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Sleeping with the enemy

Sleeping with the enemy
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First Published: Fri, Apr 01 2011. 08 46 PM IST

Inside WikiLeaks: Jonathan Cape,279 pages, Rs 499.
Inside WikiLeaks: Jonathan Cape,279 pages, Rs 499.
Updated: Fri, Apr 01 2011. 08 46 PM IST
Think back on the last few years in Julian Assange’s life. Ignore some of the specifics of the story—the website, the rape allegations, the diplomatic controversies, the paranoia—and instead focus on the boom and bust (and boom?) cycle, if you will, of the man’s public reputation.
If you’ve been following Indian cricket closely for the last few years it is easy to find an interesting parallel here at home. Assange, in many ways, is living the life of the small-town cricketer who suddenly makes it big. Maybe even becomes captain of the Indian cricket team.
In the beginning the love for him is universal. All the profiles in print and on TV are thinly veiled puff pieces.
Inside WikiLeaks: Jonathan Cape,279 pages, Rs 499.
And then slowly the story begins to change. The small-town boy is less than humble in a press conference. Perhaps he is spotted in one too many television advertisements. And then the final straw—he makes the wrong call on the field. India lose.
He is a national embarrassment. We hate him. Down with this arrogant upstart. Who does he think he is?
How dare he?
And so it has been with Julian Assange.
When the Assange-founded WikiLeaks first began airing the world’s dirtiest, most sinister linen, he was hailed as a hero. The ultimate subversive living the subversive dream. Here was one man with a small band of supporters bringing governments and corporations and investment banks to their knees.
Assange and gang believe that public and private organizations hoard too much information from the public, the same public these organizations are supposed to serve and often depend on for survival. WikiLeaks believes that by revealing the truth and by “providing a universal way for the revealing of suppressed and censored injustices” we could hope to rein in these organizations a little.
Subsequently Assange’s fortunes have fallen somewhat. Daniel Domscheit-Berg was perhaps Assange’s most important lieutenant in the early days of WikiLeaks. Starting with setting up hardware to eventually becoming a spokesperson, Domscheit-Berg was always a part of the innermost WikiLeaks circle.
And then earlier this year he fell out with Assange.
Inside WikiLeaks is Domscheit-Berg’s version of the Assange-WikiLeaks story told from the perspective of a key insider.
In theory this book should be compelling reading. For all its media ubiquity, not a lot is known about the organization itself or about Assange.
Inside WikiLeaks provides a readable but ultimately unmoving account of these things.
Assange, unsurprisingly, looms over everything and everyone else in this account. Whenever he appears our ears prick up and we take notice:
“I love the Swiss chocolate drink and for the rest of our tour I couldn’t wait to get back home and make myself a huge cup of cocoa. But when we arrived back in Wiesbaden, the cocoa powder would be all gone. Julian had at some point torn open the packages and poured the contents straight into his mouth.”
When Assange goes away so does our attention.
This is not entirely Domscheit-Berg’s fault. You can’t blame him for having a vanilla personality in comparison with Assange’s mad tutti-frutti genius.
He is a bully: “If there were four slices of Spam, he would eat three and leave one for me.”
Assange is a publicity hound. Assange is a hypocrite. Assange is a child. Assange is a liability.
Yet despite all this insight into what it is to live and work with Assange, the book is unsatisfying. It somehow leaves you with the feeling you get after reading a good Wikipedia entry—that’s all very nice, but I think I will buy a good book about this now.
However, there are some aspects of the book that are disturbing. Or at least worth thinking about. For one it never really tells you what motivates the people, including Assange and Domscheit-Berg, who worked at WikiLeaks. Why are they doing this? To achieve what ends? This is only ever explained in broad, hazy strokes.
Second, in several places WikiLeaks comes across as an organization as susceptible to the skulduggery and misrepresentation that it is trying to expose in others.
Domscheit-Berg says that they often lied about how good their tech was: “To create the impression of unassailability to the outside world, you only had to make the context as complicated and confusing as possible… It was the same principle used by terrorists and bureaucrats. The adversary can’t attack as long as he has nothing to grab hold of.” In reality their infrastructure was weak: “We were acting irresponsibly, playing a risky game with our sources’ trust and our supporters’ donations.”
WikiLeaks, it appears, wants you to give it the benefit of doubt. But only it and nobody else.
Domscheit-Berg’s interesting but incomplete book will hopefully be the first of many on this organization and its leader.
Write to lounge@livemint.com
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First Published: Fri, Apr 01 2011. 08 46 PM IST