Predator at large

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 27 March, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 27 March, 2011, 12:00am

WikiLeaks: Inside Julian Assange's War on Secrecy
by David Leigh and Luke Harding
Guardian Books, HK$240

Inside WikiLeaks: My Time with Julian Assange at the World's Most Dangerous Website
by Daniel Domscheit-Berg
Jonathan Cape, HK$130

If the founder of WikiLeaks ever comes to a sticky end because the United States gets its hands on him (assuming it wants to, of course) we should not feel too sorry for Julian Assange, if only because such a fate is one that he seems to endorse for himself.

At least this much is implied in a 'callous' remark Assange allegedly made to journalists last year during several meetings held to discuss planning the world's greatest scoop.

The remark came up during talks on 'redactions' that should be made to the Afghan war logs, the pilfered US documents which Assange eventually agreed to make available to The Guardian, Le Monde, The New York Times and Der Spiegel.

Assange's comment is also one of the main selling points of Inside Julian Assange's War on Secrecy, The Guardian's gripping account of its role in the WikiLeaks saga. The leak of the logs, dubbed the world's greatest scoop by some of the world's greatest news organisations, provided unprecedented detail about the war in Afghanistan. Later disclosures exposed cold-blooded murders in Iraq and held US diplomacy up to uncomfortable scrutiny - and the information was apparently obtained by Assange from the same source and broadcast on the internet.

The Afghanistan logs are basically daily field reports, and two journalists who attended The Guardian's meeting with Assange noted many of these, particularly the so-called 'threat reports', had named their informants as well as those who had collaborated with US troops in Afghanistan. If this intelligence became public, once WikiLeaks dumped its information on the internet, such people would be in mortal danger.

This much was pointed out to Assange at the meeting in 'a Moorish restaurant' in London. David Leigh, one of the authors of The Guardian's account, raised this problem with Assange, and 'the response floored me', says Declan Walsh, another Guardian man at the meeting. 'They are informants,' Assange allegedly said. 'So if they get killed, they've got it coming to them. They deserve it.'

The Guardian's account, quoting Walsh, says: 'There was, for a moment, silence around the table. I think everyone was struck by what a callous thing that was to say.'

Walsh, a veteran of reporting from Afghanistan, writes that the remark made him think of 'the Afghan characters I'd met in little villages and towns, the complex local politics that coloured everything, and the dilemmas faced by individuals during a bloody war ... The other thing that little exchange suggested to me was just how na?ve - or arrogant - Julian was when it came to the media'.

Among the obvious questions this passage raises is whether Assange has been correctly quoted and whether the remark, as quoted, conveys what he was trying to say. It may well be that he was trying to be ironic (always a bad option when speaking to journalists) in a glib way after a couple of glasses of wine - if indeed he did not say something else altogether.

This means we should wait to hear what Assange himself has to say about the consequences of being an informant, and we're likely to get that opportunity. Assange, we are told at the end of The Guardian's book, has signed up for his own book deal, with Knopf in the US and Canongate in Britain, and elsewhere in translation.

There is also a movie on the way, probably in the genre of The Social Network, produced by no less than that pillar of the modern media establishment, Stephen Spielberg.

Assange's book deal is worth 'more than a million pounds', for a work that is meant to be published next month. The money is not going to go far - by The Guardian's estimate, Assange's legal bills, in fighting off extradition to Sweden to face questioning on charges of sexual assault, among them, have amounted to at least a quarter of that to date.

Meanwhile, though, let's assume The Guardian's account is entirely accurate, and that Assange did make that remark. In which case, have pity on poor Bradley Manning, the 22-year-old soldier who is suspected by the US military of betraying his country to Assange. Assange's alleged principal informant might feel badly betrayed if he ever hears that remark, especially as he is reported to be holding out against attempts by his interrogators and prosecutors to implicate Assange in treason, or so the theory goes.

Manning is locked up in solitary confinement in Quantico, the US Marines' brig back in Virginia, enduring circumstances that are nothing less than torture. If he ever goes to trial and is convicted he will be jailed for decades, while the man who benefited from his alleged treachery, whom the Italian edition of Rolling Stone magazine dubbed its rock star of the year in 2010, swans around the world and is hosted in a stately English home as he wages his crusade for a new world information order.

Right from the start, The Guardian's account makes clear its ambivalence about Assange, with chapter one wondering whether the 39-year-old Australian is an 'information messiah or cyber-terrorist? Freedom fighter or sociopath? Moral crusader or deluded narcissist?'

By the end of this account, you might be inclined to think all of the above, but, as The Guardian's editor, Alan Rusbridger, points out in the preface, whatever you may think of Assange, 'the overall questions of WikiLeaks and the philosophy it represents is of longer-lasting significance' than his personality.

Another who speaks ruefully of Assange is Daniel Domscheit-Berg, Assange's right-hand man in the early days of WikiLeaks. Domscheit-Berg translates in English as 'stupids*** mountain' so that probably explains why, back in the days he was hanging with Assange, he was known as Daniel Schmidt. D-B fell out badly with Assange, in a clash which probably had as much to do with technology issues as personality ones.

D-B's book, Inside WikiLeaks, is billed as 'an explosive expose of the whistle-blowing phenomenon', but it is a strange book. It's about the secrets in the war on secrecy, if you will, but D-B's attempts at secrecy are easily blown away by The Guardian. For example, D-B does not want to tell us which IT firm he worked for at the time he established WikiLeaks, but from The Guardian's account this was obviously EDS. He tries to protect certain people with aliases, such as Assange's personal assistant ('the nanny') and one of the main designers of WikiLeaks software ('the architect'). Both of them are readily identifiable in The Guardian's book.

D-B goes to some lengths to explain the technology behind WikiLeaks, but after ploughing through it all you don't feel as if you have learnt much at all, apart from Assange's introduction to the Chaos Computer Club in Berlin, and the hacking forums through which he (probably) got on to Manning. D-B does make it clear, though, that he does not have the appreciation or instincts of a journalist.

One of his principal gripes is that Assange would spend hours at his computer, corresponding with someone in chat rooms. D-B finds this a waste of time, apparently, but from The Guardian's account it is clear it was in such exchanges that Assange got his claws into Manning.

You don't need to be a journalist to know that, no matter how good your technology, you are only as good as your sources, wherever and however you may find them, and whatever you may say about them over a bottle of wine after their precious info has been splashed across your chosen medium.