This past weekend saw some major introspection by the newspapers that led the mainstream media’s dissemination of the U.S. diplomatic cables provided by WikiLeaks. In the New York Times Magazine, Executive Editor Bill Keller led with a cover article detailing how little they liked or trusted Julian Assange — but worked with him anyway. Describing the visible change in Assange as his media stardom blossomed, Keller writes:
Assange was transformed by his outlaw celebrity. The derelict with the backpack and the sagging socks now wore his hair dyed and styled, and he favored fashionably skinny suits and ties. He became a kind of cult figure for the European young and leftish and was evidently a magnet for women. …I came to think of Julian Assange as a character from a Stieg Larsson thriller — a man who could figure either as hero or villain in one of the megaselling Swedish novels that mix hacker counterculture, high-level conspiracy and sex as both recreation and violation.
Clearly Keller and his team had a taste for cloak and dagger behavior and styled themselves as would-be Mikael Blomqvists:
An air of intrigue verging on paranoia permeated the project, perhaps understandably, given that we were dealing with a mass of classified material and a source who acted like a fugitive, changing crash pads, e-mail addresses and cellphones frequently. We used encrypted Web sites. Reporters exchanged notes via Skype, believing it to be somewhat less vulnerable to eavesdropping. On conference calls, we spoke in amateurish code. Assange was always “the source.” The latest data drop was “the package.” When I left New York for two weeks to visit bureaus in Pakistan and Afghanistan, where we assume that communications may be monitored, I was not to be copied on message traffic about the project. I never imagined that any of this would defeat a curious snoop from the National Security Agency or Pakistani intelligence. And I was never entirely sure whether that prospect made me more nervous than the cyberwiles of WikiLeaks itself. At a point when relations between the news organizations and WikiLeaks were rocky, at least three people associated with this project had inexplicable activity in their e-mail that suggested someone was hacking into their accounts.
He also had some less than flattering comments about the senior partner in the newspaper cabal, the UK’s Guardian. For their part, the Guardian previewed material from a book they are publishing today:
WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange disguised himself as an old woman in a wig for fear he was being followed by US intelligence, according to a Guardian book published tomorrow. The first full, inside account of the story that dominated global headlines for weeks reveals how a secret deal was brokered in a Brussels hotel that led to five international media outlets simultaneously publishing disclosures based on the leak of 250,000 US diplomatic cables.
The leak has led to calls from US right-wingers for Assange to be indicted on espionage charges, or even assassinated. The alleged source, US army private Bradley Manning, is being held under harsh conditions in a military prison in Quantico, Virginia.
The End of Secrecy: The Rise and Fall of Wikileaks, which begins serialisation in the Guardian today, discloses what lay behind the sometimes-fraught negotiations with Assange. At one stage the Australian computer hacker and his lawyers “ambushed” Guardian editor-in-chief Alan Rusbridger and threatened to sue him for endangering WikiLeaks’s “financial assets”.
Tomorrow’s first extract reveals court documents about Assange’s Australian childhood, and the strange personality of the man his supporters call the messiah of the internet. When the teenage Assange was convicted of hacking, the court was told he was a gifted boy with a “tragic” background whose “computer is his only friend”. The book also describes the project’s cloak and dagger measures. Assange dressed up as a woman and took elaborate steps to lose pursuing cars as he travelled to Ellingham Hall, the Norfolk stately home where his followers secretly set up camp last November.
Some of the journalists involved communicated using throwaway “burner” phones inspired by the TV series The Wire, and encrypted Jabber chat software.
In his introduction to the book Rusbridger acknowledges that the relationship between the five international papers and WikiLeaks had “moments of difficulty and tension”, at times threatening to collapse into farce, “as if a Stieg Larsson script had been passed to the writer of Downton Abbey, Julian Fellowes”. But Rusbridger says Assange behaved as “a new breed of publisher-intermediary” who sought to have a degree of control over the information he brought to the table. But he concludes: “WikiLeaks and similar organisations are generally admirable in their single-minded view of transparency and openness”.
The book also details:
• How Assange said US informants “deserve to be killed”.
• The full story of the Swedish sex allegations that Assange’s supporters claimed were a honeytrap.
• Why Assange quarrelled with the Guardian’s star reporter Nick Davies.
• How Assange paid a notorious anti-semite to represent WikiLeaks in Russia.