Julian Assange can't really complain about a lack of problems these days. The Australian is currently living in England, where he is forced to wear an electronic ankle bracelet as he fights an extradition request from Swedish prosecutors. American intelligence services and the FBI are also trying to gather enough evidence to try Assange and pull the plug on his whistleblower platform. Under pressure from the United States government, most of the channels through which WikiLeaks receives its donations have now been blocked.
Friday is unlikely to be a very good day for the WikiLeaks founder either. It the day that a new book by Assange's former No. 2 man, Daniel Domscheit-Berg of Germany, comes out. Titled "Inside Wikileaks: My Time with Julian Assange at the World's Most Dangerous Website," it is to be published in 17 countries.
The 305-page book has been ghost written by Tina Klopp, a young editor at the website of the German weekly newspaper Die Zeit. The eagerly anticipated book promised to provide a behind-the-scenes glimpse of WikiLeaks.
Ultimately, though, the book is the story of disappointed love. It's an account of how a computer programmer from Wiesbaden, Germany, met an eccentric Australian known as Julian Assange at the 2007 conference of the Chaos Computer Club hackers group in Berlin. The pair went on to build WikiLeaks. "I was flattered that he wanted to work together with me," Domscheit-Berg recalls.
An 'Erratic Person'
He describes Assange as a "lone wolf," an "erratic person" who oscillated between ambition and generosity, a man indifferent to money and status symbols who would hack day and night on his old white Apple iBook.
Domscheit-Berg -- who's based in Berlin -- describes the early WikiLeaks as a Potemkin Village, where Assange did almost everything alone using a variety of pseudonyms. "Two loudmouthed young men with one creaky old computer," is how he puts it.
They did manage to obtain documents from a whistleblower at Julius Bär, a major Swiss private bank. The bank sought to stop WikiLeaks from publishing the documents through a California court, but the case failed miserably. In an equally embarrassing development for the Swiss bankers, Domscheit-Berg and Assange also published the letters sent by Julias Bär's attorneys that proved ineffective.
At first it was all action and adventure. Assange and Domscheit-Berg met clandestinely in Berlin subway stations. At one point they drove 2,100 kilometers (1,300 miles) within 24 hours to set up servers.
They started to work with the mainstream media when they provided documents to the German newsweekly Stern on a sensitive contract arranged by the German government, Daimler, Deutsche Telekom and France's Cofiroute, for a trucking toll system in Germany -- which the WikiLeaks men thought had the potential to fleece taxpayers by up to 1 billion.
The WikiLeaks men had apparently hoped for a more comprehensive depiction of their website. They were disappointed with what prize-winning journalist Hans-Martin Tillack delivered. The one line attributing the documents to WikiLeaks was buried in the story, and Domscheit-Berg not only felt snubbed; he felt a perception had been created that Stern had done the bulk of the research.
'Julian Was also very Paranoid'
It didn't take long for the first internal problems to develop at WikiLeaks, according to Domscheit-Berg. "Julian was also very paranoid," he writes. He claims that Assange placed great value on not entering or leaving the house together. "Julian also had a very casual relationship with reality," he adds.
The book's detail, though, is sometimes over the top. "I bought meat, potatoes and cauliflower at the organic supermarket," he writes needlessly. Or: "Anke and I decided to marry, and Julian was the first to hear about it."
Some of it is redundant for anyone who has followed the WikiLeaks saga. The fact that Assange sometimes wears the same clothes for days on end is common knowledge, for example. Domscheit-Berg's book reveals the additional detail that Assange apparently likes to eat with his hands, then wipes them on his pants. Instead of such gossip, the book could have benefitted from greater analysis, for example on questions such as what political influence WikiLeaks has had and how the platform's relationship to the media has developed.
The book does provide some interesting new information. Domscheit-Berg describes how WikiLeaks received donations worth hundreds of thousands of euros from the start of 2010 on. He talks about how one programmer radically improved the submission system for leaks. He relates that he and Julian dreamed of buying a bunker as a headquarters, and how Julian talked more and more about intelligence services, saying they were after him and that he would have to go underground.
Heading for a Split
But even after reading the book it remains a mystery as to why Assange came to distrust Domscheit-Berg. The author appears not to know the answer himself. At one point he answers an accusation from Assange in a chat by saying: "Are you fucking out of your mind?"
Domscheit-Berg was only marginally involved in the production of the "Collateral Murder" video, which Assange produced in Iceland with the help of a few fellow hackers. Similarly, he did not play a significant role in the publication of the war logs from Iraq and Afghanistan.
The final split came at the end of August 2010, when Assange came to suspect that Domscheit-Berg was a source for a Newsweek article about internal conflicts at WikiLeaks. "You behave like some kind of emperor or slave trader," Domscheit-Berg wrote in a now-famous chat exchange with Assange. "You are suspended for one month, effective immediately," Assange replied. Domscheit-Berg never returned to the organization.
The book makes for page-turning reading in places, but in the end it leaves an unpleasant taste. It's too reminiscent of a "kiss and tell" story. "Sometimes I hate him so much that I'm afraid I could resort to physical violence if I ever happen to run into him again," Domscheidt-Berg writes. He adds that he's never encountered such a strong personality as Assange's: "So free-spirited. So energetic. So brilliant. So paranoid. So obsessed with power. Megalomaniac."
But the object of Domscheit-Berg's intense emotions sees things very differently. Assange feels that the former WikiLeaks member has betrayed him. He has commissioned the Berlin-based media lawyer Johannes Eisenberg to force Domscheit-Berg to return items that he took with him when he quit. They apparently include hardware and software as well as documents submitted by whistleblowers. Assange had given Domscheit-Berg a deadline to return the items which expires late Thursday.
And it is not only Assange who considers Domscheit-Berg's actions to be dubious. German hackers from the influential hacker organization Chaos Computer Club, who have long had connections to WikiLeaks, also take a dim view of his behavior. They disapprove of the fact that Domscheit-Berg published transcripts of online chats in violation of WikiLeaks' iron rule that chats should never be saved, let alone made public.
Domscheit-Berg is also likely to infuriate the hacker scene, which gave birth to WikiLeaks, with his justification for the fact that WikiLeaks' most important programmer took the software he had developed with him when he quit. "The architect is the owner of the intellectual property," he writes. With that statement, Domscheit-Berg has excommunicated himself from the hacker scene, which rejects copyright and campaigns for the free distribution of knowledge.
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