No story dominated the headlines in 2010 as much as that of the “whistleblower” organization Wiki-Leaks and its supposed revelations concerning US military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan and American foreign policy more generally. WikiLeaks has been billed as an organization dedicated to publishing confidential or classified documents and exposing “secrets” of all sorts. In keeping with this mission, the original publisher of the WikiLeaks website was called the “Sunshine Press.” Ironically, however, WikiLeaks’ own internal structure and history remain shrouded in darkness.
The media frenzy surrounding the site’s alleged “founder” Julian Assange has done nothing to alleviate the mystery. Indeed, it has likely obscured the history of the site even more. The nearly universal identification of Assange as the site’s founder is itself a case in point. In earlier WikiLeaks publications, he was identified merely as an “investigative editor.”
WikiLeaks might be controversial in the West, but it had a powerful effect on Mideast countries where news and information have been systematically repressed for decades.
One might have hoped that a book by former WikiLeaks spokesperson Daniel Domscheit-Berg would help to bring clarity to the subject. While Assange became the international media star, Domscheit-Berg was long the “European face” of WikiLeaks, giving numerous interviews to the media in his native Germany, as well as to English-language venues. When he still represented WikiLeaks, Domscheit-Berg went by the name “Daniel Schmitt.”
In late September 2010, Wired.com published a purported transcript of a testy online chat between Assange and Domscheit-Berg, which culminated in Assange announcing Domscheit-Berg’s suspension, “effective immediately.” Domscheit-Berg says that he resigned shortly thereafter.
In the public imagination, the highly theatrical development made him the leading WikiLeaks dissident. “You are not anyones [sic] king or god,” Domscheit-Berg is famously supposed to have written, in challenging Assange’s autocratic style, “you behave like some kind of emporer [sic] or slave trader.” Barely eight weeks after his resignation, it was announced that Domscheit-Berg was writing a book about his time at WikiLeaks. The book was published two months later in German and English—and several other languages to boot.
But anyone looking for critical insight into WikiLeaks from Domscheit-Berg’s Inside WikiLeaks will be disappointed. The “tell all” book, as it has been breathlessly described, in fact tells very little of substance and virtually nothing that is verifiable. In light of the incredible speed with which the book and its multiple translations were brought out, it is obvious that it was designed to ride the wave of WikiLeaks mania, which reached its latest—and perhaps last—high point when the site began to release classified US diplomatic cables in December 2010.
Far from providing anything like the exposé suggested by the title, the book appears to have been written for Julian Assange fans. Domscheit-Berg himself comes across as a starry-eyed Assange groupie or even, in the most cloying passages, a forlorn lover.
“We talked for hours,” Domscheit-Berg writes about his first meeting with Assange, “then we would simply sit side by side, saying nothing.” The meeting took place at the 2007 congress of the Chaos Computer Club, a German-based “hackers association” that served as an incubator for Wiki-Leaks. “On the one hand, I found Julian unbearable,” Domscheit-Berg continues in what counts as a “critical” passage, “and, on the other, unbelievably special and lovable.”
Writing about the period when things allegedly started to go bad between them, following the famous chatroom spat, Domscheit-Berg describes desperately waiting for a word from Assange that would make it all right again. “I always hoped that I would see something on the screen the next time that I looked at it. A message from Julian to me. I carried my laptop with me wherever I went: into the kitchen, the living room, even to the bathtub. . . . And because I had been waiting so long for a message,” he continues, “my imagination began to dream them up out of the blue. ‘Hey Daniel, I have to talk to you. I’ve been thinking. Maybe I misunderstood things. Let’s talk about the future of WL. Maybe we should meet and clear up the misunderstandings. Hey, you know we really had a great time together . . . ’”
Only those interested in Assange’s sartorial preferences, his dance style—“He’d spread his arms and gallop across the dance floor, taking huge steps”—or his alleged mild mistreatment of Domscheit-Berg’s cat will be fascinated by Inside WikiLeaks. Those expecting more substantial fare will be bored.
Domscheit-Berg does nothing to puncture the Assange myth. On the contrary, he builds it up, repeatedly referring to his tarnished idol’s supposed intellectual brilliance and technical expertise. Anyone who has suffered through the dime-store Nietzschean ramblings on Assange’s pompously titled “IQ” blog will have trouble regarding Assange as an intellectual heavyweight.
Assange’s prima facie more plausible claim to technical or scientific expertise is equally dubious. Dom-scheit-Berg variously suggests that Assange modeled himself on the British mathematician Alan Turing—“one of the leading minds of the twentieth century”—or the “trained mathematician and philosopher” Alexander Solzhenitsyn. The notion that Assange is himself a trained mathematician—or in some variants, a trained physicist— is a standard element of the myth that has been repeated ad nauseam in press accounts of his life.
In fact, Assange only did undergraduate studies and he did not even complete his undergraduate degree, abandoning his studies in 2005, at the age of thirty-four, after having enrolled at the University of Melbourne three years earlier. Among other subjects, he took some courses in mathematics. In response to an inquiry from the present author, Professor Peter Taylor, the chair of the University of Melbourne mathematics department, revealed that in most of those courses Assange received merely a “pass” grade: roughly equivalent to a C grade in the American system and the lowest grade one can receive at the university without failing. Analogous inquiries regarding Assange’s physics “career” at Melbourne were referred to and quashed by the university’s media office.
Moreover, Domscheit-Berg’s book partakes of exactly the same simplistic anti-American worldview that is Assange’s stock-in-trade and has become the signature view of Wiki-Leaks. The only difference is that while the anti-Americanism of Assange and WikiLeaks is strident and proselytizing, that of the seeming ingénu Domscheit-Berg is assumed—part of the scenery, so to say. So much so that when he describes a business trip to Russia, he feels compelled to remark, “You can say what you like about many people’s number-one enemy, the United States, but in Moscow the situation was also acute.”
In describing the same trip, incidentally, Domscheit-Berg also writes, “Because I was the only non-Russian—that is, the only one there who could be trusted—I quickly got charged with doing all sorts of things.” The book contains similarly gratuitous and derogatory remarks concerning Italians. Such ethnic slurs provide a disturbing counterpoint to the tone of chirpy political correctness that the narrative otherwise adopts. So too does Domscheit-Berg’s seemingly approving citation of the defiant words written on a sign held up by WikiLeaks supporters at a protest against the Church of Scientology: “SUE WL, YOU FAGGOTS!” (Wiki-Leaks had previously published internal documents of the Scientology organization.)
It is striking that when Domscheit-Berg touches upon the publication by WikiLeaks of classified American material, it is treated as axiomatic that the material reveals wrong-doing. Thus, for instance, he notes that “in November 2007, the handbooks from Guantánamo Bay, the ‘Camp Delta Standard Operating Procedures,’ appeared on WikiLeaks.” “They revealed that the United States was violating internees’ human rights and the Geneva Conventions” is Domscheit-Berg’s apodictic judgment. Readers find out nothing more about the contents of the document in question.
Domscheit-Berg’s treatment of the famous “Collateral Murder” video, which WikiLeaks posted on the web in April 2010, is similarly terse and categorical. “On April 5, ‘Collateral Murder’ went online,” Domscheit-Berg writes. “It is shot from the gun turret of a military helicopter and shows American soldiers killing Iraqi civilians. Two Reuters journalists also died in the gunfire. . . . Outrage was the response around the world . . . outrage, and a more realistic picture of what was supposedly a ‘clean’ war.”
Domscheit-Berg claims to sympathize with critics who at the time pointed to the manipulative editing of the raw footage and the obviously judgmental, rather than descriptive, title. (See, for instance, my April 29, 2001 article for the Weekly Standard online, “The Strange Career of Wiki-leaks.”) But he makes no mention of the fact that the actual target of the American attack was a group of insurgents whose weapons are clearly visible in the complete footage. The two Reuters journalists were, in effect, embedded with the armed combatants. One other individual was killed when he attempted to come to the aid of wounded combatants in a van. Two children in the van were wounded.
Domscheit-Berg’s tendentious and condemnatory treatment of the American helicopter attack in Iraq stands in sharp contrast to the kid-glove treatment that he reserves for the so-called Kunduz massacre, a German-ordered aerial attack that occurred in September 2009 in the vicinity of Kunduz in northern Afghanistan. As the German government has tacitly acknowledged, dozens of civilians were killed in the attack. In December 2009, WikiLeaks published a German army field report on the incident. Domscheit-Berg only mentions the report in order to praise the site’s cooperation with the German weekly newspaper Die Zeit.
“We gave them the field report about the bombing of two hijacked tanker trucks in Kunduz a couple of hours before we posted them [sic] on WL,” Domscheit-Berg writes, “At the time, the report about possible mistakes by German colonel Georg Klein was already in the possession of a handful of well-connected German newspapers and magazines.” Note the dainty allusion to “possible mistakes”—not “murder”—committed by the German military. There is in fact no mention whatsoever of the civilians killed in the attack. It is as if the only casualties were the trucks.
Similarly, whereas Domscheit-Berg broods over American anti-leak prosecutions and the alleged threat to freedom of speech that they constitute, he makes no mention of the far more draconian application of anti-leak laws in his homeland. In recent years, German journalists have been regularly made the target of criminal investigations under the ominous heading of “Aiding and Abetting in the Betrayal of State Secrets” (Beihilfe zum Geheimnisverrat).
Shortly after the publication of the Kunduz field report, in December 2009, the original WikiLeaks website went offline. Up to that time, the site had been a platform for the publication of confidential or censored material of all sorts from a wide variety of countries and sources. It had no obvious political agenda and it was for all intents and purposes user-edited—hence, the “wiki” designation. The heart of the site was the so-called Secure Submission Form, which was supposed to allow users to upload material without risk of revealing their identities.
When the site returned in 2010, the archive of previously posted documents was missing. Henceforth, WikiLeaks would serve essentially as just a conduit for the leaking of classified American government materials. WikiLeaks had, in effect, metamorphosed into just AmericanLeaks. From the sheer mass of the materials in question, moreover, it is obvious that they were not made available to WikiLeaks via the online uploader.
By April 2010, IT-savvy observers had noticed that the security of the so-called Secure Submission Form had, in any case, been compromised. Just how uninterested WikiLeaks was in preserving a secure online environment for submissions was, then, made unmistakably clear in June, when the site neglected to renew its SSL certificate. An SSL certificate is a basic form of online security certification that can be purchased for under $100 per year. Users attempting to communicate with a website that lacks a valid SSL certificate will typically receive a warning from their browsers not to do so.
Just why did the WikiLeaks website go offline in December 2009? And why did it then return in such a radically altered form, sharing virtually nothing in common with its previous incarnation but a logo and a now misleading name?
Domscheit-Berg provides no even minimally credible explanation for this remarkable transformation. Regarding the virtually exclusive focus on the United States, for example, he feebly invokes the “language barrier,” noting that “none of us spoke Hebrew or Korean”—an odd excuse for someone who is, after all, himself German.
In defiance of all the available evidence, moreover, Domscheit-Berg asserts that the submissions system had in fact been improved during the site’s hiatus. He even sings the praises of an anonymous WikiLeaks employee, nicknamed “The Architect,” who is supposed to have pulled off this and other programming feats. Given that the submissions system played no role whatsoever in the leaks featured on the relaunched site and, above all, given the embarrassing lapsing of the SSL certificate, the entire narrative on this point reads like a fairy tale.
There is undoubtedly a secret history of WikiLeaks to be told. But Domscheit-Berg’s Inside WikiLeaks appears to hide much more than it reveals.
John Rosenthal writes on European politics and transatlantic relations for such publications as the Weekly Standard, Policy Review, and the Daily Caller.