Iceland’s plans revealed in February were the first hint that 2010 was to be a breakthrough year for Assange. Wikileaks took a quantum leap forward in international consciousness when it posted a video in April of US helicopter gunships killing civilian targets in Iraq. The helicopter pilots casually swap conversation before opening fire on what they believed to be military insurgents and who were in fact Reuters photographer Namir Noor-Eldeen and his driver Saeed Chmagh.
The footage entitled collateral murder was an overnight sensation and has received over 10 million hits via Youtube alone. Inscribed with the George Orwell dictum “political language is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and give the appearance of solidity to pure wind”, it immediately put the Pentagon on the back foot who launched a massive investigation to find the source of the leak while condemning Wikileaks in awkward language that tried to convey the heinousness of the crime while also reassuring it had no discernable impact.
On 6 July, the US charged 22-year-old private Bradley Manning with disclosing the video. By then, Manning had gotten his hands on even more devastating information. Manning was an intelligence agent for eight months in Baghdad where he got hold of 250,000 secret state department cables from more than 250 US embassies and consulates. Manning told a friend how he did it: “I would come in with music on a CD-RW labelled with something like ‘Lady Gaga’ … erase the music … then write a compressed split file. No one suspected a thing … [I] listened and lip-synched to Lady Gaga’s Telephone while exfiltrating possibly the largest data spillage in American history.” Manning uploaded the copies to Wikileaks where Assange now had to determine what to do with them. They decided on staged disclosure aimed at maximising political impact. They entered agreements with The Guardian, the New York Times, Le Monde, El Pais and Der Spiegel to spread the data in reputable newspapers.
The release was compared to Daniel Ellsberg’s Pentagon Papers to the New York Times and Washington Post in 1971 which outlines the US’s secret wars in Cambodia and Laos. Just as the then-Nixon administration was outraged by what it saw as a gross breach of national security, Barack Obama and his officials led the condemnation of the Wikileaks’ disclosures. Once again the denunciations had an implausible mixture of saying they were irresponsible while claiming they revealed nothing new.
Right-wing hardheads in the US called for Assange’s execution while Pentagon officials searched for criminal offences he may have committed. Assange’s own paranoid lifestyle helped turn him into media darling with his sex life getting as many column inches in the redtops as his whistleblowing. His sex life indeed is proving a weak link as he faces extradition charges to Sweden for rape. The issues his supporters face over these charges has led to an extraordinary campaign called “mooreandme” in which feminists are angry with Michael Moore and Keith Olbermann for the way they have downplayed the charges against Assange.
Meanwhile the US, its allies and sympathetic non-state actors has taken elaborate steps to try to take Wikileaks off the air. There have been denial of service attacks which forced Wikileaks to change its address. In reply, companies such as Paypal and Amazon have themselves been victim of hacking attacks in retaliation for suspending micropayments to the organisation. Yet Wikileaks has survived with multiple mirror sites and a grassroots campaign that has struck a chord with people across the world concerned about freedom of information.
Freedom of Information is a relatively new concept and it is not yet clear how much we want information to be free. As Clay Shirky notes human systems can’t stand pure transparency. In releasing all this information into the wild, Assange is challenge powerful notions of what it means to have secrets. He has turned the read-write-web into a powerful democratic tool though to what ends no-one can really tell yet.
Most importantly of all he has spawned a host of imitators that will ensure the work lives on even if Assange is incarcerated or worse. Copycat sites such as Indolinks (Indonesia), BrusselsLeaks (EU) and Balkanleaks (old Yugoslavia) have sprung up using modern technology to give muscle to the ancient grievance of the beans spiller. The biggest rival site Openleaks want to be exactly the same as Wikileaks but without “Assange’s autocratic behaviour, and [they] believe the rival site will be more democratically governed.” They make not like Assange personally but there is no better example that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery.