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Radical Transparency: A Book Review of "Inside WikiLeaks," by Daniel Domscheit-Berg

Gabriel Schoenfeld

Judged by its own standards, last year was a big success for Julian Assange and WikiLeaks, his fledgling whistleblower organization. WikiLeaks won world-wide attention for itself by posting online a gruesome battle video shot by an American helicopter-gunship over Baghdad. It then became a sensation by publishing over a period of months—often with the help of major newspapers, like the Guardian and New York Times—thousands of purloined U.S. military and diplomatic cables.

But last year was also a disaster for WikiLeaks. Mr. Assange, a master at courting controversy, found himself embroiled in controversy of the most unwanted kind. Two of his female followers charged him with sexual molestation, and Swedish prosecutors began investigating the charges, aiming to bring formal charges of rape. Now in Britain, Mr. Assange is fighting extradition to Sweden.

Meanwhile, WikiLeaks itself began to crack up. In Inside WikiLeaks, a tell-all memoir, Daniel Domscheit-Berg describes an organization dominated by an increasingly mercurial, narcissistic and dictatorial man whose actions threatened to subvert whatever success WikiLeaks could claim for itself. Mr. Domscheit-Berg, the former spokesman for WikiLeaks, worked closely with Mr. Assange for three years, at times sharing the same hotel room with him as they crisscrossed Europe. He thought Mr. Assange was “cool.” He shared Mr. Assange’s computer-programming background and his anarchist politics. “I think Proudhon’s What Is Property? is the most important book ever written,” he writes. But last August Mr. Assange “suspended” Mr. Domscheit-Berg from WikiLeaks and then expelled him.

The story Mr. Domscheit-Berg tells is one of hero worship followed by disillusionment. After joining WikiLeaks in 2007—the organization had been launched the previous year—he found himself getting to know Mr. Assange better and did not like what he saw. Mr. Assange, he says, developed a “cult of personality.” He told reporters invented versions of his past to foster a sense of mystery. He did not want to share the spotlight with anyone. When Mr. Domscheit-Berg gave a rare interview about WikiLeaks, Mr. Assange accused him of being a media whore.

More important, Mr. Assange and Mr. Domscheit-Berg had WikiLeaks present a false face to the world. In dealing with the public, they created fictitious employees for the organization’s nonexistent “legal service” and “tech” departments, Mr. Domscheit-Berg says, and “grotesquely exaggerated” the number of volunteers—several thousand were claimed. In fact, it was only a handful, often just two.

The cause of transparency demanded not only lying but extreme secrecy. Although WikiLeaks was ready to expose the personal emails of individuals, Mr. Assange himself lived a clandestine existence, claiming that his safety was at risk. Such paranoia was just one facet of his peculiar behavior, which ranged from the incessant search for female conquests to deficient hygiene. “Julian,” Mr. Domscheit-Berg writes, “ate everything with his hands, and he always wiped his fingers on his pants. I have never seen pants as greasy as his in my whole life.”

Most oppressive to Mr. Domscheit-Berg was Mr. Assange’s autocratic management style: He brooked no criticism and didn’t even want staffers discussing WikiLeaks matters among themselves, outside his presence. “Do not challenge leadership in times of crisis” was Mr. Assange’s repeated answer to his underling’s complaints.

Some of those complaints involved matters of great moment. On the eve of publishing 91,000 U.S. military documents about Afghanistan, Mr. Domscheit-Berg learned only at the last minute that the names of Afghan civilians mentioned in the cables had not been deleted. (Mr. Assange, evidently, had promised the New York Times, the Guardian and Der Spiegel, his media collaborators, that they would be.) Too late. The documents went up on the Web and innocent individuals were put in jeopardy of retribution from the Taliban.

Despite such dangerous lapses, the organization, as Mr. Domscheit-Berg sees it, was operating in the service of a good cause—or causes. One was radical transparency: the dissemination of information according to a principle of “strict neutrality.” If secrets came in, they were to go out, no matter where the chips fell.

But such neutrality, it is clear from Inside WikiLeaks, existed alongside a decidedly non-neutral objective: combating the U.S. By publishing America’s secrets, writes Mr. Domscheit-Berg, “we were seeking out the biggest possible adversary.” American intervention around the world was a “grievous sin” and “the suspicion could hardly be dismissed outright that the United States waged war partly for economic reasons.”

If Mr. Assange emerges from the pages of Inside WikiLeaks as a fairly ghastly human being, Mr. Domscheit-Berg does not come out looking much better. Apart from his own acknowledged dishonesty as the organization’s spokesman, he still shares his former idol’s toxic political views. He proudly calls WikiLeaks the “world’s most dangerous website” and recently launched his own Assange-free version, called OpenLeaks.

More than anything else, there is remarkable shallowness to Mr. Domscheit-Berg’s memoir. He spends more space detailing the gossip in hacker circles or chronicling mundane matters (dinner one night was “meat, potatoes, and cauliflower”) than addressing the profound questions of secrecy and openness in modern life. Nonetheless, by blowing the whistle on the world’s most famous whistleblower, Mr. Domscheit-Berg has performed a public service.

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