04.07.10

The Man Behind WikiLeaks

Julian Assange, founder of the investigative Web site WikiLeaks, is the force behind a new viral video showing U.S. soldiers shooting journalists in Iraq. Sam Bungey interviews the man U.S. intelligence regards as a potential security threat.

A couple of weeks ago, the editorial team of WikiLeaks met in the back room of a fish and chip shop in Reykyavik, Iceland, to examine freshly decrypted footage of a 2007 U.S. military killing in Baghdad, deeming what they saw proof of a military coverup. Outside, spies were taking pictures.

An intimidating surveillance campaign followed involving at least one U.S. government agency, said Julian Assange, director and spokesman for the investigative Web site. At one stage, he wrote in a tweet: “If anything happens to us, you know why, it is our Apr 5 film. And you know who is responsible.”

“If the Pentagon wishes to be perceived as having any integrity as an institution, it must immediately reopen the investigation,” says Assange. “There has been no admission from the military of anything like what happened to Saeed.”

Despite the ominous warning, Assange was on hand in Washington, D.C. on the scheduled date to release the film to a meeting of the National Press Club. Reached by phone in the back of a taxi yesterday, Assange reasoned that, if you’re being tailed by spooks, the belly of the beast is a good place to hide.

“In terms of U.S. surveillance, America is probably the safest place in the world,” he said, “[I’m still here] for the same reason Guantanamo is not in the U.S.”

The chilling, incriminating video shows Reuters journalists Namir Noor-Eldeen, and Saeed Chmagh and roughly six others mowed down Apache helicopter gunfire, after soldiers apparently mistook camera bags for AK-47s and RPGs. Later, a van full of people, including two children, was shot as they tried to evacuate the injured Chmagh. In the accompanying audio, the soldiers heartily congratulate one another on the killings, which totaled 12, with one laughing as he runs over a body in an armored vehicle.

Assange said that WikiLeaks somehow managed to keep the content of the footage secret, increasing its impact. But he is disappointed by what he sees as a misplaced emphasis on the first round of shooting in the video in the press by military apologists seeking to paint the event as a tragic, but ultimately excusable, case of battlefield sloppiness. Meanwhile, the second part of the film, showing children and unarmed men shot during an attempted rescue operation, is ignored: “It reframes the whole issue and maybe helps push back a little. But of course the most flagrant violation of moral codes is with the shooting of people lying prostrate, wounded.”

The primary focus of outrage, in his view, should be what he sees as an attempt to cover up what happened in the video: “If the Pentagon wishes to be perceived as having any integrity as an institution it must immediately reopen the investigation. There has been no admission from the military of anything like what happened to Saeed.”

Reuters failed over the last two years to obtain the footage, suing under the Freedom of Information Act. Meanwhile, WikiLeaks received the video as an encrypted file more than three months ago, working through more than a million passwords to unlock the footage.

“We have had a number of military whistleblowers,” says Assange, “We usually don’t even know the source information. But it is clear that this footage was held by someone in the U.S. military.”

WikiLeaks’ core service is the confidential transmission of classified documents, a secure, anonymous way to blow the whistle on any and all things, in an era adverse to confidential communication. Electronically submitted files are routed through servers in either Sweden or Belgium, shielded by those countries’ protective journalistic laws. Users can also send material by post, or, in a more challenging proposition, drop stuff off in person. WikiLeaks claims to have released over one million documents since it was founded in 2007. The result is a sort of public Deep Throat for all tomorrow's scandals.

The group’s nine-member advisory board engages in a form of augmented investigative reporting. Assange has spent time in the far-flung locales of many of WikiLeaks' most important scoops—banker fraud in Iceland, Internet blacklisting in Australia, and, in Kenya, financial fraud by former President Daniel Arap Moi, information that arguably swung the 2007 election. The site has also published Guantanamo Bay detention manuals on stress positions and the use of attack dogs, as well as the rules of engagement for troops in Iraq and the Climategate emails from East Anglia University, all picked up by mainstream media outlets.

“We do all the traditional investigative journalism techniques as well as the high technological work,” he says, “We worked to develop a rapport with people. Sometimes things just appear after we have developed the relationship.”

In a first for the organization, WikiLeaks sent reporters into New Baghdad to augment their most recent release, obtaining death certificates, hospital records, and photographs of the injured children from the video. (The project has been given a separate Web site: collateralmurder.org) The press conference was also a new tactic, as is a promotional film in pre-production in New York.

“We projected journalist force in Baghdad and projected force in Washington to show our continued position as an organization,” Assange said.

The show of strength comes as WikiLeaks re-establishes operations after shutting down in February from lack of funding. Assange says he and a few others have contributed 95 percent of the running costs over the past four years.

Assange looks like central casting sourced him for a left-wing techie character in a Bond film, with a gray mop of hair tucked behind the ears and a deep, internationally inflected Australian accent. He was born 35-odd years ago (he’d like the exact date to remain unpublished) on Magnetic Island, a tiny Pacific outcrop on the Great Barrier Reef, and says he has attended 37 schools and six universities.

He became interested in what Internet technology could do for reporting as a Melbourne-based Web activist based in the mid-1990s. But traditional journalism is a trade that he has little time for. “I’m not sure that journalists do have any particular skills,” he says, “I consider myself an activist. My cause is the accurate historical record of our time.”

Critics see Assange as a hack-tavist whose site runs without ethical filters; indeed not all of the organization’s work squares with its scrupulous stated aims. The site published the latest script in the Indiana Jones franchise, Welsey Snipes’ Social Security number in a copy of one of his tax bills—and was responsible for airing the contents of Sarah Palin’s personal Yahoo email account. (On his show at the time, Bill O’Reilly tasked fellow Fox News presenter Megyn Kelly personally with ensuring that those responsible go to jail for a long time.)

And according to Army counterintelligence plans, obtained, fittingly, by WikiLeaks last month, the organization’s repeated release of secret military information represents a potential “operational security threat to the U.S. Army.” In the report the agency goes on to concoct “a plan to fatally marginalize” (Assange’s words) WikiLeaks, by discrediting or exposing its sources.

But for its supporters, Assange is a cult hero, inveighing against a media empire that rallied nations to war in Iraq and Afghanistan. Assange imagines himself working to create a world where nefarious government deeds are made impossible by an unimpeded system of whistleblowing. In a video posted on YouTube, he argues: “Every action a government makes is at some stage a plan. Information about what a government is doing is revealed to the public before it becomes a concrete plan, will cancel, or change, or mitigate the action… government can only be a force for justice if it is only able to make just plans.”

Sam Bungey grew up in London, went to university in Dublin and co-founded Mongrel, a monthly magazine about Irish youth culture. A freelance journalist, he was recently a reporter and online editor at the Vineyard Gazette in Massachusetts. He lives in Sydney.