Wednesday, May 4th, 2011

Daniel Domscheit-Berg And WikiLeaks' Insecure Future

With all the hoopla that seems eternally to surround WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, one might easily have formed the impression that WikiLeaks is a thriving concern, and that Assange himself is still the world's most powerful and effective champion of press freedom. While it's true that WikiLeaks has accomplished great things, initiating a powerful worldwide movement toward transparency and free speech, a closer look reveals that recent defections have badly crippled the WikiLeaks organization and that the increasingly erratic, mercurial Assange may have shot his bolt. The defectors have moved on and are developing a successor site, OpenLeaks, which seems likely to take up where WikiLeaks left off.

WikiLeaks has been unable to accept submissions of new documents for over six months. According to former WikiLeaks spokesman Daniel Domscheit-Berg's recent book, Inside Wikileaks: My Time with Julian Assange at the World's Most Dangerous Website, that is because WikiLeaks is no longer in possession of the secure submission platform built by a programmer identified in the book only as "the architect." Both Domscheit-Berg and the architect broke with Assange in September 2010 along with at least four other staffers. When he departed the architect apparently packed up his intellectual property and took it with him—since he felt that WikiLeaks was not being run properly, taking his software back meant that at least he couldn't be held responsible for any disasters arising from its use.

This submission system is a maze of encryptions and techno-obfuscations spread across a worldwide network, designed to make the identity and whereabouts of potential whistleblowers completely untraceable. The implementation of such a system is far more difficult than it might sound. A few things are absolutely necessary in order to prevent all kinds of mess from occurring, both for the leak sites and for the informants they enable. First, there must be no earthly way of knowing where the material comes from, not even under the legal compulsion of a government or court. Second, the material has to be encrypted, so that it can't be read by anyone who might want to steal it. Third, the material has to be kept absolutely secure, backed up in many safe places. This is the sort of system eventually devised by the architect on behalf of WikiLeaks, before he became so furious with Julian Assange that he pulled up stakes and vamoosed.

Other whistleblower initiatives such as the Al Jazeera Transparency Unit, BalkanLeaks
et al. ask (but do not always require) that those submitting documents use the anonymous Tor network to transmit their material across the web. GreenLeaks, which is focused on environmental issues, requests submission by post: you put your stuff on a pen drive and send it along in the mail. You'd think that even one of Len Deighton's lowliest goons could foil this system (wait by mailbox in trenchcoat, etc.), but what the GreenLeaks submissions strategy really suggests is the vulnerability of Internet traffic to detection. This group has decided that, for the moment at least, the ordinary post is safer.

It seems unlikely that just using Tor servers would be enough to protect a source's anonymity completely. Apparently it is possible to track users coming in and out of the Tor network, for example. Though a knowledgeable computer user could protect himself by using anonymous public Wi-Fi connections and so on, until OpenLeaks (or equiv.) is online and able to offer a securely anonymous system for submissions, would-be whistleblowers will be taking more than the ideal zero amount of risk by sending their information over the Internet.

Packet-sniffing technology was scary enough ten years ago. Today it's safe to assume that determined parties can track nearly everything that takes place online. With the kind of heat there must be on every stray packet that even brushes up against the various WikiLeaks domains, it would be crazy for them to accept submissions until they've rebuilt a new, rock-solid system. Thus the architect's departure last September meant that WikiLeaks could no longer accept new documents safely.

In a sense, WikiLeaks has been closed for business since that day.

I don't know exactly why, as of the end of 2010, three months after our departure, the system is still not really back up on its feet. It shows that the current team is overtaxed and perhaps, to some extent at least, just not up to the job. It also shows how unsecure the system is. It has become a security risk for everyone involved.
—Daniel Domscheit-Berg,
Inside WikiLeaks


Inside Wikileaks received decidedly mixed reviews after its publication in February, and it's true the book shows signs of having been written and edited in some haste. Still, posterity might well come to regard this book very highly; it's an unusual document in which the worlds of politics, technology and media theory collide.

Many commenters seem to have felt that the author of Inside Wikileaks comes off a bit like a jilted lover; certainly there's no shortage of wild anecdotes about Julian Assange in this book. We see the eccentric Australian sliding down banisters, borrowing a jacket off his host so that he can feel "in character" while writing an important press release, and then falling asleep in the jacket; taking more than his share of the Spam (tinned variety); being given five minutes to make a speech and taking forty-five; getting into a pointless shouting match with a gang of conductors on an Italian train; in constant terror of being watched and followed; and being dubbed the "Disco King" by amazed Icelandic lookers-on in a nightclub. (There's video online of Assange's amusingly prowly dance moves, quite possibly from the evening in question.) And there is a lot of far more serious criticism, as well.

Anyone who's ever worked with a brilliant and capricious egotist will find much of Domscheit-Berg's description of Julian Assange very familiar. For example, Assange was apparently annoyed whenever Domscheit-Berg was described as a "founder" of WikiLeaks. Given that Domscheit-Berg busted tail like one, quit his day job and used the severance money to buy servers for the project and dedicated every waking moment to the organization starting from before even the Julius Baer revelations of 2008, you'd think that Assange would have been happy to call him a founder. But no. Domscheit-Berg's version of events is here quite credible, for Assange's public pronouncements have often bordered on the megalomaniacal. In private, they bounded right over that border; he once wrote to Icelandic WikiLeaks volunteer Herbert Snorrason, for example, "I am the heart and soul of this organization, its founder, philosopher, spokesperson, original coder, organizer, financier and all the rest. If you have a problem with me, piss off."

This high-handed tone seems to have been his way of dealing with disagreements generally, even with his closest associate, Domscheit-Berg, whom he allegedly threatened regularly with destruction, imprisonment, etc., toward the end of their association.

"Thankfully, there's no 'founder' at OpenLeaks. I never want to have to discuss this issue again. A lot of people have contributed to the development of the idea, and they are all originators."
—Daniel Domscheit-Berg,
Inside WikiLeaks

Domscheit-Berg does not emerge from his own book without stain. He admits his complicity in a lot of shenanigans, most seriously in lying like a rug about the number of people involved in vetting most of the documents WikiLeaks received before publishing them. One wonders how many of those who submitted documents to the original site would have run the risks they did had they imagined that the organization was so small and so vulnerable; how close they might have come to the cell adjoining Bradley Manning's.

Until late 2009, no one except Julian and I checked the vast majority of documents that had been submitted. Strictly speaking, we weren't lying when we said we had a pool of around eight hundred volunteer experts at our disposal. But we neglected to mention that we had no mechanism in place for integrating them into our workflow. [...] Instead, Julian and I usually checked whether documents had been manipulated technologically and did a few Google searches to see whether they struck us as genuine. We could only hope that things would turn out all right […] We were acting irresponsibly, playing a risky game with our sources' trust and our supporters' donations.

This naivete is shocking, coming from such a brainy character, until we recall that Domscheit-Berg was 28 years old in late 2007, when he first volunteered to join WikiLeaks. Only imagine what a clever political saboteur might have done with this near-zero-fact-checking system. It's fortunate that their luck held for long enough that these weaknesses could be addressed.

The two also told a lot of fibs about the security and reliability of their original network. It's stunning to learn that the whole of the WikiLeaks system originally resided on one creaky old server. In its early days, WikiLeaks could easily have been taken down by a single guy armed with a can of Coke, and I don't mean MacGyver, I mean really anybody with a can of Coke and the tiniest bit of ill will.

Before I read the book, I had thought that the rift at WikiLeaks was mainly a philosophical one. Both men believe passionately in "subjecting the power that is exercised behind closed doors to public scrutiny," as Domscheit-Berg puts it. Both share a love of anarchist politics, as well; Domscheit-Berg calls Proudhon's What is Property? "the most important book ever written." But their approaches could not be more different. The reckless Assange likes to make a splash, while Domscheit-Berg is unflappably cool, quiet, restrained and logical. Literal almost to a fault. He's a bit like Mr. Logic from the Viz comics. Here's one example of this almost comically precise mind in a jocular mood:

Along with trying to found a global anticensorsip movement, I had assigned myself another job, perhaps the toughest of my life. I had gotten T-shirts printed with the WL logo. Because I thought our logo stood out best that way and because I wanted to save two cents per T-shirt, I'd ordered them in white. That was idiotic. Who buys white T-shirts? Especially in a social clique where black T-shirts are something of a dress code. I myself had never worn a white T-shirt in my entire life!

Clearly, there is room for legitimate differences regarding, to give one example, how much of the raw material submitted to Wikileaks might have been edited and contextualized for splash-making purposes. But the rupture between Assange and Domscheit-Berg seems to have gone far deeper than this. Assange, according to Domscheit-Berg, eventually demanded absolute control over every aspect of WikiLeaks operations, from financial management to publicity and even to deciding what revenge to take against journalists who wrote unsympathetically about him or the project. He became an ever-looser cannon.

Also of interest is the fact that Birgitta Jónsdóttir, the activist and member of the Icelandic Parliament who worked closely with WikiLeaks representatives and others in Iceland to spearhead the IMMI laws that will create a global haven for press freedom in that country, has also broken with WikiLeaks. She gave a revealing interview to the Belgian journalist Dominique Deckmyn that appeared in De Standaard in late February (this excerpt's translation has been revised by Jónsdóttir; the full and, she says, somewhat less accurate translation appears on Cryptome.)

DD: Are you still in touch with the WikiLeaks people?

BJ: No, only with former WikiLeaks people. I am in touch with Daniel (Domscheit-Berg) and some others, although it is hard to define who does and does not belong to WikiLeaks now. Some people are semi-active or not at all active, and some people want never to talk to Julian Assange again.

DD: The organization is identified with Assange personally in the media. Do you regret that?

BJ: What is a pity is that the messenger has turned into the message. That means that the documents have not been paid the attention which they deserve. I no longer know how often I have refused to collaborate on yet another portrait of Julian Assange. It has come to revolve too much around one person, one hero, one messiah, even: That is what he is called on [one of the fan pages on] Facebook [}. It is almost a new religion, but that is certainly partly the media's fault. They have decided to create a new Icarus myth; they have blown a great deal of wind under Icarus' wings instead of focusing their attention on the real story – the contents of WikiLeaks. That has a great deal to do with the situation in which the media currently find themselves. They are seeking as many clicks as possible, and the stories which get the most clicks on websites are usually about scandals of a sexual nature or mishaps of famous people.

None of this takes away from Assange's courage, nor from the success his efforts have met with in revealing corruption and wrongdoing. It is sobering to consider the stresses under which he has lived, his nomadic existence, and also that there is no doubt that this man has made a staggering number of very powerful enemies who would like to see him jailed or worse. In the circumstances it's hardly surprising that he would crack up some.

This whole story uncomfortably recalls that of Greg Mortenson, the best-selling author of Three Cups of Tea and founder and director of the Central Asia Institute, a charity that has raised millions for building schools in Afghanistan and elsewhere in Central Asia. Jon Krakauer and "60 Minutes" recently discredited Mortenson, another charismatic and mercurial figure loved by many, by producing convincing evidence that he has misappropriated funds and done a terrible job of operating and maintaining the few schools his charity has managed to build.

Mortenson appears to have come to believe that his unique value as a fundraiser and spokesman raised him above such petty concerns as ensuring proper management and accounting practices at the Central Asia Institute. He was on my mind a lot as I studied the career trajectory of Julian Assange. This is such a common story among fallen religious leaders, fallen politicians. How easy it must be to rationalize all one's bad behavior with the idea that all you are doing is for the greater good. The cause is just, you are "indispensable," you have a plenary indulgence.

Then, because all you do is always for the greater good, such lies as you choose to tell are spotless, too. As it happens, Assange's old hacker name, "Mendax", means "liar" in Latin.


There's still a lot of friction between the former partners. It flared up again recently when WikiLeaks sent out this Twitter on April 24th:

Domschiet, NYT, Guardian, attempted Gitmo spoiler against our 8 group coalition. We had intel on them and published first.less than a minute ago via web Favorite Retweet Reply

Why should an organization dedicated to press freedom care two pins about who published first? Also, this seems a rather transparent attempt to accuse Domscheit-Berg of having leaked the Guantánamo documents to the New York Times and the Guardian. (WikiLeaks had been working with the UK Telegraph and the Washington Post on this material, and they promptly published their own work after it became clear that other organizations were getting in front of them.)

It's true that Domscheit-Berg is no fan of the exclusive deals WikiLeaks has made with press organizations, having frequently said that this practice robs WikiLeaks of its neutrality, and reduces it to a tool of big media. It's also true that Domscheit-Berg has shown himself to be more than equal to telling a useful fib, from time to time. On the flip side, though, WikiLeaks does not exactly lack for disaffected staffers who might well believe the Guantánamo material ought to have been released long before now.

Just by chance I was already in touch with Daniel Domscheit-Berg in preparation for a more general analysis of press freedom issues when this tweet came over the wire, so I wrote to him asking what the hell, or rather, "What do you think of the idea of 'spoilers' in the context of the work you are doing? Aren't WL and OpenLeaks supposed to be about press freedom, rather than 'scoops'?" He responded:

I saw that tweet this morning, and must admit I am puzzled. I agree about your statement about the scoops, but even if it was about scoops I have no clue what they mean. I have not had those files and certainly have not been working with anyone on them. Whatever "intel" it is, it sure is bogus.

Bill Keller at the Times clarified some of the questions surrounding their publication of the Guantánamo documents in an email:

It is true that we obtained the material without conditions, except an agreement not to identify our source. That means we were not bound by whatever embargo Mr. Assange put on his "8 group coalition." I assume "intel" means that one of the inside group (so to speak) picked up information that we were moving toward publication. (I don't know what tipped them off, but three major news organizations — NYT, Guardian and NPR — moving a big project along make a certain amount of noise.) I gather that somewhat spoiled the plans of Mr. Assange and the other news organizations.

I can't speak to Mr. Assange's motives. Sorry.

(Well, you can't fault me for asking.)

The first WikiLeaks tweet was followed just a few hours later with another.

We are pleased that the NYT, Guardian & NPR eventually added their weight to increasing our impact, regardless of the intent of some.less than a minute ago via web Favorite Retweet Reply

One can't help feeling, reading these faintly petulant messages, that Assange is putting his ego ahead of the primary goal of promoting press freedom and transparency. And the media complicity in focusing on Assange himself rather than on the cause he serves is paradoxically very damaging to that cause. There's more than enough reason to believe Daniel Domscheit-Berg's claim that this is part of the reason why he broke with Assange.

The case of slain Kenyan human rights activists Oscar Kamau King'ara and John Paul Oulu is also instructive on this point. The two men were assassinated on March 5, 2009, in their car in the middle of rush-hour Nairobi traffic; though a statement released by WikiLeaks claimed that they were "WikiLeaks writers," the career of Oscar Kamau King'ara predated WikiLeaks by many years. King'ara's Oscar Foundation had been active since 1998 in such issues as providing legal aid to the poor, in promoting children's rights, in HIV activism and so on.

Human rights organizations, Kenyan journalists and UN investigator Philip Alston were quick to cast suspicion on the police for the assassinations of King'ara and Oulu, because, starting in 2007, the Oscar Foundation had been publishing reports that exposed the extra-judicial killing of thousands of young Kenyans dating from 2002 in an alleged police crackdown on gang activity. King'ara and his associates had been steadily presenting their evidence of the murders in public. Their report was submitted to Parliament in advance of a public debate on the killings. There seems to be little doubt among observers that it is this work, done in the open, that precipitated the assassinations.

It made sense for the Kenyan human rights activists to try to broadcast their findings to the widest possible audience. In November of 2008 a report based in large part on the Oscar Foundation's work, the Kenya National Commission on Human Rights's "Cry of Blood," appeared for one week on the front page at WikiLeaks. This publication brought the Kenyan police abuses much greater attention in the world press, which might be assumed to have precipitated Parliament's willingness to take the matter up. In June of 2009, Amnesty International gave an award to WikiLeaks and Assange for furthering the work of the murdered Kenyan activists.

Certainly WikiLeaks was instrumental in spreading the story, but the story itself is not about WikiLeaks. It is about the exposure of Kenyan police corruption and mass murder. It is both disingenuous and cynical to refer to these men, who literally died for their efforts to speak truth to power, as "WikiLeaks writers." And yet as recently as last month in a panel discussion at UC Berkeley Assange was again implying that their deaths were essentially an attack on WikiLeaks.I

As with Oscar Kamau King'ara and John Paul Oulu, so perhaps with Bradley Manning. There are people who see bad things going on and take a chance, maybe a terrible chance, on ending them by telling what they know.

What finally emerges in the Q&A with Daniel Domscheit-Berg that follows here is that the value of projects like WikiLeaks and OpenLeaks has nothing to do with drawing attention to one particular story or another. It's in providing that unbreakable and secret conduit between the media and those who wish to bring hidden information to light. It's in offering safety and anonymity to people who want to speak out, but who are understandably afraid to do so.

It's been quite chilling to see the efforts of our own Department of Justice to shut this effort down. They really ought to knock it off with that.

"We in the West have a long and unworthy tradition of choking off attempts at public discussion with reference to some 'greater good' that needs to be protected … I am convinced that citizens not only can, but must be burdened with the truth."
—Daniel Domscheit-Berg,
Inside WikiLeaks

Next: An interview with Daniel Domscheit-Berg.

12 Comments / Post A Comment

HiredGoons (#603)

"borrowing a jacket off his host so that he can feel "in character" while writing an important press release"

I just… I just… I just… the mind reels, etc.

(also, excellent per usual Maria)

scrooge (#2,697)

@HiredGoons Personally, I always don a white T-shirt before commenting on The Awl.

SeanP (#4,058)

@scrooge animal pelts and leg warmers here.

applejackell (#11,770)

At the least, concerns over platform security and privacy are entering the mainstream where once they were the preserve of a tech-savvy minority. The firewalls are starting to go up: around governments and corporations, but also around individuals. Smartphones and tablet computers—the two classes of device on which the future of digital culture is increasingly being forged—tend to offer both a more limited and a more secure online experience than open browsing on a traditional operating system.

KarenUhOh (#19)

A+, and I've not even had a chance to read the interview.

Another outstanding exegesis that brings a lot of information together on a timely topic.

Coachman140 (#11,779)

Nice stuff

Flashman (#418)

Darn. I thought this was going to be about Assange cutting a track with The Streets.

Matt Cornell (#8,797)

Thanks for this really thorough and thoughtful analysis of WikiLeaks & Openleaks. I think it's also important to add to Assange's missteps the murky (and ongoing) Israel Shamir fiasco.

It also seems that Assange and Domscheit-Berg have a fairly substantive ideological and tactical disagreement. Assange wanted to make a big splash and directly confront the US war machine and US imperialism, at least partially to trigger a backlash that would lay bare the mechanisms of power and cause greater secrecy/inefficency. Aaron Bady goes into great detail on this concept here:

Domscheit-Berg's approach seems more in keeping with traditional NGOs and advocacy media. The more wonkish and safe Openleaks model, while less likely to result in a personality cult, could prove less effective at seriously challenging the status quo. It is highly possible that documents leaked through OpenLeaks could reach their intended audience, but STILL never see the light of day. What if Domscheit-Berg had important information pass through his system, but the targeted NGO or media partner was simply too afraid to publish it? This scenario seems less likely under the WikiLeaks model.

barnhouse (#1,326)

@Matt Cornell SO TRUE. It is nothing but minefields out there. OpenLeaks puts a lot of the burden on sources themselves to do their homework perfectly, to choose the right media organization–ideally the individual journalist who will shepherd your information the exact right way so that people see it and it doesn't just get lost in all the shouting. Still, even then you could be betrayed and/or shunted aside in about a thousand different ways.

And yeah, @zunguzungu has been stellar on this topic 100% of the time. He is a good Twitterer too.

Gene Jordano (#11,793)

Did the US Navy Seals learned the whereabouts of Osama bin Laden through WikiLeaks? Just wondering…

Matt Cornell (#8,797)

@Gene Jordano No, but the leaked cables show that the US had intelligence about OBL in Abbotabad as far back as 2008.

kpants (#719)

So many thoughts while reading this, but the biggest one was what a great piece you've written here, Maria. Excellent work.

Post a Comment