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PROLOGUE: A brief history of Wikileaks (1)

(1) This account is based mainly on Gary Lord's online Wikileaks - a true history - This is an ongoing project. Two new chapters appeared after I thought I'd finished writing this article.

As a teenager in Australia in the 1980s, Julian Assange had explored the possibilities of hacking with a couple of friends calling themselves the 'International Subversives'. This got him into trouble with the law through the 1990s. He wrote a book about this period of his life - Underground - which was made into a film. Subsequently in the 1990s, with a group called the Cypherpunks, he turned his attention to cryptography as a means of defending the Internet against state surveillance. He wrote a book about this too - Cypherpunks. Wikileaks was designed as a 'drop box' in which whistleblowers could with the highest degree of anonymity, deposit documents deemed to be in the public interest. The 'wiki' part of the project was that, as with Wikipedia, these documents would be made available in an accessible and searchable form and would then be open to analysis by whoever wished to engage in it. As the Wikileaks website explained: 'To the user, Wikileaks will look very much like Wikipedia. Anybody can post to it, anybody can edit it. No technical knowledge is required. Leakers can post documents anonymously and untraceably. Users can publicly discuss documents and analyse their credibility and veracity. Users can discuss interpretations and context and collaboratively formulate collective publications. Users can read and write explanatory articles on leaks along with background material and context. The political relevance of documents and their verisimilitude will be revealed by a cast of thousands.' (Lord, ch 2)

According to Assange (Lord, ch 1): 

'The creation of WikiLeaks was, in part, a response to Iraq. There were a number of whistle-blowers who came out in relation to Iraq, and it was clear to me that what the world was missing in the days of Iraq propaganda was a way for inside sources who knew what was really going on to communicate that information to the public ... The Iraq War was the biggest issue for people of my generation in the West. It was also the clearest case, in my living memory, of media manipulation and the creation of a war through ignorance.'

The domain name 'Wikileaks' was registered in 2006 and the site went into action in 2007, claiming that 'Our primary interests are oppressive regimes in Asia, the former Soviet bloc, sub-Saharan Africa and the Middle East, but we also expect to be of assistance to those in the West who wish to reveal unethical behaviour in their own governments and corporations ...' (Lord, ch 2). The advisory board included two Chinese dissidents and a Tibetan. China was the first country to block it - in January 2007, before it started publishing material. But in the end it was mainly, though not at all exclusively, Western-orientated documents that were leaked.

Documents posted in 2007 included material related to the looting of Kenya under President Moi (August), the complete equipment register for the US army in Afghanistan (September), and Iraq (November), (2) the employment of former STASI officials in Germany (October), the Standard Operating Procedure for the Joint Task Force in Guantanamo Bay (November) and in Camp Bucca, the largest prison in Iraq - 20,000 prisoners (December), and a report into the failure of the May 2004 siege of Fallujah (December). But given the quality of this material Assange was exasperated at the failure of the media to report it, publishing an attack on the British press - The Hidden Curse of Thomas Paine - in April 2008.

(2) This included the handling of the Iraq Development Fund, made up of seized Iraqi assets - $9,000,000,000 unaccounted for. 

The project nonetheless continued, including, in June 2008, the 219 page US military manual: 'Foreign international defense tactics, techniques and procedures for special forces' which the Wikileaks website summarised (Lord, ch 3) as 'What we learned about running death squads and propping up corrupt government in Latin America and how to apply it in other places.'  But it was in 2010 that Wikileaks really attracted attention with the huge trove of material leaked by Bradley Manning on 'SIGacts' (significant actions) reported in the Afghanistan and Iraq wars. 

In April 2010, Wikileaks released, under the title 'Collateral Murder', film of the killing of a group of Iraqis together with two Reuters journalists, an incident that occurred on 12th July 2007. What was particularly shocking about the killing was not just the lack of any justification for it but the glee with which it was done. The video made a huge impact (17 million views on Youtube at the time of writing). Manning was arrested in May 2010. This was not a failure in Wikileaks' security. Deeply disturbed about his own sexual identity and about what he increasingly felt was the criminal activities his own army was engaging in, he had, he thought, found an online friend in a fellow transsexual, with whom he could share his secrets but who, in the event, betrayed him.

The publicity given to Collateral Murder and the arrest of Bradley Manning persuaded Assange that for releasing the first tranche of the Manning SIGacts he should get some cover with the mainstream press, establishing the principle that Wikileaks was a publisher and therefore entitled to the legal protections given (supposedly) to the press. The first group of documents - the 'Afghan War Logs' - was released in conjunction with Der Spiegel, the New York Times and the Guardian. Publication began on 25th July - 75,000 documents covering a period between January 2004 and December 2009, 'the most comprehensive history of a war ever to be published during the course of the war - in other words at a time when they still had a chance of doing some good,' according to Assange (Lord, ch 6). Some 15,000 documents were held back in order to avoid putting lives in danger. 

On the 11th August, Assange went to Sweden, partly to arrange a change of Internet Service Provider and partly with an idea of asking for Swedish citizenship, imagining it to be a very liberal country well disposed to dissenting opinion. He was also due to give a talk to the broderskapsrorelsen, "the Brotherhood movement", a Christian group attached to the Social Democratic Party with a record of campaigning on issues of 'peace and disarmament, aid, human rights, refugee, migration and asylum issues, environmental issues and the Middle East, especially the Israel-Palestine conflict, as well as anti-racism, minority and LGBT issues'. (3) The woman organising the meeting, Anna Ardin, offered him the use of her very small flat for the 13th, saying she would be away, but she turned up unexpectedly. 

(3) Wikipedia account. It is now, since 2011, called the Social Democrats for Faith and Solidarity and is open to non-Christian believers, eg Muslims.

There are many accounts of what happened next. (4) I shall try to keep it brief, keeping to uncontested facts. More detail will be given in the following article.

(4) The most detailed account I have seen is by Celia Farber at It is not as one-sidedly sympathetic to Assange as the title might suggest.

They spent that night together in bed. According to Ardin this proved to be an unpleasant experience. Nonetheless, for the next few days they looked like a couple, with her acting as his personal assistant and press secretary. She arranged a party for him on the 14th August, tweeting on the morning of the 15th August: 'Sitting outdoors at 02.00 and hardly freezing with the world's coolest smartest people, it's amazing!' Assange continued to live in her flat despite offers of alternative accommodation.

On the 16th, however, Assange went off for the night to sleep with another woman he didn't know who had been rather ostentatiously angling for his attention. I shall call her 'SW'. Her name is all over the internet but I'm not sure that her anonymity isn't still under a very ineffective legal protection. Four days later, on Friday 20th, SW contacted Ardin, apparently still seeing her as Assange's personal assistant, wanting him to test for HIV/AIDS on the grounds that they had had unprotected sex. Ardin brought SW to a friend of hers, a woman police officer who, she said, could help find him. To SW's surprise and distress, however, the police officer recorded the request as an accusation of rape. SW refused to sign it. Early that afternoon she texted a friend saying she 'did not want to put any charges against JA but the police wanted to get a grip on him.' 

The next morning, Saturday, Assange woke up to learn from the headline of one of the leading Swedish tabloids, Expressen, that he had been arrested in his absence for rape. To quote the account by Geoffrey Robertson, acting at one time as Assange's lawyer: 'Within a few hours seven million people had clicked on the website of Expressen, the tabloid paper to which the story had been leaked. There was much less publicity a day or so later when the senior prosecutor of Stockholm [Eva Finne - PB] dropped the charge and said there was virtually nothing else to investigate.' (5) But Ardin then brought charges of her own, relating to the night they had spent together on the 13th, and soon afterwards the original accusation of rape was revived by another Swedish prosecutor Marianne Ny. Assange waited for some weeks in Sweden to be interviewed by Ny for the 'preliminary investigation', on the basis of which she would decide whether or not he should be charged. The interview still hadn't taken place when, on 27th September - with, as he thought, Marianne Ny's permission - he left Sweden for London.

(5) Geoffrey Robertson: Rather his own man - in court with tyrants, tarts and troublemakers, Penguin Random House, 2018, p.338. 

Jan Melzer (p.102) provides some background information that might or might not be relevant. He tells us that 'on 10th August, the US news website The Daily Beast reports United States officials as saying that the Obama administration is pressing Britain, Germany, Australia and other allied Western governments to consider opening criminal investigations against Assange and to severely limit his ability to travel across international borders.' Sweden had traditionally - through two world wars and the Cold War - been a neutral country. 'After the fall of the Berlin wall in 1989, however, the country rapidly gave up its traditional neutrality and became a de facto member of the Western security, intelligence and defence community led by the United States. Come 2010, Sweden is now a close ally of the US in Afghanistan and the broader "War on Terror," with a security policy that can only be described as subservient to US interests.' 

Assange's 'Unauthorised Autobiography' (it was supposedly co-authored by Assange and Andrew O'Hagan but was repudiated by Assange - 'People think you're helping me write my book, but actually I'm helping you write your novel' - Lord, ch.1) quotes him as saying of Sweden (p.148): 'indeed the decision to go to Afghanistan was mainly based on feminist principles; despite the women's movement traditional anti-war stance, they deplored understandably the Taliban's treatment of women and sanctioned, less understandably, bombing as a way of opposing it.' (6)

(6)  Julian Assange: The unauthorised autobiography [or Julian Assange, the unauthorised autobiography, the cover and title page can be read either way], Edinburgh, Canongate, 2011.

Melzer says (still p.102): 'It is no exaggeration to say that, on the day Sweden issues an arrest warrant against Assange for the alleged rape and harrassment of two women, his fame turns to shame and his success story into a story of persecution.'

Nonetheless the work of Wikileaks continued. The Iraq war logs were released in October 2010. Then, in November, with the Swedish net closing in on him, there was 'Cablegate' - a 'huge cache of US State Department cables - seven times the size of the Iraq war logs' (Lord ch 7), also gained from Manning, a record of diplomatic exchanges between the State Department and 274 embassies round the world, from 1966 to February 2010. Almost immediately after this release came an Interpol arrest warrant for sex crimes in Sweden. In December, after presenting himself to the police in London, Assange was put in Wandsworth gaol. On payment of a massive bail of £200,000, he was transferred to the comfort of house arrest in Ellingham Hall, a stately home owned by military man, organic farmer, video journalist (specialising in war coverage), 'right wing libertarian', Vaughan Smith. Vaughan Smith was the founder of the Frontline Club for Journalists which was very supportive of Wikileaks.

The work continued. In April 2011, Wikileaks released 'The Guantanamo File' - the personal file of every prisoner in GITMO. Wikileaks commented (Lord, ch 10): 'Most of these documents reveal acts of incompetence familiar to those who have studied Guantanamo closely, with innocent men detained by mistake (or because the US was offering substantial bounties to its allies for al Qaeda or Taliban suspects) and numerous insignificant Taliban conscripts from Afghanistan and Pakistan.' In February 2012 there was a huge trove of material from the Texas based 'global intelligence' company, Stratfor, hacked by the 'Anonymous' team. It included Strafor's advice on what to do about Assange: 'Ferreting out Julian Assange's confederates is also key. Find out what other disgruntled rogues inside the tent or outside [sic]. Pile on. Move him from country to country to face various charges for the next twenty five years. But, seize everything he and his family own, to include every person linked to Wiki.' Lord's account (ch.13) continues: 'There were over 4,000 emails that mentioned Wikileaks or Assange, including multiple mentions of a sealed indictment going back to as early as June 2010, after the release of the Collateral Murder video but prior to the Afghan War Diaries release.'

In April 2012, living in Ellingham Hall, Assange launched a TV show, hosted by Russia Today, in which he interviewed prominent people by video link, starting with the Hizbollah leader, Hassan Nasrallah. Other interviewees included Imran Khan, soon to become Prime Minister of Pakistan, and the post-Arab spring Tunisian President, Moncef Marzouki. And Rafael Correa, President of Ecuador. Still following Lord's account (ch.13): 'Correa said Wikileaks had actually strengthened the government. In the wake of the Cablegate publications, he expelled the US Ambassador ... "As Evo Morales says, the only country that can be certain it's never going to have a coup d'état is the United States - because it doesn't have a US embassy!"'

Assange sought asylum in the Ecuadorian embassy in June 2012. He was in the embassy when, in June 2013, the Edward Snowden saga began. Snowden had not operated through Wikileaks but, without concealing his identity, through the journalists Glen Greenwald and Ewan McAskill (Guardian), Barton Gellman (Washington Post) and film maker Laura Poitras, but it was Wikileaks that made the whole material publicly available in a searchable form and it was through Wikileaks, and in particular Assange's close associate Sarah Harrison, that he managed to evade capture and eventually find asylum in Moscow.

I think, however, that I should suspend my potted history of Wikileaks here (there's lots more to say) and begin my review of Melzer's book.