WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange. (Photo: Espen Moe / Flickr)
Articles about WikiLeaks are thick on the ground, but we’ve heard little from inside the citadel. Now for the first time we’re getting an insider’s story. “Inside WikiLeaks” is a fun book, full of anecdotes about the website’s wacky set of fellow travelers, and it suggests that the hacking underground has finally found a cause. Certainly, it’s the must-read, newsy book of the moment. It’s out in German and several other languages today and will be out in English the day after Valentine’s Day.
Daniel Domscheit-Berg was the WikiLeaks spokesman and Assange’s right-hand man until he publicly broke with his former boss last September. He appears to have immediately started writing a book, not so much to set the record straight—no matter how this book is billed, it’s certainly not a tell-all—but to save what he feels is precious. (This shouldn’t put readers off; though written in haste, “Inside WikiLeaks” is a fine, intelligent read.) Domscheit-Berg writes that the organization has lost its way and betrayed its principles, and that, because it went astray, he and another employee deliberately crippled it. The author claims that he and this man, whom he calls “the architect,” before their departure shut down the platform WikiLeaks uses to accept submissions, essentially locking the door to new material and walking off with the keys. He says the system still isn’t fixed and implies a fix isn’t likely.
If what Domscheit-Berg says is true, then for the foreseeable future WikiLeaks will be unable to accept new documents that aren’t either handed to the website physically or mailed to it. This means WikiLeaks is far less able to keep its promise of source anonymity. Domscheit-Berg says that once WikiLeaks returns to its core principles of transparency and openness—and applies them to itself—he and his unnamed friend will happily unlock the system.
Domscheit-Berg says he took with him a set of documents that were submitted to WikiLeaks. He says he doesn’t intend to publish them himself; rather, he will keep them safe and secure until Julian Assange starts to behave in an adult fashion. “Children shouldn’t play with guns,” Domscheit-Berg says of the WikiLeaks founder.
Another surprise is that the WikiLeaks “insurance” file probably exists—that secret, encrypted file of damning information that Assange once threatened to release if anything bad happened to him or his website. Lately, Assange has denied it exists, but, according to the book, while Domscheit-Berg was at WikiLeaks he personally mailed out dozens of thumb drives with encrypted data to friends and journalists he felt he could trust. This information can be accessed only if Assange releases a key. So, WikiLeaks is currently blackmailing just about everyone big who has something to hide: Who knows what’s on those flash drives? But if the submissions platform really is locked, the organization is no longer able to fulfill its stated purpose.
Are all these claims true? It must be remembered that “Inside WikiLeaks” is written by a man who admits to lying a great deal and who claims that the principal character of his book, Assange, is an arch-liar.
The book reads like a love story gone wrong. Domscheit-Berg had a life-changing, platonic crush on Assange. The white-haired Australian and the dark-haired German began as brothers in hacking and anarchy. They discussed their favorite writers—Assange adored Solzhenitsyn; Domscheit-Berg adored Proudhon, the French economist who famously wrote that “all property is theft.” Their political views converged in a mix of pure Internet-activist chaos and the underdog’s desire to bully the bullies. They chortled with glee when they took on a Swiss bank, Scientology and American college fraternities. “[WikiLeaks] made two pale-faced computer freaks, whose intelligence would have otherwise gone unnoticed, into public figures who put fear into the hearts of the politicians, business leaders, and military commanders of this world. They probably had nightmares about us. … That felt good.”
But the romance turned sour. Domscheit-Berg, who seems to have been a team player intent on getting the job done, realized that Assange’s affection wasn’t for him, but for his unquestioning loyalty. He initially thought himself an equal participant in the WikiLeaks mission, but came to believe that, in his boss’ mind, he was merely employed to carry Assange’s bags.
Theirs was more than a bad relationship. The litany of lies, low-level abuse and social transgressions that the author attributes to Assange is disturbing. He claims that this notoriously peripatetic soul has always been deeply paranoid. His accusation is probably true; in reacting to an article on WikiLeaks that ran in Wired, Assange accused the article writer of calling for his assassination. And if Domscheit-Berg’s retelling of facts is correct, the WikiLeaks founder has a “free and easy relationship to the truth,” and is cagey and secretive concerning money. He’s also sexually profligate, and turns vicious toward anyone who criticizes him, even when that criticism is well-meaning and constructive, and he seems to have difficulty relinquishing control.
Domscheit-Berg writes that when WikiLeaks was headquartered in Iceland one of Assange’s greatest fears was that the people who knew him would talk about him behind his back. These symptoms point to something bizarre and possibly not right in Assange’s character.
Yes, we’re hearing only one side of the story, but despite his anger Domscheit-Berg tries to be evenhanded. He mostly succeeds. With a sort of concerned and beleaguered detachment, he recounts large abuses, such when Assange called him a pathological liar. (Though he loses his cool when describing how Assange deliberately tormented his cat.) However, the final straw wasn’t personal betrayal, but that the author came to the conclusion that Assange had lost sight of WikiLeaks’ mission. Domscheit-Berg believes an organization founded on transparency should be transparent in how it functions, and that both sources and the innocents mentioned in leaked documents should be better protected. In practice, Assange doesn’t agree.
This belief in transparency is a great turn-around from their early days at WikiLeaks, a time when Domscheit-Berg says he and Assange lied a great deal. Using a host of pseudonyms, they claimed technology they didn’t own, volunteers they didn’t have and legal teams that didn’t exist. The initial reason for their lies is clear: Both wanted to make the system look more widely supported and more technologically powerful and secure than it actually was. For instance, Assange and Domscheit-Berg claimed dozens of nodes across the globe back when their system still lived on a single, rickety server; “…truth was, our technology was junk,” he writes. But Assange also lied for no apparent reason, spinning incredible, self-aggrandizing stories, even telling lies that could hurt others. For instance, Assange bragged to the U.K.’s Guardian and other newspapers about WikiLeaks’ “harm-minimalization” policies designed to prevent the persecution of innocents—long before he’d mentioned these policies to WikiLeaks’ staff. Not only were the policies not in place when he described them, they simply didn’t exist. So the safeguards designed to protect military informants from disclosures in the so-called Afghan Diaries were last-minute and somewhat haphazard.
Is WikiLeaks really crippled?—possibly. Perhaps even probably. A check of the WikiLeaks site reveals that, yes, it is not accepting new material online. Assange spreads tales about his own genius, implying he can fix, or break into, just about anything, but according to Domscheit-Berg he’s only a reasonably talented, rather adventurous hacker. For instance, Domscheit-Berg claims Assange didn’t really crack the encrypted video of the infamous Apache helicopter attack; those files arrived with the password, the book says. (The idea that a sole hacker could break what was likely an NSA-approved military encryption is far-fetched, but one should note that Assange was convincing enough to make a believer of The New Yorker.) Also, WikiLeaks was turned into a strong, secure system not by Assange, the book alleges, but by the mysterious architect, whom Domscheit-Berg described as the real “in-house genius.” It was the architect who locked up the submissions platform and left at the same time as Domscheit-Berg. A perceptive reader might suspect that, if these two men used high-end encryption protocols and locked up documents as well, it may be that the WikiLeaks system must be rebuilt from the ground up, and that some leaked data will be forever lost to the site.
Always in the background is Domscheit-Berg’s strange affection for Assange. The author’s anger is palatable, but you get the feeling that he’s still under the WikiLeaks founder’s spell, and that if the lanky Australian arrived, shivering and penniless, at Domscheit-Berg’s door, the wronged man would welcome him back as a prodigal son. The author has passion and, quite possibly, integrity. What he lacks is perspective. One imagines loved ones engaging in interventions to pry his heart away from the charismatic towhead who appears to go through friends as one might cookies.
Although the book lacks perspective, its core message is clear: WikiLeaks is not Julian Assange; it’s an idea. (You can jail a man, not an idea.) Already, a Domscheit-Berg website, OpenLeaks, is in the works. Meanwhile, Al-Jazeera has a “leaksite” up and running. The Al-Jazeera site has already published articles based on a set of leaked documents it calls the Palestine Papers. And The New York Times claims to be planning its own leaksite. All these groups have a point. Journalism, as it’s currently practiced, is too much an ivory tower full of arcane ways and passwords known only to a few. It’s a one-way street. Journalists find stories to write about, but regular people with stories have no real way of finding journalists who will listen. Assange is incidental. WikiLeaks, the idea, changes the game.