Inside Story

Imperfect storm

We can now start to see how the world has and hasn’t been changed by WikiLeaks

Rodney Tiffen 3 June 2011 3081 words

Julian Assange in Melbourne in May 2010. Mark Chew/Fairfaxphotos

Inside WikiLeaks: My Time with Julian Assange at the World’s Most Dangerous Website
By Daniel Domscheit-Berg | Scribe Publications | $29.95

WikiLeaks: Inside Julian Assange’s War on Secrecy
By David Leigh and Luke Harding | Guardian Books | $24.95

WikiLeaks and the Age of Transparency
By Micah Sifry | Scribe Publications | $22.95

The Most Dangerous Man in the World
By Andrew Fowler | Melbourne University Press | $32.99

On Friday 20 August 2010, Julian Assange, assisted by a mutually trusted intermediary, was nearing an agreement with two Swedish women. He’d had sexual relations with both of them and they felt strongly aggrieved on several grounds. Most importantly, both of them believed they had unwillingly been subjected to unprotected sex. They wanted Assange to take a test for HIV, which he initially refused to do. During this standoff, the women went to the police and “sought advice,” to use the Swedish term. As a result, Assange was charged with rape. In the meantime he had agreed to the test, but by that time on a Friday afternoon the clinic had closed for the weekend.

Almost immediately the women’s visit to the police was leaked to the Stockholm tabloid Expressen, which splashed the rape allegations across its front page. The news flashed around the world, and journalists demanded a response from Assange. Caught off balance, he replied with characteristic aggression, referring to dirty tricks and implying he had been the victim of a set-up. The two women were naturally affronted by the suggestion that they were dupes of the American government or anyone else.

The public hostilities escalated. The women hired a high-profile lawyer. Assange, now in London with his own glittering team of legal advisers and supporters, faced bail and extradition hearings, which attracted saturation media coverage. As the legal proceedings followed their own immutable logic, both sides had to endure embarrassing and damaging public attention and allegations.

Several commentators have remarked on the irony of the world’s greatest champion of unauthorised disclosures himself being the victim of a leak. But the most important feature of this series of events is the way publicity transformed private negotiations into formal adversarial proceedings in which each party’s immediate interests lay in sharpening rather than resolving the conflict. Without publicity, conciliation could well have been successful. Assange would have taken the test, which showed that he wasn’t infected; the women would have been reassured, if unreconciled to their former lover; and the whole matter might have disappeared.

The legal proceedings in London provided a global spectacle just at the moment when Assange, by delivering the largest leak of classified information in history, had become probably the most famous man in the world. Over those weeks, the media’s coverage of the events in court often exceeded its coverage of the leaks. Indeed, according to his solicitor, more than three-quarters of internet references to Assange also refer to rape.

Great fascination attached to the strange person who had provoked such a furore among officialdom, and to where he came from. The New York Times correspondent John Burns, who wrote a long profile of Assange, described him as “a very Australian character.” An Icelandic parliamentarian, Birgitta Jónsdóttir, once a close associate, thought he was “a classic Aussie.” I’ve often been bemused when Britons or Americans ascribe Rupert Murdoch’s actions to his Australian origins, and have pondered what a nation made up of twenty-three million Rupert Murdochs would be like. A society of twenty-three million Julian Assanges is equally hard to imagine; it certainly wouldn’t be a punctual society, or one where social niceties, or even norms of social reciprocity and respect, were observed.

But this decidedly unbronzed individual has a personality and a life story every bit as unique and extraordinary as his achievements. He may be the house guest from hell; he is certainly someone parents hope their daughter never dates; he will never be voted employer or colleague of the year. But the character contradictions of this ultra-secretive apostle of transparency, this autocratic champion of democracy, this conflict-prone promoter of peace, are less important than the social phenomenon for which his remarkable abilities have been the midwife.

The WikiLeaks moment was a long time in the making. Its remote origins lay in the skills, experiences and reputation Assange built up as a hacker in his teens and early adulthood. His computer skills, his uncompromising anarchistic idealism, his organisational and logistical capacities, and his ability to enthuse and mobilise others were what made WikiLeaks happen.

In the second half of 2005, he hit on the name WikiLeaks, and had it registered the following year. The title captures the fact that the organisation would depend on information provided by others, but the need for secrecy and security to protect sources and authenticate documents meant that it could never be an open, collaborative endeavour like Wikipedia.

Between 2007 and 2009, WikiLeaks scored several important coups. It published material about corruption and human rights abuses in Kenya; it exposed revealing documents from the Church of Scientology; it listed the biggest debtors of the collapsed Icelandic Kaupthing Bank; it exposed tax evasion by the Cayman Islands subsidiary of the Swiss bank Julius Baer; and it revealed a damning report on toxic waste dumped by the oil traders Trafigura.

WikiLeaks also published more morally ambiguous or problematic scoops. Without the author’s permission it reproduced the manuscript of a new book on Kenya. It disclosed the membership list of the British National Party. And it published the contents of emails written by Sarah Palin and David Irving. At this time the organisation seemed to have embraced the idea that there should be no restrictions on what is made public.

Nothing, however, compared to the impact WikiLeaks made during 2010. Four episodes, each based on leaked material allegedly provided by Private Bradley Manning, a member of American intelligence working in Iraq, commanded global attention. First came the video of Americans in an Apache helicopter killing several innocent people in a Baghdad street. Then came the Afghanistan war logs, followed by the Iraq war logs. Finally, and most spectacularly, came a tranche of documents from a massive cache of US diplomatic cables.

As the leaks unfolded, Assange sprang from the demimonde of hacktivists and utopian anarchists into the glare of global celebrity and accountability. Naturally enough, ruthless vested interests arrayed against him. Perhaps as a result, he became more autocratic and erratic. He fell out with many colleagues, for example allegedly telling his previously closest associate Daniel Domscheit-Berg, “If you fuck up, I’ll hunt you down and kill you.” Because they were out to get him he became more paranoid.

When Assange was arguing with a WikiLeaks member who disagreed with him, he declared, “I am the heart and soul of this organisation, its founder, philosopher, spokesperson, original coder, organiser, financier, and all the rest.” He concluded by telling the internal critic: if you have a problem with me, you should quit.

This sounds like arrogant intolerance, but equally his description of WikiLeaks’s history is accurate, and that was the problem. WikiLeaks had been an amateurish, idealistic, shoestring organisation reliant on the erratic endeavours of volunteers, famous in its own subcultures but barely known outside, held together by Assange’s charisma and energy. It was now playing on a global stage for huge stakes, facing enormous information-processing and political challenges.

Suddenly Assange had a surfeit of fame and a popstar lifestyle while other members of the WikiLeaks team were supposed to labour on, anonymously and altruistically. Tensions were certain to emerge. The organisation’s largest skill set had been in IT; now it also needed lawyers. Assange’s preference for unwritten agreements was insufficient for the large commercial interests and resource commitments of its media partners, and a mutual sense of betrayal soon arose. WikiLeaks also needed spin doctors to help orchestrate the impact of its releases, and to handle the way it was constantly in the media spotlight, where Assange’s immediate responses were so often counterproductive. It also needed the research and analytical skills to process and release the mountain of documents.

WikiLeaks overcame this last problem by entering into an (uneasy) alliance with the Guardian, the New York Times and Der Spiegel. All three publications provided experienced journalists who spent months going through the documents. Towards the end, some other elite media were also included.

The much-anticipated publication of the diplomatic cables began on Sunday 28 November 2010. The raw material consisted of more than 250,000 cables from 250 US diplomatic stations. Altogether it amounted to around 300 million words. (The Pentagon Papers, the largest previous historically important leak, ran to two-and-a-half million words.)

The stories that gained immediate traction were those that revealed how Arab leaders were privately urging an air strike on Iran, the Saudi king having frequently urged this course, and how US officials had been instructed to spy on the UN leadership. But in the following days and weeks many, many others followed. US diplomats judged Russia to be a kleptocracy centred on Putin’s leadership. They had strong suspicions that Putin and Berlusconi were profiting from clandestine energy deals. Shell had boasted that it had penetrated all levels of the Nigerian government. In private, allied leaders were deeply pessimistic about the prospects for the Afghanistan war. Beijing was disillusioned with North Korea, and could accommodate itself to the idea of regime change there. Whitehall assured US officials that it would protect American interests during inquiries into the Iraq war, while allowing the United States to store cluster bombs in Britain despite an official policy that decreed the opposite.

After the initial burst of publication, Assange formed relationships with quality media in different countries to go further into the files, especially those that related to their own countries. The enterprise of journalist Philip Dorling gave the Fairfax papers a run of stories on the Australian cables in December, and more have been published this year. Of the quarter million cables, just over 1000 came from Australia, dating back to February 2005. Dorling’s “six months of emails, clandestine meetings and confidential exchanges” followed by a visit to Britain gave his newspapers a decisive lead over all other Australian media. While much of the material was about Australian domestic politics, by far the most striking revealed the belligerent way Australian leaders spoke to the Americans about China, Kim Beazley even raising the idea of Australia’s partnering the United States if it went to war with China.

Despite all this, some commentators judged that “the contents are not all that important” or that they were “not all that surprising.” My view is closer to that of the Guardian journalists David Leigh and Luke Harding, who consider the leaks to “offer an incomparably detailed mosaic of life and politics in the early twenty-first century.”

This doesn’t mean that the content of the cables always corresponds to reality in any simple or comprehensive sense. This is the US government talking to other parts of the US government; it has a strong interest in accuracy, but the material reflects the government’s concerns and its versions of events and transactions. In the last years of the Howard government, for instance, the cables don’t demonstrate a good feel for Australian electoral politics. Their main purpose is to report Australian views back to Washington, which is surely why their account of the meeting between Hillary Clinton and Kevin Rudd, in which he famously said he takes a brutally realist view of China, suggests that Rudd rather than Clinton did almost all of the talking. Surely not! A more rounded view would emerge if we knew how Australian diplomats talk to China, including about America.

The publication of the cables unleashed a flood of rhetoric. Italy’s foreign minister, Franco Frattini, called it “the 9/11 of world diplomacy.” US vice-president Joe Biden called Assange “a high-tech terrorist,” and his 2008 opponent, Sarah Palin, thought that whoever perpetrated this “sick un-American espionage” should be pursued with “the same urgency we pursue al Qaeda.” Republican congressman Peter King – a long-time supporter of the IRA – wanted WikiLeaks declared a foreign terrorist organisation, while Republican presidential hopeful Mike Huckabee thought “anything less than execution” would be too light a penalty. At least a dozen other political and media figures – and not only on Fox News – sounded a similar theme.

The fury of the reaction revealed the overheated emptiness of so much contemporary political posturing. The American government directed most of its fury at Bradley Manning and WikiLeaks and much less at mainstream publishers of leaked cables, including the New York Times – a politically convenient hierarchy of anger. Perhaps the most troubling aspect of the reaction was the way so many (mainly American) political and media figures talked so glibly and casually of Assange’s being executed or assassinated. It is a further chilling reminder of just how routinely barbaric American right-wing rhetoric has become.

These critics also showed a laxity about specifying exactly which laws anyone had broken, a trait shared by Australia’s prime minister, Julia Gillard, and her attorney-general, Robert McClelland. The most tangible reaction came when, under political pressure, key gatekeepers of online commercial social intercourse – PayPal, Amazon, MasterCard and Visa – suspended their dealings with WikiLeaks, much to that organisation’s cost. Nevertheless the ferocity of the counter-reaction might make them hesitate before doing so again.

The vociferous criticisms that followed publication were generally unrelated to the specifics of what had been published. Months later, much more quietly, some US officials accepted that the leaks caused little lasting damage to American interests. Not surprisingly, the politicians concentrated exclusively on the potential costs rather than the benefits of the disclosures, although we can surmise that positive consequences also followed. The cables disclosed the Americans’ low opinion of the ruling clique in Tunisia, for example, and may have been a factor in the uprising that occurred there soon after.

While the political hostility to WikiLeaks was predictable, more surprising is the negative treatment it has received elsewhere in the media. Christopher Hitchens thought Assange “a micro-megalomaniac with few if any scruples” and two Washington Post columnists weren’t any more complimentary, Richard Cohen judging him “thoroughly contemptible” and Eugene Robinson arguing that WikiLeaks “nihilists” don’t deserve any sympathy. Even the New York Times, which had just secured its greatest scoops in years, felt impelled to publish profiles denouncing its sources, Assange and Manning. As Assange observed, the notable feature of its article on Manning was the way it psychologised away the morality of his political dissent, occasioned directly by his experiences in Iraq.

Just as the politicians’ protests reflect a feeling of loss of control rather than any substantial damage caused by the leaks, perhaps the key to media hostility is status displacement. For some journalists it seems as if retail leaking – by an individual source to an individual journalist, for whatever ulterior motive – is in the public interest but wholesale leaking is somehow less worthy, even illegitimate.

Both political and journalistic commentators have taken umbrage at the indiscriminate nature of the document “dump” but this is a fundamentally misplaced criticism. While Wiki­-Leaks initially leant towards releasing everything, by the time the cables were released it had been persuaded otherwise. The cables were subjected to a long “redaction” process, and by Christmas 2010 only 1900 of the quarter of a million documents had been released.

Some journalists and politicians expressed great outrage at the potential casualties of the leaks. So far, as several American officials have stated, no one has been able to demonstrate any damage to life or limb. In contrast, these commentators have largely remained silent about the real casualties revealed in the leaks, such as the deaths in Yemen caused by covert American military actions.

But what is perhaps most striking is how great a controversy the leaking of the cables created, and yet how little controversy the content of the cables generated. Restraint is rarely seen in Australian party politics these days, but neither party has sought to exploit the leaks against the other; it’s as if they have agreed that the content is a no-go area. Apart from Dorling’s reporting, and some other exceptions, the passivity of the Australian media in relation to the content of the cables has been striking. Some lively commentary surrounded their publication, but few seemed to view their content as an invitation for further investigation.

How much has the world changed because of these leaks? Is WikiLeaks the wave of the future? While Wiki­Leaks had several important achievements in earlier years, its most dramatic work in 2010 all appears to have come from a single source, Bradley Manning, now being subjected without trial to cruel and unusual punishment in an American prison. Private Manning had access to the same documents as up to three million other government officials, and security was lax. In Manning’s own words, “weak servers, weak logging, weak physical security, weak counter-intelligence, inattentive signal analysis… a perfect storm.” It is inconceivable that those in charge of keeping American secrets have not learnt many lessons from the episode. It is more likely that, like the leaking of the Pentagon Papers, this will stand as a major moment in its own right, rather than as a precedent for similar and equally momentous mass disclosures.

Nevertheless it would be silly to say that nothing has changed. As Crikey’s Bernard Keane wrote, the internet has flattened information hierarchies and reduced the power of many previous gatekeepers. Similarly, digitally stored information can now be moved on a scale that was simply unimaginable when Daniel Ellsberg stood at a photocopier with a copy of the Pentagon Papers. Whether or not WikiLeaks thrives as an organisation, it has already spawned many imitators, including OpenLeaks, the breakaway launched by Daniel Domscheit-Berg in January 2011.

Moreover, the internet is another manifestation of the globalisation that has made state control of information more precarious. In Britain, Barclays Bank obtained a “super injunction” to prevent the Guardian from publishing details of its tax-evasion activities, or anyone else from referring to the case. In a telling demonstration, WikiLeaks published all the relevant materials, showing how an international internet service could make rulings within a single jurisdiction meaningless.

WikiLeaks is not likely to succeed in its most central ambition. After the first world war, President Woodrow Wilson famously sought a world of open covenants, openly arrived at. Not without reason, he believed that a principal cause of the war had been the secretly negotiated treaties between the European powers, which had cascaded the world into a horrendous disaster. The impetus behind WikiLeaks is the same, that well-informed publics will prevent the treachery of their governments, that more openness is a means of preventing villainy. The secular trend is towards more openness, but for better and worse, secrecy is not about to disappear. •