Enough About These Hackers And Whistleblowers! How Is Herr Schmitt, The Cat?

“I can confidently say that, while visiting Mr. Domscheit-Berg in Wiesbaden, I was able to meet and observe his cat.”

No, this isn’t dialogue from a newly discovered Firbank novel. Rather, it’s a salvo in the escalating battle between Wikileaks founder Julian Assange and his erstwhile colleague Daniel Domscheit-Berg, whose new site OpenLeaks is on the verge of launching. In fact, the imminent arrival of OpenLeaks may well explain why the Assange camp suddenly seems to be turning on the heat — the last week has seen an escalation in attacks against Domscheit-Berg on hacker blogs, Twitter and elsewhere, and a corresponding uptick in pro-Assange messaging, including appeals for the exoneration of Assange from charges of pet harassment.

The cat in question answers to the name of Herr Schmitt. He makes a brief but memorable appearance in Domscheit-Berg’s recent book, Inside Wikileaks: My Time with Julian Assange at the World’s Most Dangerous Website (screen rights to which were acquired by Dreamworks back in March). Here we learned that among the many things that Domscheit-Berg is peeved at Assange about is Assange’s treatment of Herr Schmitt — “Mr. Schmitt” in the English translation that follows, obviously, but that hasn’t got the same ring to it at all.

Julian was engaged in a constant battle for dominance — even with my cat, Mr. Schmitt. Mr. Schmitt is a lovable, lazy creature, a bit shy, with gray-and-white fur and an extremely laid-back way of walking. Unfortunately he also has a neurosis stemming from the time when Julian lived with me in Wiesbaden.

Julian was always attacking the poor animal. He would spread his fingers into a fork shape and pounce on the cat’s neck. It was a game to see who was quicker. Either Julian would succeed in getting his fingers around the cat and pinning it to the floor, or the cat would drive Julian off with a swipe of its claws. It must have been a nightmare for the poor thing. No sooner would Mr. Schmitt lie down to relax than the crazy Australian would be upon him. Julian preferred to attack at times when Mr. Schmitt was tired.

“It’s about training vigilance,” Julian explained.

Mr. Schmitt was a male cat, and male cats were supposed to be dominant. “A man must never forget he has to be the master of the situation,” Julian proclaimed. I wasn’t aware that anyone in my apartment or the courtyard had questioned Mr. Schmitt’s masculinity. What’s more, he was neutered.

In addition to the obvious indications that he is joking about the “neurosis” (I don’t believe a mind as strikingly literal as Domscheit-Berg’s could even conceive that a cat could have a real neurosis), what this passage really puts across is that the author is a very, very forbearing host. Because believe you me, if Julian Assange were my houseguest, and he were to try anything remotely like that on Count Fosco, he would have met with a stern rebuke at the very least, if not a solid thwack with the nearest kitchen implement, such as a blender.

The story created quite a stir. Even the New York Times has commented on the matter of Herr Schmitt.

The Firbankian sally was blogged forth by one Renata Avila, a human-rights lawyer in Guatemala City, in a post from last week entitled “Julian Assange = Cat Hater? — Open Letter from Human Rights Lawyer who was there.” Here’s a longer excerpt:

One of the most extraordinary statements Mr. Domscheit-Berg has made is that Mr. Assange abused his cat (in Germany) so severely it was driven to psychosis. This is a serious allegation because animal cruelty is a crime in Germany and it is very damaging for someone to be presented as an animal abuser, especially when that is not the case.

I can confidently say that, while visiting Mr. Domscheit-Berg in Wiesbaden, I was able to meet and observe his cat.

[Sorry but that is the loveliest and most crazy sentence in the history of ever, so let’s pause here a moment and just marvel.]

This was immediately after Mr. Assange had been staying with him. I myself have a cat and from my observations it was a perfectly normal and healthy cat that, like all cats, enjoyed attention. Mr. Domscheit-Berg was too busy to pay him much attention, as he was often on the telephone or on the computer, so I spent quite a bit of time playing with the cat. Mr. Domscheit-Berg watched and replied, laughing fondly, that the way I was playing with the cat was “exactly the same way” as Mr. Assange had played with the cat the week before. There was absolutely no mention from Mr. Domscheit-Berg that the cat had been abused or mistreated in any way by Mr. Assange. Therefore, it is very unlikely that a healthy animal, behaving normally and playing with strangers, had any disorder provoked by Mr. Assange’s behavior, as suggested by Mr. Domscheit-Berg.

Note the subtle escalation from “neurosis” to “psychosis” — the strategy, one suspects, of a propagandist. Note, too, the hints that if anyone were accountable for discontent on the part of Herr Schmitt it was most likely Herr D-B himself, because he was “too busy to pay him much attention.” And finally, there is the author’s total inability to identify Domscheit-Berg’s little joke. Ah, me. My (100% joking, so keep your teeth in) reading of this terrific document is that the hapless Human Rights Lawyer, having fallen under the Cagliostroesque spell of the legendarily womanizing Assange, has a hidden agenda here. Granted, however, the documentary evidence is unclear. Future generations will have to judge for themselves.

The post appeared on support-julian-assange.com, a domain that was created in December 2010. You can’t tell who runs it (not even on Whois), but there is a lot of would-be high-flown stuff on there about freedom of speech and whatnot (and also, “This site belongs to everyone that believes…………”, which sounds a bit more Peter Pan than Thomas Paine). They have all sorts of items (umbrellas, laptop sleeves, T-shirts) for sale in the WikiLeaks shop, too. (“All proceedings go to WikiLeaks operations.”)

The homepage sports the headline, “Support Julian Assange. Our Freedom Depends on it.” Well, no. “Our Freedom” doesn’t depend on supporting Julian Assange. Much as I value his creation of WikiLeaks, as must any lover of press freedom, isn’t the message bigger than the man? Heather Brooke, the British-American freedom of information activist who played an instrumental role in the UK MP expenses scandal and once an Assange supporter, recently had this to say on the subject in a Huffington Post interview:

[I]t was his domination of the WikiLeaks exposés that left her disillusioned with the founder.
“The values of WikiLeaks have been completely overshadowed by Julian Assange. And he’s trying to conflate the two as one. Which is why a lot of the good people left. The people that I thought were the best people left. It is basically the Julian Assange project now.”

OpenLeaks, the whistleblower site that Domscheit-Berg has been developing together with other ex-WikiLeaks staffers since last September, is in early testing phases now. OpenLeaks promises superior transparency, security and a better organizational structure, complete with permanent media partnerships, than WikiLeaks ever managed to provide. It’s all too easy to believe, as I suggested earlier, that the imminent launch of OpenLeaks is responsible for this sudden outburst of the crazy among Assange supporters.

The Gun On The Mantelpiece
As you may recall, Domscheit-Berg and several other disaffected Wikileaks staffers flew the coop last September. Which is why, since then, there has been no working submissions platform at WikiLeaks; no whistleblower so inclined has been able to send damning documents to Assange & co. for the better part of a year. According to Domscheit-Berg, one of the defectors was the programmer/inventor of the WikiLeaks secure submissions system (aka “The Architect”); it was his software, and he took it with him.

These ex-WikiLeaks staffers also took with them some of the data that had been submitted to WikiLeaks, because they no longer believed it was secure, and, Domscheit-Berg says, they feared for the safety of the whistleblowers who’d sent it along.

Indeed, that seems to be the main reason why they left the project in the first place. It wasn’t the fault of anyone at WikiLeaks that suspected whistleblower Bradley Manning was busted — it was the fault of big jerk Adrian Lamo — but it spooked them all pretty badly, it seems, and the security flaws at the original WikiLeaks system promised more of the same. “Children shouldn’t play with guns,” Domscheit-Berg wrote in Inside WikiLeaks, which contains his detailed account of this aspect of the affair.

This group immediately set about developing OpenLeaks, an entirely new system, and they promised to return the archived documents to WikiLeaks as soon as the latter demonstrated that they had their house in order, security-wise. But Julian Assange and his current team have thus far failed to launch a new site. They’ve been saying they’re reopening their “electronic drop box” “in the near future” for months and months, but no date has been promised.

Fundraising efforts at WikiLeaks, however, have continued uninterrupted. You can’t donate to WikiLeaks through Visa/MC or Paypal anymore, but you can arrange for a bank transfer, or send bitcoins, or snail mail a check to a P.O. box in Australia. Or, you can donate to Assange’s “defense fund”. He is still fighting extradition to Sweden on charges of sexual misconduct and is under house arrest in England. Donations to the “Julian Assange Defence Fund” are to be sent to Ellingham Hall in Suffolk, England. That’s the pad of TV journalist Vaughan Smith, who is hosting Assange until he can get his legal troubles sorted out.

Must Credit Chaos Computer Club
The fate of the WikiLeaks archive that the ex-staffers took with them is suddenly at issue, and dramatically so. Last week it was reported that Domscheit-Berg had been booted out of the Chaos Computer Club, an organization of computer enthusiasts (hackers, designers, artists) to which he’d belonged for years. Then we learned on August 15th in an incoherent Der Spiegel interview with CCC honcho and Matt Drudge-lookalike Andy Müller-Maguhn, that recent mediated talks between Assange and Domscheit-Berg had broken down. Apparently, Müller-Maguhn had himself been trying unsuccessfully to mediate between Domscheit-Berg and Assange, for which read “attempt to get the WikiLeaks archive back from Domscheit-Berg on behalf of Assange.”

DER SPIEGEL: Domscheit-Berg argues that the confidential material isn’t safe with WikiLeaks.

Müller-Maguhn: That’s nonsense. I’ve visited Assange a number of times in England over the last 11 months. There I also saw more than 10 hard-working WikiLeaks employees from around the world. And Assange’s mobility is limited by the electronic ankle monitor in any case.

(Shades of Owen Wilson in Zoolander! How is an electronic ankle monitor supposed to guarantee anonymity to whistleblowers?)

A different explanation of Domscheit-Berg’s expulsion from the CCC is to be found in this piece from Der Freitag, in which Domscheit-Berg claims that his group severed ties with Andy Müller-Maguhn months before (translation is a bit rough):

Andy Müller-Maguhn, for one, got told by the OpenLeaks activists months ago that they no longer accept him as an intermediator. The reason: “We gave him a part of the data, namely the WikiLeaks archive. After that a huge security breach followed which endangered third persons,” said Domscheit-Berg. Andy Müller-Maguhn didn’t want to comment on this accusation before the end of the “internal voting” of the CCC.

(He still hasn’t commented on it, so far as I have seen.)

The Best Defense, A Good Offense
Which brings us to the really big bombshell. Keep in mind that Domscheit-Berg has said all along that he and his colleagues didn’t remove the WikiLeaks archive in order to publish it themselves. “We did not take this step to damage Julian personally,” he wrote. “We were not motivated by revenge. And we did not want to get our own hands on the material, or divert it to OpenLeaks. […] We will only return the material to Julian if and when he can prove that he can store the material securely and handle it carefully and responsibly. […] Julian will no doubt claim that we stole the material from him, so let me repeat this once again: We have absolutely no intention of publishing the material ourselves.”

On Saturday, WikiLeaks issued a strongly worded statement warning Domscheit-Berg not to destroy the WikiLeaks archive, and accusing him (and, tellingly, him alone) of blackmail, of stealing and sabotage, and also of not being a founder of WikiLeaks, and not being a programmer, either, or an editor, director or architect, and again speaking vaguely of “legal action.”

WikiLeaks has been taking legal action against former employee, Daniel Domscheit-Berg who was suspended from the organization in September. The reasons for these actions will gradually become clear, but some are hinted at by extracts from Domscheit-Berg’s book.

In the book Domscheit-Berg confesses to various acts of sabotage against the organization. The former WikiLeaks staffer admits to having damaged the sites primary submission system and stolen material.

The sabotage and concern over motives led to an overhaul of the entire submission system, an ongoing project that is not being expedited due to its complex nature and the organization´s need to focus its resources on publication and defense.

Well, it has been a long time (over a year, according to Inside WikiLeaks) since Assange first began threatening Daniel Domscheit-Berg with these kinds of things. And Julian Assange does not lack for money, legal support or goodwill, in the hacker community and beyond. (Even Domscheit-Berg has consistently praised his courage, and the brilliance and power of the idea that he originated.) And yet there has been no “legal action,” perhaps because, as Domscheit-Berg claims, the OpenLeaks crew have committed no crimes.

After Inside WikiLeaks came out, no lawsuits, no demands for corrections and no concrete refutation of anything in the book came from WikiLeaks, which suggested to me that Domscheit-Berg’s side of the story is not just the less-hysterical one, it’s also the more credible one. Though to judge from the smell of napalm on Twitter, I am at present in the minority.

Domscheit-Berg and his colleagues are in a rough spot, though, and no mistake. A blog post by Fefe from last Thursday does an excellent job of describing the damned if they do, damned if they don’t predicament at OpenLeaks. If, as they claim, Domscheit-Berg, the architect and others left WikiLeaks exactly because sources weren’t being protected properly, what responsible course of action do they now have?

It would be silly to believe a random Twitter or three, but I will nevertheless report that the buzz over there seems to be that Domscheit-Berg will be releasing a statement of his own in Der Spiegel next week. He’ll need to. The #DDB hashtag currently yields a flood of results in which ignorance, cruelty and stupidity vie for top spot: he should be in jail; he is taking bribes; he’s in the pay of the German government, the CIA; he couldn’t “decrypt the leaks.” I’ll never understand how and why those who profess such respect for the free flow of information so often fail to provide themselves with any. It’s a real pity that this dust-up had to happen, because in an ideal world there would be more than one safe place for whistleblowers to share their material with the public. UPDATED TO ADD: Der Spiegel is indeed now reporting that Domscheit-Berg has taken responsibility for destroying the WikiLeaks archive.

As for Herr Schmitt, rumor has it that he has found a safe haven at the presumably peaceful, Assange-free residence of the Domscheit-Bergs senior.

Maria Bustillos is the author of Dorkismo and Act Like A Gentleman, Think Like A Woman.

Photo by Eric Richardson.