Julian Assange will soon learn if he is to be extradited to Sweden, but the future for WikiLeaks and whistleblowers everywhere is far from resolved.
SOMETIME in the next two weeks, the team from Serco will come to Ellingham Hall, a stately home in Norfolk, and there adjust an electronic ankle bracelet attached to the leg of Julian Assange, founder and leader of WikiLeaks.
Thus freed from the limits of the perimeter fence, Assange will travel to the faux-mediaeval Royal Courts of Justice to hear a verdict that may pitch him into less salubrious surroundings – he could be on his way to remand in Sweden, for further questioning about sexual assault allegations, in a country with no bail system, where prisoners accused of sex crimes are held incommunicado. A successful appeal could see him set free almost instantly but also oblige him to leave the UK at once, as his visa has expired. Global nomad once more, or a detainee in IKEA land. Nothing is done by halves in the WikiLeaks world.
Early last month, WikiLeaks released the whole of the ”cablegate” archive of US diplomatic communications – a quarter of a million documents, dating from 1966 to the present, sent from dozens of embassies around the world, a sprawling, still substantially unexplored history of the present. The final release put 200,000 cables into the public sphere, together with a new online search facility (cablesearch.org), setting off a third wave of reports, from the US government’s obsession with Venezuela to uproar in Zimbabwe.
But the full release also made WikiLeaks the centre of the story once more, attracting a storm of criticism for its release of cables that had not yet had the names of journalists, informers and US contacts removed, thus opening them to potential harm. The Guardian, a former partner in the ”cables” release, immediately issued a condemnation, saying that it ”could not defend” the release.
David Leigh, the paper’s chief investigative reporter, who had worked with and then bitterly fallen out with Assange, was incensed. ”Why has he done it?” Leigh tweeted. ”I despair.”
WikiLeaks countered by arguing that it had no choice but to make a full release of the cables, citing Leigh and The Guardian as the reason why. In WikiLeaks: Inside Julian Assange’s War On Secrecy, the insider story of the cablegate release that Leigh had written with Luke Harding, Leigh had included a sub-Le Carre scene in which Assange, who turned 40 in July, had given him the password to the cable archive – then a deeply secret entity – written on a napkin. Assange had then passed on what hackers call ”the salt” – a part of the password left out of any written version of it to ensure security.
Most readers with even a vestigial knowledge of computer security assumed the password was a mock-up. It wasn’t, and its publication created a problem: copies of the cable archive that had been lodged in various places on the internet were now decryptable.
Six months after the February publication of the password and ”salt”, former WikiLeaks member Daniel Domscheit-Berg gave an interview with the German magazine Der Freitag revealing the existence of numerous copies of the cable archive. Across networks of hackers, and presumably security services, the hunt began to reunite password with file.
WikiLeaks released a statement saying this new widening of access to the file gave them no choice but to make the whole file universally available. A bitter war of words began, with much of the mainstream media initially favouring The Guardian‘s account. Later that week, however, The Economist broke ranks, arguing that: ”Mr Assange’s file management looks sloppy, but Mr Leigh’s blunder seems bigger: since digital data is easily copied, safeguarding passwords is more important than secreting files.”
This prompted a bizarre series of exchanges between WikiLeaks supporters and David Leigh, culminating with an admission of sorts from Leigh: ”Yes, in retrospect, I shouldn’t have published the password.” He went on to blame himself for trusting Assange.
Whether the unredacted cables had placed anyone in danger was a much-debated question; an audit by the Associated Press of those named showed that none had come to immediate harm. On the other hand, an Ethiopian journalist complained that revelation of his name in passing had forced him to leave, in fear of the country’s repressive government.
The release of the cables did not win Assange many friends among the mainstream media, and the release, by publisher Canongate, of an unauthorised ”autobiography” based on a first draft and some taped reminiscences, exposed him to a London media feeding frenzy.
More serious for Assange was the looming prospect of a return to Sweden. Though the English-speaking world had lost interest in the details of the accusations against him, furious debate had continued in the country where Assange would be questioned and possibly charged. Much of this was due to the argument Assange’s legal team had mounted against extradition – that Sweden’s politically appointed judges, in-camera sex crime trials and freewheeling prosecutors were at variance with EU standards, and neither process nor eventual trial was fair.
That line of argument hasn’t gone down well in Sweden, where many people are getting tetchy about the country’s reputation as an authoritarian madhouse.
Yet by mid-year, the case was increasingly in question. Anna Ardin, one of the complainants, had added an accusation of physical sexual coercion, though she had earlier told a newspaper that Assange was ”not violent”. Tweets indicating a continued relationship with Assange vanished from the record, and were retrieved by bloggers; a leaked police file had a witness recalling one complainant saying she had been railroaded into making an accusation by the police and others.
When the leaked police report went into wider circulation, it did not take long for people to notice that the name of the initial investigating officer, Irmeli Krans, was familiar from somewhere else. In fact she was one of the links listed on the blogroll of Anna Ardin, the first complainant and organiser of Assange’s visit to Sweden in August last year. That was unusual, though of itself not impossible – Stockholm is, in many ways, a small town. But the links rapidly proved beyond coincidence, many of them unearthed by Sweden’s libertarian Flashback mega-blog.
Krans and Ardin were not merely connected online, they were both members of the Social Democratic Party and had run together as candidates for the city council elections some months before. Connected through gay and lesbian networks in the party, Krans had visited Club Febber, the fetish nightclub that Ardin set up on Gotland, a residential island off the Swedish coast.
Ardin had also commented on Krans’s blog a year earlier, on a post about racism and sexism, criticising ”women who claim they’re not oppressed and therefore think it’s OK to trash feminists”. Responding to the post, Krans noted: ”Usually I only get negative posts on this blog … but this post puts its finger on the matter, and speaks for itself.”
”Thanks for the props,” Ardin replied. ”The cultural elite often think it is OK to be a little racist and sexist.”
Were such connections sufficient for Krans to recuse herself from the case? There is no record that she raised the matter. Instead, immediately after Ardin and the other complainant, Sofia Wilen, walked into a central Stockholm police station on August 20 last year, Krans conducted an interview with Wilen. Contrary to police guidelines, the interview was neither taped nor transcribed. A half-hour into the interview, police had already consulted the prosecutor’s office, and a rape investigation was opened.
Krans was almost immediately removed from the case, but a leaked email reveals she subsequently queried whether rape charges had been laid. Two days later she attempted to access the interview file on the police computer but was refused access. A leaked email exchange between Krans and her superior indicates that she was attempting to revise the summary of Wilen’s statement, because she had taken it down incompletely at the time.
By the most generous assessment, the initial handling of the case was a mess. An internal police inquiry would later find that Krans’s conduct had not affected the case – even though Krans, a potential witness in any future trial, had subsequently broadcast an extraordinary stream of anti-Assange commentary on her Facebook page and over Twitter, complaining that the official accusation of ”minor rape” was insufficient, and cheering on Claes Borgstrom, the complainants’ lawyer.
Her Facebook account shows Harald Ullman, a member of the Stockholm police board, logged on to express his disbelief at her conduct. Krans’s involvement in the interview with Wilen has certainly complicated its status as evidence – all the more so, since Wilen never verified it as a true record with her signature.
Yet there were also problems with the allegations against Assange by Anna Ardin herself. During her interview, conducted by phone – also against police guidelines on sex crime cases – the day after Wilen’s interview, Ardin had given an account of her encounter with Assange, from which two misdemeanour ”annoyance” charges were made. That day, the senior prosecutor quashed the rape investigation commenced the day before during Wilen’s interview.
Two days later, Claes Borgstrom had become both women’s lawyer, and appealed the decision not to prosecute. Two days after that, on August 25, Ardin handed over to police a condom that she claimed had been the one used during her encounter with Assange 10 days earlier. As with everything in this case, the forensic report on this item eventually leaked. For a condom allegedly used in a sex act, it had little to give up, the lab report telling the investigation that no DNA had been recovered from it in an initial series of tests, though they did not rule out the possibility that some might be found. The police had also requested one other test, to see if the rip at the top of the condom was a tear or a blade cut.
The delay in securing a potentially vital piece of evidence remained unexplained, as did the process by which Ardin’s accusation changed from a misdemeanour crime of annoyance to a felony, sexual coercion. The question as to why Ardin would have kept a torn condom for a week when she had no initial intention of going to the police also remained unanswered.
The repeated attacks on Swedish life and propriety by Assange’s legal team have made it unlikely he would get a sympathetic hearing in that country. But the London media pack has also turned on him en masse as well. His protests at Canongate’s publication of an early draft of his book were taken as the ultimate irony. Writer on writer piled on to damn the organisation and the man.
Heather Brooke, the investigative journalist who had attached to WikiLeaks early on, blamed Assange for ruining the ”whole digital information revolution”, and The Guardian, taking leave of all editorial practice, had the unauthorised autobiography reviewed by chief investigative reporter David Leigh, who appears extensively throughout the work. All have been united in their belief that WikiLeaks is finished – and with a US grand jury currently empanelled to consider charges of espionage, it seems to many that it is only a question of where Assange will be imprisoned, not if.
Whether WikiLeaks can survive and prosper, indeed reopen for business, will depend not merely on Assange’s liberty, but on the organisation’s capacity to build a new team that could undertake the main business of the site when it is fully functioning – defending itself from ”denial-of-service” attacks from state security organisations. Without such capacity, its ability to distribute new material would be close to nil.
Some say that it may not matter whether WikiLeaks per se survives or not, since its formula – combining a secure whistleblower site with mass quantitative leaks and institutional independence – can be replicated.
But what is most remarkable about the past year, as defections and dissent has rocked WikiLeaks, is that no one has. There are plenty of small leaks sites of varying levels of security, but nothing like WikiLeaks has yet been established.
A year after it was announced, Openleaks, the site established by WikiLeaks defector Daniel Domscheit-Berg, is yet to open for business, and has no intention of producing the explosive game-changing leaks that Assange committed WikiLeaks to.
Indeed, its proposal to have permanent media partners appears to suggest that it will become a routine part of the media ecology. ”Julian was the spirit, we are the engineers,” Domscheit-Berg recently told Forbes magazine.
Yet the whole point about WikiLeaks was that it was not simply a part of the global hacking subculture, but something that advanced beyond it by reversing its assumptions. It is not the system that is central to WikiLeaks, but the moral self – the idea that such a site only succeeds if it demonstrates to whistleblowers a determination to confront illegitimate power head-on, thus drawing out greater degrees of courage from those teetering on the edge of dissent, and guaranteeing that their sacrifice will not be in vain.
Whether or not one agrees with Assange’s idea of what constitutes illegitimate power, or that his recent conduct communicates such courage, there is no denying its power.