For the launch of Griffith Review 32: Wicked Problems, Exquisite Solutions, Barbara Gunnell spoke with fellow journalist Margaret Simons to outline the arguments in 'Rebel, public nuisance and dreamer'.
The compelling conversation explores how mainstream media outlets have dealt with Wikileaks as both information source and controversy. Are Assange and his organisation acting responsibly? Are heads of state and journalists?
BELMARSH MAGISTRATES' COURT sits behind a tall steel-picket fence in the precinct of a high-security prison in the unlovely south-east London suburb of Woolwich. On a drab Friday in February, journalists from several continents arrived there to hear the closing statements in the case of Director of Public Prosecution Marianne Ny, Swedish Prosecution Authority, Sweden v Julian Paul Assange. They were all used to the drill now, and queued for security, removed mobile phones from bags, took off coats and shoes for scanning – and derived some satisfaction from watching a handful of celebrities and expensively shod barristers having to do likewise.
You would have concluded that the defendant was a dangerous terrorist. In the eyes of several high-ranking American politicians, he was. In fact, this was the third day of a straightforward, if rather technical, hearing on the validity of a European Arrest Warrant. The case had been relocated from Central London because of the large number of satellite trucks and broadcasting teams that had to be accommodated near the court. A two-day hearing had been scheduled to decide whether Julian Assange, Australian founder of the WikiLeaks organisation and responsible for the biggest leaks of classified information in history, should be extradited to Sweden to answer charges of sexual assault and rape.
The case, due to finish on 8 February, had gone into a third day – to the intense and evident irritation of Clare Montgomery, QC, acting for the Swedish state. Assange’s defence counsel, Geoffrey Robertson, QC, Australian-born and the best known human rights lawyer in Britain, had attended in considerable detail to each of a long list of objections to the arrest warrant. Montgomery, who shares chambers with Cherie Booth (the wife of former British Prime Minister Tony Blair), made it clear she found his objections trifling. For Montgomery, a former world-class fencer and an expert in extradition, this might be a standard strategy. In 1998 she had successfully defended Augusto Pinochet from extradition to Spain, where he faced charges of genocide, arguing that if the former dictator of Chile (who had done a deal for immunity in his home country) were removed to Spain for prosecution it would encourage future tyrants to stay in power.
AS THE BELMARSH court reconvened for the two barristers to sum up, the Assange team raised a new objection to extradition. The night before, the Swedish Prime Minister, Fredrik Reinfeldt, had made an unexpected intervention, accusing Assange and his legal representatives of making remarks that were ‘condescending and damaging to Sweden’ and, in particular, disrespectful of the rights of Swedish women. Robertson argued that a political intervention of this kind further damaged Assange’s chance of a fair trial and had vilified him in Sweden as ‘an enemy of the people’. Montgomery countered that it was the Assange legal team’s intemperate out-of-court public remarks that had provoked the Swedish Prime Minister. Judge Howard Riddle, who Assange’s Australian lawyer Jennifer Robinson labelled ‘a hostile judge’, appeared to agree and refused Team Assange’s request for time to get the remarks properly translated. As a result, we never learned whether Prime Minister Reinfeldt specifically referred, as Robertson did, to Henrik Ibsen’s An Enemy of the People.
If he didn’t already know the work, Julian Assange might have been disconcerted to discover that Ibsen’s play, about a small town in Norway, serves as a short synopsis of his own recent troubles. The nineteenth-century drama involves a whistleblower, a newspaper, and political and business interests determined to retain their power and wealth. The morally driven Dr Stockmann has obtained scientific evidence that an epidemic of sickness is caused by polluted water at the town’s public baths. He intends to publish details in the local paper and thus force the baths to close. But the spa also brings the town jobs and wealth. Stockmann is betrayed, first by the mayor, then by the newspaper and finally by the capricious public he has championed. They prefer to stick with the devils they know than with the troublemaker whose campaign threatens their livelihoods. ‘Yes, yes! He is an enemy of the people! He hates his country! He hates his own people!’ they shout as they desert him.
Watching the 11 February hearing come to a ragged and bad-tempered close from a glass enclosure in Court 3, Assange might well have felt the tide of public opinion similarly turning against him. Whatever Judge Riddle decided, Assange would be remaining under ‘mansion arrest’ in rural Norfolk, possibly for months. Both sides had indicated that if the verdict on the validity of the arrest warrant went against them, they would appeal. Two weeks later, when the caravan returned to Belmarsh to hear the decision, Assange looked defeated even before the decision came. Riddle ruled that Assange could be extradited under the warrant. His team duly put in their appeal.
The case will go to the High Court. Assange might or might not have to go to Sweden. He might or might not face charges of rape and assault there. His worst fears, that he could be extradited from either country to the United States and face lengthy imprisonment or even execution, could even be realised. But the immediate horror for Assange must have been the painstakingly slow legal process. A man used over many years to having ‘no fixed abode’, to answering and explaining to no one and living out of a backpack, is under house arrest, tagged electronically until a legal argument about the validity of European Arrest Warrants is resolved.
THE BELMARSH HEARINGS revealed, but left unresolved and untested, graphic details of the testimonies of Julian Assange’s two accusers taken from leaked police evidence, to which he cannot legally respond. With no resolution in sight and no official charges yet laid, everybody but Assange was now entitled to debate, or at least have a view on, his morals, behaviour and character. Books have been written and published, commentators have opined, documentaries made and broadcast: Assange has become the most extensively discussed, reported, blogged and tweeted-about man in history.
It is one of the many tensions between secrecy and openness in the WikiLeaks story that a major objection to extradition from the Assange legal team has been that rape cases in Sweden are usually heard in secret, with press and public excluded – thus, they argue, compromising Assange’s right to a fair hearing. And yet, almost every detail of the events in Stockholm in August 2010 that led to two women making complaints to the police has now been made public, first as police evidence leaked to journalists and then, in the magistrate’s court, as part of the legal argument over the validity of the arrest warrant. Everyone with any interest or curiosity in the case will have heard the accusers’ versions of events, and most will have come to a firm opinion on what happened in Stockholm.
The exchanges between Claire Montgomery and Geoffrey Robertson on the alleged rape reveal the irreconcilable and subjective viewpoints of the case Assange will have to answer to if he goes to Sweden. In Judge Riddle’s court, the allegations of the two women, which have been widely reported, were not put forward as evidence for examination or testing. The two barristers were concerned only with interpreting whether the women’s complaints amounted to a definition of rape that would hold in both countries.
In the legal arguments of Robertson and Montgomery, the claims of the Swedish women became the same story, of the same events, told twice over with totally different emphases. ‘He pinned her down with his body weight,’ said Montgomery. ‘That is what is usually described as the missionary position,’ countered Robertson. ‘She was asleep,’ Montgomery said. ‘Ms A claimed to be half asleep. That is also half awake,’ was Robertson’s version. ‘Sexual encounters have their ebbs and flows. What may be unwanted one minute can with further empathy become desired,’ he suggested.
‘In popular language, that’s violence,’ said Montgomery. ‘No doubt rough consensual sex is something on which he [Robertson] is able to give some useful information to the court,’ she concluded, eliciting a gasp from the assembled journalists.
Assange, whose version of events we have yet to hear, sat still in the dock, occasionally leaning forward to better catch a mumbled phrase from Robertson. The two benches of the public gallery, able to hold twenty-five to thirty people, over several days accommodated Assange’s celebrity supporters – the veteran left-wing politician Tony Benn, Bianca Jagger, Jemima Khan, John Pilger – and campaigners and colleagues from WikiLeaks. Assange acknowledged them as he entered court.
Outside, members of Anonymous, an anarchist group that is very publicly supporting Assange and WikiLeaks, waited beyond the perimeter fence, wearing sinister Guy Fawkes masks. I had wondered what they thought they had in common with the Roman Catholic plotter who attempted to blow up the English parliament in 1605, but the masks were in fact replicating the face on the cover of a five-part cult graphic novel, V for Vendetta, set in a dystopian fascist future.
DURING THE TWO months before the court case that Assange had already spent under house arrest at the Norfolk country house of Vaughan Smith, a former army captain and the owner of the Frontline Club for foreign correspondents (slogan: ‘Championing Independent Journalism’), the world witnessed the greatest geopolitical upheaval since the fall of the Berlin Wall. The critical role of WikiLeaks disclosures in the revolutions and uprisings of the Middle East and North Africa is not much debated. It is taken for granted by some and ignored by others. Even as Assange’s extradition was contested in Court 3 on 11 February, Egypt’s President, Hosni Mubarak, announced his resignation. An uprising in Tunisia had already led to the resignation of President Ben Ali, whose corruption and lavish lifestyle had been the subject of a (Wiki) leaked diplomatic cable. By the time of the extradition decision, on 24 February, Libyan protests and reprisals were underway. That day, several of the international broadcasters who had been covering Assange’s trial were absent, diverted to a new story.
In the first days of March, Assange found himself back in the news, though in a way that would have displeased him. The satirical magazine Private Eye published an account of a bad-tempered telephone exchange between Assange and the magazine’s editor, Ian Hislop. Assange complained about a story that had accused a WikiLeaks associate of anti-Semitism. (Israel Shamir, who has ties to WikiLeaks in Sweden, is widely accused of being a Holocaust denier.) According to Hislop, he then accused the Eye and other well-known journalists of being part of a Jewish-led conspiracy against WikiLeaks. Hislop is a trusted and well-liked journalist, with a reputation for mischief-making but not for dishonesty. The kerfuffle would blow over but Assange seemed to have judged it badly.
A second story was that Stephen Spielberg’s DreamWorks had announced it would make a film about Assange, alas based on two not very complimentary books about him. The character flaws of the man had become the only story, the substance of his actions pushed aside, and the transition from hero to villain was swift even on speeded-up internet time.
A third story put both these in perspective. On 3 March, further charges were laid against Bradley Manning, the young soldier who is alleged to have confessed online to being the source of the enormous cache of US military leaks. Among the new charges was ‘aiding the enemy’, which can incur the death penalty in the US.
ON 5 APRIL 2010 Julian Assange travelled from Iceland to Washington, DC, for a press conference to launch the online release of an American military video shot in 2007. The footage revealed a group of civilians in Baghdad being fired at from two US Army Apache helicopters in July 2007. More than a dozen people were killed in the incident, including a child and two staff of the Reuters news agency. Reuters knew the video existed but had failed to obtain a copy under US Freedom of Information legislation. WikiLeaks received the material in encrypted form and had been decoding it for three months.
As Assange prepared to leave for the American capital he would probably have had no more than a few hours’ sleep in the preceding five days. He had been in Iceland less than a week, working night and day on editing the forty minutes of video down to seventeen with a team that included two professional film editors, local activists, two journalists and Birgitta Jónsdóttir, the Iceland MP with whom Assange had been co-operating on a wider project to make Iceland a haven of media freedom. His arrival in the capital, Reykjavík, had coincided with the eruption of Eyjafjallajökull. This became the team’s alibi as they worked on the video. Anyone interested in the comings and goings at their overcrowded short-let house was told that they were journalists, in Iceland to report on the volcano.
Raffi Khatchadourian’s study in the New Yorker of these five days, written before WikiLeaks’ own internal eruptions had become the story, is one of the friendlier accounts of Assange’s modus operandi: ‘WikiLeaks is not quite an organisation; it is better described as a media insurgency. It has no paid staff...no office. Assange does not even have a home. He travels from country to country, staying with supporters...WikiLeaks exists wherever he does.’ During the video editing Assange barely left his desk. Jónsdóttir, under protest, even cut Assange’s hair as he worked. There is open debate, but according to the June 2010 article it is clear that Assange makes the decisions.
WikiLeaks had been operating for three and a half years and was steadily gaining media attention – sufficient interest for the New Yorker to travel to Iceland. A growing catalogue of scoops included the handbook of operating procedures at the Guantánamo Bay military prison, exposure of the corrupt diversion of billions of dollars of public funds in Kenya and Sarah Palin’s private emails. There had been threats of legal action, but no hits. No one had succeeded in closing down the site. WikiLeaks.org, with its sophisticated architecture and ability to replicate its contents on mirror sites across the world, was beginning to seem invincible. In Assange’s own words, he had created ‘an uncensorable system for untraceable mass document leaking and public analysis’. A government or company that wanted to remove content would have to practically dismantle the internet itself, Assange told Khatchadourian.
But the team in Iceland knew that the Iraq video would incense the military establishment, and that they were entering a dangerous and difficult new phase. They talk of what should be done in the event of arrests. Khatchadourian wrote of a collaborative, purposeful few weeks assembling the film. But the cracks were beginning to appear. Assange’s former close ally Daniel Domscheit-Berg was not in Iceland. They had already started to quarrel and DomscheitBerg would shortly terminate the friendship in a bitter exchange later posted online. The adrenalin rush of engaging with a powerful enemy is a close cousin of paranoia.
The shared euphoria of comrades working on a great cause can, without some order, food and sleep, degenerate swiftly into fractious distrust. Jónsdóttir was still a friend but said later that she saw then the beginning of the organisation’s collapse. ‘Working with computer geeks, it is creative chaos...[Assange] had to have the final word. There was a lack of transparency.’
At the time they were co-operating on something inspiring, the creation of the Iceland Modern Media Initiative – a state that guaranteed absolute freedom for the media. Shortly before Christmas 2010 Birgitta Jónsdóttir told the BBC of those days. ‘I had seen the film when collaborating with WikiLeaks on a project to turn Iceland into a haven for journalists. I was so shocked, I was crying.’
Khatchadourian watched the editing of Project B, as the Iraq video was then called, and was also shocked. The source is never referred to and Khatchadourian doesn’t learn the name. He listens to Assange’s philosophy of ‘scientific journalism’ – which, it is explained to him, offers viewers or readers the raw material with which to verify what they are being told. He listens to the debates between the team about the nature of the editing and notes: ‘Assange saw these events in sharply delineated moral terms, yet the footage did not offer easy legal judgments.’
The release of the Iraq video represented an important change of direction, of purpose even, for Assange and for WikiLeaks. Contrary to the earlier practice of releasing raw material that spoke for itself ‘comment-free’, with the sole intention of adumbrating the secret activities of governments and corporations, this video is without question a journalistic endeavour – a short documentary, in fact. It is professionally edited, with an accompanying ‘initial analysis’ and the tendentious title, from Assange, Collateral Murder. Furthermore, it relies on additional research and verification. Before he and Kristinn Hrafnsson, later to take on the role of WikiLeaks spokesman, take it to Washington, a cameraman and journalist go to Baghdad to find and interview the families of some of those killed or injured in the attack. Faithful to Assange’s theory of ‘scientific journalism’, however, the WikiLeaks site offers not just the edited seventeen minutes but also the full, unedited version.
If releasing the video was a pivotal moment for WikiLeaks, it was also a watershed for the media as a whole.Collateral Murder was followed in July 2010 by the release of a huge database of secret documents relating the event-by-event progress of the Afghanistan war. By this time, journalists were anxious to collaborate with the organisation. For the first time, WikiLeaks formed a direct partnership with the press, working initially with The Guardian to make sense of some two million pages of documents, later bringing in the New York Times and Der Spiegel. The Iraq war logs came later in the year and were again shared by several media outlets. Finally, in late November, amid well-documented rows between WikiLeaks and its media collaborators, ‘the biggest leak in history’ was published: a quarter of a million cables from US diplomats to the State Department began to trickle into the public domain.
This astonishing rate of revelations was a game-changer on many fronts. At the beginning of 2010 WikiLeaks was a sophisticated but small online secrets dump with a mission to force governments to greater transparency – ‘We open governments’ was one of the site’s mottos. By the end of the year, WikiLeaks had become a byword for debate about the very nature of journalism and the role of journalists. Assange, the public’s choice for Time magazine’s Person of the Year (the editors overrode their readers and chose Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg), has become one the best known faces in the world.
The nature of leaks and secrecy, and the high-tech hacking that generated this material, became a matter of urgent concern to the US military. This at first delighted the media, which thrives on tales of the mighty humbled. And it continues to thrill young anarchist-hacktivists who see WikiLeaks as the David who will fell the US imperialist Goliath.
But there have followed more cautious analyses, which ask whether it is right or democratic that one small organisation should become the monopoly distributor of so many government secrets and be the arbiter of what gets published. What of the wider casualties? This was a point put to Assange after the publication of unredacted Afghan war logs. He has been accused of being insufficiently diligent about protecting local allies of the US Army. In fact, to the surprise of many, there were no reports of harm to individuals mentioned in the logs.
Assange’s celebrity and notoriety are now inextricably linked. He is a hero who defies the powerful while championing open government. And he is an enemy of the people who endangers the free world. Before the April 2010 launch of Collateral Murder in Washington, Assange had already poked one hornets’ nest: in March he had posted on the website a leaked document relating to the US military’s interest in WikiLeaks itself. Assange entitled it ‘US intelligence planned to destroy WikiLeaks.’ The Pentagon and intelligence organisations had been clearly riled by the leak of the Guantánamo operating procedures handbook. Its document considers ways of exploiting vulnerabilities in the group’s ‘obscurification technology’, and speculates about whether WikiLeaks activists and associates would enjoy the journalistic freedom-of-speech protection that exists in the US. In the light of several public arguments later, about whether Assange could be described as a journalist, this seems more sinister. That aside, it is an oddly restrained document and could be laughed off. But WikiLeaks was acquiring notable enemies.
JULIAN ASSANGE SAYS that he registered the site leaks.org in the late 1990s but had been nurturing the idea since his mid-twenties. Yet the mix of idealism, computer expertise and rejection of old-style activism that created WikiLeaks was surely the story of his generation of teenage computer geeks. These are the teenagers, mainly boys, of the 1980s who, on low-capacity Commodores, in networks around the developed world, learned to program and develop computer games, thus staking a permanent claim in the developing information technology systems on which governments and corporations were to become increasingly dependent. When Tim Berners-Lee developed the World Wide Web, in the early 1990s, a generation of young computer enthusiasts embraced not only his brilliant invention but also his idealistic philosophy of ‘net neutrality’ and of creating systems that ensured that the internet could never become the monopoly of any one class or group. Even teenagers in those years who were less interested in the high-end technology saw themselves as part of a new world of free music, shared games and programs, and a new attitude to copyright and ownership of ideas.
WikiLeaks’ political co-parent was the growing disaffection of Generation X, teenagers of the 1980s and early ’90s who shaped their political ideals just as the old left/right certainties collapsed with the Berlin Wall. Unlike their baby-boomer mothers and fathers, this generation had no automatic allegiance to left-wing or right-wing political philosophies. They tended instead to become involved in global issues such as environmentalism, third-world poverty, trade domination by the rich, human rights, the destruction of cultures. All these were of more interest than whether the state or private corporations owned a nation’s utilities. The successful politicians of the 1990s were the Third Way adherents, who acknowledged the disappearance of tribal certainties among this generation and nodded towards the idealism. What emerged – and remained – was a fundamental rejection of the old power structures and information hierarchies.
The generation now entering its forties is more likely to be anti-authoritarian, to distrust elites and to believe strongly that the people have a right to the information that informs the decisions of the powerful. In the political sphere no leader – whether Barack Obama, David Cameron, Julia Gillard, Nicolas Sarkozy, Hosni Mubarak or Muammar Gaddafi – can ignore the expectation that they will govern transparently, must not lie, and should expect to be found out and dishonoured if they do. That WikiLeaks exposed US diplomacy caused fury in high places, but the actual cable leaks – their content, as opposed to wider concerns about the security of military secrets – have not shocked the public at all.
IN A LENGTHY and perceptive essay for The Monthly Robert Manne, a professor of politics at Melbourne’s La Trobe University, suggests a more precise progenitor of WikiLeaks: the cypherpunk movement that emerged on America’s west coast in the early 1990s. The uniting philosophy of the group, whose email list Assange joined in 1995, when he was twenty-four, was that ‘the state’ had developed the capacity to crush individual freedom through surveillance, and that the internet could and should be used to fight it. According to Manne, the cypherpunks were predominantly anarchists and very much of the right, supporting, among other things, laissez-faire capitalism, tax avoidance, insider trading and even a free market in military secrets. A core activity was to devise cryptographic software to enable web users to operate unwatched by the state.
It is easy to see that a one-time hacker and first-class cryptographer would be attracted to the cypherpunks, but hard to find much political similarity between their program and anything that Assange has said. WikiLeaks does have an anarchist following in Anonymous, the group that demonstrated at Belmarsh and which launches reactive attacks on the websites of organisations they consider to be unfriendly to WikiLeaks. When PayPal, Barclays and Visa withdrew from financial co-operation from WikiLeaks in the aftermath of the cable leaks, threatening the organisation’s donations, Anonymous launched denial-of-service attacks – co-ordinated efforts to flood a website with requests, so that it fails. This is anarchist hacking at its most basic.
WikiLeaks, though, has a clearly described political philosophy of working for good governance, not no governance. The mission outlined on its website is that leaking calls governments and corporations to account, and that ‘public scrutiny of otherwise unaccountable and secretive institutions forces them to consider the ethical implications of their actions...Open government exposes and undoes corruption. Open governance is the most effective method of promoting good governance.’
Like many of the San Francisco cypherpunks, Assange was a gifted coder and hacker, but he linked his skills to a different developing political philosophy. Like the cypherpunks he strongly believed that governments used secrecy as a powerful weapon to the detriment of their citizens. To him, exposing the illegal or immoral behaviour of governments and corporations to citizens is an indisputably noble end: a means of breaking open government secrecy. The concept of drawing in collaborative pinpointing of corrupt practice is spelled out in the name – Wiki (a collective venture, such as Wikipedia) + leaks – and became Assange’s political mission.
WOULD WIKILEAKS HAVE happened without Assange? Bill Keller, executive editor of the New York Times, in his ungenerous account of the cable leaks story, writes: ‘Frankly, I think the impact of WikiLeaks on the culture has probably been overblown. Long before WikiLeaks was born, the internet transformed the landscape of journalism...’
But, rather as Facebook now seems an inevitable extension of chatrooms and college email groups, and Twitter an extension of texting, it is easy to think that a system for gathering and disseminating government secrets while protecting sources was inevitable.
The development of copycat sites such as OpenLeaks (Daniel Domscheit-Berg’s post-Assange project), FrenchLeaks (run by the independent Paris-based organisation Mediapart) and UniLeaks (an Australian site focusing on higher education), and the announcements by a variety of newspapers and television channels that they too intend to develop their own dumps for secret data, reinforce the idea that nothing could be simpler. But, as the Mark Zuckerberg character says in the film The Social Network, which recounts the legal fight with the Winklevoss twins over the ownership of Facebook: ‘If you guys were the inventors of Facebook, you would have invented Facebook.’
WikiLeaks earns its place in history not just by being first but by the daring and scope of the concept, and the technical mastery that keeps it going, despite the very best efforts of the world’s most skilful ‘cybercops’ and anti-terrorist organisations. It is hard to separate that audacity and resilience from the personal history of Julian Assange.
Accounts of this differ, including his own accounts, but it is still probably best told in his own words. In January came the news that Assange would write a memoir. After the announcement of a lucrative publishing deal he stated his intent with typical grandiosity: the book would, he hoped, be ‘one of the unifying documents of our generation’. But at the time of writing it seemed unlikely to appear in April, as planned. Details of his early childhood and teenage years are, however, outlined in an autobiographical contribution that Assange made to Underground: Tales of Hacking, Madness and Obsession on the Electronic Frontier, by Suelette Dreyfus, published by Reed in 1997. The book, available in full online, tells the story of the Melbourne hacking community of the late 1980s and ’90s.
Assange was Dreyfus’s researcher and also a character in the book, Mendax, his computer identity in his hacking days. Assange wrote: ‘By the time he was fifteen Mendax had lived in a dozen different places including Perth, Magnetic Island, Brisbane, Townsville, Sydney, the Adelaide Hills, and a string of coastal towns in northern New South Wales and Western Australia. In fifteen years he had enrolled in at least as many different schools.’ He describes ‘turbulent years moving from town to town as his parents explored the ’70s left-wing, bohemian subculture. As a boy, he was surrounded by artists. His stepfather staged and directed plays and his mother did makeup, costume and set design.’
The school system held no interest for him and he became involved in serious hacking, but he does not write of it with bravado. Instead, he describes the paranoia it invoked, which led eventually to a breakdown: ‘Mendax dreamed of police raids all the time...He dreamed of waking from a deep sleep to find several police officers standing over his bed. The dreams...accentuated his growing paranoia that the police were watching him, following him.’ Mendax was hospitalised but ‘hospital was definitely making him crazier’. Not wanting to return to live with his ‘strong-willed’ mother, he slept rough. ‘Mostly, he haunted Sherbrooke Forest in the Dandenong Ranges National Park...the temperature dropped well below the rest of Melbourne in winter. In summer, the mosquitoes were unbearable and Mendax sometimes woke to find his face swollen and bloated from their bites.’
In a coda describing Mendax’s post-hacking life, the 25-year-old Assange wrote: ‘Mendax donates his time to various international programming efforts and releases some of his programs for free on the Internet. His philosophy is that most of the lasting social advances in the history of man have been a direct result of new technology.’ The Melbourne hackers were ‘quintessentially Australian, always questioning authority and rebelling against the Establishment. They’re smart – in some cases very smart. A few might even be classified as technical geniuses. They’re mischievous, but also very enterprising. They’re rebels, public nuisances and dreamers.’
This pleasure in rebelling recurs. In an interview in July 2010, shortly before WikiLeaks published Afghanistan war data, Assange was asked by Der Spiegel why he had chosen WikiLeaks – instead, they suggested, of living in Palo Alto with a swimming pool. He replied: ‘We are obligated to make good use of the time that we have and to do something that is meaningful and satisfying...I enjoy helping people who are vulnerable. And I enjoy crushing bastards.’
For a while, Assange wrote a personal blog. It contains several references to the problems of gifted children. One, in June 2006, quoting from an academic study, is particularly poignant. ‘A lesson which many gifted persons never learn as long as they live is that human beings in general are inherently very different from themselves in thought, in action, in general intention, and in interests. Many a reformer has died at the hands of a mob, which he was trying to improve in the belief that other human beings can and should enjoy what he enjoys. This is one of the most painful and difficult lessons that each gifted child must learn, if personal development is to proceed successfully...Failure to learn how to tolerate in a reasonable fashion the foolishness of others leads to bitterness, disillusionment, and misanthropy.’
ON 28 NOVEMBER 2010 WikiLeaks and five media partners (New York Times, Guardian, Der Spiegel, Le Monde and El País) went live with the ‘world’s biggest leak’. The account given by the Guardian journalists David Leigh and Luke Harding in WikiLeaks: Inside Julian Assange’s War on Secrecy (Guardian Books, 2011) records the drama behind dealing with the secret diplomatic cables and the cache of classified military documents covering operations in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars.
The story of the leaks and the US reaction to the ‘theft’ of classified material at first tended to overshadow the content and consequence of the cables. It became commonplace, particularly for media outlets that had not been part of the collaborative effort, to dismiss them as the humdrum gossip of diplomats. The diplomats merely stated known truths, it was claimed, or repeated stories and gossip that had originally come from the press anyway. A fair representation of that point of view was put to Julian Assange on 21 December by John Humphrys, anchor of the BBC’s main morning radio news program, after three weeks of stories based on the leaks: ‘A lot of it’s fascinating. A lot of it’s intriguing. But it’s tittle-tattle. It’s the kind of thing an ambassador would tell his boss at home just because it’s something he’s found out.’
‘With respect,’ Assange replied, ‘it is not tittle-tattle...When the head of the state or an ambassador is reporting what you call tittle-tattle, it is no longer tittle-tattle. It is either very dangerous poisonous political gossip, or it is the truth.’
‘What does it mean for the future of diplomacy?’ John Humphrys asked. ‘In whose interest is it that diplomats can no longer speak freely to their own foreign office?’
‘They can speak freely,’ Assange replied. ‘They just have to start committing things to paper that they are proud of.’
Re-reading his Tunisian cables Ambassador Robert Godec might have good reason to feel proud of his contributions. They are immensely readable and if, in the American jargon, he was merely passing on scuttlebutt, it is very revealing scuttlebutt. He observes that Tunisians are frustrated by lack of political freedom, and that the ruling family is corrupt and widely despised for its lavish lifestyle. It is certainly subjective – but Godec is presumably appointed for his ability to make good judgements. And when the US ambassador reports that there are ‘serious human rights problems’ and that the ‘risks to the regime’s long-term stability are increasing’, then, in newsroom parlance, that’s a story.
WHY, THOUGH, IF journalists and diplomats were regularly exchanging information, did so few stories of this kind emerge from the Middle East before the release of the cables? The answer is deniability. A couple of decades ago, a freelance journalist friend of mine working in Kenya was asked to leave the country after doing a series of broadcasts for the BBC that were not seen as sufficiently respectful of President Daniel arap Moi’s increasingly corrupt government. I was there reporting on the construction of a major dam and, coincidentally, was also the president of the UK National Union of Journalists, so I arranged a meeting with the British High Commissioner. He nodded and agreed that it was a bad business, and suggested I use my influence to get the BBC to give H*** a nice job in London. Problem solved. He spoke openly of bribery of government officials (by non-British companies, naturally) to secure major construction contracts. It was understood that I could not have reported such comments, as he would have denied them. A subsequent High Commissioner, Sir Edward Clay, finally became very undiplomatic when he accused Kenyan politicians of ‘vomiting on the shoes’ of donor countries, a graphic reference to the siphoning-off of international aid.
Sir Edward aside, that is how things work in diplomacy and in journalism. The traditionalists in both trades defend the need for operating thus; shoot-from-the-hip diplomacy would have its contradictions. However, as long ago as 1918, Woodrow Wilson undertook that ‘Diplomacy shall proceed always frankly and in the public view.’
There remains a puzzling mismatch between the response to ‘the biggest leak in history’ and its actual impact. It is as if there have been two quite different events. One has been a breach of security that has provoked outrage and some panic among US politicians, inducing calls for Assange’s arrest and even extrajudicial execution. An apparently quite separate event has been a tough but manageable problem for the State Department, which Hillary Clinton has handled calmly, expressing a bit of anger and restrained menace, along with a carefully calibrated dollop of sadness that the good work of diplomatic honesty could suffer.
As the Middle East uprisings and power struggles unravel, the US has appeared to be, mostly, on the side of the better angels. Some Washington voices have suggested dangers in the new power balance, and that it might not be good for America to ‘lose Egypt’, which provoked The Economist into a wonderfully unrestrained blast on 2 March: ‘Nobody lost Egypt! Egypt just ousted its dictator in a non-violent popular revolution! It’s going to have democratic elections in six months! In what perverse universe does this count as a defeat for American foreign policy, for the West, for enlightenment civilisation, for lovers of human rights?’
The predominant issue for the US has not been security; it has been embarrassment. In a briefing on 30 November 2010, US Secretary of Defense Robert Gates told the press: ‘Is this embarrassing? Yes. Is it awkward? Yes. Consequences for US foreign policy? I think fairly modest.’
In a longer statement, Gates added: ‘I’ve heard the impact of these releases on our foreign policy described as a meltdown, as a game-changer, and so on. I think those descriptions are fairly significantly overwrought. The fact is, governments deal with the United States because it’s in their interest, not because they like us, not because they trust us, and not because they believe we can keep secrets.’
The revelation probably most damaging to the US was that its officials had routinely spied on senior United Nations leaders. The leaks that have had the greatest significance are those concerning the Middle East. Taken as a whole, the US State Department comfortably survived what US Vice President Joe Biden initially labelled ‘high-tech terrorism’.
A PLANK OF the case against Julian Assange’s extradition has been the question of open justice. In seeking to highlight the injustice to their client of being tried for rape and sexual assault in Sweden, his lawyers have emphasised that the proceedings there would be held in ‘secret’. When Judge Riddle gave his decision that the extradition should go ahead, the word he used was ‘private’– the Swedish system protected the privacy of witnesses, he said. Secrecy has negative connotations; privacy is something most of us value and safeguard.
Just as it now appears easier to disclose the information governments wish to hide, it is becoming more difficult for individuals to protect themselves, both from government surveillance and from other intruders. Yet the early hacktivists were more concerned with the right to privacy than with exposing secrets. The cypherpunk mission was to devise programs for the use of all, to encrypt communications beyond government surveillance.
A would-be ethical investigative journalist could do worse than to adopt the rule of thumb expose secrets,respect privacy, particularly since that appears to mirror the instincts of the public. In most democracies, citizens are certain about their right to know (and the right of journalists to expose on their behalf) the secrets of governments, of powerful institutions and even, in some circumstances, of influential or powerful individuals. However, in the rich world at least, people are equally emphatic about their right to privacy. This is not contradictory, but nor is it clear-cut. At what point does the ‘campaigning journalist’ exposing the secrets of power become the ‘seedy hack’ snooping into strictly private concerns, particularly when celebrities play fast and loose with their own ‘privacy’, one day staging ‘spontaneous’ photo opps, the next crying foul when a journalist or paparazzo catches them in an unflattering situation?
Australia and the United States have had freedom-of-information legislation much longer than Britain has, and also have stronger laws protecting privacy. In the UK the emphasis is heavily on avoiding the disclosure of official secrets; individual privacy is treated quite carelessly. An industry body, the Press Complaints Commission, is charged with protecting the latter by self-regulation. Its pursuit of breaches of privacy is so languid that for months on end it is possible to forget the commission exists.
Nothing illustrates this bias better than the extreme intrusions, over several years, into private lives by Rupert Murdoch’s News of the World, which is only now the subject of a proper police investigation. In 2007, a private investigator and the News of the World’s royal reporter were jailed for intercepting voicemail messages of members of the royal family. Andy Coulson, the Prime Minister’s press secretary until he resigned in February, was the newspaper’s editor at the time. The royal reporter was described as a rogue operator; likewise the investigator. But no one believed the phone-hacking was an isolated incident or that senior editors at the paper at that time were ignorant of its use in getting many of the paper’s stories. Earlier this year, a handful of the hundreds of celebrities and public figures whose phones (and children’s phones) had been regularly hacked went to court to seek damages for illegal intrusion. The only major papers that have followed the story with any diligence are the Financial Times, Guardian, Independent and New York Times.
Brian Cathcart, a professor of journalism at Kingston University, wrote of the silence: ‘Editors who routinely invoke the public interest when it suits them have in this case systematically abused the public interest. One leading player in the story has been in Downing Street for nine months; another [Murdoch] dominates our media landscape; a third is our most powerful police force. If their conduct is not a matter of public interest, what is?’
An unexpected elision of secrecy and privacy came in John Humphrys’ radio interview with Julian Assange. Four days earlier The Guardian had published a story based on leaked details of the police evidence of the rape allegations against Assange. It was a tough interview, which at first appeared to be about politics, until Humphrys raised this disclosure. Assange said he had not yet been charged and that the prosecution’s leaks to the papers had been selective. Humphrys asked:
Can’t you see that it’s a bit rum for you to be sitting there under these circumstances? You, Julian Assange, the WikiLeaks man, who’s become terribly famous, as has your organisation, for leaking material that other people didn’t want to see published and here you are saying: ‘They’ve leaked something about me.’
Not at all. We are an organisation that does not promote leaking. We’re an organisation that promotes justice...
You hardly discourage it when you print a couple of million private cables.
...That promotes justice through the mechanism of transparency and journalism.
This is now public. So I’m asking you the question. Did you have sex with those women?
It’s a matter of public record as far as the courts are concerned but I am not going to be exposing other people’s private lives or my own more than is absolutely necessary. That is not what a gentleman does, that is why I have also never criticised these women.
How many women have you slept with?
That’s a private business. Not only does a gentleman not tell, not only does a gentleman not like to talk about his private life, a gentleman certainly doesn’t count.
[How] many, without being specific?
JULIAN ASSANGE HAS changed journalism. To debate the good or otherwise of organisations such as WikiLeaks, or to ask whether its staff are data thieves or real journalists, is to miss the point. Secure, anonymous leaking is now part of the media landscape, as is disseminating large amounts of leaked information through the mainstream media.
No government or institution or corporation can be certain that their secrets are safe. States and citizens will, as many do already, operate on the assumption that nothing can reliably remain hidden. New data dumps are announced daily; WikiLeaks currently has the most advanced and best tested security system, robustly protected against outside interference or hacking. But even if the organisation were to close tomorrow, such data dumps for whistleblowers and secret sources are here to stay. As fast as governments encrypt and hide, whistleblowers and hackers will decode and seek places to publish. Phillip Knightley, a highly regarded journalist, has argued that the WikiLeaks saga represents ‘a sea-change in the way we are ruled and the information we are entitled to expect’.
We should, then, take for granted the inevitability of future leaks of previously secret data. What is still very much up for debate is how the mainstream media and traditional journalists respond to this. We are not faced with a ‘WikiLeaks or Journalism’ dilemma; there is no likely future in which undigested data becomes our preferred way of taking news. Even Assange, who wanted to offer a new ‘scientific journalism’, has retreated from that purist position. His initial ambition was to offer raw material unmediated by bias or personal views. But editing Collateral Murder was a mainstream journalistic activity. He also offered viewers the original material in order to judge for themselves whether the editing was fair or biased. Most of us would quickly tire of that double-checking. In the end, we rely on the papers, editors and writers we have come to trust. As always, newspapers – in whatever form – will continue to compete for that trust.
The mainstream media publication of large amounts of raw data is not a new phenomenon: there are school test scores and election results, for starters. But it would take a trainspotter to read the minutiae of every election result to verify that the summary ‘Opposition Victory’ was correct. As with all stories, we look for more information when we have a special interest, and the internet makes that easier than ever. News organisations use hyperlinks to send the enquiring mind further. Most of us, though, are happy that someone has provided the edited highlights.
As the Guardian, New York Times, Sydney Morning Herald, Melbourne Age and other WikiLeaks partners over recent months discovered, the task of analysing, corroborating, contextualising and presenting information remains essential. Anyone who has ploughed through a fraction of the US diplomatic cables on the WikiLeaks site (and the searchable database on the site is itself a major triumph of journalistic intervention) will know that this is not a good way to take your daily news. It is easy to underestimate the value of being able to read complicated stories in well-designed modern newspapers – in print or online.
WikiLeaks did not sail into a calm sea. Governments, media owners, journalists and lawyers have been negotiating stormy waters for some years as a result of the internet. In addition to the reluctance of newspaper readers to pay for what they read online, new problems have arisen in areas of defamation – it has become increasingly easy to sue across jurisdictions – and national broadcasting controls.
WikiLeaks found the answer, or something like it, to one problem. It became possible, for example, for a British citizen threatened by its stringent libel laws to share revealing documents with WikiLeaks without fear of being traced or prosecuted.
According to Brian Cathcart, who also writes on media affairs, some of the concerns we have now will quickly evaporate: ‘My gut feeling is that, like a lot of technological developments, this will soon all look simple. The tunnels will be cloned and cloned again. They will be commonplace; not significant in their own right.’ The brands behind the media organisations – Der Spiegel, El País, The Age – will be what matter. Whistleblowers and leakers will be able to shop around and choose based on the reputation of journalists and organisations. It will no longer be limited by geography: I could push my documents into a New York Times tunnel, announce it on Twitter and people would be able to read it in Brisbane.
The issue of democratic control remains. The relationship between the press and the state is an elaborate fretwork of obligations and duties carved out over decades in constitutional and other battles between editors and politicians. When the New York Times decided to publish the cables, it informed the White House and met with representatives of the CIA, FBI, Pentagon and others. It was not a question of not publishing the cables: the meeting was to warn, to listen, to agree on procedures. From this vantage point, WikiLeaks’ self-regulation is a fragile safeguard against the misuse of state secrets. WikiLeaks has not yet developed codes of conduct and subjected them to wider scrutiny and democratic debate.
In the open society that WikiLeaks and Assange believe they are working towards, checks and balances are essential, as Facebook found recently when it changed its privacy settings. In many nations, the scales are weighted against free expression. But it is not a change for the better for those with great technical expertise to wield their power with no peer-agreed controls or democratic mandate. This is more important than the particular personality of Julian Assange that has so absorbed the western world. If the days of state control of information and official secrecy are over, and data leaking is to become an important part of the media landscape, the new kids on the block will have to work out ways to demonstrate they are trustworthy.
ASSANGE AND HIS lawyers have claimed that if he is sent to Sweden it could be a prelude to onward extradition to the United States, where he could face a number of charges. A prosecution under the latter country’s Espionage Act is said to be unlikely, as no evidence has emerged that he hacked, or that he encouraged hacking or leaks. Mere publication of material would be difficult to prosecute in the US, where free speech is zealously guarded. An unsuccessful attempt to prosecute him could even strengthen the movement for open government – as occurred when the attempt to prosecute Daniel Ellsberg, who in the early 1970s leaked the top-secret Pentagon Papers containing military secrets about America’s war in Vietnam, failed. That US Supreme Court judgment, which allowed full publication of the papers, is now a foundation stone of press freedom.
Disabling WikiLeaks will not change the tide of history. The genie is out of the bottle – there will be more leaks. No government anywhere, even the most powerful, can protect itself from greater public scrutiny and a new age of whistleblowing.
In An Enemy of the People the citizens of Ibsen’s Norwegian town turn against their would-be champion, but that is not quite the end of the story. As the townspeople desert Dr Stockmann and his brother accuses him of being motivated by personal greed rather than altruism, his wife suggests that he is now well and truly thrown to the wolves. Not at all, claims the doctor: ‘The strongest man in the world is he who stands most alone.’ It is the sort of grandiosity that Assange himself might make use of in one of his rallying addresses. He certainly stands ever more alone. And that is perhaps the mark of both his failure and his success.
Political campaigners and journalists – Assange sees himself as both – are obliged to hunt in packs. The most successful swerve and bend to necessity, keeping their focus on the ends. Even those whose ambition is to stand out from the pack first acquire the arts of collaboration. Assange’s energy and exceptional intelligence attract allies and supporters. But he lacks personal collaborative skills. He alienates close friends and seems not to understand how this happens. His humanitarian concerns and conscience are consistent themes in his early writings as well as more recent interviews, but these are abstract ideals, and his anti-American dogma seems to blind him to the necessary compromises that the poor in all countries make to survive.
And yet, Assange’s nerve, his lack of compromise and his coding brilliance have permanently changed the debate on freedom of information, government transparency and journalism. Even those who will no longer work with him acknowledge this. In a recent interview one of them, the MP Birgitta Jónsdóttir, described WikiLeaks under Assange as an ‘icebreaker’. ‘If you look at real icebreakers, they all look very dented, and you never know when they will be holed, but they have created space for others.’
Endnote: Bradley Manning, the young American soldier who was arrested in May 2010 and charged with passing on classified military information in July 2010, is alleged to have confessed in a chatroom to being WikiLeaks’ primary source. He has been in solitary confinement at the Quantico Marine Corps Base in Virginia ever since. WikiLeaks is campaigning for his release. He suffers a rigorous routine of 24-hour observation, according to the one friend who is allowed to visit him. At the time of writing, Manning is being forced to sleep naked and to stand by his door for rollcall in the morning before having his clothes returned. The American military says this prevents him committing self-harm or suicide. Campaigners for his release argue that his treatment amounts to torture.
11 March 2011