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From Tehelka Magazine, Vol 8, Issue 13, Dated 02 Apr 2011
CURRENT AFFAIRS  
JULIAN ASSANGE

A leak Is not enough

It’s an open secret that the WikiLeaks hero is not a pleasant man. That would have meant nothing if the work was monumental. But, is it? JONATHAN FOREMAN assesses the self-proclaimed James Bond of the Internet

The Janus man WikiLeaks co-founder Julian Assange

PHOTO :AFP

THE INTERNAL rebellion was bad enough. But when someone within the organisation leaked emails to the media revealing not only the fact of the rebellion but also the top man’s angry response to it, he was enraged. He started a witch-hunt for the whistleblower, and a purge that eventually took in his closest advisers and friends, including his No. 2 man. It was a pattern all too familiar in large corporations and government departments. But the organisation in question was WikiLeaks, and the man who went berserk over a leak to the press was none other than Julian Assange.

This irony-steeped incident and the resulting civil war within WikiLeaks has had little or no coverage in India, where there is a rather simplistic perception of the organisation and its co-founder.

It is perhaps unsurprising that many people in India assume that Assange is a genuine hero and martyr for transparency. This is after all a country with a surfeit of government secrecy, and in which whistleblowers face lethal risks. It is also a country in which a transparency law — the RTI Act — has provided ordinary people with unprecedented leverage over bureaucracies that had enjoyed almost total immunity from public oversight.

Moreover, the vast trove of US State Department cables published by WikiLeaks has arguably had a healthy effect on Indian political discourse. Though it is not exactly a secret that over the past two decades, Indian security forces in Kashmir have tortured thousands of detainees, it took a WikiLeaks-published cable to get this fact on to the front page of newspapers in India and around the world.

The latest leaks about the alleged votebuying fund used to preserve the Congressled United Progressive Alliance coalition in 2008, may also serve the public good, even if all they do is confirm what many people have long suspected about Indian political practices. (As a foreigner, it is fascinating that this affair has provoked so much more uproar than the revelation a few years ago that the KGB regularly delivered suitcases full of cash to Indira Gandhi’s house for use in elections).

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However, the fuss surrounding them reveals widespread confusion about what State Department cables actually are. Anyone who knows how diplomatic services really work around the world, understands that such internal cables do not necessarily reflect official opinion, let alone the truth. They are not unlike internal emails in a private company: Sometimes a desperate diplomat will send home third-hand gossip just so he or she has something to report. Very often, diplomats, like other civil servants, simply tell their bosses what they want to hear.

A British diplomat I knew was convinced that no one ever read his cables and used to put all kinds of jokes into his just to see if they provoked a reaction; but there was never any response at all.

Even those of us who believe in transparency as a principle of public life might not like it if transparency were taken to an extreme and emails we had written to colleagues about our employees or bosses were suddenly made public, still less communications to or about our families, lovers and friends, or our medical or tax records.

However, WikiLeaks has arrogated to itself to the right to choose what should be made public and what should be kept secret, without being open about its criteria for either. And the more you know about Assange, his own secretiveness, paranoia and apparent megalomania, the less comfortable you might be with his being the self-appointed arbiter of transparency.

AN INSTANT message exchange between Assange and his then deputy that was leaked and published last year by wired.com makes fascinating and disturbing reading. The transcript has Assange saying that he is probing “a serious security breach” within WikiLeaks and demanding to know who in the organisation has been expressing doubts about his leadership. “If you do not answer the question, you will be removed,” he threatens. Eventually he tells his colleague — and this is supposed to be a democratic organisation led by a group of equals — “You are suspended for one month effective immediately.”

The deputy, Daniel Domscheit-Berg, resigned. More departures followed, among them WikiLeaks’ top programmer. When an Icelandic volunteer challenged Assange about his treatment of Domscheit- Berg, he responded, “I am the heart and soul of this organisation, its founder, philosopher, spokesperson, original coder, organiser, financier and all the rest. If you have a problem with me, piss off.” Apparently Assange runs WikiLeaks, which arguably functions like a kind of private intelligence agency, less like a transparency activist than like a Bond movie villain.

If these exchanges don’t jibe with Assange’s image as an apostle of radical transparency, neither does his secretiveness about his own past.

Assange apparently sold the Afghan war logs to newspapers without consulting his close colleagues

You might expect someone like him not to make his contact details public but it is all but impossible to find out where the 40-year-old computer prodigy has lived, where he went to school or even if he ever received a university degree.

WikiLeaks supporters might be more disturbed to discover that there is also no transparency at WikiLeaks itself when it comes to its sources of funding, size, budget, etc. The funding question is the most troubling as there have been persistent rumours that WikiLeaks is the creature of various intelligence agencies.

One of its predecessor and rival whistleblower organizations, Cryptome, suggested early on that WikiLeaks is a CIA tool. Those who believe this, point out that none of the main WikiLeaks revelations have done the US any damage, and that many leaks have confirmed the views of the US foreign policy hawks. Among other things, the leaked cables ‘revealed’ that Iran got missile technology from North Korea, that Saudi Arabia sponsored al Qaeda, and that the Arab states like Saudi Arabia were terrified of Iran and pressed the US to take out its nuclear weapons programme.

In Pakistan, whose government support of jihadist terror groups is well attested in the cables, WikiLeaks is often accused of being an Israeli project, despite Assange’s fierce public hostility to Israel.

Others have suggested that WikiLeaks gets money from Russia or China, pointing out that WikiLeaks rarely if ever publishes documents from either country. The argument that Assange is funded by Russia’s FSB intelligence agency has been bolstered by press reports that his deputy in charge of Eastern Europe is a Russian-nationalist holocaust-denier with close links to the both the FSB and the pro-Moscow Belarus tyrant Alexander Lukashenko.

WikiLeaks’ defenders, including Assange, explain that it has to be secretive given the nature of its operations and the danger that its operatives might be exposed to if it were more transparent. But that is, of course, the argument that governments use — the same governments that Assange says have no right to keep secrets.

Friend turned foe Assange and his former colleague Domscheit-Berg

Founded in late 2006, WikiLeaks was a very different organisation to the one that it has become. It had no apparent political agenda beyond the facilitation of whistleblowing and the promotion of transparency. As late as 2008, it stated on its website that it was a “completely neutral” conduit for information and that it would “crowdsource” its analysis, in the way that Wikipedia encourages public contributions to its entries.

Eventually, it became apparent that WikiLeaks — or rather Assange — was much keener on going after certain targets and certain countries than others. And beginning in 2010, its core function seemed to change — at least according to a group of insurgents within the organisation.

The insurgency within WikiLeaks began soon after it achieved international fame last April with the release of Collateral Murder. This was a heavily edited short film composed of gun-camera footage from a US Army Apache helicopter, that WikiLeaks claimed showed a war crime being committed in Iraq.

Though the film became an Internet hit, some founding WikiLeaks members were uncomfortable with it. Until then, WikiLeaks had always put raw material straight on to the Web once it was authenticated. The whole idea of the organisation had been to bring secrets to light and then to let the public decide for itself what it thought — not to make propaganda.

But it was the two ‘mega-leaks’ of US military documents concerning the Afghan and Iraq wars that really made key WikiLeaks staff begin to question Assange’s leadership.

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 UN documents concerning sexual abuse by peacekeepers in Congo, the tax returns of Hollywood movie star and taxdefaulter Wesley Snipes, the full text of Michela Wrong’s book on corruption in Kenya, and private emails 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, internal documents of the cultish ‘Church of Scientology’ and the ‘Climategate’ correspondence that revealed the dishonesty of global-warming advocates in British universities.

THEN WIKILEAKS came into possession of the enormous trove of information apparently downloaded from a classified database allegedly by a young US Army private named Bradley Manning, now awaiting trial in the US. All of the documents that have made WikiLeaks a factor in world politics — the ‘Afghan war logs’, the ‘Iraq war logs’, and the State Department cables come from this source.

By the summer of 2010, the entire site had become devoted to the US — it was apparently no longer possible to send WikiLeaks documents from or about other parts of the world. This provoked considerable internal unease. As one dissident told a German newspaper when asked why he quit: “This one-dimensional confrontation with the US is not what we set out to do. For us, it is always about uncovering corruption and abuse of power, wherever it happens around the world.”

The release of the so-called ‘Afghan war logs’ in the early summer resulted in vast publicity for WikiLeaks. But internal disquiet worsened when in August, five leading human rights groups including Amnesty International condemned WikiLeaks for failing to ‘redact’ the names of Afghan NATO informants from the 92,000 US military documents it was putting up on the Internet.

Assange runs WikiLeaks less like a transparency activist than like a Bond movie villain

Assange claimed at first that WikiLeaks had indeed gone through the documents for “harm minimisation”, though newspapers soon found that they were full of the names of Afghans said to have been friendly to the coalition forces. Assange then said that WikiLeaks lacked the staff to go through them all and said that the human rights groups should do the job.

WikiLeaks planned to put out a second, even bigger dump of secret documents about the Iraq war in October. Apparently without consulting others in the five man core group of WikiLeaks leaders, Assange made a profitable deal with various newspapers to sell them a selection of these documents before they would be posted on the Internet. This was the final straw for many of Assange’s colleagues and in September, someone at the top of WikiLeaks leaked to Newsweek magazine that there was a move within the group to restrict Assange’s role or even have him step down.

Assange turned out to be every bit as angry with the leak as any of the corporate CEOs or government officials whose leaks he had published. The storm resulted in the departure of Domscheit-Berg, who recently published a book, Inside WikiLeaks, and started a new outfit called OpenLeaks together with several former WikiLeaks staff. However, news of this was overshadowed by Assange’s arrest in England after a Swedish prosecutor filed charges against him of rape and sexual abuse.

I met Assange in April of last year at the Oslo Freedom Forum, an annual human rights conference. Assange could easily be spotted in the crowd in the opening reception. He is tall — taller than he looks in photographs. And his hair is white like an albino’s, with a long floppy fringe drooping over his pale forehead. The other reason you could easily find him was the size of the crowd around him — at a function that included the likes of Lech Walesa, Garry Kasparov, the Duchess of York and a handful of Nobel Prize winners. It was as if there was strange light on him, like a saint in a Renaissance painting.

In the worlds of transparency activism, computer hacking and human rights NGOs, Assange was already a rock star. And though less well-known to the general public then than he is now, he exercised a powerful magnetism in any room he entered. Standing in a queue of devotees, it was impossible not to sense Assange’s intense aura of self-regard. Yet there was also a strange social unease about him. When you are speaking with Assange, there are long, uncomfortable pauses, as if his mind has temporarily gone elsewhere. He does not look you in the eye. Nor could he be remotely described as friendly: he moves through the world as if too busy with his great task to waste time on ordinary mortals. He does not smile much, except at his own quips. When he does speak it is in his own jargon — the same jargon that he uses in speeches, blogs and tweets.

Megalomaniac? Assange threatened to sue former ally The Guardian for libel

Photo:AFP

Perhaps this social unease is what you might expect from a computer genius who grew up on the run with his mother (from an ex-boyfriend of hers turned stalker) and moved so often that he perhaps never underwent the socialisation that takes place in formal education. This might explain the fix he finds himself in Sweden, with its confusing combination of relaxed sexual mores and strict laws about sexual harassment and rape.

Still, despite Assange’s social oddness, his hacker’s pallor, and the fact that he sometimes goes for days without bathing or changing clothes, he has become a sex symbol in left-wing and hacker circles. Friends who have seen him at other conferences, where female activists throw themselves at him, say that he makes the most of his status as the Scarlet Pimpernel of cyberspace, or as he himself put it to a reporter, the “James Bond of the Internet”.

Nothing wrong with that. But Assange seems to see himself as a kind of intellectual and moral superman, whose powers of analysis and judgement are far superior to those of mere elected governments. You get a sense of this contempt for mere mortals from a blog he maintained in 2006. At one point, he condemns his fellow attendees at a physics conference as “sniveling, fearful conformists of woefully, woefully inferior character”.

There is also something troublingly theatrical and self-promoting about Assange’s loudly clandestine way of life. One of the things that provoked last summer’s rebellion within WikiLeaks was his dubious claims of persecution. His complaints of “covert following and hidden photography” by police and intelligence agencies in Iceland, baffled WikiLeaks staff and supporters there who saw no evidence of anything of the sort. On the other hand his carefully cultivated cloak-and-dagger aura has ensured a steady supply of housing, credit cards, free meals, hot dates and celebrity friends.

Famous New York Times reporter John Burns was amused when he interviewed Assange at a London restaurant after much furtive communication, and found that the whispering, semi-disguised activist had come to their secret appointment accompanied by an entourage of groupies and a documentary filmmaker.

DISSIDENTS LIKE Domscheit-Berg use words like ‘megalomania’, ‘cult of personality’ and ‘paranoia’ to describe Assange — qualities less than desirable in a self-appointed arbiter of what should and should not be made public. Even if you discount their claims as self-interested, some of Assange’s more recent actions raise doubts about his judgement. In February, he threatened to sue The Guardian for libel — a strange thing for a transparency activist to do. Among other crimes, The Guardian quoted from a Swedish police report in which one of Assange’s accusers said of their encounter: “Not only had it been the world’s worst screw, it had also been violent.”

In February, Assange telephoned the editor of the British magazine Private Eye and accused him and the editor of The Guardian of being “part of a conspiracy Jewish writers” — though neither editor is in fact Jewish.

When Assange is questioned about any of the charges made by his former colleagues or indeed challenged in any way about the organisation, he tends to resort to angry abuse. For instance, at a California press conference, he was asked why the WikiLeaks website claimed to have on its advisory board both left-wing theorist Noam Chomsky and a representative of the Dalai Lama, when neither man had in fact ever agreed to join it. Furious, Assange retorted that the questioner was just part of “the right-wing reality distortion machine”. In fact, the questioner was a journalist for Mother Jones, a left-wing American magazine that had previously written a favourable profile of Assange.

Despite his social oddness, Assange has become a sex symbol in left-wing and hacker circles

Still, a bit of abuse and name-calling is better than a vengeful hack attack by Assange’s allies, as has happened to his two Swedish accusers, as well as to ‘enemy’ organisations like Mastercard and Paypal. (The women’s identities are theoretically protected by law, but their names were stolen from the Swedish court database and published all over the Internet, along with their photographs and details of their private lives.)

Writers and editors around the world are increasingly aware that Julian Assange is not someone you want to be on the wrong side of. If his associates can crack into the computers of a vast credit card corporation, they certainly wouldn’t have much trouble with a magazine firewall or a personal bank account. TEHELKA, count yourself warned.

Foreman is a former Film Critic and Correspondent for the New York Post, and writer-at-large for Standpoint magazine


jforeman@standpointmag.co.uk

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From Tehelka Magazine, Vol 8, Issue 13, Dated 02 Apr 2011
 

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