Variety

How it leaks!

P. T. JYOTHI DATTA | Updated on: Mar 24, 2011

“Why should a book be instructive or serve some purpose. Can't it just be enjoyed?”Picture: S.S. Kumar

When Wiki springs a leak, so to speak, you can bet your last buck the outcome will be gripping. For those of us who have followed the whistleblower site and the sensitive documents it put out in the public domain exposing governments and embarrassing organisations, a fly-on-the-wall view of how WikiLeaks runs and an insight into the mind of the man who runs it, Julian Assange, makes for a scintillating read.

And that is precisely what Inside WikiLeaks does. Written by none less than WikiLeaks' erstwhile spokesperson Daniel Domscheit-Berg, the book introduces the reader to Assange, as seen through the author's eyes, and simultaneously offers a fascinating inside view of the not-so-visible world of hackers, online organisations working for transparent policies, the Chaos Communication Congress (CCC) and so on.

The heady ascent of WikiLeaks is plotted through the author's fascination for Assange:

“So imaginative. So energetic. So Brilliant.

So paranoid, so power-hungry, so megalomanic.”

First impressions of Assange bring us up close with this “cool guy” dressed in his characteristic white shirt and olive green cargo pants, gliding across the freshly waxed floor! Shared ideals of getting the truth into the public domain, and Assange's almost obsessive methods of working, add to the personality of the man we have come to know too well as the founder of WikiLeaks.

Quirks in Assange's character, such as wearing a jacket when sending off a press release, or his so-called heightened paranoia about leaving physical or electronic trails, illustrate what the two top WikiLeaks men — the founder and one of its earliest representatives — went through, building the site from scratch.

There were times when journalists did not return their calls, or Assange spoke to relatively empty rooms at likeminded congregations. But the transformation occurs soon enough, as WikiLeaks puts out tell-tale internal correspondence from the Julius Bar Bank. Domscheit-Berg (who operated under the pseudonym Daniel Schmitt) gives an adrenalin-pumping account of how the Bank took WikiLeaks to court, with temporary success but long-term damage.

And though WikiLeaks had to temporarily go offline, the author says: “They had deleted us, or so they thought. But they weren't aware of another WikiLeaks principle: When you took down one page from the Internet, twenty more would pop up in different locations to take its place. It was virtually impossible to take us off the Internet.”

Soon enough, Assange is talking to packed Congresses and partnering with leading media houses such as the Guardian , The New York Times and Der Spiegel . Concurrently, however, there is a freezing of internal dynamics. The proverbial honeymoon at WikiLeaks is seen to sour in Iceland, even as it lays the foundation for the world's strongest media protection laws in that island nation.

Sharp exchanges between Assange and the author come to the fore, but to the outside world the exposes continue — the “Collateral Damage” video where Iraqi civilians and journalists are killed by members of the American army, the investigation of Private Bradley Manning and so on.

While these details rock governments, WikiLeaks too is not without its tense moments. The author gives sometimes desperate accounts of how technical problems that could have turned ugly are averted in the nick of time — even as finance for top-quality technology becomes one of the sparring points between Assange and his media-man.

In fact, as the whistleblower site and its silver-haired founder reach pop-iconic, almost religious status, with even Facebook having a page for “Assangism”, disagreements come to a boil between Assange and others in his team, over access to and use of funds and the arbitrary manner of running WikiLeaks.

Though the book is entirely from the viewpoint of the then second-in-command, he must be credited for not letting the book become a ranting demonisation of Assange, leaving episodes to speak for themselves. Narrating the inside story on Scientology and its cult head, the author observes: “Julian learned only too well how a cult of personality functions.”

Mutiny

As the Internet and other intrusive technologies become the mainstay of our life, Domscheit-Berg raises pertinent questions on the thin line between public and private lives. He holds a mirror to how media is managed, with stories distributed to organisations based on who gives more visibility.

How irrelevant details of Sarah Palin's email generate much interest, while the author's personal favourite expose of a pharmaceutical company paying off doctors to get their medicines prescribed receives a subdued response — a telling sign of our times.

But Domscheit-Berg raises the fundamental question on the running of WikiLeaks, and the last straw is a story in Newsweek on the infighting in WikiLeaks. Assange is seen stonewalling his spokesperson and, finally, as Assange himself is accused of rape in Sweden, WikiLeaks is on the brink.

As it retraces endless nights of staring at computer screens or listening to people sharing their stories of wrongdoing in some organisation, the book describes how matters come to a head over technology that is not up to scratch, which among other factors leads to a virtual mutiny in the organisation. The author is eventually suspended “for disloyalty, insubordination and destabilisation in a time of crisis.”

But the author continues to red-flag WikiLeaks's practices — whether they received payment for giving others access to their sensitive documents; how the selection of media houses for the expose went against the principle of whistle-blowing and, in fact, perpetuated the practice of leaving information exclusive in the hands of a few powerful organisations.

Soon enough, key WikiLeaks members including the author and the “architect” start Openleaks, which Domscheit-Berg clarifies is not a rival but a more transparent system for whistleblowers. The book winds down, but not before igniting more thought-provoking questions.

Criticising WikiLeaks for breaching the very principle it was founded on — to publish everything it got, the author points out: as more WikiLeaks exposes hit the headlines, and submissions into the whistleblower site increased — WikiLeaks started to sort out (even prioritise using editorial judgement) the information it published through select media-partners. OpenLeaks, the author says, steers clear of these operational no-nos.

And as the story of Assange, WikiLeaks and OpenLeaks continues to play out beyond the book, one has to acknowledge (as the author does) Julian Assange for manifesting an idea, bringing it into his life and the lives of ardent followers of the whistle-blowing site, and, of course, for making it cool!

Published on March 24, 2011
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