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Some have called for his assassination; still others have called him an angel. Either way, almost everyone has an opinion on Julian Assange. And now the story of his rise as the head of one of the more prolific whistle blowing organizations ever is getting the Hollywood treatment.
The feature film “The Fifth Estate,” starring Benedict Cumberbatch as a sometimes callous but always complicated Julian Assange, tells the story of WikiLeaks from its early obscurity to near world domination and eventual decline. Inevitably, the script for the film was leaked to Assange and WikiLeaks and they were not happy with what they read, posting an open letter response to the film.
We sent a team from the real fifth estate to London where Assange is now holed up in the Ecuadorian Embassy hiding from what he says is certain extradition to the U.S. dressed up as a rape charge in Sweden. We got the real story behind why more people are embracing whistle blowing because technology makes it possible and because for them, keeping governments and corporations honest, makes it necessary.
42 year-old Julian Assange spent much of his difficult childhood moving from place to place in the Australian countryside. By the time he was in his teens, he showed early signs of what would become an obsessive commitment freedom of information. As a teenage hacker he was charged with cyber mischief after breaking into targets like Canadian telecom giant Nortel and the American Space Program. In 2006, he registered the domain name WikiLeaks.org, a port of call for people willing to blow the whistle on abuse of power. Even in those early days, Assange saw a need to connect with mainstream media. A partnership with the Guardian showed evidence of government corruption and extra judicial murders in Kenya - a scoop which most of the world ignored.
Assange would find his allies among Berlin’s Chaos Computer Club, the world’s oldest hacker collective. Key Chaos member Daniel Domscheit-Berg, an anarchist programmer, would go on to join WikiLeaks and serve as Assange’s closest ally until philosophical differences and according to Berg, Assange’s paranoia pushed them apart. His exposé of the group and Assange served as source material for the movie “The Fifth Estate.” But at the start, Berg says he and Assange had a similar ideology,“The question is the attitude, what attitude do you have to society? Do you look at what there is and you accept that as God-given? Or do you see society as something where you identify a problem and then you find a creative solution for that problem? So it is a matter of, are you a spectator, or are you actively participating in society?”
The men initially shared the belief that secrecy is the root of most corruption and transparency a vital democratic safeguard. And together, under the WikiLeaks banner they began an information war with the U.S. military, leaking a manual that was evidence that at the Guantanamo Bay military base in Cuba, solitary confinement and humiliation were routine tactics for breaking down detainees suspected of “terror”. It was WikiLeaks warning to the world. Conservative critics like Douglas Murray, a think tank director who has debated Assange sees a certain naiveté in WikiLeaks operations and told the fifth estate’s Linden MacIntyre, “Most people who spend any time as an adult thinking about government, governance, realize that you cannot have complete transparency. Even in the most democratic of systems, some things have to be kept secret.”
But Assange and WikiLeaks clearly disagreed. By 2008, WikiLeaks had made public over a million secret documents, though the group still remained shrouded in obscurity. Only Julian Assange and Daniel Domscheit-Berg appeared in public. They leaked scoops about corrupt banks, bringing down Swiss giant Julius Baer, and revealed the practices of brutal dictatorships and rogue military operations. Support from the left came pouring in after these revelations. Tariq Ali is a prominent leftist intellectual and anti war campaigner. He told the fifth estate, “In a world which is so dominated by effectively the same ideology, you need people like that. There are very few real secrets that other secret networks don't know about each other. So the only secret it's a secret from is the citizens of the world. They are not allowed to know. It's like, not in front of the children.”
The left may have loved WikiLeaks but Assange and his group made scores of enemies with each release. In a classified report, the CIA called WikiLeaks a threat to national security, suggesting ways to stop it. Inevitably, that document was leaked to WikiLeaks. The group’s newfound fame (and infamy) in political circles gave them both prestige and protection. Or so they thought.
Firepower and Fame
After years of struggling to get newspapers to return his calls, WikiLeaks had finally made Julian Assange a star. But the group’s biggest scoop was still on its way via a 22-year-old U.S. army private serving in Iraq named Bradley Manning. Private Manning worked as an intelligence analyst, one of thousands needed to manage the U.S. army’s growing cache of secrets. Manning would eventually hand over nearly half a million secret documents to WikiLeaks. But he couldn’t keep his disclosure secret either and his chat room confession to hacker Adrian Lamo would lead the Private’s, first to solitary confinement for more than three years while he awaited trial and then to a 35-year term in prison.
While Manning fought for his freedom, the disclosure of one video in particular ensured that Assange would never again be just an anonymous hacker. Wikileaks posted the provocatively titled “Collateral Murder,” a grainy 17 minute video embellished by the hackers with dramatic background music on the 5th of April 2010.
It showed the massacre of unarmed civilians in a Baghdad suburb by a U.S. helicopter crew. Two of the men below them worked for the Reuters news agency, a driver, Saaed Chmagh, and a cameraman, Namir Noor-Eldeen. Later, a father driving kids to school stops to help one of the wounded and he becomes another target. When a U.S. army patrol arrives discovers children in the van, one pilot remarks “Well, it’s their fault for bringing their kids to a battle.”
The video shocked the world and sparked outrage among many in the U.S. military, but WikiLeaks had a few secrets left yet, among them, nearly a hundred thousand documents on military operations in Afghanistan. Major international media --- the Guardian, the New York Times, and Germany’s Der Spiegel --- all hungry for the scoop, agreed to work together to make sense of the trove of documents.
July 25 2010, the secret Afghanistan files are published simultaneously in Britain, Europe and in the United States in part to prevent a gag order stopping any one paper’s coverage. WikiLeaks published their own set as well, but with a key difference. While the mainstream media had carefully combed through the documents to redact names and identifying information, WikiLeaks simply published the documents in full. The U.S. Department of Defense was outraged, demanding immediate the return of the documents. But it was too late. The documents, including the names of Afghan collaborators and sympathizers were out.
For Julian Assange, the end accountability for military planners justified the risk to individuals. He said at the time, “We would have had to have released all this material without separating out any of it, or released none. The value, the extraordinary value of this historic record to the progress of that war and its potential to save lives outweighs the danger to innocents.” Assange may have put on a brave face, but he grew more and more paranoid, accusing even friends of planting stories about him. His powerful new government enemies only fuelled what some have called Assange’s almost fanatical levels of paranoia. He may have been paranoid, but he would soon learn that he had cause to be.
Assange under Siege
WikiLeaks had brought the ugliness of distant conflict into living rooms around the world. And those disclosures brought conflict to Assange’s door. He says in our documentary: “There’s op-eds in the Washington Post saying that our personnel should be kidnapped...one alleged source, executed. Similar statements by right-wing members of the U.S Congress.” Former U.S. State Department official, Christian Whiton sees WikiLeaks principals as terrorists, saying, “There has to be a clear punishment for people who engage in what I would consider a form of espionage or form of political warfare. It’s not an act of journalism or transparency, but an act of... a political war against us.”
Others, like British commentator Douglas Murray, see WikiLeaks source, transgendered soldier Bradley, now Chelsea, Manning and others like her, as traitors, telling the fifth estate: “They've done as much damage to a state as you can do. I think they should be tried and where they're found guilty and imprisoned for the rest of their lives.”
But militant verbal attacks just seemed to generate new support for WikiLeaks and Julian Assange. He was living as an itinerant, no fixed abode, but never without the hospitality of admirers. For a while he seemed to be the world’s most influential man, successfully evading the forces that had jailed his most significant source.
Deep inside he had to know it was all too good to last ---that nearly half-a million Iraq war secrets would further motivate his enemies. In August 2010, Assange asked Sweden for a residency permit, insurance against the backlash he anticipated. He was welcomed with open arms, invited to major political and trade union venues. Some even hinted that he deserved the Nobel Peace Prize.
But days later there was a shocking shift in media attention. In Sweden, the place that he considered the safest refuge in the world, inflammatory accusations that he was a rapist emerged, and sordid details of possible criminal charges were leaked around the world. Two women who had casual, consensual relationships, told police he had forced them into unprotected sex, and this according to Swedish law, is sexual assault.
Assange initially denied even knowing the women but later admitted he had had relationships with both. He maintains he never forced anyone to have sex and that the Swedish justice system was hijacked by his opponents because of political pressure from the U.S. . Whatever the source of the charges, the scandal gravely damaged Julian Assange and by extension, WikiLeaks.
Backed into a corner and vulnerable, Assange and picked fights with supporters, like his once right-hand, Daniel Domscheit-Berg. Berg would become one of Assange’s most ardent critics saying in our documentary, “If you preach transparency to everyone else, you have to be transparent yourself, you have to fulfill the same standards that you expect from others. And I think that’s where we’ve not been heading into the same direction philosophically anymore.” Berg and others eventually left to form a rival site, weary of Assange’s accusations and evasiveness.
Leak at your own risk
But WikiLeaks still had the world’s attention and still controlled that massive file of documents from Iraq military operations and was preparing a media strategy to maximize their impact. The new material was mostly diplomatic messages that revealed the undiplomatic private thoughts and words of diplomats. Assange moved to parse these new leaks out over time and a new group of fans and volunteers had arrived to help him do it. The diplomatic files with memos from as far back as 1966, exposed everything from nuclear reactors in Iran to domestic policy in Saudi Arabia. Americans were once again outraged, calling for drone strikes and execution orders on Assange. More than leaking information, he had single handedly shown the Internet’s massive power to reveal information that any individual deems important. Governments are gathering more and more personal information, which means that they need more people to store and process that info - a growing network of would-be whistle blowers.
At least one man has since been inspired by the influence WikiLeaks had. Edward Snowden was a well-paid, anonymous, 29-year-old analyst working for the U.S. National Security Agency in Hawaii until May, 2013 when he revealed details of a global spy network that includes Canada and which routinely snoops into private lives of ordinary people around the world.
One disclosure among the millions created a diplomatic row between Canada and Brazil --- that Canadian spies were snooping on the government of Brazil on behalf of Canadian mining companies.
Snowden has become a fugitive --- living in exile in Russia,. The life for the whistleblower who takes on the United States remains one of uncertainty. Edward Snowden faces certain imprisonment if he ever returns to the U.S., Chelsea Manning will likely be in prison into her old age, and the man who started it all lives in self-imposed confinement.
Julian Assange was once the chief evangelist of transparency, trotting from country to country spreading his gospel. But his new home, the Ecuadorian embassy in London has significantly narrowed his reach. His short-lived web TV program gave a look inside Assange’s now very small world.
The British government has promised to extradite Assange to Sweden to face questioning over his rape charges if he ever leaves his fortress behind upscale department store Harrod’s. Assange maintains that returning to Sweden would ensure his extradition to the U.S. on espionage charges, though the U.S. has yet to bring any charge against him. He lives in limbo, still tweeting and leaking, but Wikileaks’ credibility has been permanently damaged, so tied to that of its leader.
For potential whistleblowers who might be planning to break through the walls of institutional secrecy, British intellectual Tariq Ali offers encouragement … but also some practical advice. He tells the realfifth estate’s Linden MacIntyre: “Speak loudly, speak publicly but don't think that you will be given medals of honour. Don't think you'll be invited to tea at Buckingham Palace. Don't think that you will be given another job, which is as good as the job you have now. Do it, but be prepared for the worst… especially if they make a movie about you.”