By Indi Samarajiva
Behind every conspiracy, there’s a Private First Class, getting the coffee. There have always been leaks. WikiLeaks is just a digital bucket.
Bradley Manning had been busted down to Private First Class for assaulting an officer. It was the latest in a series of troubles for the 22 year old blond, almost cherubic soldier. He wrote in e-mails that he felt “regularly ignored” by his superiors “except when I had something essential, then it was back to ‘Bring me coffee, then sweep the floor’” — NYTimes. This was compounded by the pressure of being gay (by many accounts) in an army where that was still grounds for discharge and discrimination.
In a chat with computer hacker Adrian Lamo he confessed “ive been so isolated so long… i just wanted tobe nice, and live a normal life… but events kept forcing me to figureout ways to survive… smart enough to know whats going on, but helplessto do anything… no-one took any notice of me” (spelling errors in original).
What his superiors didn’t know and what he foolishly confessed to Lamo was that he was doing much more than getting the coffee. While stationed in Iraq, Manning had access to SIPRNET, the American government’s classified version of the Internet. In dissatisfaction he had reportedly started bringing in CD-RWs with music and overwriting them with the leaked documents. As he told Lamo:
“Lets just say *someone* I know intimately well, has been penetrating US classified networks, mining data like the ones described… and been transferring that data from the classified networks over the ‘air gap’ onto a commercial network computer… sorting the data, compressing it, encrypting it, and uploading it to a crazy white hairedaussie who can’t seem to stay in one country very long =L”
That someone was most likely Bradley Manning himself, who — thanks to Adrian Lamo turning him in — now rests in jail. That crazy white haired Aussie was Julian Assange.
Julian Paul Assange was born in Australia. Since childhood, he’s been on the run. As he co-wrote in the book Underground — “Emerald [Australia] was merely a stopping point, one of dozens, as his mother shuttled her child around the continent trying to escape from a psychopathic former de facto … Sometimes Mendax went to school. Often he didn’t. The Sydney computer system was a far more interesting place to muck around in than the rural high school.”
Mendax was the online name Assange used at the time. It means nobly untrue, or the pretty white lies we tell ourselves. That simple handle would later come to describe the secrets he spent his adult life uncovering.
In his youth Assange got his thrills in much the same way as Manning. Instead of leaking from inside an organisation, however, he broke into them from the outside. He hacked into the computer networks of Australian universities, Nortel and even American military computers. At age 21 he got into serious trouble and pleaded guilty to 24 counts of hacking and received a fine. The prosecutor, however, said “there is just no evidence that there was anything other than sort of intelligent inquisitiveness and the pleasure of being able to — what’s the expression — surf through these various computers.” He did technically bad things, but Julian Assange was not necessarily a bad guy.
In fact, he became an activist. When Assange’s youthful marriage fell apart, he had to fight for custody of his son, Daniel. In that fight, he ran into an Australian bureaucracy that had little inclination to care. “What we saw was a great bureaucracy that was squashing people,” his mother Claire told the New Yorker. She and her son began encouraging government servants to leak inside information. In this way, Assange learned technical skills from hacking and social tactics from his bitter custody battle. What he lost, however, was all colour in his hair.
In 2006, Assange’s ideas and experience became code in the form of WikiLeaks. That site was, essentially, a secure place where sources could leave documents and journalists could pick them up. The documents would then be vetted and given to mainstream newspapers for the largest impact possible. According to their website:
“WikiLeaks has combined high-end security technologies with journalism and ethical principles. Like other media outlets conducting investigative journalism, we accept (but do not solicit) anonymous sources of information. Unlike other outlets, we provide a high security anonymous drop box fortified by cutting-edge cryptographic information technologies.”
Contrary to popular news buzz, however, WikiLeaks is not an avowed enemy of the United States. In 2006, Assange wrote “Our primary targets are those highly oppressive regimes in China, Russia and Central Eurasia, but we also expect to be of assistance to those in the West who wish to reveal illegal or immoral behaviour in their own governments and corporations.”
Indeed, at the beginning, its early scoops were corruption in Kenya, illegal activity in a Swiss Bank, and internal documents from the shadowy Scientology religion.
Over time, however, WikiLeaks has become famous for its exposure of American abuses, beginning with the leak of a Guantanamo Bay operations manual to a video of civilians and journalists being killed in Iraq to detailed dossiers on the war in Afghanistan. The current scoop is the release of around 250,000 diplomatic cables, possibly the most innocuous material of the lot. Surprisingly to Assange, this information is getting much more press than the death and destruction WikiLeaks had documented before.
“I am so angry,” Assange told the New Yorker, talking about data WikiLeaks had released on the US war machine. “This was such a fantastic leak: the Army’s force structure of Afghanistan and Iraq, down to the last chair, and nothing.”
What It Means
Some have criticised WikiLeaks for the essentially conversational nature of ‘Cablegate’, but that is only one part of their work. While the mainstream media has latched on to stories like Libyan dictator Qaddafi’s affection for his voluptuous Ukranian nurse and David Miliband’s self-interested needling of Sri Lanka for votes, WikiLeaks is actually a much bigger project. And growing. Indeed, for the value of such a project, it suffices to return to the words of Bradley Manning, in the conversation that would seal his fate.
“Hypothetical question: if you had free reign overclassified networks for long periods of time… say, 8-9 months… and yousaw incredible things, awful things… things that belonged in the publicdomain, and not on some server stored in a dark room in Washington DC…what would you do?”
Young Bradley Manning chose to leak. Hundreds of others the world over have chosen to leak as well. Once they were just drops in a bucket, but with the advent of WikiLeaks, those insignificant drops are fast becoming a flood.