Patrice Riemens on Fri, 25 Feb 2011 00:14:45 +0100 (CET)

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<nettime> John Naughton (The Observer/ Guardian): WikiLeaks books roundup ? reviews: Domscheit-Berg and Leigh & Harding

origianl to:

WikiLeaks books roundup ? reviews

Inside WikiLeaks by Daniel Domscheit-Berg;
WikiLeaks: Inside Julian Assange's War on Secrecy by David Leigh and Luke

Of the making of books about WikiLeaks, there is apparently no end. Even
as these two dropped on to the doormat, two more turned up on my Kindle.
And that's just at the "popular" end of the market. Already one can hear
the grinding of academic presses as scholars and essayists set to work,
assessing the Meaning Of It All. Never before in the history of mankind
(as Churchill might say) has so much trouble been caused by so few people.

The most extraordinary revelation in Daniel Domscheit-Berg's book is how
tiny the WikiLeaks operation has been from the beginning. For most of its
brief life, it seems to have had a core of only four full-time people with
a variable number of part-time supporters, groupies and hangers-on. All in
all it's a sobering case study in how mastery of software skills and
cryptography can create something capable of infuriating ? if not exactly
humbling ? a superpower.

Domscheit-Berg is a computer scientist who worked in IT security prior to
devoting himself to WikiLeaks at the end of 2007. He left in September
2010, exhausted and embittered by the stress of working with the site's
founder, Julian Assange. His is an intensely personal account of what it
was like to be at the epicentre of an internet phenomenon. He portrays
himself as a relatively straightforward and idealistic hacker who was
mesmerised by a flawed genius, and captivated by that genius's vision of
creating a world in which no government or corporation could hide things
from the rest of us.

Most of the mainstream media has had a go at profiling Julian Assange, but
Domscheit-Berg's portrayal of the WikiLeaks founder is the most insightful
to date. Many journalists have commented on his brilliant, wilful,
erratic, paranoid personae, but none has lived with him on a day-to-day
basis, as Domscheit-Berg did. "Julian often behaved," he writes at one
point, "as though he had been raised by wolves rather than by other human
beings. Whenever I cooked, the food would not, for instance, end up being
shared equally between us. What mattered was who was quicker off the mark.
If there were four slices of Spam, he would eat three and leave one for me
if I was too slow."

This indifference to the needs of others, together with a maniacal
self-centredness and an amazing ability to concentrate on technical
problems, is par for the course for computer geniuses. (Think of the
portrayal of Mark Zuckerberg, the founder of Facebook, in the film The
Social Network, or of the early Bill Gates.) It's what enables them to
create things, to conjure up unimaginable constructs by sheer force of
intellect and will. But it's also what makes them incapable of managing
things on a day-to-day basis ? and that, in a nutshell, is the burden of
Domscheit-Berg's complaint. As he tells it, the task of running and
financing a complex operation was difficult enough without having a
capricious, secretive and often uncontactable boss who can ? and often
does ? countermand the carefully laid arrangements of subordinates.


David Leigh and Luke Harding have produced an All the President's Men for
our times. It tells the story of how the Guardian got involved in some of
the biggest revelations in recent journalistic history, and chronicles how
the Afghan and Iraq war logs and US diplomatic cables came to be
published. It's a rattling page-turner that has Guardian dogs learning
lots of new tricks (though they never quite mastered the art of using
disposable mobile phones). It also highlights the fact that the paper was
probably the best available collaborator for WikiLeaks because it's one of
the few journalistic organisations that has taken data journalism
seriously and has formidable in-house technical expertise.

One of the lessons of the evolution of WikiLeaks is that the facts rarely
speak for themselves. Initially the vision was that all that was needed
was to publish information that someone wished to keep secret ? that the
act of publication was sufficient in itself. What that implied was that
WikiLeaks merely needed to construct a secure conduit that would enable
whistleblowers to upload stuff without betraying their identities.

Experience showed, however, that often mere revelation was not enough: the
world yawned and turned away. Often the leaked material was complex and
unintelligible to the lay browser. It needed expert interpretation ? and
corroboration. So gradually it dawned on Assange and his colleagues that
the best way of making an impact on the world might be to collaborate with
journalistic organisations, which could provide the interpretation and the
checking needed to ensure that people believed what was being leaked. This
is the value that the Guardian, the New York Times, Der Spiegel and the
other media partners added to the vast troves of documents that Assange
brought to them.

But if it turned out that WikiLeaks needed conventional journalism, it has
also become clear that conventional journalism needs what WikiLeaks
created, namely a secure technology for enabling people to upload
confidential material that they believe should be in the public domain. So
it's important that serious media organisations now build that kind of
technology themselves, just in case WikiLeaks is overcome by the fragility
of its finances, its managerial problems or the legal vulnerability of its
founder. In a world increasingly dominated by secretive, unaccountable
corporations and in which authoritarian regimes continue to flourish, we
will need robust technologies for ensuring that some secrets cannot be

The media's obsession with Assange is understandable, for he is indeed an
amazingly complex and fascinating individual. It's impossible to read
either of these books without being alternately moved and revolted by his
behaviour ? at least as recounted by those who have had to deal with him.
But his significance transcends his personality. Assange unleashed a genie
that can't be rebottled. As a result of his work, governments everywhere
are faced with a tough choice: to live with a WikiLeakable world or to
shut down the net. Not bad for an Australian hacker of no fixed abode.

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