Monday, May 09, 2011

Wikileaks: Inside Julian Assange's War on Secrecy

My review from Friday's Liberal Democrat News.

WikiLeaks: Inside Julian Assange’s War on Secrecy
David Leigh and Luke Harding
Guardian Books, 2011, £9.99

Leigh and Harding tell the story of Wikileaks and its release of 250,000 secret diplomatic cables and classified files from the Afghan and Iraq wars. Their own paper, the Guardian, was one of the newspapers that was given this material, and they dissect its often fraught relationship with Wikileaks’ moving spirit Julian Assange.

This is very much the Guardian’s side of the story, but it is clear that Assange, by turns charming and impossible, is difficult to deal with. The book has obviously been written in a hurry and each chapter carries a subheading like “Emergency Operating Station Hammer, 40 miles east of Baghdad, Iraq, November 2009,” as though the authors half imagine they are writing a screenplay. Perhaps they have never got over seeing Paddy Considine play a Guardian journalist in The Bourne Ultimatum?

Julian Assange’s childhood was spent in hippy communes and as a teenager he entered the world of hacking – gaining unauthorised access to government and commercial computer systems just for the fun of it. Like many pioneers in the world of computing, he dropped out of formal education before completing his first degree.

His hacking soon came to have a political edge, and he dreamed up the idea of Wikileaks – a way of allowing people to leak documents while being sure they would remain anonymous. Such a system, incidentally, would have been useful to Sarah Tisdall, who was gaoled in the 1980s for leaking details of cruise missile deployment to the Guardian after the newspaper revealed her identity to the authorities.

Assange was an idealist, believing that he need only lay bare the workings of international diplomacy and power politics for the world to rise up in anger. But things turned out to be more complex than that: material needs to be analysed and put into context before the public can understand it. So when an extraordinary collection of American cables and files came into his possession he put together a consortium of newspapers to publish them.

Even when this trove was published, Assange was probably disappointed at the reaction. The idea that US foreign policy is wicked is taken for granted by most Guardian readers. When they read of civilian casualties, corruption and arm twisting it confirmed their prejudices rather than roused them to action.

It was in the Third World that the revelations had more effect, with local journalists begging for the material on their own countries. The recent uprising in Tunisia has been called “the first Wikileaks revolution”. The Wikileaks website continues to make the most astonishing revelations, most recently revealing the files on numerous prisoners at Guantanamo Bay.

Meanwhile in Britain, the drama of Assange’s remand and then bailing of allegations of sexual assault in Sweden has taken centre stage. While this does look very convenient for the Americans, no evidence of their interference in the process has emerged. Leigh and Harding suggest Assange has displayed rather Antipodean attitudes to women in the past, and the argument “I disapprove of American foreign policy therefore he must be innocent” is a pretty thumping non sequitur.

The real victim in this book is not Assange but Bradley Manning, the former pupil of Tasker Milward School in Haverfordwest, who leaked the material on Iraq and Afghanistan that made Wikileaks famous. It is easy to sympathise with a thoughtful young man, stationed in the heat and boredom of Iraq, who saw these secrets and horrors every day on his screen every day and wanted the world to know what was really going on. If nothing else, the Americans’ cavalier attitude towards cyber security is astounding.

Today Manning is being held under oppressive conditions in America – some believe the authorities want to force him to implicate Assange more deeply and give them a pretext to seek the extradition. Whatever the rights and wrongs of this, there is a support site for him.

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