The Rise of Wikileaks
“Internet messiah or cyber-terrorist? Information freedom fighter or sex criminal?” These lines are taken from the blurb of David Leigh and Luke Harding’s 2013 book WikiLeaks: Inside Julian Assange’s War on Secrecy. According to the dichotomy this sets up, Julian Assange is either a hero or a villain, and therefore Wikileaks must be either heroic or villainous too. The book itself is more nuanced than its blurb would suggest, but these few words capture the tendency in popular discourse to depict Wikileaks’ followers as either “supporters” or “detractors”, not allowing for any ambivalence or doubt towards the Wikileaks project. In reality, Wikileaks is an organisation which probably should produce ambivalence and doubt. This article will attempt to avoid the clichés of other Wikileaks journalism, focusing instead on Wikileaks’ stated aims and principles and its practical results in the wider world.
The organisation known as Wikileaks was founded in 2006 at the web address wikileaks.org, and originated as a ‘wiki’, a user-editable website where anonymous users can add and edit information. Wikileaks is no longer technically a wiki, but it still provides a platform on which encrypted and anonymously-contributed data can be released into the public domain without danger to its contributors. After several high-profile releases of information by Wikileaks between 2006 and 2010, the site began receiving serious media attention. Wikileaks was catapulted into the public eye with the release of the video ‘Collateral Murder’, a classified US military video depicting a pilot killing over a dozen people in Iraq, seemingly without provocation. The video, still available online at collateralmurder.com, was undeniable evidence that the US army had killed civilians, including Reuters journalists and children.
Soon after the ‘Collateral Murder’ video, Wikileaks began to reveal more classified information, including the names and contact details of British National Party (BNP) members and over 250,000 confidential documents detailing the private discussions of world leaders and corporations. This latter release, dubbed ‘Cablegate’ by the mainstream media, revealed governmental corruption, dubious financial ties between major institutions, human rights abuses on a massive scale and the extent of governmental surveillance missions worldwide. However, it also detailed petty and insulting private email conversations in which political leaders commented on one another’s appearance or derided their political allies. In Europe and the U.S., Cablegate resulted in little more than national embarrassment, but Wikileaks has been credited with playing a role in more major upheavals across the world.
The Politics of Wikileaks
In the U.S., news outlets and public figures have popularised the image of Wikileaks as a terrorist organisation endangering people’s safety. The Huffington Post has repeatedly described Wikileaks’ releases as “dangerous”, since they may damage the work of U.S. soldiers and intelligence services, and Admiral Mike Mullen accused Wikileaks of having “blood on their hands” (though he could not prove this assertion). U.S. politician Sarah Palin asked why Julian Assange had not been “pursued with the same urgency we pursue Al Qaeda and Taliban leaders”. Yet Wikileaks’ statements of intent seem fairly innocuous: like any media organisation, they claim to bring “important news and information to the public”, and to work in “defence” of freedom of speech and freedom of information. They also claim to “support the rights of all people to create new history”, which is slightly more radical. It suggests that our understanding of history is skewed by a lack of information, and that people should be allowed to challenge official narratives and create their own new understanding of history. A statement made by Julian Assange in the year Wikileaks was founded sheds more light on this concept:
Since unjust systems, by their nature induce opponents, and in many places barely have the upper hand, mass leaking leaves them exquisitely vulnerable to those who seek to replace them with more open forms of governance. Only revealed injustice can be answered; for man to do anything intelligent he has to know what’s actually going on. (Julian Assange, 2006)
Wikileaks stands against “unjust systems” by providing the tools for the public to “answer” revealed injustice, though they are unclear about what people will have to do to replace those systems. The main premise seems to be that revealing injustices will unquestionably provide the spark necessary to force through change in society. The Wikileaks website claims that “better scrutiny leads to reduced corruption”, but in present liberal democratic systems “scrutiny” by independent groups could just as easily lead to greater safeguarding of information by governments and powerful organisations. It may also incite more outright anti-democratic moves from governments, and shifts in propaganda to justify them; mass surveillance, for example, is now a mainstay in liberal democracies, yet it has not faced any serious opposition by the public, who have generally accepted that it is necessary for the maintenance of national security. Of course, the potential for transparency to incite anti-transparency measures is no reason not to aspire to more accountable systems, but the idea that transparency itself obliges powerful systems to change for the better is overly optimistic in states where most people already implicitly know the information which whistleblowers risk life and limb to reveal. The general response to Wikileaks from the populations of liberal democracies has exemplified “ideological cynicism” as theorised by Slavoj Žižek: citizens in developed nations are aware of the terrible acts being executed in their name by their elected representatives, yet broader ideological structures secure their voluntary consent to the maintenance of those systems. In practical terms, this means that Wikileaks’ releases have not led to any considerable change in the US or Europe. Even the most explosive of the information released during Cablegate was deemed ineffective by US authorities: in WikiLeaks, Leigh and Harding concede that “senior state department officials (in the U.S.) appeared to have concluded by mid-January  that the Wikileaks controversy had caused little real and lasting damage to American diplomacy” (p.245).
Despite Wikileaks’ ineffectiveness in challenging western governmental power, it has been helpful in illuminating other corrupt organisations in the UK and the USA. In 2008, Wikileaks systematically released 109 documents’ worth of formerly unknown information on the controversial Church of Scientology, including its treatment of Church members and its annual profits. In Julian Assange’s Unauthorised Autobiography (2011), ghostwriter Andrew O’Hagan summarises the releases, and details the long legal battles which followed the revelations. It is impossible to measure the effect these releases may have had on Scientology, but the information contained in the cables demystifies the Church, allowing for informed criticism of their doctrines and practices.
Leigh and Harding, Guardian journalists at the time of Cablegate, say that Wikileaks may have had more of an effect in countries where information is more tightly controlled and manipulated than it is in Europe or America. On the day of the first Cablegate leaks, they report that journalists from across the world contacted them to ask about the cables, genuinely concerned to release information which might be in the public interest of their respective nations. Assange famously implied that Wikileaks had a hand in the Arab Spring, and it is possible that some of the abuses of power revealed by the cable ‘Corruption in Tunisia: What’s Yours is Mine’ sparked early protests during the Tunisian revolution, helping the people overthrow their president, Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, and (as it has been reported in the British media) transition to democracy. In the Unauthorised Autobiography, Assange also takes some credit for the break-up of Somalia’s Union of Islamic Courts, since it broke up “around the time of” the 2006 Wikileaks release detailing secret orders to stir up animosities between “Somaliland” and its allies (p.265).
For those who stand against the cause, the information Wikileaks releases is always “stolen”, and therefore compromised even when it leads to positive change, but even for those who support Wikileaks’ main aims, the concept of leaking documents in their full, unredacted form can spark worries about personal safety. Speaking in Oxford in May 2014, Luke Harding claimed that Julian Assange takes his obsession with transparency too far. According to Harding, Assange is “anti-secrecy” rather than “pro-accountability”, and Harding considers this level of openness to be untenable. According to Harding and many others, secrecy (within bounds) is integral to the maintenance of state security and privacy in people’s personal lives. Though there is no proof that any of Wikileaks’ releases have directly led to any harm to individuals, Wikileaks have sometimes been clumsy with their redaction policies. They claim:
We do not censor our news, but from time to time we may remove or significantly delay the publication of some identifying details from original documents to protect life and limb of innocent people. (‘What is Wikileaks?’ at wikileaks.org)
Yet according to Harding, during the Cablegate releases, Assange wished to release all of the cables without redacting them to remove names and contact details of implicated individuals. In his Autobiography, Assange maintains that he is committed to the redaction of potentially dangerous cables, but Wikileaks’ earlier release of names and contact details of British National Party (BNP) members suggests that this protection of the “life and limb of innocent people” is not an unbreakable principle for Wikileaks, unless their conception of “innocent” excludes people of certain political leanings. The BNP may be abhorrent, but after a release like this, it becomes a lot harder to defend Wikileaks against the accusation that they willingly endanger individuals’ safety and privacy. These dislocations between Wikileaks’ official policy and its past actions are often claimed to be a direct result of Assange’s dictatorial approach to leadership and unwillingness to compromise; it is time to turn to the man who Luke Harding claims “is” Wikileaks to consider how his personal politics affect the Wikileaks project.
The Politics of Julian Assange
At the beginning of the Wikileaks saga, one of Julian Assange’s closest friends and associates was Daniel Domscheit-Berg, a German computer programmer who later went on to write Inside Wikileaks (2011). Inside Wikileaks is an unabashed attack on Assange’s dictatorial and demagogic style of leadership. Domscheit-Berg describes Assange as “aggressive” (p.261), and claims that he is “engaged in a constant battle for dominance” (p.73) with everyone and everything, from governments through to Domscheit-Berg’s cat. He also claims that, by the end of their time working together, Assange had “adopted the language of the powermongers he claimed to be combating” (p.200). Assange openly and explicitly vilifies “weakness”, demanding that his whistleblowers be martyrs; he asks that people sacrifice their safety by sending Wikileaks information, which, if they are caught, may lead to imprisonment and even execution. Though Wikileaks uses cutting-edge technology to ensure anonymity for sources, the case of Chelsea Manning proves that sources are never completely safe; even where the technology is secure, old-fashioned spying and monitoring techniques can lead to the capture of Wikileaks’ sources. Assange demands that those who provide leaks are bold, computer-savvy and unafraid of consequences, but he rarely acknowledges the extent to which Wikileaks relies on the foolhardy bravery of its contributors. As crackdowns on whistleblowers and so-called “cyber-terrorists” become more and more severe, this demand may prove too much for whistleblowers to handle.
Litanies of Assange’s faults can be found in the recollections of various people who were once Assange’s friends and comrades, including Andrew O’Hagan’s piece ‘Ghosting’. ‘Ghosting’ describes O’Hagan’s increasingly infuriating attempts to uncover the truth of Assange’s life during his time ghostwriting Assange’s autobiography; Assange was deeply unreliable, and his reports were steeped in self-aggrandisement and narcissism. If Assange is a duplicitous, aggressive and undemocratic leader, as Daniel Domscheit-Berg and many other people suggest, his character and politics become important issues. According to his ex-friends’ accounts, Assange flouts his own ideal principles of democratic oversight and accountability, and this can lead to hasty releases of unredacted information. O’Hagan’s accusation that Assange fantasises his own life’s narrative endangers the veracity of other material which passes through his hands, especially considering he is usually the sole gatekeeper for the information Wikileaks releases; his obsession with image suggests he may manipulate ‘truth’ to his own benefit. These issues would not arise if Wikileaks were a horizontal, democratically-organised group, since his personal failings could be rectified by others in the team. However, since it appears to be a pyramid hierarchy in which Assange is always at the pinnacle, his own accountability needs to be brought into question.
At this moment, Assange is embroiled in a scandal that has severely tested that personal accountability, or lack thereof. On November 18th 2010, a European Arrest Warrant was issued for his arrest. Assange was accused of the rape, sexual coercion and sexual molestation of two women in Sweden. Assange made repeated appeals to the U.K. authorities, but eventually they agreed to deport him to Sweden to aid the rape investigation. Assange appealed to his political ally Rafael Correa, the president of Ecuador, for asylum, on the grounds that he might face an unfair trial and deportation to the U.S. if he was sent to Sweden. Correa agreed, and Assange has been cached in the Ecuadorian Embassy in London since 2011. At this article’s time of writing, the situation appears to be at a stalemate; the U.K. cannot breach the Embassy, but Assange cannot leave or he will be arrested. Assange has denied all allegations against him, both in his autobiography and in public declarations, but the tide of public opinion has turned: his objectionable comments on the issue (for instance, calling Sweden “the Saudi Arabia of feminism”) have lost him most of his support from the international feminist community.
Relationships with women have been a perennial problem for Assange. For many on the left, Assange’s blasé attitudes towards gender look out-dated and unpalatable. Assange’s gender politics have always been uncomfortable for feminists, and Domscheit-Berg openly calls him “sexist” (p.214) in Inside Wikileaks. On ‘IQ.org’, his now defunct blog, Assange makes comments such as these:
Most [of them] were young women and I turned, somewhat disgracefully, into a sort of Chesterton’s Hardy, the village atheist, brooding and blaspheming over the village idiot, while they, for their part, tried to convert me with the rise and fall their bosoms [sic]. (‘Canberra’, IQ.org, 24/06/06)
A judge doesn’t need to bring a woman to heel, she is, after all not a threat, but a lovely object of desire or irrelevance. (‘The curious world of the querulous’, IQ.org, 26/09/06)
[A] ‘cad’ is a man who picks up women, profits from them, and then leaves them by the road side… Such romantic etymology is enough to make a man want to don his oilskin and mount his horse with whip and smile at the ready. (‘Etymology of ‘cad”, IQ.org, 11/12/06)
It is never entirely clear which world Assange’s blog posts inhabit; is the second quotation intended to be read as a line from fiction, focalised through another character? Is the pseudo-historical narrative voice in these quotations meant to be an ironic rebuttal of the ideas they convey? All things considered, Assange, at the very least, fetishises masculinity, which is also evident in his language elsewhere. His whole idiolect is gendered, with words like “emasculated” (WikiLeaks, p.60) and “timid” representing the bad things in the world, and manliness representing the good. Aside from being politically suspect (for instance, can we trust Wikileaks to release and analyse information which could bolster feminist worldviews?) and alienating women, this attitude also leaves Wikileaks’ ideological integrity open to question. In his depiction of ‘truth’ as a masculine virtue, Assange suggests that transparency is an issue of individualistic honour rather than democracy and human rights. He implies that systems can be improved as long as there are honourable men at their helm, which completely ignores how structures shape and determine the behaviour of their subjects, and ties into Wikileaks’ wider failure to offer constructive suggestions on how to change the “unjust systems” they criticise.
Openleaks and the future of transparency
Wikileaks may be in trouble. Since the major banks blockaded its funding channels and Julian Assange’s legal costs skyrocketed, there is little likelihood of Wikileaks surviving as a news source for much longer. However, inspired by the model, many other groups have attempted to set up leaking platforms of their own. In Inside Wikileaks, Daniel Domscheit-Berg discusses Openleaks, a similar project intended to replicate the Wikileaks project but with important differences: instead of leaking to the public in the name of transparency, Openleaks would channel leaked information to relevant charities and independent bodies, hoping to cause change by providing leads to organisations with some interventional power, such as Amnesty International or Human Rights Watch. Domscheit-Berg also hoped that Openleaks would be less hierarchical than Wikileaks in its internal structure. This would solve many of the problems with Wikileaks, though it could give rise to new issues. In order to ensure the maintenance of Wikileaks, Assange had to keep his own plans, passwords and inside information secret from those close to him in an ironic replication of the faults in the systems Wikileaks challenges; organisations conducting illegal or legally dubious activities cannot ensure openness and transparency without leaving themselves open to attack (be it criticism or literal cyber-attack). Openleaks could not offer a remedy to these problems, and unfortunately, it failed before it truly got started. Slashdot.org has suggested that infiltration by the German government may have been a reason for its failure.
There may be other ways to salvage the positive aspects of Wikileaks. In This Machine Kills Secrets (2012), Andy Greenberg discusses the future of leaking, suggesting that the proliferation of technology such as the camera-phone and cheap recording devices may allow for more systematic resistance to unjust authorities. Steve Mann called the activity of capturing footage of powerful groups engaged in illegal or unethical acts “sousveillance”, which translates into English from French as “under-monitoring”. The information collected by crowds could then be dispersed to large groups of people, enabling collective action and higher levels of police and state accountability. Greenberg also introduces organisations like GlobaLeaks, which describes itself as “an open source project aimed at creating a worldwide, anonymous, censorship-resistant, distributed whistleblowing platform” (see globaleaks.org). GlobaLeaks aims to disperse the risk of handling sensitive material across a large number of individuals rather than one vulnerable group of intermediaries. GlobaLeaks eliminates the problem of ‘courage’ by anonymising everyone involved with the GlobaLeaks project, including those at the helm.
Wikileaks is struggling to live up to its initial promise, but it has created a model from which other organisations can learn; hopefully, they will build more sustainable, democratic, realistic and consistently principled platforms for leaking. Wikileaks has restored whistleblowing to the public eye and inspired a swathe of new transparency projects, and that can only be a good thing – as Assange suggests, for man (or woman) to do anything intelligent, he (or she) has to know what’s actually going on. Yet once important material has been released into the public domain, we must overcome our ideological cynicism and fight for concrete change where it is needed. To use Julian Assange’s gendered terminology: where transparency projects do not incite collective action, they are impotent.
Kate Bradley is a 2nd-year English student at Oriel College, Oxford, and an associate editor of the OLR.