How do we begin to make sense of WikiLeaks, the Internet organization that publishes the secrets of governments and companies?
Begin with its guiding spirit and tutelary genius. People like to say that WikiLeaks is “bigger than Julian Assange” (who describes himself as the organization’s editor in chief), but they have interests that are parents to the thought. They hope to portray WikiLeaks as a popular force, or they are embarrassed or angered by Assange, who has a talent for alienating those with whom he works. In unguarded moments, however, Assange is more candid. In an online chat with one disgruntled WikiLeaks volunteer, he summarized the blunt facts: “I am the heart and soul of this organization, its founder, philosopher, spokesperson, original coder, organizer, financier, and all the rest.” If we want to describe WikiLeaks, we must start with its creator.
When Assange conceived WikiLeaks in 2006, what was he thinking? At the time he was obscure: 35 years old, the product of a deracinated Australian childhood, famous only within the computer hacker subculture, and earning his living as a freelance software developer and white-hat hacker. In fact, we can recover his intentions, because two short essays he posted late that year on his now blank personal Web page have been preserved on cryptome.org, a repository of cypher-hacker documents. These essays are primary texts for any understanding of WikiLeaks: they are, in Assange’s own description, “motivational,” and he wrote them before he became guarded and disingenuous.
“State and Terrorist Conspiracies” and “Conspiracy as Governance” are extraordinary documents: supple, original, and, it must be declared, nuts. They are written in a strange, epigrammatic, abstracted prose, as if Theodor Adorno had picked up network theory by hanging out with the comp-sci kids at the University of Melbourne. Assange begins by quoting that 17th-century wit the first Lord Halifax—“The best kind of party is but a kind of conspiracy against the rest of the nation”— and goes on to define all authoritarian regimes, including the management of corporations, as conspiracies.
In imagining how such conspiracies “compute,” Assange draws upon the mathematical concept of “connected graphs,” and he explains the concept’s application to conspiracies by asking us to imagine a board with nails and twine. The conspirators are nails; the twine, the communications between them.
Traditionally, a resistance movement employed assassins, but Assange insists that nothing so unsubtle could undo a modern conspiracy. Instead, he recommends that activists degrade the conspiracy’s ability to “think.” We can decrease a conspiracy’s “total conspiratorial power,” Assange writes. “We can split the conspiracy, reduce or eliminating [sic] important communication[s] between a few high weight links or many low weight links.”
Although WikiLeaks is often described as a “whistle-blower site,” Assange cares less about the content of leaks than about what leaking does to conspiracies. Still less was WikiLeaks invented to further some Internet ideology of “radical transparency”: Assange accepts that individuals have rights to secrecy. Rather, he conceives of WikiLeaks as an insurrection whose rebellions are leaks. He writes, “The more secretive or unjust an organization is, the more leaks induce fear and paranoia in its leadership and planning coterie. This must result in minimization of efficient internal communications mechanisms (an increase in cognitive ‘secrecy tax’) and consequent system-wide cognitive decline resulting in decreased ability to hold onto power.”
Assange’s big idea is unchanged: as recently as last April he said, “We are an activist organization. The method is transparency, the goal is justice.”
How WikiLeaks works is more easily described. Assange himself, with obvious pride of authorship, has been forthcoming, if secretive about the details. The technologies are complicated but not new. WikiLeaks’s primary website is hosted on servers managed by PRQ, the same nonjudgmental Swedish Internet service provider that serves the BitTorrent site The Pirate Bay and various pedophiles’ fora, and it is mirrored on around 1,400 other sites. Sources can upload documents to WikiLeaks using a version of the TOR network, which permits the anonymous transfer of files over the Internet, in combination with some undisclosed form of encryption, which disguises their content. It is this combination of an irrepressible website, TOR, and encryption that constitutes the innovation of the “secure drop box”: together, they make WikiLeaks a kind of platform from which leaks cannot be traced and cannot be censored. The suspected source of the most sensational WikiLeaks material, a U.S. Army private named Bradley Manning, was caught only because he bragged to a former hacker who turned informer.
WikiLeaks has published a bewildering number of documents: to date, around 20,000 files, according to the organization. Nevertheless, those files constitute only a fraction of the documents WikiLeaks claims it possesses but has not yet released. (The reason seems to be sheer incapacity. The organization is small and underfunded, with too few staff and volunteers to validate, evaluate, and format the flood of submissions.)
Many of the published documents are neither very secret nor newsworthy. They did not have to be, given the goal of WikiLeaks; it was enough if conspiracies were made to feel porous. From 2006 to 2008, WikiLeaks published the U.S. Army’s protocols for the Guantánamo detention center; the e-mails of U.S. vice-presidential candidate Sarah Palin; allegations of malfeasance at the Cayman Islands branch of a Swiss bank—and much more. In 2009, it released a report about an accident at the Iranian nuclear facility; instructions from the British Ministry of Defense explaining how to secure military computer systems from WikiLeaks and foreign spies; documents from a bank deeply involved in the Icelandic financial crisis—and, again, much more.
But 2010 was the year WikiLeaks began to live up to Assange’s ambitions. The organization posted a highly edited classified U.S. military video depicting what it called “the indiscriminate slaying of over a dozen people in … New Baghdad, including two Reuters news staff,” and it began to release more than 391,000 reports from soldiers in the field in Afghanistan and Iraq and more than 251,000 secret, confidential, and unclassified diplomatic cables. This year, WikiLeaks has released more documents belonging to a Swiss bank, and Assange says his next target will be a major American bank, probably Bank of America.
An abiding mystery about WikiLeaks is the degree to which it was founded upon a hack, or is still a hack. According to a profile of Assange in the New Yorker, an unnamed “WikiLeaks activist” managed a server that was a node in the TOR network at some time before the launch of the organization. The activist “noticed that hackers from China were using the network to gather foreign governments’ information, and began to record this traffic.” If the story is true, this initial windfall of hacked documents is what let Assange claim, at the site’s foundation, “We have received over one million documents from 13 countries.” It is technically possible to record an unencrypted data packet on the TOR network, but WikiLeaks stoutly denied the charge. Yet the suspicion persists that Assange has returned to his hacking roots. In January, Bloomberg reported that Tiversa, a computer security company, had “evidence” that WikiLeaks was hacking peer-to-peer file-sharing networks, in a fashion that Tiversa’s researchers called “both systematic and highly successful.” Assange, through his lawyer, denied this charge, too.
Julian Assange doesn’t want anyone to think of his creation as the world’s biggest hack. Instead he talks about WikiLeaks as a “media organization” that publishes journalism.
In part, this is pretension. Better to be the editor in chief of a news site practicing an innovative form of “scientific journalism”—an intellectual of world-historical importance!—than a thief or pimp. Assange can become testy when reminded of his hacker background. He darkly told Forbes, “But that was 20 years ago … It’s very annoying to see modern day articles calling me a computer hacker. I’m not ashamed … But I understand the reason they suggest I’m a computer hacker now. There’s a very specific reason.”
And in truth, WikiLeaks has become more like a media organization as it has evolved. At its founding, there was some thought that ordinary people would organize and interpret the documents the organization published; anything could be submitted. This crowdsourcing suggested the name “WikiLeaks.” But since December the wiki functions have been turned off; the editor in chief decides which leaks are sufficiently important to publish.
The crowd disappointed him, and Assange won’t trust it again. At a 2010 seminar on the future of journalism, he explained:
Our initial idea was … look at all those people editing Wikipedia. Look at all the junk they’re working on. Surely, if you give them a fresh, classified document about the human rights atrocities in Falluja, … surely thosepeople will … do something. No. It’s all bullshit … People write about things in general (if it’s not part of their career) because they want to display their values to their peers … They don’t give a fuck about the material … Very early on, we understood … that we would have to at least give summaries of the material we were releasing … to get people to pick it up … In cases where … the material is more complex … it’s not even enough to do a summary. You have to do an article, or … liaise with other journalists … Otherwise it goes nowhere.
This is misleading. There are only two dozen such “articles” on Wikileaks.ch, and they read less like journalism than like corporate press releases: mostly short, self-aggrandizing, overheated documents that quote WikiLeaks spokespeople. In fact, the organization relies upon large, professional media organizations such as the New York Times, the Guardian, Le Monde, El País, and Der Spiegel to do the heavy work.
Assange has good reason to represent himself as an editor and WikiLeaks as a media organization: he doesn’t want to go to jail. In countries that enjoy strong protections for freedom of speech and the press, leakers can be prosecuted for crimes including espionage and theft, but the media cannot be punished for publishing leaks. Assange knows the U.S. Department of Justice is considering whether it can bring a case against him. At issue: did WikiLeaks solicit classified materials or hack computer systems, or was it merely a passive publisher of leaked materials?
WikiLeaks is not a media organization, except (possibly) legally, insofar as it publishes. It produces little original writing, video, radio, or any other editorial product, because it does no reporting, analysis, or criticism. It employs neither journalists, editors, and art directors nor any of the businesspeople who develop audiences and sell advertising. Media organizations are institutions where professionals collaborate laboriously to make and sell useful and sometimes beautiful things. They are accountable to their audiences, to their business partners, and to the laws and mores of the societies in which they are incorporated. What does WikiLeaks make? What does Julian Assange want? To what is WikiLeaks accountable, except to Assange’s outraged rectitude?
Perhaps the best way to conceive of WikiLeaks is like this: it is a stateless, distributed intelligence network, a reverse image of the U.S. National Security Agency, dedicated to publicizing secrets rather than acquiring them, unconstrained and answerable to a single man.
If WikiLeaks is not a media organization, is it another example of the Internet overthrowing our settled habits? That question is more interesting. By this formulation, WikiLeaks is to the state and corporations what Napster was to music or Google is to media as a business.
Shakespeare, Lord Annan recalled in his war memoirs, gave to Ulysses in Troilus and Cressida the haunting phrase “There is a mystery … in the soul of the state.” “That mystery is the intelligence services,” Annan explained. He was thinking of his service on the United Kingdom’s Joint Intelligence Staff 70 years ago. But the modern state has many allied organizations besides the intelligence services, including the management of large corporations and banks, who partake in its mystery. Julian Assange, the disordered soul of WikiLeaks, wants to explode the soul of the state.
The modern state, with its monopoly on violence, is not like the music industry or the media. It is properly jealous of its secrets, and more powerful and able than Assange understands. It will bitterly resent an attack by a crypto-utopian on its ability to “think.” Assange has declared himself the state’s enemy, and he will, in all likelihood, be comprehensively destroyed. WikiLeaks will vanish.
Once imagined, however, the technology of WikiLeaks cannot be forgotten and can easily be imitated. Other organizations, less radically activist, will create secure drop boxes for anonymous leaking. Already, the disgruntled former WikiLeaks volunteer, Daniel Domscheit-Berg, has said he will create a less threatening platform called OpenLeaks. It will, he says, publish nothing but, instead, function as a pipeline where sources designate the media organization to which they wish to leak: “We want to be a neutral conduit. That’s what’s most politically sustainable.” Still more leak platforms are sprouting, including GreenLeaks, which will publish “information of environmental significance”; Brussels Leaks, which will expose the European Union; and Rospil, which will uncover Russia’s secrets.
Predictably, media organizations want to replicate WikiLeaks’s secure drop box, too. Recently, Al Jazeera launched a “Transparency Unit,” which encourages its audience to submit “all forms of content” for “editorial review and, if merited, online broadcast and transmission on our English and Arabic-language broadcasts.” The first product came in January, when Al Jazeera published the “Palestine Papers,” 11 years’ worth of secret documents created by the Palestinian Authority, describing negotiations with the Israeli government. The impression that emerges from them is that the Israeli government is no longer interested in securing a Palestinian state: it is a scoop that could not have existed without the Transparency Unit’s drop box. Now other publications are considering their own. Bill Keller, the executive editor of the New York Times, is pondering how he can make it easier for sources to leak to his journalists.
WikiLeaks may not be with us for the long haul, but others will imitate its innovations, and they are likely to be more constrained and more responsible.
Jason Pontin is Technology Review’s editor in chief.