Sunday, January 30, 2011

how do you attack an organisation? you attack its leadership

Guardian | Julian Assange awakes to talk, from the nap he has stolen in an armchair at the Norfolk country house where he is staying. He has been up all night disseminating, on his WikiLeaks site, US State Department cables and documents relevant to the momentous events unfolding in Egypt, and they make remarkable reading.

The American diplomats writing the cables leaked to Assange report many of the reasons for the Egyptian uprising: torture of political dissidents, even common criminals, to obtain confessions; widespread repression and fear; and – of special interest to anyone who follows WikiLeaks – the increasingly important role of internet activism, opposition blogging and communication with democratic movements within and without the country over the web.

As ever with the diplomatic memorandums published by WikiLeaks – an act of dissemination for which Assange has become public enemy number one in the US – the cables are, ironically, testimony to the professionalism and straight- talking of the US State Department. Assange concedes that the cables contain "a relative honesty and directness, and quite a lot of wannabe Hemingway".

This is exactly what WikiLeaks considers itself established to do, exactly the kind of moment in history that Assange's organisation feels it can illuminate for the world – and to which it may even have contributed, he claims, "by creating an attitude towards freedom of expression", and by being read by Egyptians themselves. This should be one of the great days in the history of his organisation: Assange and a group of his colleagues huddled over a thicket of laptop computers, downloading, following events, sharing news and occasionally whooping at it. It is one hell of an hour in WikiLand, but a weird one, too, for other things are also on Assange's mind.

Tomorrow a book he considers to be an attack on him will be published by journalists with whom he once closely collaborated at the Guardian, sister newspaper to the Observer. Neither the Guardian nor Assange now speaks of one another with affection. The front page of the International Herald Tribune on the kitchen table next door carries an article of record length by the executive editor of the New York Times, Bill Keller, charting what Keller sees as an odyssey through the dealings with a difficult man, after which a "period of intense collaboration and regular contact with our source" came to a close – and an acrimonious one at that. Keller's article appears reasoned, I say to Assange, who retorts that he finds it "grotesque".

Moreover, in eight days' time Assange must face an extradition hearing instigated by authorities in Sweden, wishing to question him over alleged sex offences, a subject that his lawyers had advised him not to speak about in this interview. The hearings in London are due for 7-8 February – and on the first night, "right in the middle of the hearings", says Assange, "BBC Panorama will broadcast a sleazy piece" about Wiki-Leaks. "It's a mad scramble to get books out that self-justify their roles in all this," claims Assange, "instead of getting on with the job of writing about the information and the cables themselves." It was not, he concedes, always this way.


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