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Book Review

Blowing the whistle on Assange

A former aide gives an insider’s view of WikiLeaks

Julian Assange, the founder of WikiLeaks. Julian Assange, the founder of WikiLeaks. (Kieran Doherty/Reuters)
By Joseph Rosenbloom
February 19, 2011

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As with Joe Btfsplk in the old “Li’l Abner’’ comic strip, trouble seems to follow Julian Assange wherever he goes.

The WikiLeaks founder courts trouble regularly by exposing the misdeeds and questionable activities of bankers, politicians, and others whose names appear in the whistleblower documents he posts on the Web. His document-sharing collaboration with The New York Times and the Guardian resulted in troubled relations with the newspapers. He is in trouble with the law because two Swedish women are accusing him of sexual misconduct, a charge he denies.

As if that were not enough, the embattled Assange has trouble coming at him from his inner circle. Daniel Domscheit-Berg, a close aide whom Assange suspended in August, vents about him in “Inside WikiLeaks: My Time with Julian Assange at the World’s Most Dangerous Website.’’

The book is a searing, if somewhat self-serving, account of Domscheit-Berg’s three years as WikiLeaks’ most visible public face after Assange. In “Inside WikiLeaks,’’ Domscheit-Berg, who operated under the pseudonym Daniel Schmitt, details the group’s history, finances, and growing internal tensions over the organization’s abandonment of political neutrality and Assange’s increasingly autocratic behavior.

Here, Assange is portrayed as a driven, technologically gifted former hacker and idealist, but a dictatorial paranoid with anarchic tendencies. According to Domscheit-Berg, Assange’s flawed leadership has impaired the viability of WikiLeaks as a secure outlet for whistleblowers. If Domscheit-Berg knows about holes in WikiLeaks safeguards, it’s no wonder. Disaffected with Assange, he and a computer ace on the staff, identified only as the “architect,’’ spirited away a key security element from the WikiLeaks submission platform. Why? Revenge was not the motive, he insists, but safety. “We’re still waiting for Julian to restore security so that we can give him back the material that was on the submission platform. At present it is being stored safely. . . . [W]e will only give it back to Julian when he can show us that he is able to store it securely and deal with it carefully and responsibly.’’

Domscheit-Berg and the architect have since launched their own site, OpenLeaks, as an alternate outlet for leaked documents, but he makes clear that the two have no interest in using the security element for their new project.

The story’s arc follows Domscheit-Berg’s journey from his initial reverence for Assange to his growing disillusion with the WikiLeaks leader. A subtext traces the personality clash between Assange and Domscheit-Berg, who once worked as a computer scientist for a US company in Germany, as the latter sought more recognition and control in the running of WikiLeaks.

Working with Assange, a nomadic Australian whose only address is of the e-mail variety, confounds Domscheit-Berg. Even after donations began pouring into the WikiLeaks coffers, Domscheit-Berg says that Assange remained tight-fisted and that “arguments broke out about every cent.’’ Assange’s fears had him contemplating bulletproof vests and an air-raid shelter for the protection of WikiLeaks personnel.

Paranoid or not, Assange rightly understood that WikiLeaks would provoke sharp reactions, particularly once it departed from its original mission as a neutral clearinghouse for leaked documents. The shift occurred, notably, with the release in April of video showing US soldiers firing from a helicopter and killing Iraqi civilians. Rather than simply posting the raw video on the Web, WikiLeaks edited it for greater emotional impact and titled it “Collateral Murder’’ in a YouTube version. The video put WikiLeaks on the map, but Domscheit-Berg says that turning the footage into a polemic hurt the group’s image and was a mistake.

The group decided that it should edit sensitive documents before releasing them to protect innocent people who might be identified in them and whose lives might be endangered. Though Assange backed the practice, Domscheit-Berg says he never developed policies to implement it coherently — a mounting problem given the volume of material gushing through the WikiLeaks pipeline, such as the 391,832 documents about the Iraq war published in October.

With OpenLeaks, Domscheit-Berg says he hopes to avoid the pitfalls he found at WikiLeaks. He envisions OpenLeaks as an online mailbox in which whistleblowers can safely deposit documents. But OpenLeaks will not publish anything. Rather, it will relay the material to newspapers or other publishing entities.

Domscheit-Berg sees the website’s mission as helping to ensure “there will always be someone to publish important information.’’ Stirring words, which might serve as an anthem for no less an idealist than Julian Assange.

Joseph Rosenbloom can be reached at joe.rosenbloom@gmail.com.

INSIDE WIKILEAKS: My Time with Julian Assange at the World’s Most Dangerous Website By Daniel Domscheit-Berg

Crown, 282 pp., $23