The indefinable international organization known as WikiLeaks was relatively unknown between its setting up in 2006 and the April 2010 premiere it staged at the National Press Club in Washington of the “Collateral Murder” video—a selection of stolen and decrypted gun-camera footage that purportedly shows the unlawful killing of Iraqi civilians and two Reuters journalists by the crew of a U.S. Army Apache helicopter. Skillfully edited and promoted, and widely accepted by the mainstream media as proof of a U.S. war crime, the video won WikiLeaks fame and praise around the world and made its founder, a 39-year-old Australian named Julian Assange, an international celebrity.
I saw Assange that same month, a week after the release of the video, when he participated in the Oslo Freedom Forum, an annual conference organized by the Human Rights Foundation. At the conference, he quoted Alexander Solzhenitsyn to the effect that one word of truth can outweigh the world, adding that “one classified video can possibly stop a war, and maybe fifty definitely can.” Assange was one of 30-odd speakers, most of whom were dissidents from countries like North Korea, Sudan, Tibet, Iran, Russia, and Venezuela. One of the primary functions of the Oslo Freedom Forum is to give a platform to activists working in countries that do not get enough attention from organizations like Human Rights Watch. It pays particular attention to victims of Communism and Islamist extremism; this year it gave a platform to, among others, Muhktar Mai, the Pakistani woman whose gang rape was ordered by tribal elders and who challenged the authority of Sharia law and tradition by taking them to court.
Assange began his speech by saying that he had never been in a room “with so many people who adhere to my values.” His organization had been oppressed by their oppressors as well, he intimated: “We are censored in all the rogues’ gallery states, China, Iran and”—here he paused for effect—“Israel. But I don’t want to talk today about that, because censorship in the West is also a problem.”
Assange recalled how after the death of KGB founder Lavrenti Beria, the Kremlin ordered that all copies of the Soviet Encyclopedia have the chapter on him ripped out and replaced with additional pages on the Bering Strait. The remnants of the torn-out pages bore witness to the change. Now, he said, with all information stored centrally on computers, a billionaire could order newspapers to delete pages and no one would ever know that history had been changed. “He who controls the Internet servers controls the intellectual record of mankind,” Assange declared, “and by controlling that, controls our perceptions of who we are, and by controlling that, controls what laws and what regulations we make in society.”
To stand up against the forces of erasure, there is WikiLeaks—to which Assange often referred to as “I.”
Assange then reminded “those of you in the audience familiar with World War II” of “the statement that the Nazis put on the front of concentration camps that ‘work brings freedom’—an idea that Himmler had when he himself was in prison.” After a dramatic pause he continued: “But in my investigations, exposing documents which include many abuses by the United States military, which include main manuals of prison camps like Abu Ghraib, Baghdad, and Guantanamo, I have seen pictures on the front of their camps of their slogans. So guess which camp has ‘honor bound to defend freedom’ on the front of it?”
Assange paused again: “The defense of freedom as a value is on the front of Guantanamo Bay! And I say that, as a perversion of the truth, that that slogan is worse than ‘work brings freedom.’”
Only days after his triumphant revelation of “Collateral Murder,” and only seven months before Assange would release 250,000 secret American diplomatic cables and thereby force American foreign policy into uncharted waters, Assange calmly equated Guantanamo, a prison facility with 600 inmates, to Auschwitz—a Nazi death camp in which over a million people were murdered.
Until that moment, there had been little reason to think of WikiLeaks as an organization with any particular political agenda beyond the global facilitation of whistle-blowing and the promotion of transparency—activities that appeal to many people on both left and right. As late as 2008, WikiLeaks was insisting on its website that it was a “completely neutral” conduit for information and that it would “crowdsource” its analysis in the way that Wikipedia, the online encyclopedia written entirely by unpaid volunteers, allows public contributions to its entries. There was little reason to suspect WikiLeaks of having a special animus against the United States.
In the first three years of its existence, Wikipedia received and published hitherto secret documents concerning a wide variety of entities around the world. These included a confidential investigation by Kroll Associates of official corruption in Kenya, UN documents concerning sexual abuse by the organization’s peacekeepers in the Congo, the tax returns of movie star turned tax refusenik Wesley Snipes, and private e-mails stolen from Sarah Palin and Holocaust denier David Irving. Bigger fish included the communications of a Swiss Bank allegedly engaged in money-laundering and tax evasion, and secret materials from the Church of Scientology. One of the most important WikiLeaks postings was the release of the Climategate e-mails that revealed how British academics at the heart of the global-warming consensus had conspired to withhold awkward statistics.
During those three years, WikiLeaks also published a manual of standard operating procedures of the Guantanamo Bay detention facility. This release, which was surely intended to be embarrassing, had nonetheless arguably been to the benefit of the United States military. What it revealed, to anyone with any real understanding of either prisons, interrogation techniques, or the violent behavior of many Gitmo detainees, was just how decent and humane the rules governing the facility really were and are.
But that was before “Collateral Murder.” In 2010, the focus of WikiLeaks turned directly and exclusively to the U.S. government and its conduct since September 11. In the summer, it released the so-called War Logs, nearly half a million internal Defense Department documents concerning the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. That was followed in November by the publication of the State Department cables. Indeed, so focused was WikiLeaks on these caches that it became all but impossible to access earlier postings on other subjects or submit new ones.
This may well be because “mega-leaks,” as Assange calls them, naturally take precedence over smaller ones. On the other hand, it is possible that America was
Assange’s target all along and that his organization’s earlier, more wide-ranging activities were designed to build its credibility and create a false impression of neutrality and objectivity before it went to war with the United States government. Such a notion probably gives Assange more credit than he deserves, given that without the alleged assistance of a disgruntled Army private in Iraq with shocking access to these documents and the opportunity to copy and share them, WikiLeaks would have remained relatively obscure, posting an Army manual one week and corporate e-mails the next.
However, the closer one examines Assange’s various pronouncements, the more he looks like someone who might engage in dissimulation in order to mask a secret agenda. Though this idea sounds as though it is out of a conspiracy thriller, the circumstantial evidence for it includes the disillusionment and departure of key WikiLeaks team members in September of 2010.
WikiLeaks functions as the Internet equivalent of an old-fashioned spy’s “dead drop”: it is a virtual location where would-be whistle-blowers (or people claiming to be whistle-blowers) from around the world can discreetly send documents knowing that they will then be made accessible to the public. WikiLeaks not only publishes these documents online after establishing their authenticity; it also decrypts them if they are encoded.
Although WikiLeaks itself is too secretive to reveal the numbers or names of its staff, Assange has claimed that he has about 40 core volunteers and another 800 or so associates around the world who maintain the network of computer banks it needs to have a permanent presence on the Internet. It is not clear where all its funding comes from, though donors give it money via a variety of charitable foundations, and according to Wiki-Leaks, donors have included media organizations like the Los Angeles Times and the Hearst Corporation as well as individuals.
Reportedly, the disillusioned WikiLeaks volunteers were disturbed by Assange’s ruthless insistence on publishing the Afghan War Logs without redacting names and other personal details to protect the lives of those mentioned in them, even after five major human rights organizations1 pleaded with him to do so in a joint e-mail. His response to this was to demand that the five organizations assist in the task of redaction. He also said that WikiLeaks would need $700,000 to go through remaining unpublished documents. By that point, 77,000 out of 92,000 documents had already been released, and despite Assange’s initial claim that names of Afghan informants had been redacted, newspapers like the New York Times found that this was often not the case.2 However, when Amnesty International suggested a conference call to discuss collaboration, Assange reportedly rebuffed the offer, saying on Twitter: “I’m very busy and have no time to deal with people who prefer to do nothing but cover their asses.”
Assange would not consider delaying publication, almost as if someone else had assigned a schedule for their release. The same was true of the subsequent, much bigger release of Iraq-war documents in the autumn. It was this decision—along with Assange’s decision to provide early and embargoed access to the documents to certain media outlets, in contravention of the organization’s “let everyone see everything” libertarian doctrine—that prompted a major internal revolt at WikiLeaks.
According to reports in Wired (the publication with the best, most detailed coverage of WikiLeaks), the organization’s German spokesman, Daniel Domscheit-Berg, confronted Assange about his autocratic and secretive behavior, and “Assange responded by accusing Domscheit-Berg of leaking information about discontent within WikiLeaks to a columnist for Newsweek.”
Apparently Assange is not so keen about transparency when it comes to his own organization. There it seems that secrecy is necessary for the greater good. That the irony of this escapes him was apparent in an e-mail exchange with Domscheit-Berg published on Wired.com.
Convinced that Domscheit-Berg is the source of the leak to Newsweek, Assange says: “I am investigation (sic) a serious security breach. Are you refusing to answer?” Domscheit-Berg replies that everyone in the organization is concerned about the news that Assange might be charged with rape in Sweden, Assange’s insistence on claiming that the rape allegations are part of a dirty-tricks campaign against him, and also about another unspecified incident in 2007 (presumably of a sexual nature as well). He also presses Assange about the Iraq documents, at one point exclaiming, “You are not anyone’s king or god.”
Assange replies: “You are suspended for one month, effective immediately. If you wish to appeal, you will be heard on Tuesday.”
Domscheit-Berg resigned, and more departures followed, among them the organization’s top programmer—who was running the effort to redact names. When an Icelandic volunteer challenged Assange about his treatment of Domscheit-Berg, the champion of democracy and transparency and enemy of corporate tyranny and arrogance responded: “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.”
Assange has a history of alienating actual and potential friends and allies. Without asking for permission, he posted the complete text of Michela Wrong’s prize-winning book, It’s Our Turn to Eat, on WikiLeaks. The book is about the corruption of Kenyan officialdom, and Assange was apparently based in Kenya at the time. When Wrong saw that pirated versions of her copyrighted material were everywhere, she asked Wiki-Leaks to take it down, pointing out “my entire African market is vanishing” and “if people like me can’t make any money from royalties, then publishers are not going to commission people writing about corruption in Africa.” Assange refused and was, in Wrong’s words, “enormously pompous” and “infuriatingly self-righteous.”
Then there were Assange’s encounters with the leftist magazine Mother Jones. In the course of an otherwise positive profile in April 2010, the magazine pointed out that, contrary to WikiLeaks’s claims on its website, neither Noam Chomsky nor a representative of the Dalai Lama was in fact on its advisory board. Indeed, when the magazine contacted Chomsky, he said it was the first he had heard of it. In response, Assange slammed Mother Jones for “right-wing reality-distortion.”
The idea that Assange is engaged in a campaign against the United States is supported by a 2008 leak that had little or no justification on the grounds of transparency in the public interest—of a classified 2004 report that included details of the workings of the U.S. Army’s Warlock system for jamming the homemade bombs called IEDs set off by cell phone or radio transmitter. The report concerned the problematic way the jammers interfered with regular military communications. But its publication ensured that anyone anywhere in the world who wanted to figure out how to defeat the Warlock now had the means to do so.
WikiLeaks’s defenders asserted that by the time the report was released, technology had moved on, and U.S. forces in the field were largely using newer jamming devices. Still, even the anti-censorship campaigner Steven Aftergood (who has become a stern critic of WikiLeaks for engaging in what he calls “information vandalism”) lambasted Assange for publishing a secret that could get people killed. In response, Assange told a journalist at Wired.com that he had been justified in doing so because “U.S. soldiers are not happy that literally billions have gone on these jammers, with apparently little thought going into how soldiers are going to communicate after they have been turned on.”
Despite his briefly adopting the mantle of a defender of U.S. troops, Assange also said that he had been proud to have published “nearly the entire order of battle” for American forces in Iraq and Afghanistan in 2007 and had been furious with the mainstream media for not picking it up, as if the press should also be anxious to give useful information to America’s enemies. And he was delighted when the U.S. Army issued a classified report (put up on WikiLeaks in April 2010) saying that WikiLeaks itself might be a threat to force protection, operational security, information security, and counterintelligence.
Perhaps for Assange, there are no real or relevant terrorist threats. Or at least they pale before the threat to peace and freedom presented by the dastardly U.S. military. It is a cartoon vision of the world in which America’s forces are like the Imperial Stormtroopers in Star Wars. That said, one of the odd things about Assange is that he seems to have no pop-culture interests of the kind common to computer geniuses. Despite his lack of formal education—the subject of a custody dispute, he spent much of his youth on the run inside Australia with his mother—Assange was a juvenile prodigy as a computer hacker under the name Mendax (from Horace’s phrase splendide mendax, meaning “nobly untruthful”). He started one of Australia’s first Internet service providers before he was even out of his teens. Later he studied physics and mathematics at Melbourne and other universities. He came to hold an Olympian view of himself and a rather Olympian perspective on other human beings. In a blog he maintained online in 2006, Assange revealed himself to be so convinced of his own superiority that he sounded like a character in an Edwardian novel. At one point, he called his fellow attendees at a physics conference “sniveling, fearful conformists of woefully, woefully inferior character.”
Assange is so much an auto-didact and self-creation that one hesitates to place him in any particular political school. However, his conviction that the United States, especially its military, is a priori evil is very much in accord with a current on the Australian left associated with John Pilger, a celebrated journalist and filmmaker, and the late Wilfred Burchett, a star journalist and likely KGB agent who championed the cause of North Korea. For Pilger, who writes a column for the New Statesman and produces documentaries that make Michael Moore look like Glenn Beck, all American interventions are imperialistic and carried out at the behest of sinister corporations and plutocrats, and even Communist crimes like those of the Khmer Rouge are really the fault of the United States. This brand of virulent anti-Americanism, common in Australian academic circles, seems to have curdled during the Vietnam War (in which Australian troops fought). But when probing Assange’s writings for his politics, it is also worth noting that Australian leftism has long had a strong anarchist current, awash in nostalgic sympathy for the rebels and bandits who had been transported to the continent when it was a prison colony of the British Empire.
Assange seems to suffer from a more extreme version of a phenomenon common in anti-war circles in Britain and America: the absolute unquestioned certainty that American forces have been and are continuing to be guilty of terrible crimes because of their very nature. It is a form of knowledge that requires no evidence or certainly no confirmation by a court of law. And in Assange’s case, it apparently means that the Americans are now and always have been the bad guys.
Certainly, when Assange told Der Spiegel in the course of an interview about the War Logs that “I enjoy crushing bastards,” the bastards to whom he referred were not the Taliban, which kills women for learning to read; the Sunni insurgents who blow up packed Iraqi marketplaces and mosques; or the Shia militants who do Iran’s murderous dirty work in Iraq and Lebanon.
Assange was also revealing more than mere cold-bloodedness in his responses to criticism for revealing in the War Logs the names of Afghans cited as informants or employees of U.S. troops. First he said that if something happened to them as a result, it was certainly unfortunate, but it was collateral damage from his campaign for truth. But he also told the Times of London that Afghan informers for the coalition had behaved “in a criminal way.” They were, in other words, on the wrong side, mere collaborators who had put themselves in danger of reprisal. It would seem that, in Assange’s worldview, the Taliban is the legitimate government of Afghanistan, resisting imperialist invaders.
Until his arrest in December in London on the rape charges that had so concerned his Wiki-Leaks colleagues, Assanche himself was lving a cloak-and-dagger, semi-fugitive existence, sleeping on floors and communicating only through disposable mobile phones or online. It may therefore be no surprise that WikiLeaks itself functions like a private version of the intelligence organizations he hates and fears. And while he may see himself as a kind of cyber Robin Hood, and enjoyed being called a “James Bond of journalism” in Sweden, he more closely resembles one of those James Bond villains who runs a secret international criminal organization and has the desire if not the power to destroy a sovereign state he considers his enemy.
It is telling that, for all the talk of Assange’s courage in taking on the American goliath, the truth is that his assault on the U.S. government has not put him at great risk. Assange has long liked to talk in what seems like a self-dramatizing way about his persecution by the authorities, complaining of “covert following and hidden photography” by police and intelligence agencies. The truth is that both the Bush and Obama administrations have proved remarkably feckless and feeble in their response to the War Logs and, worse, in the latter’s failure to prevent the publication of the State Department cables it knew was coming. Indeed, the very fact that, despite the revelations before the April 2010 video, Assange remained alive and at liberty to continue and do even greater damage gives the lie to his paranoid fears of ruthless, hyper-powerful Western states capable of wiping out all truth and justice unless their actions are exposed by people like him.
It would be interesting to see if Assange ever dares to take on the Russian FSB, the Chinese government, or even the French security services—all of which would have far fewer scruples about lethally punishing him than the American state he believes is so dangerous.
1The organizations were Amnesty International, the International Crisis Group, the Open Society Initiative, the Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission, and the Campaign for Innocent Victims in Conflict.
2The Taliban subsequently announced it had set up a “commission” to find and punish them.