June 10, 2011


Inside Julian Assange’s War On Secrecy

by David Leigh, Luke Harding et al
340 pages, Guardian Books

Review by Pat Black

Assange. Terrific name.

It’s something you could say with either a sneer: “Oh, you’re quite the assange, aren’t you?” – or with a leer: “Darlin’, how do you fancy some asssannnnnggge tonight?”

There’s a lolling languor about the soft G as it tickles the backsides of those sibilants. And those vowels! That must be the luckiest N in the world.

His name aside, it’s difficult to forget Julian Assange once you’ve seen him. With that shock of white hair and the antipodean accent, he looks and sounds unusual. He could be Doctor Who, in another universe.

He’s certainly a showman. If anyone working in diplomatic circles didn’t know who Julian Assange was at the start of 2010, they knew all about him by the end of it. The former computer hacker is the head of Wikileaks, the global whistleblowers’ website. At the tail end of 2010, after a pioneering collaboration between the Guardian newspaper in the UK, the New York Times and Germany’s Der Spiegel magazine, thousands of top secret diplomatic “cables” and reports on coalition military activities in Iraq and Afghanistan were revealed. The data – sent on to Assange by Bradley Manning, a disillusioned young US soldier stationed in Iraq – marks the biggest classified information leak in history. This book tells the story of how it came about.

“Story” is an appropriate word to use when it comes to assessing this work. Knocked out in double-quick time, Wikileaks: Inside Julian Assange’s War on Secrecy does a fantastic job of spinning true-life events into an involving narrative.

First and foremost, it’s got characters. Assange and Manning are oddities, part of the collection of freaks and geeks which, it seems, thrive and prosper in internet hacking. From transcripts of private instant message chats, emails and Facebook updates, Manning’s head seemed a mess well before he decided to expose the US’s bloody activities in Iraq. But even allowing for the lax security culture which allowed Manning to copy secret data onto his bogus Lady Gaga CD, you have to wonder how the military didn’t spot his potential to become a loose cannon much sooner.

But in Assange, we have a true one-off. Born into a peripatetic, hippy lifestyle in Australia, the man seems to have had no stability in life. When he was a boy he was always moving from school to school while his mother embarked on some disastrous relationships. Highly intelligent but not particularly adept at traditional school subjects, Assange got into computers in a big way and earned a name for himself as a hacker in his native land. Fuelled by a sense of injustice allied to the devilment that comes naturally to any hacker, he eventually set up Wikileaks as a place where individuals could feed information on worldwide corruption without fear of being traced.

After early successes in Nairobi and angered by the Nato-led occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan, Assange needed something radical to become more than just an underground figure in a field which incites mistrust among the general public. When Bradley Manning’s leaked info landed in his lap – including horrifying footage of a US Apache helicopter gunship shooting civilians on the streets of Iraq, almost as if servicemen were playing a video game – his opportunity presented itself.

It’s a suspense story. It describes how Bradley Manning decided to steal the data he was helping to organise while stationed out in Iraq, and then found a good set of hackers to entrust the data to. Later, with Assange appearing in court in London, we’ve got all the highs and lows of any legal drama, encompassing noble goals, supposed threats to international security and a real sense of danger.

There’s international intrigue. Seldom have we seen a man who is neither a terrorist nor a politician being thrust so swiftly into the centre stage of geopolitics, and Assange’s globe-trotting tendencies as well as the lengths he had to go to stay undercover are recounted here. From Iceland to Brussels to Australia to the centre of London, Assange doesn’t half clock up the air miles. There’s a sense of a man always on the run; someone who sleeps at odd hours given his jet-setting lifestyle, never settling in one place, one single time zone.

And there are gadgets. Barely-reconstructed luddites like me won’t be put off by too much detail, but there’s some intriguing insight into how secure websites are set up and maintained. The security consciousness that Assange and his associates display sounds like a paranoiac’s nightmare; at every turn in the road, they expect to be hacked, shut down and compromised. Some of Assange’s slipperiness involved Bond-style espionage techniques, some of it endearingly analogue. The episode involving a password written down on a napkin for a Guardian journalist – with Assange then whispering an extra word to type in – seemed like something out of North By Northwest. This caution in the virtual world even extends to the physical one, after Assange receives death threats and some inappropriate comments from high-profile right-wing blowhards in the US.

But let’s not forget the sex. The portrait of the Wikileaks supremo is no panegyric to a new kind of folk hero, but an assessment of an important, but highly unusual man. The full breakdown of what Assange is alleged to have been doing with two women in Sweden who made complaints about his sexual conduct is never glossed over, from the rude texts to the alleged nitty gritty. We must be mindful here that the case has yet to be tested in court, but readers will be invited to conjecture over what makes the man’s trousers tick.

Finally, there’s good solid news reporting. I did laugh at a section where the Guardian’s cables-crunching office is described as a “war room”, with relaxation areas for poor hacks tired of reading leaked cables and even a suggestion that a masseur should be brought in to ease those tired typing muscles. But that aside, you get a real flavour for a breaking story and the mechanics of a newsroom, from the reporter on the ground (and frequently in the restaurant) to the unseen heroes of the production unit, through to the editor and all the politics he has to deal with. Although Assange finally jumped into bed with several publications, his relationships with them became strained at several points – no doubt owing to his mistrust of what is sneeringly termed the MSM (mainstream media).

The main points of the cables themselves are gone over in concise detail (there’s an appendix at the back of the book with reproductions of the best of them). Although we know Assange hasn’t even scraped the surface of all the information he has to hand, some of it makes juicy – and hilarious – reading. Eastern European presidents dancing with gold-plated guns stuck in their belts... What the Duke of York really thinks of journalists... US opinions on many things, including Britain’s school bullying-victim place in the world pecking order... Colonel Gaddafi’s omnipresent “voluptuous Ukrainian nurse”... and so much more, all well essayed.

The effects of the more serious revelations – such as corruption in Tunisia, the fact that China doesn’t think much of its supposed allies in North Korea, Saudi Arabia’s entreaties for the United States to bomb Iran, or the fact that Russia is viewed as a mafia state verging on a complete kleptocracy – are yet to be seen, you feel. Although the book doesn’t credit Assange with triggering the Arab Spring on his own, you’re left in little doubt that Wikileaks was at least a factor in it, particularly in Tunisia - a vital link in the chain which led to the country overthrowing its hated president Ben Ali.

Similarly, beyond some red-faced embassy officials being sacked or redeployed, we’ve yet to see the final outcome with regards to the United States’ embarrassment. The book does note a bone-deep irony, in that for all Julian Assange quite rightly fears retribution from America over what he’s done, the leaked cables have in fact helped strengthen America’s position in the Arab world. They have shown the United States as actually doing what it says on the constitutional tin; helping to promote democracy across the world, and not just a free market.

Now there’s a revolutionary idea.

Anyone with even a passing interest in world affairs simply has to read this book. When it comes to global transparency and the role the internet has to play in the spreading of democracy, it’s heartening to know that in our own small way we are bearing witness to an information revolution. After Wikileaks, embassies and governments will never feel quite so secure again about their Machiavellian manoeuvres. And although there is a dark side to such wanton disregard for discretion or privacy in either the simple movement of information or the business of government, you can’t help but feel that the big events – whether Julian Assange is part of them or not – are yet to happen in the virtual world.

I’ll be damned – we do live in interesting times.

Before we go, let’s spare a thought for poor Bradley Manning. Maximum security prisons, solitary confinement for months, sleep deprivation and other kinds of techniques which sound like torture to me...

He hasn’t killed anyone, so far as I know.

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