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Ten Thoughts About Julian Assange and WikiLeaks

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Since its founding in December 2006, WikiLeaks, which was established as, essentially, a secure information clearing house for whistleblowers around the world to provide sensitive information, some of which would then be released to the public, and which was reportedly set up by "Chinese dissidents, journalists, mathematicians and start-up company technologists, from the US, Taiwan, Europe, Australia and South Africa," has declared that its "primary interest is in exposing oppressive regimes in Asia, the former Soviet bloc, Sub-Saharan Africa and the Middle East, but we also expect to be of assistance to people of all regions who wish to reveal unethical behavior in their governments and corporations." From the release of a single document in December 2006 -- a "secret decision," signed by Sheikh Hassan Dahir Aweys, a Somali rebel leader for the Islamic Courts Union, which "had been culled from traffic passing through the Tor network to China," and which "called for the execution of government officials by hiring 'criminals' as hit men" -- WikiLeaks has received millions of documents, and has, amongst other achievements, exposed corruption in Kenya, made available the Standard Operating Procedure for Guantanamo from 2003 and 2004 (and compared the changes), attacked Scientology, exposed Sarah Palin's emails, and published a membership list of Britain's far-right BNP.

In the last eight months, however, since WikiLeaks began focusing on major stories involving the United States, there are concerns that Julian Assange the figurehead has been taking over from WikiLeaks the organization in perceived importance, and that both are overshadowing the importance of the whistleblower who leaked the information in the first place -- by many accounts, Bradley Manning, a 23-year old junior US army intelligence analyst. Manning is facing a court martial and a 52-year prison sentence for leaking the 251,287 US diplomatic cables that are currently being published, as well as the army field reports from Afghanistan and Iraq (released in July and October), and "Collateral Murder", the 39-minute video showing an Apache helicopter gunning down a group of armed men, civilians and two Reuters journalists in Baghdad, whch was released in April, and which started the global focus on WikiLeaks as the foremost exposer of American secrets.

As Raffi Khatchadourian of the New Yorker explained in an article in June this year, the leaked video "was digitally encrypted, and it took WikiLeaks three months to crack." Assange told Khatchadourian that unlocking the file was "moderately difficult." Bradley, increasingly overlooked in media reports, may not have a company philosophy like WikiLeaks, but it is important that he is not forgotten, and it is also important to recognize his own reasons for embarking on the biggest leak of secrets in US history. "God knows what happens now," Manning apparently wrote after the release of the "Collateral Damage" video. "Hopefully worldwide discussion, debates, and reforms. If not ... then we're doomed as a species. I will officially give up on the society we have if nothing happens." He also wrote, "I want people to see the truth regardless of who they are because without information, you cannot make informed decisions as a public."

Assange must certainly be credited for his work on encryption. Khatchadourian called him "a cryptographer of exceptional skill," his "near-genius IQ" has been noted on many occasions, and this has played an enormously significant role in preventing WikiLeaks' security from being breached. In the New Yorker article, Khatchadourian also explained how WikiLeaks' security works:

The entire pipeline, along with the submissions moving through it, is encrypted, and the traffic is kept anonymous by means of a modified version of the Tor network [one of the inspirations for WikiLeaks, in which Assange was involved, which dealt with millions of secret transmissions], which sends Internet traffic through "virtual tunnels" that are extremely private. Moreover, at any given time WikiLeaks computers are feeding hundreds of thousands of fake submissions through these tunnels, obscuring the real documents. Assange told me that there are still vulnerabilities, but "this is vastly more secure than any banking network."

However, troubling stories about Assange's leadership style were circulating in summer, before the "Cablegate" revelations, with complaints by former employees about "what they see as erratic and imperious behavior, and a nearly delusional grandeur unmatched by an awareness that the digital secrets he reveals can have a price in flesh and blood," as the New York Times explained in an article in October. The Times "spoke with dozens of people who have worked with and supported him in Iceland, Sweden, Germany, Britain and the United States. What emerged was a picture of the founder of WikiLeaks as its prime innovator and charismatic force but as someone whose growing celebrity has been matched by an increasingly dictatorial, eccentric and capricious style." Smari McCarthy, an Icelandic volunteer, said that "'About a dozen' disillusioned volunteers [had] left recently," and over the summer, Assange also "suspended Daniel Domscheit-Berg, a German who had been the WikiLeaks spokesman under the pseudonym Daniel Schmitt, accusing him of unspecified 'bad behavior.'"

Reinforcing this notion of imperiousness, WikiLeaks made a grave error in summer, when the Afghan war logs were published, in not redacting the names of Afghans who may have suffered reprisals because of it. As the New York Times reported, "Several WikiLeaks colleagues say [Assange] alone decided to release the Afghan documents without removing the names of Afghan intelligence sources for NATO troops." Birgitta Jonsdottir, a core WikiLeaks volunteer and a member of Iceland's Parliament said, "We were very, very upset with that, and with the way he spoke about it afterwards. If he could just focus on the important things he does, it would be better." As Shiraz Socialist pointed out in a recent post, the following exchange took place in July, when Carole Cadwalladr of the Observer interviewed Assange, who was furious that the (London) Times had falsely accused him of contributing to the death of a man who had, in fact, died two years earlier:

What about these named sources? Might he have endangered their lives?

"If there are innocent Afghans being revealed, which was our concern, which was why we kept back 15,000 files, then of course we take that seriously."

But what if it's too late?

"Well, we will review our procedures."

Too late for the individuals, I say. Dead.

In trying to make sense of the latest releases -- the 251,287 US diplomatic cables, of which just 1,344 had been released by December 12 -- it is important to note a distinct difference between the release of the cables and the previous releases relating to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, which can be seen as performing an important anti-war function, exposing intimate, day-to-day details of wars that are widely regarded as illegal and/or futile. While it has been, and will continue to be fascinating to have behind-the-scenes diplomatic maneuvering, frank opinions about world leaders, and verbatim transcripts of these leaders' own opinions exposed to public consumption, as well as a number of genuinely important stories -- including, from my perspective, revelations that the Bush administration put pressure on Germany not to investigate US torture, and that Obama then did the same with Spain -- the motives overall are not so clear-cut.

Assange's motives, as described in an article in the Independent in summer, can be found in a document he wrote in 2006, entitled, "Conspiracy as Governance" (PDF), which "detailed how leaks could be an instrument for breaking down unrepresentative government that thrived on keeping information secret." Others have discussed his anarchism. Following a BBC Newsnight broadcast last week, examining his personal blogs, the British anarchist Ian Bone wrote, "Assange quotes frequently from German anarchist Gustav Landauer and shares some of his thinking. Assange believes by exposing the hypocrisies of governments that faith in government will decline and individuals will take on more personal responsibilities for their lives which will in turn see the state row back on its own role. Not my kind of anarchism but anarchism nevertheless. Anarchists have tried to bring down governments but Assange is trying to bring down the lot at once!"

However, two additional factors also need to be taken into consideration when considering the release of the cables.

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Andy Worthington is the author of "The Guantà namo Files: The Stories of the 774 Detainees in America's Illegal Prison" (published by Pluto Press), as well as and "The Battle of the Beanfield" (2005) and "Stonehenge: Celebration and Subversion" (more...)
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