris when the missiles detonate. These events take 38 minutes.
the full helicopter video (contains graphic images)
The WikiLeaks version is 18 minutes long. It opens with a line from Orwell’s famous “Politics and the English Language,” where he says “Political language is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give the appearance of solidity to pure wind.” (Omitted are the ellipses that should follow “language,” suggesting the quote might have been cribbed from the Internet, where it often appears this way.) Next was information about the dead journalists, and the official response claiming the dead were all insurgents. Khatchadourian records a nugget of conversation that characterizes WikiLeaks’ approach to journalism nicely:
For the audio of this section, one of the film’s Icelandic editors had layered in framents of radio banter from the soldiers. As Assange reviewed the cut, an activist named Gudmundur Gudmunsson spoke up to say that the banter allowed viewers to “make an emotional bond” with the soldiers. Assange argued that it was mostly fragmentary and garbled, but Gudmundsson insisted: ‘It is just used all the time for triggering emotions.’
‘At the same time, we are displaying them as monsters,’ the editor said.
‘But emotions always rule,’ Gudmundsson said. ‘By the way, I worked on the sound recording for a film “Children of Nature,” that was nominated for an Oscar, so I am speaking from experience.”
‘Well, what is your alternative?’ Assange asked.
‘Basically, bursts of sounds, interrupting the quiet,’ he said.
The editor made the change, stripping the voices of the soldiers from the opening, but keeping blips and whirs of radio distortion.
The third attack, the least graphic, is omitted. The other two are shortened. Circles and arrows are added to distinguish the two reporters as they walk with the men. Before his flight to Washington to release the video, Assange signed off in the chat room with the words: “I’m off to end a war.”
The video was released to a gaggle of 40 journalists at the National Press Club on April 5, 2010. “This video,” Assange explained to Khatchadourian,
shows what modern warfare has become, and, I think, after seeing it, whenever people hear about a certain number of casualties that resulted during fighting with close air support, they will understand what is going on. The video also makes clear that civilians are listed as insurgents automatically, unless they are children, and that bystanders who are killed are not even mentioned.
But this interpretation, which exemplifies so much of what is frustrating about the young, Chomsky-venerating segment of the left in America, has just partial basis in fact. The encounter, which is horrifying to watch, isn’t necessarily representative of every use of close air support. It was surely good that this incident of listing civilian deaths as enemy killed-in-action was revealed: the practice was widespread in Vietnam. We know it has happened elsewhere in Iraq and Afghanistan, but on the ground reporting has made it more difficult. Civilian deaths are often announced before the military can even comment on an incident. The Apache video doesn’t prove patterns so much as suggest the disturbing possibility of their existence.
(Assange also engaged in a characteristic bit of exaggeration. Khatchadourian’s article reports that it took Wikileaks “three months” to break the encryption protecting the Apache video, and that Assange, “a cryptographer of exceptional skill, told me unlocking the file was ‘moderately difficult.’” Domscheit-Berg writes that WikiLeaks was given the password along with the file. Opening it probably took closer to three seconds.)
Domscheit-Berg sums up the release by noting that “The video was our definitive breakthrough. Afterward, just about everyone knew our website.” Which was a blessing and a curse for WikiLeaks. Assange was unhappy with the attention the helicopter story received in the media. After a few days, once the government and its defenders were able to put their side of the story out there, the narrative grayed. But another reason, aside from its ham-fisted attempt at journalism, was that WikiLeaks were drawing as much attention as the stories it was trying to promote. Television media especially, which exerts an influence on the herd of journalists far more than the small size of their audience would suggest, likes dramatic stories and unprecedented events and new paradigms. For those with a mind for such stories, WikiLeaks was a well that never dried.
Assange, who was quickly becoming a good media operator, cannily (and truthfully) promised that there were even bigger revelations to come. The scope of those revelations would redress the balance of coverage for a time, but an evolution in the way WikiLeaks leaks its information was more important. It would bring it to the apex of its influence, and ring in its obsolescence as well.
It was precipitated by the arrest, on May 26, 2010, of Private First Class Bradley Manning. The PFC, distraught, recently broken up with his boyfriend and demoted for punching a fellow solider, had contacted the former hacker Adrian Lamo after seeing a profile of him in Wired. Within five days, Lamo, convinced that Manning posed a national security risk, met with members of the FBI and the military on the 25th. Manning was arrested the next day, and news of the arrest broke less than two weeks later.
In mid-June several major papers and websites reported that the American government was searching for Julian Assange in connection with the Manning arrest. They believed that Assange was now in possession of hundreds of thousands of classified diplomatic cables and internal documents on the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Guardian reporter Nick Davies, who was working on the News of the World phone-hacking scandal, noticed the headline on his own paper and, thinking this was “the biggest story on the planet,” tried to get in touch with Assange. After several solicitous e-mails he was given the contact information of several of WikiLeaks’ associates in Iceland, but was making slow progress. He learned at the last minute that Assange was giving a talk in Brussels on the 19th, and sent the Guardian‘s Brussels reporter to find him.
From the beginning one of WikiLeaks’ greatest weaknesses was that it is far too small to handle the material it receives. Only a fraction of what they possess has been made available to the world. Great tranches of information need to be organized and interpreted by people fluent in the appropriate subjects, and for most of its lifetime WikiLeaks hasn’t even had adequate staff to manage their technological infrastructure. The volunteers hoped for in the beginning never appeared. Assange needed the media he spent so much time disparaging. But he had to be courted.
The Guardian approached him with a mix of genuine sympathy – the paper has “progressive credentials,” as the authors of their book put it – and the solicitousness that reporters use to get sources to leak. “Hi Julian,” read Davies first e-mail,
I spent yesterday in the Guardian office arguing that Bradley Manning is currently the most important story on the planet. There is much to be done, and it will take a little time. But right now, I think the crucial thing is to track and expose the effort by the US government to suppress Bradley, you, WikiLeaks, and anything that either of you may want to put in the public domain.
When they met, Davies and explained that Assange had to worry about legal, political and even physical attacks. Allying with a major newspaper could ameliorate these dangers. “We are going to put you on the moral high ground,” Davies told him, “so high that you’ll need an oxygen mask. You’ll be up there with Nelson Mandela and Mother Teresa” – a logical step after Solzhenitsyn.
Assange agreed, and told the Guardian reporter what WikiLeaks had: logs recording every military incident in Afghanistan (“’Holy Moly,’ remarked Davies”), the corresponding logs for Iraq (“’Fuck!’ exclaimed Davies”), enemy combatant reviews from the tribunals held in Guantanamo Bay and thousands of secret cables from US embassies around the world (expletive not recorded) – over a million documents all told. Assange also agreed with Davies’ suggestion that they bring in the New York Times, who were protected by the first amendment (and publication in the US might stymie attempts to charge Manning with espionage). Germany’s deep-pocketed Der Spiegel, one of the West’s most popular weeklies, was brought in as well. They would all publish at the same time at an agreed-upon date.
The Guardian reporters were technological neophytes. They knew nothing of the world of hackers, and were a bit awed by the secretive group they were entering. Assange had legitimate security concerns, but he must have had fun with their ignorance. He told the first Guardian reporter he met that they needed to secure and encrypt their e-mail, and recited the contents of the last missive to London headquarters to prove it. The agreement to publish was made at a restaurant. Ian Traynor, who was there with Davies, remembers that “Julian whipped out this mini-laptop, opened it up and did something on his computer. He picked up a napkin and said, ‘OK, you’ve got it.’” WikiLeaks‘ authors explain:
Assange had insouciantly circled several words and the hotel’s logo on the Hotel Leopold napkin, adding the phrase “no spaces”. This was the password. In the corner he scrawled three simple letters: GPG. GPG was a reference to the encryption system he was using for a temporary website. The napkin was a perfect touch, worthy of a John le Carré thriller. The two Guardian journalists were amazed. Nick Davies stuffed the napkin in his case together with his dirty shirts. Back in England, the yellow square was reverently lodged in his study, next to a pile of reporters notepads and a jumble of books. ‘I’m thinking of framing it,’ he says.
On a website, which would exist only for a short time, they would find the Afghan files. When Davies got back to London, he send Assange an e-mail: “I’m safely back at base. Thanks for spending time with me – no need to apologise for not being able to give me what I’m after.” They downloaded the files and the website disappeared.
About the same time, Alan Rusbridger, the editor of the Guardian and Davies’ boss, called Bill Keller, the executive editor of the New York Times, and, writes Keller in his introduction to Open Secrets,
asked, mysteriously, whether I had any idea how to arrange a secure communication. Not really I confessed…Well then, Alan said, he would try to speak circumspectly. In a roundabout way, he laid out an unusual proposition: An organization called WikiLeaks…had come into possession of an enormous amount of classified U.S. Government communications. WikiLeaks’s leader, an eccentric former computer hacker of Australian birth and no fixed residence, had offered The Guardian half a million military dispatches from the battlefields of Afghanistan and Iraq. There might be more after that, including an immense bundle of confidential diplomatic cables. The Guardian had suggested – both to increase the impact and to share the labor of handling such a trove – that The New York Times be invited to share this exclusive bounty. The source had agreed. Was I interested?
I was interested.
The Times sent a military reporter to evaluate the data; he confirmed their authenticity and brought them back to New York on a memory stick. An unusual quadruple alliance ensued between an American paper, a British paper, a German magazine, and an insurgent anti-secrecy organization. The two papers set up teams sequestered from the rest of their operations to analyze the data. They made amateurish efforts to fool surveillance: stale code pilfered from clichéd spy novels (Times staff called Assange “the source” and the data “the package”); tech fixes old and new (papers were shredded, talks were Skyped to take advantage of the service’s encryption). The Times threw its people into an out-of-the-way office. The Guardian found a similar place but added a Keep Out sign to the door.
WikiLeaks would make no effort to directly influence coverage, and participants agreed they would interpret the information according to taste, but all three news organizations worked together to make the data sortable and searchable. Der Speigel had sources in the German Parliament, which was conducting an investigation of the Afghan War. Some of this information was secret material from the US military, so the magazine was able to confirm for its partners the veracity of the Afghan logs (or “diaries,” as they came to be known). There were 90,000 in all. A usable database had to be fashioned from the Microsoft Excel sheets into which the data was fed. Journalism in the 21st century provided other advantages. As the Leigh and Harding explain:
The WikiLeaks project was producing new types of data. Now they needed to be mined with new kinds of journalism. Dant [the paper’s “data visualiser”] explained that he coul convert the statistics of the thousands of bomb explosions recorded in the Afghan war logs into a bespoke moving graphic display. He could use the same basic template with which the Guardian had formerly developed a popular interactive map of the Glastonbury festival.
Impact was a major concern for all involved. Der Spiegel had a weekly publication schedule, which meant that all the big things they wanted to say about the logs had to be said on day one, July 25th. The Guardian, like all UK papers hostage to some of the most restrictive libel laws in the free world, feared moves by the American or English governments to gag, so they resolved to publish as much as they could on the first day, too: fourteen pages of the paper were devoted to the story. The Times, with a crack legal team and decades of experience guarding the ambit of what it could print, felt more secure and staggered its reporting accordingly, an approach which the Guardian adopted three months later when the Iraq logs were published and legal concerns had subsided.
The most difficult issue was redaction. After the release Assange was quick to boast about WikiLeaks’ “harm minimization” procedures – despite his hatred for bureaucracy he’s quite comfortable with its language – but in fact he had to be convinced to adopt it. David Leigh put it to him one night at a restaurant in the company of two Spiegel reporters. “Well, they’re informants,” Assange responded, “so if they get killed, they’ve got it coming to them. They deserve it.” The table was struck dumb. The three news groups planned only to print those logs pertinent to their stories, which they had a chance to redact. WikiLeaks planned to dump everything at once. “At first,” Nick Davies said, “he simply didn’t get it, that it’s not OK to publish stuff that will get people killed.” Assange still believed in the purist hacker ideal that led to WikiLeaks’ formation: all information should be public because information will set us free.
Assange vacillated, and then relented, but neglected to tell his staff. Four days before the release date, Domscheit-Berg was having lunch with some Spiegel reporters when they queried him on the progress of “harm minimization.” Dumbfounded, he headed home and contacted the rest of the staff, who shared his ignorance. He found Assange in the WikiLeaks’ chatroom, but the leader disappeared as soon as Domscheit-Berg asked about what he’d heard. But the Times and the Guardian had a solution. Most of names were in 14,000 threat reports, which were heavily based on information from Afghans. The remaining 77,000 documents would be much easier to redact. Assange reappeared later that night to tell them the same thing.
The threat reports were the basis for much of the reporting, but the only ones available on the 26th were those already scrubbed by the newspapers. Journalists outside the loop had to make do with the less provocative remainder, until the threat reports were finally finished later. But the lack was hardly noticed in the buzzing that followed. “View is Bleaker than Official Portrayal” was one of the Times‘ headlines, and indeed, through the jargon of after-action reports, depict seemingly pointless battles and mistrust between NATO forces and the population around them. Der Spiegel lead with the story of Task Force 373, a secret group with a 2,000-person list of people designated for “kill or capture.” The Guardian emphasized unreported civilian deaths.
The White House responded by saying “We strongly condemn the disclosure of classified information by individuals and organizations, which puts the lives of the US and partner service members at risk and threatens our national security.” National Security Advisor Jim Jones called the leaks “irresponsible,” while Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Mike Mullen was “appalled” and said “there is a real potential threat there to put American lives at risk.” In Britain, where Prime Minister David Cameron was two months into a fraught Premiership and where the war is deeply unpopular, the response was more measured, and oriented towards the leaks themselves; a parliamentary inquiry into Britain’s role in Afghanistan was announced before the week was out.
After a day or two the flurry of stories based on the logs was so great that the Obama Administration was forced to follow suit and address (or rather, revisit) civilian casualties, corruption in the Afghan government, the hidden role of special operations and the extent of Taliban support within Pakistan’s government. Condemnation of the leaks still flowed regularly from Congress, where no one misses an opportunity to talk hawkish and get their picture taken, but for a time the spectacle seemed to play out as Assange hoped it would: America and its allies were made to account for their actions, and their citizens paid some attention. Moreover, it prompted all countries concerned to adapt by shifting the tenor of their official positions. While the Obama Administration affirmed its divergence from the Bush Administration, it took the opportunity to apply pressure on Afghanistan and Pakistan. Afghanistan, along with India and Britain, piled on the Pakistan, who issued a series of frantic denials.
The news kept cycling, and with word of another large leak on the horizon, attention shifted back to the who and how of the Afghan episode. “We are familiar with groups whose abuse we expose attempting to criticize the messenger to distract from the power of the message,” Assange had said at a news conference on the 26th, where he held aloft a copy of the Guardian and posited that he may have just made available evidence of “thousands” of war crimes. Much blame for whatever ‘distraction’ followed rests on his shoulders. Grandstanding and inflammatory statements are poor vehicles for directing attention to the substance of your work. So are threats. Assange, paranoid and infused with an ever-ballooning, Hemingway-esque sense of romantic oblivion, prepared a retaliatory measure for WikiLeaks’ enemies. Four days after the Afghan release, he posted a 1.4 gigabyte encrypted file called “insurance.aes256” on the web. Its contents are still unknown, but WikiLeaks threatened to release the encryption key should they be persecuted by any hostile government. Assange has recently hinted that the same could happen if he is remitted to Swedish custody. As many have noted, these are not the actions of a journalist.
Assange took everything personally, while his personality began to subsume the site’s identity (his picture still graces its homepage). This lead to unnecessary conflict. While the Guardian and Der Spiegel linked to WikiLeaks when they posted their Afghan stories, the Times, to avoid the appearance of any impropriety, did not. The Guardian reporters interviewed Keller, who recalled: “I talked to Assange by phone a few times, and heard out his complaints. ‘Where’s the respect?’ he demanded. ‘Where’s the respect?’ Another time he called to tell me how much he disliked a profile we had written of Bradley Manning…” “They must be punished,” he was heard saying in the Guardian offices.
These weren’t fits of pique. Amongst these reporters and publishers, Assange saw himself as a fatherly enforcer. He told the makers of the Swedish documentary WikiRebels “What is new is us enforcing cooperation between competetive organizations that would otherwise be rivals to do the best by the story as opposed to simply doing the best by their own organization.” As Bill Keller notes, the Times treated him as a source, and despite their sympathy, so did the Guardian and Der Spiegel.
For the moment, these tensions remained private. Division within the site, however, became public. The Swedish investigation of Assange for sexual crimes against two women was made public in mid-August. According to Domscheit-Berg, he and other members of WikiLeaks “asked him to… step back from the spotlight a bit. He, on the other hand, began to blame the whole thing on a smear campaign by the Pentagon.” According to a transcript in Inside WikiLeaks, in response to Domscheit-Berg’s criticism of Assange’s handling of the ase, the latter told the former to “Go away and think about your actions and statements….I will not tolerate disloyalty in crisis.” He soon suspended Domscheit-Berg for “disloyalty, insubordination and destabilization in a time of crisis.” The “architect,” the man responsible for creating WikiLeak’s baffled server structure, in which every component of the site was isolated from the other, suspended himself in protest. According a log obtained by the New York Times, when Icelandic recruit Herbert Snorrason questioned Assange’s handling of the Swedish case, among several things, WikiLeaks’ leader wrote “I don’t like your tone. If it continues, you’re out.” He complained that WikiLeaks wasn’t helping him fight the European authorities: “No legal help, no $, no accommodation, passports, positive press spins, private investigators, hacking those with information…Wake up and stop being a jerk.” When another volunteer pleaded with him to calm down, he declared: “I am the heart and soul of this organization, its founder, philosopher, spokesperson, original coder, organizer, financier and all the rest. If you have a problem with me, piss off.”
There was one final chat in which Assange attempted to reproach WikiLeaks staff for disloyalty and convince them to rally behind him and sever ties with Domscheit-Berg, who “has a disease, its some kind of borderline paranoid schizophrenia.” Birgitta Jonsdottir, another Icelandic ally, had spoken on the record to the Daily Beast about her displeasure with Assange’s conflation of his personal travails with the organization. “Listen to me very carefully,” he wrote to her in the chatroom, “It was backstabbing and it was disgraceful and you should apologise. Do you apologise?” “You have mixed wl with this in a very bad way,” she responded. He suggested the architect and himself talk privately, but the architect left the chat room instead. He and Domscheit-Berg quit the next day, along with Herbert Snorrason and about a dozen others, according to the Times. The architect restored control over the WikiLeaks system to Julian and the “technician,” the last two remaining people from the early years. What he gave them, however, was what they had before he’d reinforced the system. Thus WikiLeaks was left with a fraction of its principles and only a modicum of the security it would continue to guarantee to prospective leakers. Two days later Domscheit-Berg and his fellow exiles registered a domain called OpenLeaks, taking with them many of the files on the WikiLeaks server, so they didn’t leak through the cracks in WikiLeaks’ broken infrastructure.
Despite his haughty contempt for their work, Assange sat down with the Times a month later, in advance of the next rumored leak:
When asked about reports of dissent over the lunch, Assange, who had been affable, raised his voice. ‘Who has told you that?’ he asked, repeatedly demanding a list of names as his rapt entourage fell silent beside him. Assange denied that any important volunteers had quit, apart from Domscheit-Berg. The rest, he said, were ‘not consequential people.’ He also responded testily to questions about WikiLeaks’s opaque finances, the fate of Manning…and what appeared to be WikiLeaks’s lack of accountability to anybody but himself, calling the questions ‘cretinous,’ facile’ and reminiscent of ‘kindergarten.’ Asked about his anger, he embraced it. ‘I’ve been angry for a while,’ he said. ‘I like my anger. It’s directed effectively.’
After the defections, WikiLeaks.org went quiet for a month. What efforts it made were directed toward the next release: a mass of cables from the Iraq War, nearly four hundred thousand of them, a tranche four times the size of the Afghan dump.
Open Leaks notes that while the documents offer “insight, texture and context from the people actually fighting the war,” there are “no earthshaking revelations.” Not quite: this line depends upon how you view the documentation of 15,000 extra civilian deaths, and ironclad proof that the American government turned a blind eye to rampant torture and abuse by the Iraqi authorities while it tried to sell its increasingly doubting citizenry on the virtues of their partners in Baghdad. Indeed, US patrols and detentions delivered thousands of Iraqis into the manacles of their torturers. As the paper says, insight, texture and context are also there in abundance, including details of the extent of Iranian support for Shiite militias hostile to the US, reports of combat missions, and the often harmful reliance on private contractors. Our picture of this bloody war is more clear than ever.
The final collaborative leak between WikiLeaks and the media would be the most trying. Assange allied with television producers in order to gain more attention when the cables were released, but one of them leaked the forthcoming State release to the press. The Guardian staff felt this was in breach of their understanding with Assange. The beleaguered Australian also gave the cables to the Spanish paper El Pais, and opened talks with the Washington Post and the McClatchy chain in order to cut out the New York Times. Assange had given the State cables to the Guardian on the condition that they not be shared with the Times, but the Guardian shared them anyway, an action they justified by noting that Assange had already lost control of the situation – just days before, they’d learned that a WikiLeaks volunteer gave the documents to an independent British journalist (small batches of cables then popped up in a papers in Lebanon and Norway). Assange stormed into the Guardian offices with two lawyers but couldn’t persuade anyone to abandon the Times. Everyone resolved to coordinate the release.
On the 26th of November Assange’s lawyer sent a letter to the US State Department asking for information about anyone who could be placed at risk by the cables. The department responded by asserting that “We will not engage in a negotiation regarding the further release or dissemination of illegally obtained U.S. Government classified materials.” For the two previous leaks, the Times had informed the White House before publication. Each time US officials wouldn’t offer comment (except to say that the leaks should be returned unpublished) or suggestions for redaction. On November 19th the Obama administration was notified of the leaks by the Times. They decided to negotiate. “I have vivid memories,” recalls Keller
of sitting in the Oval Office as President George W. Bush tried to persuade me and the paper’s publisher to withhold the [secret domestic NSA] eavesdropping story, saying that if we published it, we should share the blame for the next terrorist attack….
This time around, the Obama administration’s reaction was…for the most part, sober and professional. The Obama White House, while strongly condemning WikiLeaks for making the documents public, did not seek and injunction to halt publication. There was no Oval Office lecture. On the contrary….White House officials, while challenging some of the conclusions we drew from the material, thanked us for handling the documents with care.
The truth is that, aside from one instance with the Afghan leaks, when Assange’s untempered zealotry allowed some names to be published, Wikileaks has attempted to handle the documents released by the WikiLeaks-media partnership with care, and none more so than the State Department cables. Until last month, of approximately 250,000 cables, less than 1,500 were published, and those that were have been thoroughly vetted. Sloppiness has changed that. After the cables were released, WikiLeaks was subject to multiple denial-of-service attacks (these are attempts to overload a site’s servers with requests from a small army of remotely controlled computers). By this time Domscheit-Berg had returned the files he had taken with him. According to Der Spiegel, “well-meaning WikiLeaks supporters also put online a compressed version of all data that had been published by WikiLeaks until that time via the filesharing protocol BitTorrent.” The complete, unredacted diplomatic cables were on that file, hidden in a sub-folder. And the password, you may recall, is written in David Leigh and Luke Harding’s book – no one bothered to change it. There are grave days ahead for the informants named in those cables.
After the initial release, some of WikiLeaks’ detractors also persisted in arguing, as they did with previous leaks, that the cables told us little we didn’t already know. The Open Secrets anthology has some articles to this effect. While the New York Times editorial page is liberal-leaning and thus cautiously supportive, it has always endeavored to carry a wide variety of uncontroversial opinion, and here the con is voiced by David Brooks, who writes that “despite the imaginings of people like Assange, the conversation revealed in the cables is not devious and nefarious.” Elsewhere he muses that “maybe the good news is that there is no news,” and therefore WikiLeaks has given us mere “granularity” at the expense of the confidentiality which greases the wheels of international diplomacy.
David Sanger, elsewhere in Open Secrets, more accurately writes that “American diplomats largely do what they say they are doing”: negotiating, arm-twisting, compromising, assessing and communicating on behalf of their government. They shuttle to and fro, cobbling together support for a hard line on Iran, or pressing China on human rights. The State Department weathered excessive disdain during the Bush Administration. The ascension of Obama marked a shift toward pragmatism, but the cables show that even his predecessor couldn’t expunge Foggy Bottom’s inherent anti-ideological bias; it comes out looking far better than its dysfunctional counterpart at the Pentagon.
Our sympathy is heightened by the literary merit distinguishing many of the cables, which, in contrast to the jargon-laden war logs, allow diplomats to a wide latitude for judgment and expression. Here is an almost novelistic cable worth quoting at length. Smart and crisply written, it relates the appearance of the brutal, thuggish, Russian-sponsored dictator of Chechnya, Ramzan Kadryov, at a lavish wedding in Dagestan. It is the second day of the celebration:
The… reception at the Marrakech was Fadzhi’s tribute to Aida’s family, after which we all returned to a dinner at Gadzhi’s summer home. Most of the tables were set with the usual dishes plus whole roast sturgeons and sheep. But at 8:00 p.m. the compound was invaded by dozens of heavily armed mujahedin for the grand entrance of Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov, dressed in jeans and a t-shirt, looking shorter and less muscular than in his photos, and with a somewhat cock-eyed expression on his face. After greetings from Fadzhi, Ramzan and about 20 of his retinue sat around the tables eating and listening to Benya the Accordion King….After fireworks, the musicians struck up the lezinka in the courtyard and a group of two girls and three boys – one no more than six years old – performed gymnastic versions of the dance. First Gadzhi joined them and then Ramzan, who danced clumsily with his gold-plated automatic stuck down the back of his jeans (a houseguest later pointed out that the gold housing eliminated any practical use of the gun, but smirked that Ramzan probably couldn’t fire it anyway). Both Gadzhi and Ramzan showered the dancing children with hundred dollar bills; the dancers probably picked upwards of USD 5000 off the cobblestones. Gadzhi told us later that Ramzan had brought the happy couple “a five kilo lump of gold” as his wedding present…After Ramzan sped off, the dinner and drinking – especially the latter
–continued. An Avar FSB colonel sitting next to us, dead drunk, was highly insulted that we would not allow him to add “cognac” to our wine. “It’s practically the same thing,” he insisted, until a Russian FSB general sitting opposite told him to drop it. We were inclined to cut the Colonel some slack, though: he is head of the unit to combat terrorism in Dagestan, and Gadzhi told us that extremists have sooner or later assassinated everyone who has joined that unit. We were more worried when an Afghan war buddy of the Colonel’s, Rector of the Dagestan University Law School and too drunk to sit, let alone stand, pulled out his automatic and asked if we needed any protection. At this point Gadzhi and his people came over, propped the rector between their shoulders, and let us get out of range.
Many cables are similarly elucidating, of the art and artlessness of statecraft and of cultures we hardly know. Another gem reveals the existence of discreet underground parties in ultra-conservative Saudi Arabia, fueled by drugs and sex, and protected by Saudi princes, whose presence is sufficient to ward off the roving patrols of the country’s Committee for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice. There are droll portraits of foreign leaders (Muammar Qaddafi and Silvio Berlusconi come in for scorn, while Nicolas Sarkozy is portrayed ambivalently and Hamid Karzai is distrusted), secret talks with Arab leaders who urge the US to strike Iran, and candid assessments of people and events. The cables are invaluable, for historian and concerned citizen alike.
Several dispatches do evince the sort of perfidity Assange and others suspect is inherent in American foreign policy. A directive to American personnel at UN missions and embassies orders them to obtain “biographic and biometric information” on UN officials and representatives, including phone numbers, e-mail and even credit cards. Perhaps the most sickening is advice from US diplomats to an Afghan government official. The Afghan was anxious about a reporter’s investigation in a parties thrown by DynCorp, and American contractor working in the country. Apparently, DynCorp was auctioning off young boys off to be raped by Afghan policemen attending these parties. The Afghan official was told that approaching the reporter was more less likely to expose the story, which American officials have kept quiet, too. But overall the worst behavior is committed by foreign players and multinational corporations. One cable describes the drug company Pfizer’s attempt to pressure the Nigerian attorney general into dropping charges against it by hiring private investigators to smear him. They were accused of the deaths of children undergoing drug trials. Royal Dutch Shell’s vice president for Sub-Saharan Africa bragged to a US official that they had informants in all of Nigeria’s important ministries. The Russian company Itera gave the president of Turkmenistan a yacht worth 60 million euros. McDonalds wanted the implementation of the Central American Free Trade Agreement delayed until El Salvador appointed “neutral judges” in a lawsuit against the Happy Meal purveyor. US diplomats sometimes intervened on behalf of American companies, and often turned a blind eye to their excesses. Russian, Italian, and German diplomats did the same and worse; as ever, questions of morality in Third World countries are of secondary importance when it comes to the interests of large powers.
It is important to remember what the cables do not tell us. They are only the product of one department – we don’t know, for instance, what Rumseld’s Pentagon looked like from the inside. The earliest cable dates to 1968, but almost all are from the Bush and Obama administrations. Of a quarter million, 100,000 are classified as “confidential,” and 15,000 are “secret.” None are “top secret.” There is still much we don’t know. WikiLeaks has just published another 100,000 of the state cables, dismayed, a confidential source told Reuters, that the media had forgotten the story. They should have learned their lesson and let Hurricane Irene pass first. Aside from this, the only other leak published in the last year has been the files related to the suspects held at Guantanamo Bay. They show that 150 innocent men were knowingly detained for years. It is not known if these files came from Manning, but regardless, the story gained limited traction. By that mid-2011 WikiLeaks, already bereft of half its key people, was nearly crippled as an organization.
In early December 2010, less than a month after the State Department cables were released, Swedish authorities issued an arrest warrant for Julian Assange in connection with separate sexual crimes against two women. He is alleged to have forced them to have unprotected sex. Assange initially claimed this was a honeypot, an attempt by unknown forces to smear him, but he has since dropped this line, and it looks like whatever occurred, it was probably not the machinations of Western intelligence agents. For the moment, Assange resides in Norfolk, England, at Ellingham Hall, a mansion belonging to supporter Vaughn Smith. Here he gives interviews, prepares his defense and, ostensibly, runs WikiLeaks. A judge recently approved extradition, but that decision is being appealed. The facts of the case are unestablished, so it’s not worth gossiping about them here. What’s important is Assange’s attempt to use WikiLeaks’ resources to fight his personal battles, as we saw above. This raises questions about what WikiLeaks is, what is could or should be, and whether it or any organizations like it could, or should, have a place in media and the practice of democracy.
WikiLeaks has been on shaky terrain its entire life. For years it was under-funded and under-manned. The Wikipedia model to which it aspired, wherein altruistic volunteers would sort and analyze data, fell apart for lack of enthusiasm. Even in its prime, when money was coming in, equipment was modernized and good staffing was found, the site was unable to release all of the information it held. When it was, attention was hard to attract. Ultimately, Assange was forced to concede the essential role of the media as a distributor (however flawed) of news and a source of expertise.
Because WikiLeaks doesn’t practice journalism. The analysis it has managed to publish is sophomoric and freighted with bias. Assange and his fellow-travelers want to tear down much of the world’s political structure and replace it with an untested idea: that nearly everything should be known to all. The traditional press is essentially conservative in this regard: in modern democracies, it works from within and aim for objectivity (a quality it often confuses with even-handedness), in order to inform the citizenry and check the power of government – not to topple it. And for this journalists follows long-established rules of practice. Yet it’s not only WikiLeaks’ ad-hoc, unprofessional approach that has held it back. Journalism is an institution itself, and for WikiLeaks or anything like it is to succeed, they need to institutionalize: rules, clear principles, discipline, and a structure fluid enough to admit change are crucial for longevity. An organization aiming so high can’t be subject to the whims, narcissism, utopianism, or incompetence of a single person; right now, WikiLeaks’ biggest liability is Julian Assange.
But we should realize that WikiLeaks, while not a journalistic organization, does participate in the process. The Times and the Guardian treated WikiLeaks as a source, as did all the other organizations which dealt with him. But WikiLeaks is really more of a facilitator: it secures the process of leaking and sourcing data. At its most effective it was really an organization of middlemen. So to persecute it, as many in the political world have suggested, would be to move dangerously close to a world where the recipients of classified information, including journalists, can prosecuted. Max Frankel, head of New York Times‘ Washington bureau during the Watergate era, sagely notes that
for the vast majority of ‘secrets,’ there has developed between the government and the press (and Congress) a rather simple rule of thumb: The government hides what it can, pleading necessity as long as it can, and the press pries out what it can, pleading a need and a right to know. Each side in this ‘game’ regularly ‘wins’ and ‘loses’ a round or two. Each fights with the weapons at its command. When the government loses a secret or two, it simply adjusts to a new reality.
There are ominous signs that the American government is ignoring this precedent. The Department of Justice has empaneled a grand jury in Virginia and summoned its first witnesses. This process usually takes about a year, but it almost always results in a prosecution. Assange could face a extradition to the United States.
It may be too late to make a difference. For Assange, whose commitments to places and pursuits have always been brief, four years was a long time to wait to grab the worlds attention. But since WikiLeaks’ collaboration with the Times and co. splashed across the world, dozens of imitators have popped up. There’s Brussels Leaks, which focuses on the European Union; TradeLeaks, which hopes to shine a light into the backrooms of international commerce; RuLeaks, in Putin’s Russia; IndoLeaks in Indonesia and many others. Daniel Domscheit-Berg’s Open Leaks works differently: it aims to provide a sort of secure electronic mailbox for leakers, who can deposit files and designate their recipient – a quieter WikiLeaks, without the baggage.
That these services are needed should not be in doubt, especially in the more corrupt and authoritarian countries of the world. Billions still live under oppressive governments, and Assange was correct about one thing: information can help to change that. The movement that toppled Ben Ali in Tunisia, and inspired the citizens of Egypt, Libya, Syria and Bahrain, cited reports of corruption in the State Department cables as a galvanizing force. The Bush Administration’s illegal surveillance and detention programs were exposed, we must remember, by leakers (as was Watergate, Iran Contra and so on). The Obama Administration has elected to temper rather than scrap this new system. As technological advances allow governments (and others) to track and monitor their citizens more extensively and more secretly, journalism must adapt to check that encroachment. It must learn from the success and failure of WikiLeaks or render itself irrelevant.
Greg Waldmann, a Senior Editor at Open Letters Monthly, is a native New Yorker living in Boston with a degree in International Affairs.