Saturday, January 29, 2011

now the guardian's post hoc narrative on wikileaks

Guardian | Back in the days when almost no one had heard about WikiLeaks, regular emails started arriving in my inbox from someone called Julian Assange. It was a memorable kind of name. All editors receive a daily mix of unsolicited tip-offs, letters, complaints and crank theories, but there was something about the periodic WikiLeaks emails which caught the attention.

Sometimes there would be a decent story attached to the emails. Or there might be a document which, on closer inspection, appeared rather underwhelming. One day there might arrive a diatribe against a particular journalist – or against the venal cowardice of mainstream media in general. Another day this Assange person would be pleased with something we'd done, or would perambulate about the life he was living in Nairobi.

In Britain the Guardian was, for many months, the only paper to write about WikiLeaks or to use any of the documents they were unearthing. In August 2007, for instance, we splashed on a remarkable secret Kroll report which claimed to show that former Kenyan president Daniel Arap Moi had been siphoning off hundreds of millions of pounds and hiding them away in foreign bank accounts in more than 30 different countries. It was, by any standards, a stonking story. This Asssange, whoever he was, was one to watch.

Unnoticed by most of the world, Julian Assange was developing into a most interesting and unusual pioneer in using digital technologies to challenge corrupt and authoritarian states. It's doubtful whether his name would have meant anything to Hillary Clinton at the time – or even in January 2010 when, as secretary of state, she made a rather good speech about the potential of what she termed "a new nervous system for the planet".

She described a vision of semi-underground digital publishing – "the samizdat of our day" that was beginning to champion transparency and challenge the autocratic, corrupt old order of the world. But she also warned that repressive governments would "target the independent thinkers who use the tools". She had regimes like Iran in mind.

Her words about the brave samizdat publishing future could well have applied to the rather strange, unworldly Australian hacker quietly working out methods of publishing the world's secrets in ways which were beyond any technological or legal attack.

Little can Clinton have imagined, as she made this much praised speech, that within a year she would be back making another statement about digital whistleblowers – this time roundly attacking people who used electronic media to champion transparency. It was, she told a hastily arranged state department press conference in November 2010, "not just an attack on America's foreign policy interests. It is an attack on the international community." In the intervening 11 months Assange had gone viral. He had just helped to orchestrate the biggest leak in the history of the world – only this time the embarrassment was not to a poor east African nation, but to the most powerful country on earth.

It is that story, the transformation from anonymous hacker to one of the most discussed people in the world – at once reviled, celebrated and lionised; sought-after, imprisoned and shunned – that this book sets out to tell.

Within a few short years of starting out Assange had been catapulted from the obscurity of his life in Nairobi, dribbling out leaks that nobody much noticed, to publishing a flood of classified documents that went to the heart of America's military and foreign policy operations. From being a marginal figure invited to join panels at geek conferences he was suddenly America's public enemy number one. A new media messiah to some, he was a cyber-terrorist to others. As if this wasn't dramatic enough, in the middle of it all two women in Sweden accused him of rape. To coin a phrase, you couldn't make it up.

Since leaving Nairobi, Assange had grown his ambitions for the scale and potential of WikiLeaks. In the company of other hackers he had been developing a philosophy of transparency. He and his fellow technologists had already succeeded in one aim: he had made WikiLeaks virtually indestructible and thus beyond legal or cyber attack from any one jurisdiction or source. Lawyers who were paid exorbitant sums to protect the reputations of wealthy clients and corporations admitted – in tones tinged with both frustration and admiration – that WikiLeaks was the one publisher in the world they couldn't gag. It was very bad for business.

At the Guardian we had our own reasons to watch the rise of WikiLeaks with great interest and some respect. In two cases – involving Barclays Bank and Trafigura – the site had ended up hosting documents which the British courts had ordered to be concealed. There was a bad period in 2008/9 when the high court in London got into the habit of not only banning the publication of documents of high public interest, but simultaneously preventing the reporting of the existence of the court proceedings themselves and the parties involved in them. One London firm of solicitors over-reached itself when it even tried to extend the ban to the reporting to parliamentary discussion of material sitting on the WikiLeaks site.

Judges were as nonplussed as global corporations by this new publishing phenomenon. In one hearing in March 2009 the high court in London decided that no one was allowed to print documents revealing Barclays' tax avoidance strategies – even though they were there for the whole world to read on the WikiLeaks website. The law looked a little silly.

But this new form of indestructible publishing brought sharp questions into focus. For every Trafigura there might be other cases where WikiLeaks could be used to smear or destroy someone. That made Assange a very powerful figure. The fact that there were grumbles among his colleagues about his autocratic and secretive style did not allay the fears about this new media baron. The questions kept coming: who was this shadowy figure "playing God"? How could he and his team be sure of a particular document's authenticity? Who was determining the ethical framework that decided some information should be published, and some not? All this meant that Assange was in many respects – more, perhaps, than he welcomed – in a role not dissimilar to that of a conventional editor.