Army of Shadows

Daniel Domscheit-Berg speaks about his book Inside WikiLeaks, a sweeping saga of his time at the organisation. JOHANNES EISELE / AFP PHOTO
01 June, 2011

IN DECEMBER 2010, Time magazine announced its 'Person of the Year'. This tedious and archaic exercise would have been quickly forgotten were it not for the fact that the winner was Mark Zuckerberg, the man with 500 million friends—and for a rumour that he had only just pipped Julian Assange to the post. The American comedy show Saturday Night Live quickly responded. In the sketch, an indignant Assange hacks into a saccharine Zuckerberg announcement from deep in the English countryside—where he is under house arrest, after having turned himself in to face the remarkable charge of "sex by surprise". As befits a man who has just survived a massive transnational witchhunt, he sits in a high-backed chair, a glass of brandy in his hand and an expression of imminent doom on his face. Then there's the satire: the character playing Assange occasionally smiles, a mistake that the real Julian Assange would never, ever, make. (Earlier this year, a video clip surfaced of Assange snaking his way across an empty dance floor at a nightclub in Reykjavik; dancing, yes, but dancing morosely.)

"What are the differences between Mark Zuckerberg and me? Let's take a look," the mock Assange says. "I give you private information on corporations for free, and I'm a villain. Mark Zuckerberg gives your private information to corporations for money, and he's man of the year."

It is something of a relief that mainstream American media has got beyond discussing whether WikiLeaks is a 'good' thing or a 'bad' thing. But curiously, the first wave of doubt has been replaced by a tsunami of fawning certainty. This newfound adoration of Assange is less evident in America, whose government has been the recipient of the majority of WikiLeaks' attention. It is, however, a sunrise industry in India. Not a day passes without news anchors and newspaper editors genuflecting before the God of All Things. The Hindu, Times Now and NDTV are among those swooning; though, oddly enough, it was just eight months ago, that NDTV decided not to run the Radia tapes for fear of spiking their editorial Kool-Aid with "raw data". It's redundant to ask whether these venerable organisations would hold WikiLeaks in the same giddy esteem if the leaks exposed the secret failings of the world's largest democracy instead of the most important one. But never mind these contradictions; the oracle is now in the house. Only recently, I switched on my television to find a journalist breathlessly asking Julian Assange to explain our relationship with Pakistan—to us.

This is not the way it was meant to be.

When WikiLeaks started out in December 2006, it operated on two simple principles: that the world needs more whistleblowing; and that whistleblowers need more protection. Until recently, the most important thing about the website was the fact it guaranteed anonymity to a perfect degree. (The submission system on the website is designed so as not to record any details that could reveal the identity of the whistleblower.) Anonymity—a pressing issue for people who take their civil liberties seriously in countries with governments that don't—is by no means an invention of WikiLeaks; Wikipedia, for instance, has kept no records of the Internet Protocol addresses of registered users who edit while logged in since the site was founded in 2001. But interestingly, while it matters in principle that WikiLeaks cannot blow the whistle on its own whistleblowers even under a legal order—since it has no idea of who they are—it is not actually clear that this encryption system has directly played a major part, or indeed any part, in the success of the enterprise.

Back in 2006, WikiLeaks' first leak was a communique from a Somali rebel leader associated with the Islamic Courts Union, then a federation of Sharia courts in southern Somalia bent on overthrowing the government, and now a part of the Somali transitional government. Sheikh Hassan Dahir Aweys apparently planned to execute government officials through a network of hitmen. While no one knew if the document was authentic, it was certainly sensational. But this file was not submitted to WikiLeaks. It was obtained. According to a profile of Assange in the New Yorker, the document was pulled off the Tor network, an online information routing exchange that zealously guards the identity of users. The negotiated leak—going after secret documents instead of waiting for them to show up—would set the tone for the project.

Right after releasing the Somali document, Assange attended the World Social Forum in Kenya, and stayed on. During this time, he obtained a document called the Kroll Report, which was the record of a 2 year-long investigation launched in 2002 by the then Kenyan president, Mwai Kibaki, into the alleged widespread corruption of his predecessor, Daniel arap Moi. (The report had been filed but never released.) In 2007, Moi announced that he supported Kibaki in the latter's bid for reelection amidst allegations that the (still undisclosed) Kroll Report had been used to compel his endorsement. Immediately after the announcement of Moi's support for Kibaki, and several months before the Kenyan elections, Assange released the Kroll Report on WikiLeaks.

Until very recently (or at least until the release of Collateral Murder, the video featuring footage from an American helicopter firing on civilians in Iraq) every public speech that Assange made cited the effect of the Kroll Report in Kenya as evidence of the power of WikiLeaks. Assange would claim that WikiLeaks was responsible for an anti-Kibaki electoral swing of up to 10 percent.Whether or not this number is exaggerated, the leaked report—and the consequent diminished support for Kibaki—left a lasting mark on the country, one that is visible even today in the form of the power-sharing arrangment Kibaki had to conclude with his opponent, Raila Odinga, after the violent and contested 2007 election. Like before, the Kroll Report was not anonymously submitted online to WikiLeaks, and like before, it was not uploaded by a hunted government bureaucrat operating from an Internet cafe in order to avoid detection: it was obtained by Assange during his stay in Kenya.

Yet, the virtual anonymity offered on the website operated by WikiLeaks is not necessarily meaningless, in so much as it offers clues to the mission and values of the operation. Maybe it has even resulted in a few publicly contributed leaks. Though WikiLeaks refuses to confirm it, the video footage that would become Collateral Murder—WikiLeaks' major American breakthrough—is widely believed to have been submitted by Bradley Manning, a United States Army soldier stationed in Iraq. Manning, who is also accused of leaking hundreds of thousands of US diplomatic cables, appears not to have submitted material to WikiLeaks as an anonymous source: he boasted to another hacker during a series of online chats that he had established a relationship with Assange and uploaded the files to a special server set up specifically to receive them. But it is possible that sources who provide material to WikiLeaks outside the boundaries of the anonymous submission system never would have trusted WikiLeaks with this classified information if its commitment to anonymity, and ensuing protection of sources, had not been made clear on its website.

WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange arrives at Belmarsh Magistrates’ Court, London. ANDREW PARSONS / ZUMAPRESS.COM

The power of WikiLeaks then is not online submission, but online diffusion. In this, it has both succeeded and failed. It has succeeded to the extent that it acquired some explosive classified material, gained crucial momentum among its supporters and fans, and established a major international reputation. But it has failed to live up to its own name, or at least the first half of it. In 2006, while disclosing the first leak, four questions were asked at the outset of the analysis of Sheikh Hassan Aweys' assassination diktat:  "Is it genuine? 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? What is the future for Somalia?" The questions were asked because neither Assange nor his crew knew what to do with what they had; they hoped that readers of WikiLeaks would collaboratively find the answers, or at least come close to establishing the full import of the document. This never happened: to date, and as documented on the 'Discuss' tab on the page that hosts this article, there are a total of three comments, with zero acknowledgement from anyone within WikiLeaks that the discussion mattered in any way.

That was then.

The journey from then to now for WikiLeaks has been a dramatic rollercoaster ride, one that is possibly without parallel. In early May, for instance, Assange won the Sydney Peace Foundation's 'Gold Medal', a major humanitarian award. A few days later, a former employee revealed that Assange had made all WikiLeaks staff sign a gag order with a penalty of £12 million for, wait for it, whistleblowing. No doubt the gag order has something to do with Inside WikiLeaks: My Time with Julian Assange at the World's Most Dangerous Website (Jonathan Cape, 2011), the tell-all by Daniel Domscheit-Berg, a former colleague of his. Despite the flat language, it's a thoroughly gripping book. Domscheit-Berg's story is a sweeping saga of international intrigue, set everywhere from Australia to Iceland and populated by characters called "the nanny" and "the architect" and "PenguinX". It's like reading the contents of Kofi Annan's head in the syntax of Sidney Sheldon.

The most interesting detail in Domscheit-Berg's book is that all leaked documents were authenticated mostly by instinct and always by exactly two people: him and Assange. If there was ever an impulse to turn the analysis of the leaks over to broad collaborative input, that impulse had been clearly killed by the time Domscheit-Berg joined the organisation. The 'wiki' in WikiLeaks was well and truly gone, even as the name stayed the same.

Staying with the name has worked well for WikiLeaks, even if it's not really accurate. The word wiki has a whiff of democracy about it, and it's worth remembering why. In 1995, a programmer called Ward Cunningham came up with a revolutionary method for collaboratively creating and editing web pages using free and open source software. He called this the WikiWikiWeb, after the Hawaiian word for quick (repeating the word implied double-quick). Soon after, Wikipedia—founded as a non-profit organisation in 2001—made the word world-famous. The point of a wiki has always been collaboration; unfortunately, collaboration has never been the point of WikiLeaks. Sure, it's easier to distribute trust around building innocuous encyclopaedia articles than exposing the world's dirtiest secrets. But abandoning any pretence of collaboration has the effect of making WikiLeaks seem narcissistic and megalomaniacal. Not to mention potentially slower, less reliable and fraught with the danger of being very wrong.

The trouble with writing about WikiLeaks in any manner of dispassionate calmness is that it has been in a lot of trouble, all of it grossly unfair. Certainly, Assange and his cohorts have to be congratulated for simply surviving this long. The pressure that WikiLeaks has had to withstand is inexcusable; the collective ganging-up of corporations and governments against Assange, shameful. There is no doubt that he's had to go through hell to keep his job.

But his job is not quite what we think it is. Today, when WikiLeaks matters less as a place to view source material and more as a transit point for big media companies in Europe and America, there is little chance that corruption or scandal in Somalia or Kenya will ever matter to Assange again. Even here in India, it is the never-ending stream of American diplomatic cables that excite our local fans. Much of it is mere gossip, of the kind that has been publicly available to anyone who spends five minutes a day following the news. Save an early leak on the implementation of the Unique Identification project, there has been precious little locally generated material on WikiLeaks. And the incessant bullying of WikiLeaks has worked, since it has apparently deterred anyone else from setting up a similar operation in India.

Five years of WikiLeaks later, its service to humanity lies more in the possibility of where it could go than where it is now. It isn't entirely clear what the 'age of transparency' should mean or entail, but as Micah L Sifry writes in WikiLeaks and the Age of Transparency (Counterpoint, 2011) it might not be far away. Sifry's book is a useful account of contemporary efforts towards greater transparency, though he is just a little too certain that we like it. As far as I can tell, we love transparency when it confirms our worst suspicions. And we simultaneously love secrecy, especially in hindsight, when the secrets turn out to have been placed in the right hands, for the right ends: Obama in the hunt for Osama, or kindly mathematicians in Bletchley Park decoding German intelligence to help the Allied Forces win World War II. I'm not sure that this a contradiction; maybe it's a necessarily recurring tension between the right to know and the need to do. When Thabo Mbeki, the former president of South Africa, was questioned about the failure of his "quiet diplomacy" in Zimbabwe by an Al Jazeera reporter, he professed to not know what the term meant. "All diplomacy is quiet," he said, in a tired voice. "If it's not quiet, then it's not diplomacy; it's something else."

There are now literally dozens of websites looking to follow the WikiLeaks model. A new project of the Wall Street Journal called SafeHouse will take your secrets and rat you out if it feels like it; another called OpenLeaks, set up by Domscheit-Berg and others from the original WikiLeaks team, will build on the criticisms of the model as expressed in his book. At this time, it is safe to say that the success of WikiLeaks has very little to do with how the original project fares in the years to come; instead, it depends on whether the world will be allowed to create an infrastructure that can deliver the original intent.