When Daniel Met Julian
The rise and fall of WikiLeaks
Apr 25, 2011, Vol. 16, No. 31 • By JONATHAN V. LAST
During a span of 22 months the website WikiLeaks.org morphed from a digital anarchist demonstration project into a semisuccessful international campaign against the American government. WikiLeaks solicited classified documents and then orchestrated a global media typhoon around them. The site—literally—gave direction to institutions such as the New York Times, London’s Guardian, and Der Spiegel, dictating publication schedules and deciding which outlets would publish what information.
At its high-water mark in the spring and summer of 2010, WikiLeaks appeared to be a new kind of organism: part media company, part NGO, part hacker hive, part activist crusade. In retrospect, WikiLeaks more closely resembles a bubble-era tech start-up. Puffed large by a combination of exaggeration, lies, and free labor, WikiLeaks was given an absurd valuation by both the media, which reported on and courted it, and the U.S. government, which feared it.
Today the WikiLeaks bubble has burst. The site’s founder, Julian Assange, is being prosecuted in Sweden for two counts of rape. Several of WikiLeaks’ high-level workers have resigned. A former media partner, the Guardian, has turned on Assange. And the site itself is no longer accepting submissions of leaked documents, saying only that they are trying to improve security and will return in the “near future.”
The hardest knock comes from Daniel Dom-scheit-Berg’s new memoir, Inside WikiLeaks. Dom-scheit-Berg was something like employee number two at WikiLeaks. He was one of the staffers who left when the organization descended into chaos last fall. His book is a gory tell-all, and no one—neither Assange nor Dom-scheit-Berg—gets off clean. Yet the most serious indictments it makes are of the elite media, who threw themselves at WikiLeaks, and the American government, which did nothing to stop the campaign.
Assange and Dom-scheit-Berg made for a very odd couple. They met in December 2007 at the annual Chaos Communication Congress in Berlin, a gathering of computer hackers and experts sponsored by Berlin’s Chaos Computer Club. At the time Dom-scheit-Berg worked in the IT department of an American company’s German headquarters. Assange, also known as the hacker “Mendax,” had recently started a website called WikiLeaks.
Assange was a strange duck. Dom-scheit-Berg reports that he wore multiple layers of clothing at all times—shirts under multiple jackets, two pairs of pants, and a thick roll of socks casing his feet. Only 36 years old, Assange had pure white hair. Whenever he was asked about this oddity, he told a different story of how his hair had gotten that way. Nonetheless, Assange had a compelling vision for his new website. He wanted to publish confidential documents in order to expose the hypocrisy and wrongdoing of governments and corporations.
WikiLeaks was not the first such website. In 1999, cryptome.org made a name for itself by publishing leaked lists of MI6 agents. And Assange wasn’t very far along in the project. But his idea held particular appeal for Dom-scheit-Berg, who appreciated its anarchist potential to undermine traditional power structures. “In the world we dreamed of,” Dom-scheit-Berg explains, “there would be no more bosses or hierarchies.”
Assange brought Dom-scheit-Berg in to help build out the site. At least by Dom-scheit-Berg’s accounting, he was an invaluable contributor. He helped create the back-end of the website and, as time progressed, took on executive duties, handling tasks as wide-ranging as public relations, fundraising, and network security—in addition to WikiLeaks’ bread-and-butter work of cleaning and posting leaked documents.
Like many anarchists, Dom-scheit-Berg was not a perfect employee. When he met Assange he was working for a firm that handled IT accounts for American corporations, including defense companies. He refused to work on those projects. As he became more involved in WikiLeaks, he began showing up at the office less frequently, claiming to be working from home when he was actually working for Assange. When his day job intruded on his avocation, he became increasingly hostile toward the people who paid him. (He was working for Assange for free.) In his book Dom-scheit-Berg explains that he became so annoyed by management that he sent a combative, company-wide email constructed so that it seemed to come from the German office’s boss. He then routed the email through an office printer so that its origins would be untraceable.
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