Apr/May 2011

International Man of Mystery

How Julian Assange was captured by his own persona.

John Cook


Julian Assange, the white-haired founder of WikiLeaks, has been variously described as a Bond villain, a freedom fighter, and a ghostly info warrior sprung from the pages of a William Gibson novel. And at first blush, his tale seems to have all the elements of a gripping thriller: vast caches of classified documents, international intrigue, violent sex, operatives, and assassination threats. Indeed, according to the recent rash of books about the man and his crusade against government secrecy, Assange assiduously cultivates a sense of his own dashing presence, inventing CIA spies lurking around every corner and insisting on employing counterintelligence-style tradecraft to throw off tails during lunchtime strolls in Berlin. If you work for him, putting your real name next to the buzzer in your apartment building is an infraction.

Assange's background adds to the sense of comic-book mystery. He spent much of his childhood in Australia at a place called Magnetic Island. His mother helped run a puppet theater. He spent his early teens underground, on the run from her abusive husband, who was a member of a cult that persuaded parents to surrender their children. By age seventeen, he was hacking into Defense Department computers under the name Mendax, which he took from a line in Horace's Odes praising the "splendidly deceiving" (splendide mendax) Hypermnestra.

In other words, The Strange Adventures of Julian Assange, the Man Who Killed the Secrets has all the earmarks of the greatest journalism story since Watergate, one that ought to make for a few good books and a film adaptation or two. (In fact, it's been reported that DreamWorks Studios has optioned Inside WikiLeaks, the tell-all memoir from Assange's renegade deputy, Daniel Domscheit-Berg, and WikiLeaks, by Guardian journalists David Leigh and Luke Harding.) There's just one problem: Julian Assange didn't do anything. At least not in the physical world. Readers of Inside WikiLeaks, WikiLeaks, or a third book, from the staff of the New York Times, Open Secrets, will wait in vain for the scene where Assange confronts a source in a darkened garage. Or finds the clue that unlocks the mystery. Or even makes a phone call. Here's how Domscheit-Berg sums up the activity that went on in the outfit:

Despite the fact that we were equipped with Cryptophones and worked with the curtains drawn, and although Julian mentally transformed innocent plane passengers into State Department spies, we were all just administrators, managers, and press spokespeople—anything but true warriors of the digital underground. We were people who rented servers. We waited for material instead of soliciting, contracting, or hacking it ourselves.

Assange's primary contribution to what he has repeatedly described as the largest leak of classified information in history consisted, essentially, of checking his e-mail. Aside from that, judging from Domscheit-Berg's account, WikiLeaks staffers spent most of their time Googling the organization's name and attending conferences.

That's not to diminish the genius of the idea Assange had in WikiLeaks, which was essentially to cut reporters and editors out of the process of disseminating sensitive information. It's simply to say that the story of how he did it is exceedingly dull, and that much of the cloak-and-dagger mythology that has developed around him since WikiLeaks began handing over hundreds of thousands of classified Defense and State Department documents to various newspapers last year is just that—mythology.

Domscheit-Berg was a German computer engineer and anarchist who joined WikiLeaks as a volunteer in 2007. He was swiftly promoted to being the group's chief spokesman, acting essentially as Assange's deputy. He begins the story as one of Assange's many wide-eyed congregants and ends it as a bitter and betrayed renegade. Their relationship was complicated and characterized primarily by Domscheit-Berg's keen hunger for affirmation from Assange and Assange's idle contempt for Domscheit-Berg. In high school terms, Assange is the cool and self-confident kid for whom everything comes easy; Domscheit-Berg is the clueless mule Assange keeps around to buy cigarettes. The intensity of Domscheit-Berg's desire for validation from his antihero borders on the pathetic. At the book's opening, he writes, "Sometimes I hate him so much that I'm afraid I'd resort to physical violence if our paths ever cross again." Yet when Domscheit-Berg became engaged to be married in March 2010, long after his relationship with Assange had deteriorated and Assange had started to behave cruelly toward him, "Julian was the first person I told . . . there was nothing I wanted more than to have Julian there." After their final parting, Domscheit-Berg carried his laptop with him everywhere, including the bathroom, with the hope that Assange would bury the hatchet via a chat program.

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Chats were their primary means of communication; it's only halfway through the book's chronological account that Domscheit-Berg writes, "It would be the last time we would ever see each other in person." The Assange who emerges through these chats is autocratic, vain, pedantic, self-aggrandizing, and utterly without self-awareness. "Under no circumstances was anyone permitted to criticize his Tweets," Domscheit-Berg writes—and the comic disproportion of that edict tells you all you really need to know. At various points, Assange says things like "I'm off to end a war," "Do not challenge leadership in times of crisis," and "I will destroy you." When two Swedish women filed sexual-assault charges against Assange—an accusation that landed him in a British prison; he is, at the time of this writing, appealing an order that he be extradited to Sweden to answer the complaint—Assange's reaction was to berate his staff for failing to organize rallies supporting him, raise money for his legal defense, and procure "false papers" so that he could travel without facing the charges.

The actual documents that turned up in WikiLeaks' in-box don't take up too much space in the book, oddly. Domscheit-Berg mentions casually that, four days before WikiLeaks was to publish its first enormous cache of seventy-seven thousand Afghan-war papers, "we hadn't had any chance to familiarize ourselves with the content of the documents. That was the journalists' job"—referring to reporters for the New York Times, Der Speigel, and The Guardian whom Assange shared the logs with. It's a strange attitude to take toward a trove of classified documents that only a handful of unauthorized people on the planet had access to. Domscheit-Berg devotes a chapter to a trove of internal documents about the Church of Scientology that had been leaked to WikiLeaks but demonstrates a profound lack of knowledge about what Scientology is, describing its so-called Sea Org—the church's corps of ecclesiastical workers, organized metaphorically around a nautical theme—as "the sect's private navy." Moreover, he doesn't seem to understand much about what was going on within WikiLeaks during his tenure there—which is perhaps not surprising, given Assange's growing indifference toward him. He writes that when WikiLeaks sought a newspaper to partner with in publishing the Afghan War Logs, "we soon decided on the New York Times" and that The Guardian was "our second major partner." The reverse is true. Guardian reporters sought out Assange, made a deal to share the material, and then suggested cutting in the Times in order to increase their audience.

Assange certainly didn't view himself as a man who rented servers. He insisted on ludicrous security arrangements and told unconfirmed tales of assassination attempts, placing himself at the center of vast conspiracies even before he became a household name. And after he received a collection of intelligence documents from Afghanistan, incident reports from Iraq, and State Department cables from around the world—almost certainly from Private Bradley Manning, a dissident army intelligence analyst who now sits in a military brig—the spy games intensified. He began traveling with bodyguards, Domscheit-Berg writes. According to Leigh and Harding, he dressed up as an old lady in November 2010 during a drive from London to Ellingham, England, to avoid unspecified bogeymen.

Obtaining those documents seemed to change Assange—in much the same way that Gollum became a different being entirely when he happened on the ring. As all these books show, it's not that Assange was covetous—he was in fact loose with the cables, doling them out to various hangers-on and even giving the whole database to one Icelandic volunteer who then leaked it to another reporter. But the power they bestowed was not lost on him. One of the grand ironies of Assange's story is that WikiLeaks' success transformed the group into precisely the thing it was designed to render obsolete—a journalistic institution with its own agenda.

One film comes up often when WikiLeaks is discussed: Three Days of the Condor, the 1975 Robert Redford thriller. At the movie's conclusion, after discovering a murderous rogue CIA operation, Redford confronts an agency villain played by Cliff Robertson in front of the old New York Times Building. Robertson wants to bargain for Redford's silence, but it's too late: Redford's already told the whole story to the Times. Redford smugly walks away, but the movie ends on a sour note when Robertson calls out to Redford: "How do you know they'll print it?"

That problem—how do you know they'll print it?—is what WikiLeaks was designed, in part, to overcome. For decades, secrets have been trafficked through a professional class of journalists and newspapers with their own interests, liabilities, social networks, and standards of official conduct. When recently anointed White House press secretary Jay Carney first took the podium last February, he faced down a crowd of personal friends from his years as a reporter for Time magazine, not to mention a colleague of his wife, who works for ABC News. When the New York Times quoted Barack Obama in February calling Ray Davis, an American detained in Pakistan, "our diplomat," the paper's editors knew this wasn't true: Davis was a contractor of the CIA, not a diplomat—a fact that the Times agreed to keep secret at the White House's request. Some source had provided that information to the Times, presumably at personal or professional risk. And the paper didn't print it.

Enter WikiLeaks, which performed a technological end run around the sclerotic, compromised journalist class. Assange's digital machine was nearly automatic. Anonymous leakers uploaded their wares, and if WikiLeaks volunteers could verify the material, it would be published in the order in which it was received. If successful, such a system could rob the journalistic establishment of its power as gatekeeper between the murky netherworld of secrets and rumors and the light of day.

But instead of undermining that power, Assange sought to commandeer it. Both The Guardian's WikiLeaks and the Times' Open Secrets reveal Assange's tortured relationship with the newspapers to be more about control and ego than information. Worried that the disclosures of the Afghanistan, Iraq, and State Department documents wouldn't be high-profile enough if WikiLeaks staffers simply dumped them onto the Web, Assange agreed to offer The Guardian, the Times, and Der Speigel (and later El País and Le Monde) exclusive access to the documents ahead of publication. But with each release (the consortium published the Afghanistan documents in July and the Iraq ones in October, then began releasing the cables in November), relations became more frayed. Assange began making side deals, promising access to the State Department cables to television news outlets without consulting the other partners. At the same time, he held out on handing over the cables to the eager Guardian reporters he'd promised them to; Leigh and Harding write that he "talked of how he would use his power to withhold the cables in order to 'discipline' the mainstream media."

One of the institutions most in need of discipline, in Assange's view, was the New York Times. When the Times obnoxiously declined to link to WikiLeaks in its online stories about the Afghan War Logs, Assange called executive editor Bill Keller to demand, "Where's the respect?" As the authors of Open Secrets recount, when the paper later published a profile of Assange that included criticisms from disaffected WikiLeaks volunteers, Assange fumed and cut the Times out of the deal on the cables. When The Guardian went around him and gave the Times a copy of the cables anyway, he burst into Guardian editor Alan Rusbridger's office accompanied by two lawyers and began denouncing the Times and threatening to sue the paper over the loss of WikiLeaks' "financial assets." He later petulantly asked a Times editor, "Tell me, are you in contact with your legal counsel? You had better be." When excerpts of Domscheit-Berg's memoir and The Guardian's book began to appear in print in February, Assange likewise threatened to sue. This isn't the behavior of an information activist; it's that of someone who's angry at losing control over information he thinks belongs to him.

As of this writing, WikiLeaks has published about 5,000 out of the 251,287 State Department cables it has in its possession. It has yet to publish some 15,000 documents relating to Afghanistan. The ostensible reason for the delay is to allow for what Assange calls "harm minimization"—redacting the names of informants and other figures whose lives could be endangered if their relationships with US troops and diplomats became public. He has also claimed to have financial information that will "take down a bank or two"—apparently referencing the hard drive of a Bank of America executive rumored to be in Wikileaks' possession—and is reported to have the personal files of every Guantánamo Bay detainee. He has released none of them. But he has released a 1.4-gigabyte encrypted file named "Insurance." It will be unreadable until and unless something happens to Assange, at which point WikiLeaks will disseminate a password allowing the thousands who have already downloaded it to decrypt it. According to Domscheit-Berg, Assange has threatened to release the password if the US tries to prosecute him.

Manning, the man presumably responsible for giving Assange the cables, and who now faces a lifetime in prison for it, once allegedly described his motivation thus: "Hillary Clinton, and several thousand diplomats around the world are going to have a heart attack when they wake up one morning and find an entire repository of classified foreign policy is available, in searchable format, to the public." At the current rate of publication, Assange will have released the full database of cables in roughly twelve years. Manning released all this material to WikiLeaks. They didn't print it.

John Cook is a staff writer for Gawker.

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