The Magazine

When Daniel Met Julian

The rise and fall of WikiLeaks

Apr 25, 2011, Vol. 16, No. 31 • By JONATHAN V. LAST
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Crazy can only be managed for so long. Dom-scheit-Berg gradually came to believe that it was wrong for him to spend any time working for the employer who paid him because “not being able to do the work that you knew was more meaningful was a kind of prostitution.” Eventually, he decided to quit. Fortunately, he was able to arrange a severance package that paid him a full year’s salary​—​some 50,000 euros​—​for no longer pretending to do the work he hadn’t been doing. For his former employer, this was likely a bargain.

So liberated, Dom-scheit-Berg threw himself into WikiLeaks. The site’s chat room, he writes, became “my central channel to the outside world.” He gave up on a girlfriend. On his parents. On the outdoors. Dom-scheit-Berg explains that he mostly stayed in his apartment, working for WikiLeaks. The one place he regularly visited was a “lefty alternative macrobiotic shop where I bought my groceries.”

“I didn’t have much contact anymore with the nondigital world,” he says, “and the shop was one of the few places I still interacted with people face-to-face.” At his alternative macrobiotic shop he was among friends. The store always had newspapers lying around, but, he notes approvingly, they weren’t the mainstream mishmash. They were “small publications that wrote about the world from a queer and/or Marxist perspective.”

In 2009, Dom-scheit-Berg’s role with WikiLeaks became more vital: Assange came to live with him. Assange was a serial houseguest​—​he seems to have gone several years without having a permanent residence. As with many of his quirks, Assange explained his homelessness as an element of operational security; a necessary ruse to evade the sinister forces biting at his heels. But this practice may have been more of a financial, rather than a security, concern. Dom-scheit-Berg notes that Assange never paid for anything, or even carried any money on him, because, he claimed, he did not want the authorities to be able to trace his whereabouts.

Their time as roommates went about as well as could be expected. Which is to say that today, neither of them is in the dock for murder. Their conflicts were mercifully pedestrian. “Rarely was anything his fault,” Dom-scheit-Berg writes. “Instead he blamed banks, airport staff, urban planners, and, failing that, the State Department. No doubt it was the State Department that was responsible for dropping the cups that got broken while he was staying with me in Wiesbaden.” The creature who got the worst of the ordeal seems to have been Dom-scheit-Berg’s cat, Mr. Schmitt. “Julian was engaged in a constant battle for dominance​—​even with my cat,” he reports, before continuing​, ​quite seriously, that “[Mr. Schmitt] has neurosis stemming from the time when Julian was living with me.”

The situation improved somewhat when the two escaped their German confinement. As WikiLeaks became more famous, they went abroad, giving speeches and holding press conferences. While in Iceland they hit upon the idea of turning the tiny island nation into a free-press haven where entities like WikiLeaks could operate with impunity. They took their idea of a “data haven”​—​think of it as offshore banking for publishing and data transfers​—​from a novel by the sci-fi writer Neal Stephenson. In January 2010, the pair flew back to Iceland to get the relevant legislation passed by the Icelandic parliament. They figured it would take two, or perhaps three, weeks. They became bewildered, and then frustrated, when the elected representatives of Iceland proved uninterested in the self-serving policy prescriptions of two foreigners. While on the trip, Dom-scheit-Berg visited a tattoo parlor and began having the WikiLeaks logo inked onto his back. But the logo was big and the needle hurt, so he abandoned the project midway. His giant tattoo remains unfinished.

This, then, is the duo that shook the Western establishment, endangered the lives of soldiers and their local allies in Iraq and Afghanistan, plunged the diplomatic world into crisis, and prompted serious discussions about the nature of government in the digital age. 

For all its buffoonery, WikiLeaks had two smart design precepts. The first was a system, eventually built by Dom-scheit-Berg and a programmer he identifies only as “the architect,” which turned the website into a completely secure dead-drop. Leakers and whistleblowers who wanted to unload information could do so in total anonymity. The WikiLeaks site was configured in such a way that once a user reached the submission page, it was impossible for anyone​—​either a snooping third party or the WikiLeaks staff​—​to observe them. If the leaker uploaded documents to the WikiLeaks servers, the data were washed through so many interchanges and switchbacks that they became untraceable. Not even the WikiLeaks administrators had the ability to find the source of leaks.

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