The WikiLeaks mutineer

Berliner Daniel Domscheit-Berg, chatted with Exberliner about an intense three years in the organisation, Julian Assange’s power-tripping personality and his own new whistleblower platform OpenLeaks.

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Photo by Lindsay Isola

No one knows the inner workings of WikiLeaks and its founder better than 32-year-old Daniel Domscheit-Berg, who worked for the organization between 2007 and 2010. Under the pseudonym of Daniel Schmitt, he served as its spokesman and was actively involved in accepting and publishing the documents leaked through the network.

After a dispute with Assange, Domscheit-Berg left WikiLeaks in September 2010. With his technical know-how and his experience handling highly sensitive data, he launched a new platform, OpenLeaks, in January. A member of the German hacker association Chaos Computer Club (CCC), he was an architect of the Iceland Modern Media Initiative (IMMI), a law designed to protect investigative journalism.

His book Inside WikiLeaks: My Time with Julian Assange at the World’s Most Dangerous Website was published in German and English in February.

In your book, Julian Assange comes across as a charismatic and idealistic anarchist who slowly but surely turns into an autocrat seeking control over everything and everyone. Is that correct?

I would rather consider the anarchist to be me. Proudhon and Kropotkin are the two philosophers that influenced me the most. I don’t think Julian is an anarchist. He is more of a leader. I am anti-leader in some way. But other than that, your perception is quite correct.

It all sounds like a clash between totalitarian and democratic systems…

Yes, something like that. It was a little bit like the Bolshevik revolution.

Power to the ‘soviets’, as opposed to ‘the people’ – you’re standing for the masses?

Julian and I wanted social change towards a more transparent, more just world. The change should come from the masses! The problem is that people always outsource their responsibility to some sort of leader. They want someone else to bring the change, and then they blame him if it doesn’t work out. I think the future needs fewer leaders, fewer gurus, fewer people thinking they are the ones bringing about the change. That was one of the general differences between Julian and me.

Is this realisation part of the coming-of-age process you describe in the book?

For a very long time, as many others did, I believed so strongly in this project that I was ready to do anything for it to work out. This was an immature perspective. When I started perceiving that it was not about our initial goals anymore, but about the money, power and [Assange’s] position, I felt it became irresponsible to blindly commit to the project any longer.

He was a bit like a mentor to you – did you feel disappointed, betrayed?

Yes. That’s a part of the story. There is no doubt that Julian had an enormous influence on me. He is a man with many extreme talents… and, I realised, a lot of extreme deficiencies. At some point he developed into someone different than who I thought he was. Looking back, I understand he probably always had that tendency toward paranoia, to see conspiracies in a lot of things. Also, to feel superior to others, cleverer and smarter.

But you do admit at one point that every big movement needs a charismatic personality people can identify with.

Yes, but this is not the same. A public face that is smart and can inspire people is good. The problem is when that person uses that position to abuse others or to make up his own set of rules – and dismisses everybody else’s thoughts.

Even for the sake of a higher cause, like bringing some hidden truth to the people?

But the question is motivation. Whistleblowing and transparency and bringing more information to people – whether it is top-down or bottom-up does not matter – is just a tool, a tool for freeing people, making them conscious individuals. For Julian, it was, or at least that is my feeling, a tool for building his own position. He made it commercial!

WikiLeaks has become a brand. Is this book a way to cash in on it?

If that’s the case, I’m part of the brand. But it was never my intention. I was the longest involved person working actively on WikiLeaks on a daily basis with Julian. I have built up the credibility of this project. It is part of my responsibility to express my concerns… If you look at what’s happening with this new NDA, I might be the last insider ever to be able to speak freely about WikiLeaks.

A nondisclosure agreement?

Yes, that’s the latest development: everyone working for WikiLeaks will have to sign a NDA! This is all about Assange consolidating his power! Julian has obviously been using the whistleblower thing to build his own non-transparent network – not because he believed in achieving transparency in a society through whistleblowing.

Did WikiLeaks ever pay or get money for a piece of information?

There was no money involved. Never. When we received the ‘Collateral Murder’ video, Julian’s first reaction was to sell it to CNN for a million dollars. Every one of us told him to go to hell. We had regular discussions of how to market the information we were getting. How to get into deals with media partners. They had this idea of selling the material by selling the pre-produced videos. Before I left, nothing was really established. But I know that with some Iraq material that was published after I left, there was a commercial deal involved.

Aside from money or personal spite, what can possibly motivate someone to risk his job – or even his freedom, in Brad Manning’s case – to become a whistleblower?

Sometimes someone who witnessed something immoral, unjust or corrupt will be willing to defect, break a contract or an oath for the sake of his conscience or his personal values. It’s a bit like a safety net on the basis of intelligent and moral human thinking.

What is your motivation?

The Dalai Lama’s approach has been a big influence in my life. In the globalised world, whatever I do – the clothes I buy, the meat I eat – has an influence on everyone else, a global impact, whether on the rain forest in Brazil or child labour in Asia. So, as a citizen, I need information to decide and understand what is the right thing to do.

The problem is that a lot of information that would make a difference is kept secret. That why I got involved with WikiLeaks: to find a meaningful, easy and simple way for this information to come out would make a better and more just world. Stuttgart 21 in Germany and the Iraq War are good examples of what should not have happened if people knew what was going on.

Information has become a precious currency, like gold in the old days. Is info-digging a new business?

Well, the tool is new in a sense – you technically could not construct something like that before – but the problem is old. When people knew where they could dig for gold, that was at that time a very valuable piece of information. In every time, whoever possesses the information has an advantage over the others. In our knowledge society – our information society – having better intelligence than others means you are at an advantage. It’s power.

Once you find yourself trading something everyone wants, aren’t you automatically part of the game?

That depends on how you enter the loop between government, industry and big media. Do you make the information available to a small number of people: the political and intelligence community, the commercial or investment elite? Or, do you break the loop by enabling ordinary citizens to get the same information.

Your new platform OpenLeaks is supposed to be more decentralized, i.e. give control over the information to the source, to the whistleblowers themselves. Is that your way to break the loop?

When you get important information, someone has to decide where this information should go. I think it must be the source that decides. If the entity that receives it decides, that entity is then taking a political decision. OpenLeaks provides a mechanism to distribute this important information to a wider audience without making political decisions.

Some NGOs and three media firms are partnering with OpenLeaks. Who are they?

I cannot tell you now. I think our media partners want to keep the surprise for themselves.

Do they provide financial support?

No, they don’t. Contrary to popular belief, spread around by WikiLeaks, such a platform does not need infinite amounts of money. For now, we are funding ourselves and we have around €1400 in donations. It is all going to be very transparent.

The transparency sounds good, but does this mean that those media ‘partners’ will have some sort of exclusivity over the information you get?

No, that’s not how it’s going to be. The media want scoops. I do not like it, but I cannot change it. So, if they don’t get that slight advantage, why would some of them invest in it? All I can do is appeal to this kind of structure, so that you, as a media entity, are interested in investing your resources, and then I ensure that after you’re done with it, everyone else gets access to the information.

What’s the difference between OpenLeaks and, say, a press agency?

We are not involved in news making. We are just a technology project that makes sure that information gets from A to B. For free. All we ask from our partners is that they contribute infrastructure to keep the operational costs as low as possible. There are legal advantages too. If a media partner houses servers, we get much better legal protection.

Ultimately, how can you protect yourself from something as banal as political censorship? Any angry government can cut you offline. Even the IMMI law that protects online media and their contributors can do little against that. Plus, not everyone can base its operations in Iceland…

A law applying only to the digital world will not work, as people are connected through service providers and located in particular states where they have to obey the laws. The internet is not in the ether; it’s based in fibres and cables. I mean, you can go satellite, but there are other questions. Who will support the infrastructure? Who will produce the power for maintenance? So it has to be based somewhere in a real state. Iceland is not aiming to become an internet host for every private person in the world – only for media entities that are facing problems in places like India, China and Korea.

How’s freedom of expression in Europe these days?

In Germany you are generally fine, but in England people can sue you under libel law, so Guardian, BBC, New Statesman, Independent are regularly under self-censorship because they have legal pressures. Hungary has a big problem with the new laws. And Italy, with the power concentrated around Berlusconi.