February 18, 2011 10:11 pm

Secret society

The first accounts of the WikiLeaks story reveal the complex motivations of its founder, Julian Assange
 
Julian Assange

WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange leaves a press conference in Geneva on November 4 2010

Julian Assange©Getty

Inside WikiLeaks: My Time With Julian Assange at the World’s Most Dangerous Website, by Daniel Domscheit-Berg, Jonathan Cape, RRP£9.99, 304 pages

WikiLeaks: Inside Julian Assange’s War on Secrecy, by David Leigh and Luke Harding, Guardian Books, RRP£9.99, 352 pages

WikiLeaks and the Age of Transparency, by Micah L Sifry, OR Books, RRP£9.99, 224 pages

Julian Assange, the founder, face and spirit of WikiLeaks, marches to the beat of his own drum. That drum summons him to wage war on governments by exposing their vast stores of secret information on the internet. He has, it seems, succeeded beyond even his most elevated hopes: he is now a world figure, maybe even a world-historical one. Yet he’s also a failure.

More

On this story

John Lloyd

The character of Assange and his organisation, and the material they have released, are fascinating in almost equal measure. Assange’s Australian childhood was one of constant disruption: an unknown father, a kindly stepfather who left, and a mother who fled from city to city with her son to avoid a vengeful former lover. In his teens, Assange immersed himself in the world of computer programming and then hacking and, bit by bit, he gathered together the threads of his view of the conspiratorial nature of governance.

Assange founded WikiLeaks in 2006 with the aim of providing a platform for the reception of as much confidential material from governments and their agencies as possible. Among its early successes, it leaked a report in 2007 on the corrupt practices of Daniel Arap Moi, the Kenyan leader, and in 2008 Rudolf Elmer, a whistleblower within the Zurich-based Julius Baer bank, leaked a cache of documents detailing clients’ tax-dodging. Yet WikiLeaks was struggling to make the impact Assange hoped.

Then, in 2010, it hit pay dirt through US Private First Class Bradley Manning. In some ways, Manning was Assange’s doppelgänger: he too had a disturbed childhood, and was an idealist and dreamt of a better world. Assigned to a communications base in Iraq, he was horrified by the cynicism and casual brutality. He decided to strive for a better world by leaking the secret cables to which, as a PFC, he had amazing access.

His first leak was a video filmed in 2007 of US soldiers in a helicopter shooting men on a Baghdad street, two of whom turned out to be Reuters employees. He uploaded it on to a Lady Gaga CD, and sent it to WikiLeaks. Logs – vast hoards of stories – from Iraq and Afghanistan followed, and finally 250,000 US diplomatic cables. The helicopter video created a sensation; the cables turned Assange and his organisation into superstars. Manning, reported to the authorities by a journalist to whom he had confided his theft, is now in solitary confinement at the US Marines’ base at Quantico, Virginia, locked up for 23 out of 24 hours, constantly prodded awake and only two people (a lawyer and a friend) are allowed to visit.

 

The publication of several hundred of those cables in November 2010 has been explosive; its effect on journalism, diplomacy and our understanding of the world will take time to fully comprehend. However, the first books about WikiLeaks and its founder, published this month, offer insights into the organisation and the man behind it.

Daniel Domscheit-Berg’s Inside WikiLeaks, a ghosted work from Assange’s closest collaborator and one-time closest friend, is marked by the haste of its composition and his burning resentment of Assange. For years, Domscheit-Berg was editor, proselytiser, organiser and PR man. But his impatience, then anger, then rage over Assange’s increasingly autocratic and capricious behaviour grew too much for him: he confronted Assange and demanded he change; instead, he was fired. His book has an inevitable tone of self-justification but from it we learn how tiny and disorganised WikiLeaks was.

Above all, though, the book’s aim is to make clear that Assange is a real pain to be around, more so because his aims and his actions clash so fantastically. Although an avatar of collaboration, Assange retreats, most of the time wordlessly, to his computer (even during meals) and repels all who attempt criticism; a visionary for a transparent world, he disguises and shrouds in secrecy movements, dates, locations and facts about his past and about the capacity of WikiLeaks.

Assange has imagination, energy and brilliance, concedes Domscheit-Berg, but he is “so paranoid, so power hungry, so megalomaniac”. It is a view at least in part shared by others who have worked with him, such as Nick Davies, the well-known Guardian investigative reporter, and Bill Keller, the editor of The New York Times. Davies, who first contacted Assange for The Guardian and came to regard him as a friend, later refused to deal with him, citing betrayal of trust over Assange’s sharing of information with the UK’s Channel Four News. Keller wrote, in a long New York Times magazine essay published in January, of Assange’s “bombast and dark conspiracy theories”, and stressed the distance he put between his paper and WikiLeaks when publishing the diplomatic cables, treating it as far as possible like any other source.

 

In a chapter devoted to it, Domscheit-Berg describes Assange’s treatment of women as reactionary, which is telling in the context of the rape charges now outstanding against Assange in Sweden. Assange was never one for obscenities or lad-chat but he would refuse any woman the right to question him. Domscheit-Berg claims that Assange would “never be able to accept a woman who was truly his equal” and he would “boast about how many children he had fathered”.

David Leigh and Luke Harding, the Guardian reporters who wrote WikiLeaks: Inside Julian Assange’s War on Secrecy, are alive to what Assange can do to those around him but concentrate more on what the leaks do for freedom of information. The Guardian was one of five newspapers (including Le Monde, The New York Times, El Pais and Der Spiegel) that published information from WikiLeaks. Its strongly liberal stance put it in the first rank of publishers of often incendiary revelations but, like Domscheit-Berg, it couldn’t get on with Assange. During a meal in a London restaurant, Leigh told Assange that they wished to disguise the identities of Afghans who had provided information to the US authorities. Assange replied: “Well, they’re informants, so, if they get killed, they’ve got it coming to them. They deserve it.” It was an index of how far apart the paper and the leaker were.

WikiLeaks is the most workmanlike of this first slew of books, the narrative marshalled into clear lines by Leigh, the paper’s investigations editor, and Harding, its Moscow correspondent. The book concentrates too much on how The Guardian covered the story, with self-serving riffs on the dedication, tirelessness, skill and imagination of the team: such qualities are best discovered, not insisted upon. Still, it’s by far the best in describing the content and, to a degree, the importance of the revelations. It throws out intriguing lines of thought about the future for newspapers and also shows – though it could have done more on this – that Assange is no liberal in the Guardian mould.

In his 2006 essay “Conspiracy as Governance”, Assange outlined his philosophy that governments use secrecy and exchange of information within a closed network to the detriment of the people. Their disruption is thus a civic duty, and disruption is best effected by prompting leaks. In a blog posted in December 2006, Assange expanded on the idea, writing that: “The more secretive or unjust an organisation is, the more leaks induce fear and paranoia in its leadership and planning coterie. This must result in ... decreased ability to hold on to power.”

 

Assange’s philosophy, much of it adumbrated before WikiLeaks took off, has been subjected to a critical review by the philosopher Peter Ludlow of Northwestern University. Ludlow, who had previously seen Assange as a “prophet of the ‘information wants to be free’ hacker ethic”, now poses sceptical, and useful, questions. Can’t some government “conspiracies”, such as secret manoeuvres aimed to produce a peace settlement, be benign? Is Assange sure there’s no fatal fallout for the informants? Don’t these leaks spur agencies to tighten their protocols on secrecy? Isn’t WikiLeaks – its base constantly shifting, its informants (supposedly) anonymous, its encryption uncrackable – itself a conspiracy? And hasn’t it become a very powerful one, holding the lives of many actors and the fate of many diplomatic and military projects in its hands?

Assange’s aim is not reform but destruction. In WikiLeaks and the Age of Transparency, Micah L Sifry writes: “To Assange, the goal of transparency is not to enable better behaviour by governments or corporations but to make it impossible for ‘the conspiracy to think, act and adapt.’” Sifry’s book is not particularly enlightening about WikiLeaks but does considerably expand our understanding of the burgeoning world that has grown so quickly from the internet. Citing a plethora of websites, he argues that much of the most valuable work on the internet is by activists who seek, in one way or another, to open up state and corporate affairs. Some of these activist-scholars, such as Professor Tim Wu, who was appointed adviser to the Federal Trade Commission last week, even work with the Obama administration in the belief that they can add flesh to the bones of the president’s commitment to an open government (something Sifry is grumpily sceptical about).

Sifry believes that it is in the activities of such reformists that we can glimpse a better relationship between power and the people. Those in power may recognise the necessity of aligning private deeds with public declarations (since both will end up on the internet) and citizens better understand the dilemmas and contradictions of power and seek a fuller partnership in their resolution. That’s a noble, inspiring vision: it isn’t that of Julian Assange.

We have gained a great deal from these leaks so far. In a book just published in Italy (WikiLeaks dalla A alla Z) a collection of highly entertaining cables on prime minister Silvio Berlusconi are brought together, salted with the harsher view that he increasingly acts as Russia’s cheerleader and speculation that he may be benefiting personally from its oil revenues. It is good that we know about which regimes and individuals are considered corrupt and tyrannous; that the Saudis want the US to “cut off the head of the (Iranian) snake”; that China is losing patience with North Korea, and may acquiesce in a union between north and south; that the US forces and authorities can do little to stop torture in Iraq.

As the Harvard Law School professor Yochai Benkler writes in his essay “A Free Irresponsible Press”, due to be published shortly in the Harvard Civil Liberties Law Review, WikiLeaks fulfils the criteria of a whistleblower in the public interest. Benkler believes that any attempt at suppression or prosecution of Assange would be batted away by the Supreme Court on the basis that the first amendment to the US constitution forbids any kind of censorship.

It would seem that the editors of the five newspapers that published the cables, ready to embarrass but not to destroy, have succeeded in forcing the Leninist Assange into their reformist mould: and in doing so, have added value. WikiLeaks has not (as I previously thought, and wrote) dumped all the logs and cables on to the internet: the five publications have been highly selective and the cables have been extensively redacted. However, the question remains: who can decide if and when the thousands of documents that WikiLeaks retains are released? It is an important question, barely touched on by these books.

Taken together, these books left me thinking less of Assange but more highly of his organisation. In large part because of his own repelling nature, Assange finds himself at once lionised and gutted. He has attracted celebrity supporters – Jemima Khan, John Pilger, Michael Moore (Domscheit-Berg says that Assange has always despised Moore, who contributed $20,000 to his defence fund). But key assistants have left him; WikiLeaks is inactive. Domscheit-Berg and others, including The New York Times, are starting competitor leak sites.

Assange will be back in court later this month to learn if he is to be deported to Sweden to stand trial for minor rape. It’s been not the least of his unattractive features – and of some of his supporters – that he has painted the charges, and the women bringing them, as inspired by the CIA, or some such agency. Assange has needed to see himself as a solitary iconoclast, grasping the essential nature of the tyrannies that oppress us, possessing the key to our liberation. Instead, very much tamed and contained by his publishing partners, he’s given a substantial heft to our better understanding of the way the world is managed, and maybe, in time, a more sympathetic comprehension of the contradictions, compromises and contrasting goals with which governments must juggle.

It must make him sick.

John Lloyd is an FT contributing editor

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2014. You may share using our article tools.
Please don't cut articles from FT.com and redistribute by email or post to the web.