What WikiLeaks tells us about America, and American journalism

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We live in an era defined by information. Few organizations have done more to identify, and accelerate, this state of affairs than WikiLeaks. With its central idea, that transparency is a weapon to be brandished online, WikiLeaks has created a model of political action as it has become a cultural archetype.

Though WikiLeaks emerged into the public consciousness a decade ago, debates about its character, meaning, and significance remain unresolved. These are often conducted by older media organizations that characterize it as both an antagonist and an unruly protégé, unable to disentangle the organization from its founder, Julian Assange.

Assange is currently engaged in a legal fight to resist his extradition to the United States on charges brought under the Espionage Act. The charges, which effectively criminalize journalism in the world’s leading (flawed) democracy, pose an extremely grave threat to freedom around the world and must be opposed, as even the New York Times, which is otherwise hostile to Assange, stated in an editorial last year. The dangerous precedent set by Assange’s case is already visible in Brazil’s attempted prosecution of the American journalist Glenn Greenwald for his role in exposing corruption in that country’s far-right government, and is of a piece with the US Republican Party’s increasing hostility to the media in general.

I knew Assange in 2011, when he lived at Ellingham Hall in Norfolk, in the east of England. He was at the height of his fame, and wearing an electronic ankle bracelet as a condition of his bail. He was then in the midst of another prolonged, vigorous attempt to evade extradition—to Sweden, on charges of sexual assault and rape in connection with encounters he had had with two women in the country in 2010. These charges were finally dropped in November 2019. Assange’s refusal “to take responsibility for his misconduct,” as one of his accusers wrote on Twitter, had effectively run out the clock.

I spent about six months working with Assange on a memoir, a book he wanted to be not only the story of his life, but also a kind of manifesto for WikiLeaks. In the end, no coherent manifesto appeared in the book, and the question of the significance of WikiLeaks has never been resolved.

My feeling is that the era of information has exposed critical flaws in our broken news media and the cynical information economy it serves. Perversely, an examination of these flaws reveals a greater affinity between Assange and the media than either would likely care to admit.

 

WHEN I WORKED ON ASSANGE’S BOOK, I was the research assistant to his ghostwriter, Andrew O’Hagan. The book O’Hagan and I had in mind was a revealing, personal memoir. Assange, though, refused to produce any such book. I became, briefly, the object of his fury when he blamed me for the breakdown of the project.

O’Hagan had rented an old row house in Bungay, a town near Ellingham Hall, that overlooked a church graveyard. We sat with our laptops in the bright kitchen each morning, O’Hagan writing the manuscript on a computer that, on Assange’s instructions, was never connected to the internet, and me tracking down bits of research.

Assange is fascinating as a public figure, but like many celebrities he is a dull person to be around. He often flaked on our meetings, or wasted time. When that happened, O’Hagan and I sat in the front room by the fire, watching news of the unfolding catastrophe in Libya or protests against austerity back in London. When Assange was ready to work, usually in the afternoon, we would drive over to Ellingham, or later to another house in the area WikiLeaks rented as an office. O’Hagan would sit down with Assange and begin a conversation about his childhood, or Kenya, or university, or Wandsworth prison, or Sweden, or his enemies in the media, or anything else.

At O’Hagan’s request I’d seek out details on things like the climate of northern Australia (for atmospheric childhood description purposes), or the political situation in Kenya during Assange’s time there in 2007. I listened to all the interview tapes, too, and would sometimes pick up a loose thread here or there and suggest that we return to it. Assange liked to talk about himself and his adventures, but his vanity was mixed with a maddening vagueness. A request for more detail on his time in Cairo just prompted him to show me selfies from the house he’d stayed in while he was there.

I didn’t like Assange very much. He showed no interest in the people around him, and gave no indication that he cared for or valued their input. He had a high-handed, arrogant manner, not only with junior people like me, but with his peers and collaborators, too. But I shared his contempt for the hypocrisy of the Obama administration and its admirers in the press, and felt a political sympathy with WikiLeaks, which at the time was focused on revealing the hidden horrors in America’s foreign policy adventures. I wanted the book to contextualize Assange and account for WikiLeaks as a political phenomenon. In other words, instead of psychoanalyzing Assange and extrapolating WikiLeaks from it, I wanted to identify the principles that underlie it.

I found one element of the answer in the Ellingham Hall guestbook on November 29, 2010, the morning after WikiLeaks began publishing some of a vast tranche of American diplomatic cables. Assange had written: “Today with my friends we tried to bring modern history to the world.” It was a recurring theme. The passphrase with which Assange encrypted the database, as revealed in a book by the journalists David Leigh and Luke Harding, was:

ACollectionOfDiplomaticHistorySince_1966_ToThe_PresentDay#

Assange felt the cables were history, in and of themselves. At the time, I was applying for a PhD in history, and found this presentation interesting. It was a view that echoed the very foundations of the discipline. Leopold von Ranke, generally held to be the pioneer of history as an area of academic study, developed his careful, empirical approach to early modern history by scrutinizing the Venetian diplomatic archives. He rejected the Hegelian idea that societal change could be understood with reference to an overarching philosophy of history.

Instead, he hoped by the careful accumulation of evidence to simply show things wie es eigentlich gewesen, or “how they essentially were.” For von Ranke, the central question for a historian was not how, or why, but what. The trouble is that, as Karl Marx wrote, “the outward appearance and the essence of things” do not “directly coincide.” If they did, “all science would be superfluous.”

In other words, if all that was required to know the essential truth was to assemble The Facts, analysis would be superfluous. But it isn’t. No matter what quantity of facts one assembles.

 

In attempting to battle Trump with “the truth,” the American media has evinced the same simplistic faith as Assange in the capacity of information itself to be a driver of political change.

 

AT ITS MOST BASIC LEVEL, WikiLeaks doesn’t require much explanation. Democratic government purports to depend on the consent of the governed, and consent is worthless if not properly informed. Or, as Assange put it in an email to the Pentagon Papers leaker Daniel Ellsberg in December 2006, “We believe that injustice is answered by good governance and for there to be good governance there must be open governance.”

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But though Assange professed a commitment to “justice,” O’Hagan and I never got a clear idea of what it meant to him. He gave very little impression of how his time in the intellectual and political hinterland had shaped his perspectives. The challenge was made worse by his unwillingness to commit seriously to the task of book writing, even before the whole project collapsed and he withdrew from the contract in 2011.

We were left to reverse engineer based on the clues he had left here and there online. Assange was born in 1971, and seems to have developed his ideas in the context of the politics of the late 1990s. (He registered the domain leaks.org in 1999, though he never put it to any use at that time.) Like Naomi Klein, whose No Logo was also published in 1999, he exhibits a hostility to globalization and multinational corporations. 

Assange launched WikiLeaks eight years later, in January 2007, in Nairobi, at the World Social Forum. This annual meeting of civil society organizations emerged in 2001 from the alter-globalization movement, the idea that the world could and should become more interconnected, but that this process should not be driven by corporations or the governments of the Global North to facilitate profit accumulation. Assange, though, characteristically, viewed the dangers posed by corporations through the prism of secrecy. Writing on his blog in June 2007, he stated that “large multinationals, despite having a GDP and population comparable to Belgium, Denmark or New Zealand have nothing like their quality of civic freedoms. Internally they mirror the most pernicious aspects of the 1960s Soviet.”

At the time I, like most people probably, saw him as belonging somewhere on the left with me. His online breadcrumb trail led me to believe as much. In 2001, on the Cypherpunk mailing list, he had an argument with the libertarian technology journalist Declan McCullagh. McCullagh had posted messages supportive of laissez-faire capitalism and globalization, saying among other things that employees of multinational corporations in the Global South were free individuals entering into contracts that they were perfectly able to reject, and anyway that working for two dollars a day was better than life in a “mud hut.” In response, Assange outlined a few standard criticisms of markets and the unequal nature of the relationship between boss and employee.

He noted that the relationship between a large employer and its employees is “brutally asymmetric.” But he characterized this asymmetry as though it were primarily a problem of information:

One entity knows far more about the rules of the negotiation than the other. There’s you as a prospective employee and then there’s the local workplace monopoly with hundreds of industrial relations lawyers, psychologists, and other assorted strategists who’ll hand you a document thick with legalese and tell you where to sign. Without a legal team, you’ll never understand it or the political connections backing it up. And even if you do there’s a million other mugs to choose from who won’t.

He even defended workers’ forming and joining trade unions, but his defense of unions characterized collective action as something workers do in order to “increase their information processing and bargaining power.”

Surely, I felt, the greater problem is the fact that the employer has a local monopoly and loads of other available workers to choose from. For Assange, though, it was as if every political problem was reducible to the flow of information. This was important not only because making previously secret information public could help a population to know about this or that specific issue. His belief in the importance of information went deeper: the way that systems work, the way that governments work, could only be understood with reference to the exchange, the flow, and the concealment of information as a whole.

Writing on his blog in December 2006 (and in a similar vein on the left-wing website Counterpunch), Assange characterized governance as a form of “conspiracy,” a linked network of actors (“conspirators”) connected by the private exchange of information. Without the ability to share this information in secret, conspiracies would be disarmed. It followed that the true way to act politically was to acquire and publish information.

Populism was not the buzzword then that it is now, but Assange was a species of populist. His vision of the political order saw little space for mediating institutions. The open flow of information would both disarm those institutions and make possible the conditions for continued existence after their destruction. Publication was a form of populist short-circuiting.

It’s important to give Assange his due here by noting that publishers willing to defy powerful states and corporations are a vital public resource. The publication of state or corporate secrets is an act of significant bravery, often with important, positive political effects. Even in the liberal democratic world the press is far too submissive to power. Assange’s possible extradition to the United States can only worsen this state of affairs. 

WikiLeaks represented an important corrective impulse; the diplomatic cables in particular have armed us with dozens of important insights into global politics from the perspective of the US state, revealing new information about its actions and motivations. But for Assange, what was being revealed was not a set of stories about different coups, or arms deals, or protests, or bribes, but a whole system of power at work. To understand the way that power operated, and therefore to change it, you had to get everything and see everything. To collect and publish en masse.

He favored large data sets that could be mapped, with data points assigned a numerical value, inserted into a program, and analyzed in search of patterns. One early document released by WikiLeaks in November 2007 related to US Army procurement in Iraq. It showed that the Army was spending huge sums of money on equipment to help its soldiers avoid improvised explosive devices (IEDs), including equipment to jam the radio signals sometimes used by insurgents to detonate devices remotely.

Assange wrote on the WikiLeaks website that the document showed that “IEDs hit hard,” and added, “If we view IEDs as a rebel investment, to which the US must pay dividends in defensive equipment costs, then every insurgent dollar spent has a return on investment of somewhere around thousand fold.” It was as if this particular truth—which the insurgents themselves had presumably intuited already—could only be demonstrated by means of a numerical value concealed in a secret document.

As James Butler wrote for the London Review of Books, Assange sought to transcend politics through his faith in the idea that “mere facts…suggest their own solution.” But information is not and has never been enough. Military opacity and Nixonism are as strong as ever, despite the Pentagon Papers and Watergate. The NSA is still spying on everybody, and John Brennan didn’t suffer any consequences for lying to Congress.

We might also call Assange a conspiracy theorist. That’s not to say that there is anything untrue in the material he has published (though he has been shamefully willing to feed false narratives about the death of Seth Rich). Rather, to connect Assange to conspiracy is to comment on how he sees politics. Conspiracy thinking emerges in a mind that feels it has no agency to change anything or do anything, other than simply to reveal. It is a product of political stasis, and of the conviction—drummed into one’s head, again and again, by an incessant media—that there is no alternative. It is, as Matt Christman of the podcast Chapo Trap House puts it, “a spontaneous attempt to make sense of the world in the absence of class consciousness.”

Despite his evident hostility to elites, Assange’s whole approach reifies them as a separate caste. It is in their gift to determine truth, and then conceal it from everyone else. The revelation of that truth is the goal of liberationist politics. But Assange pays far too little mind to the capacity of ordinary people to create their own truths through political struggle.

 

America’s myth of itself says that the liberal subject, provided with the necessary information and free to participate in the public sphere, will eventually create a more perfect union.

 

IN ATTEMPTING TO BATTLE TRUMP WITH “THE TRUTH,” the American media has evinced the same simplistic faith as Assange in the capacity of information itself to be a driver of political change. This was most visible around the Mueller report and impeachment efforts but is mostly everywhere, all the time: the blind conviction that in the American public sphere there exists a common frame of reference against which the best ideas can be measured and will win out, if only all the right information is available. Trump’s tax returns and telephone transcripts, we hope, will finally bring him down.

The truth is vital, but it’s not reducible to a set of discrete facts, numbers, or documents. The rise of fact-checking features and Twitter accounts serves to highlight this, as journalists choose to focus only on those parts of political discourse that can be easily measured.

The facts themselves are not what is at issue. There is no shared basis upon which to identify them. What is really at issue are conflicts between political tribes, ideologies, and material interests. Many journalists know this, but on an institutional level some of their employers seem determined not to admit it.

That seems, to me, to be a response to an idea these institutions hold deep down: that politics and society cannot fundamentally change. If the structure of society is not up for debate, there is no place for structural critiques. All that matters is assembling chunks of information that might change the surface appearance, debunk a health plan here, reveal an air strike there. Far too little attention has been paid to what happens next when the discussion is done.

America’s myth of itself says that the liberal subject, provided with the necessary information and free to participate in the public sphere, will eventually create a more perfect union. Although this is a notionally progressive vision of history, a bending “arc,” it is nonetheless static. Nothing changes underneath.

It is a deep and bizarre irony that Julian Assange shared this much with the editors of the New York Times. Information may, sometimes, bring people to the streets or to the ballot box; but the real change depends on what they do after that.

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Harry Stopes is a writer and historian of modern Europe. He lives in Berlin.