Thursday, April 14, 2011

Drip from the top

For everyone who thought Julian Assange was fighting the good fight, his former associate Daniel Domscheit-Berg has evidence that suggests the contrary. The evidence is this book, Inside WikiLeaks, and because it is about WikiLeaks the subtitle is appositely dramatic: “My Time with Julian Assange at the World’s Most Dangerous Website”. In Manichaean terms, this book is the yin to Assange’s yang — the autobiography he was asked to write, for a sum reportedly totalling more than £1 million.

The domain name was registered in late 2006, but not until November 2007 did the whistleblowing website make its first revelation, when it published the Guantánamo Bay handbooks (a military manual for the notorious “detention facility”). A month later, Domscheit-Berg met Assange at the 24th Chaos Communication Congress, an annual hackers’ meet, in Berlin. Until that time the site had looked like a poor man’s Craigslist. With Domscheit-Berg WikiLeaks got a new lease of life. In his book he claims to have redesigned the site’s architecture and made it almost immune to hacker attack.

In its initial chapters, the book bears an uncanny resemblance to Stieg Larsson’s Millennium series. The setting is Sweden, the hackers in Assange’s team chat online just like Lisbeth Salander and her coterie, foreign forces oppose the release of some startling information. It would, however, be disingenuous to compare WikiLeaks with the Millennium series because the former is headed by a man who, as Domscheit-Berg describes him, is more anarchist than revolutionary. Assange does not want the world to be a better place; he wants the world to go belly-up.

Assange is megalomaniacal, narcissistic, never owns up to his mistakes, throws his weight around, has mood swings that oscillate between the sublime and the ridiculous (more often the latter). These Aguirre-like characteristics (like those of the lead in Werner Herzog’s film Aguirre, the Wrath of God) are brought to the fore in Inside WikiLeaks. In a chapter devoted to Assange’s polyamory, Domscheit-Berg says his former boss would “never be able to accept a woman who was truly his equal” and that he would “boast about how many children he had fathered”. Revelations like this may add fuel to the fire of the rape charges against Assange in Sweden. On the other hand, they might be dismissed as the author’s inability to disguise his burning resentment towards his subject.

In a perverse way, Domscheit-Berg might be forgiven for deliberately obfuscating — if he is, that is — truth with facts. After all, according to him, he never got due credit from Assange for raising funds by expending a lot of shoe leather, right from Berlin to Iceland. In fact, he says, Assange “had become very concerned that he get at least 52 per cent of the attention and me only 48 per cent”. Before Assange turned into this Frankenstein’s monster, Domscheit-Berg had a few good words for him. “For Julian,” he writes, “principles were more important than anything else.”

These “principles” are highly dubious. Here’s why. According to WikiLeaks: Inside Julian Assange’s War on Secrecy, a book by Guardian journalist David Leigh, Assange dismissed Leigh’s suggestion that WikiLeaks disguise the identities of Western forces’ informants in Afghanistan, to protect them from retribution. “Well, they’re informants,” Assange is said to have replied, “so, if they get killed, they’ve got it coming to them. They deserve it.”

In his book Domscheit-Berg focuses on certain lesser-known facts. Regarding the quarter-million diplomatic cables that WikiLeaks released last year to worldwide uproar, Domscheit-Berg says: “Of 250,000, 15,652 of the dispatches were classified as ‘secret’. Only a fraction of them, however — a few hundred in total — appeared on the Cablegate page.” Most of that set of cables was of a scabrous nature. The cables talked of Muammar Gaddafi’s allegedly voluptuous Ukrainian nurse and Silvio Berlusconi’s propensity for erotic play, or “bunga-bunga”. In short, none of the dispatches was particularly shocking.

If the US authorities hadn’t girded their loins in advance, Assange could never have claimed to have been victimised by the American government. Domscheit-Berg explains why Assange wanted to unsettle the US: “Why should he expend his fighting energy in Africa or Mongolia and get into quarrels with the Thai royal family?

It would have been a far less attractive prospect to end up in some jail in Africa… than to inform the world that he was being pursued by the CIA.” Domscheit-Berg’s further insinuation that “someone could purchase exclusive access to documents with the express intent of ensuring that they never see the light of day” sounds ominous.

Inside WikiLeaks may be treated as the author’s book-length manifesto for, a site he helped found and that he intends as a more democratic version of WikiLeaks. In retail terms, OpenLeaks is a mom-and-pop shop while WikiLeaks is a “giant supermarket” for secret documents. At OpenLeaks, the whistleblowers will be king. In that case, Domscheit-Berg should have come clean.

He never delves into his informants’ details, instead lumping them together as “disgruntled elements”. His painful attempts to portray himself as saintly and Assange as a monster will not cut much ice with the reader. Never once does he attempt to counter the claims of journalists like David Finkel, who said the infamous “Collateral Murder” video is doctored to a certain extent (the video, released by WikiLeaks in 2010, shows American soldiers killing civilians indiscriminately in New Baghdad; the victims include a couple of Reuters reporters). It’s hard to believe that he has no clue whatsoever about the identities of the women who alleged that Assange raped them.

For these reasons the reader is unlikely to empathise with the author, and may, in fact, decide that Domscheit-Berg is to Assange what Simone de Beauvoir was to Jean-Paul Sartre: “part accomplice, part victim”.

My Time with Julian Assange at the World’s Most Dangerous Website
Author: Daniel Domscheit-Berg
Publisher: Random House
Pages: 282
Price: Rs 499


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