A distinction should be made between the Wikileaks data banks, which constitute a valuable source of information in their own right, and the mechanisms whereby the leaks, used as source material by the corporate media, are transformed into news.
Wikileaks from the outset has collaborated closely with several mainstream media.
This article by Julie Lévesque focusses on the nature and organizational structures of the Wikleak project.
“In politics, nothing happens by accident. If it happens, you can bet it was planned that way.” –Franklin D. Roosevelt
After the publication of a series of confirmations rather than revelations, there are some crucial unanswered questions regarding the nature and organizational structure of Wikileaks.
Shrouded in secrecy, the now famous whistleblowing site and its director Julian Assange are demanding “transparency” from governments and corporations around the world while failing to provide some basic information pertaining to Wikileaks as an organization.
Who is Julian Assange?
In the introduction to the book Underground: Hacking, Madness and Obsession on the Electronic Frontier (1997), by Julian Assange and Suelette Dreyfus, Assange begins with the following quotes:
“Man is least himself when he talks in his own person. Give him a mask, and he will tell you the truth.” — Oscar Wilde
“What is essential is invisible to the eye.” — Antoine De Saint-Exupery
From the start, Assange states that he undertook the research for the book; however, he fails to mention that he was actually one of the hackers analyzed in the book, going by the name of Mendax, a Latin word for “lying, false…”.
Although we cannot confirm that the above quotes referred to him, they nonetheless suggest that Assange, at the time, was hiding his true identity.
We know very little about the cryptographer Julian Assange. He is indeed very cryptic when it comes to revealing who he is and where he worked prior to the Wikileaks project. On the list of board members published previously by Wikileaks, we can read that Julian Assange:
n has “attended 37 schools and 6 universities”, none of which are mentioned by name;
n is “Australia’s most famous ethical computer hacker”. A court case from 1996 cited abundantly in the mainstream press is available on the Australasian Legal Information Institute. Contrary to all the other cases listed on the afore mentioned link, the full text of Assange’s case is not available;
n “in the first prosecution of its type… [he] defended a case in the supreme court for his role as the editor of an activist electronic magazine”. The name of the magazine, the year of the prosecution, the country where it took place are not mentioned;
n allegedly founded “’Pickup’ civil rights group for children”. No information about this group seems to be available, other than in reports related to Wikileaks. We don’t know if it still exists, where it is located and what are its activities.
n “studied mathematics, philosophy and neuroscience”. We don’t know where he studied or what his credentials are;
n “has been a subject of several books and documentaries”. If so, why not mention at least one of them?
One could indeed argue that Assange wishes to remain anonymous in order to protect himself, the whistleblowers and/or the members of his organization. On the other hand, he cannot realistically expect people to trust him blindly if they do not know who he really is.
The most interesting thing about Julian Assange is that his former employers remain unknown. His bio states that he is a “prolific programmer and consultant for many open-source projects and his software is used by most large organizations and is inside every Apple computer”. Was he working freelance? Who did he work for?
An old email exchange from 1994 between Julian Assange and NASA award winner Fred Blonder raises questions regarding Assange’s professional activities prior to launching Wikileaks. This exchange is available on the website of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology:
Date: Fri, 18 Nov 1994 03:59:19 +0100
From: Julian Assange <firstname.lastname@example.org>
To: Fred Blonder <email@example.com>
Cc: firstname.lastname@example.org, Quentin.Fennessy@sematech.org,
email@example.com, firstname.lastname@example.org, email@example.com
On Thu, 17 Nov 1994, Fred Blonder wrote: [EXCERPT]
> From: Julian Assange <firstname.lastname@example.org>
> Of course, to make things really interesting, we could have n files,
> comprised of n-1 setuid/setgid scripts and 1 setuid/setgid binary, with
> each script calling the next as its #! argument and the last calling the
> The ‘#!’ exec-hack does not work recursively. I just tried it under SunOs 4.1.3
> It generated no diagnostics and exited with status 0, but it also didn’t execute
> the target binary….
Julian Assange’s e-mail to Fred Blonder was sent to an address ending with “nasirc.hq.nasa.gov”, namely NASA. The e-mail was also sent (cc) to Michael C. Neuman, a computer expert at Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL), New Mexico, a premier national security research institution, under the jurisdiction of the US Department of Energy.
At the time, Fred Blonder was working on a cyber security programme called “NASA Automated Systems Incident Response Capability” (NASIRC), for which he won the NASA Group Achievement Award in 1995. A report from June 2, 1995 explains:
NASIRC has significantly elevated agency-wide awareness of serious evolving threats to NASA’s computer/network systems through on-going threat awareness briefings and in-depth technical workshop sessions and through intercenter communications and cooperation relating to the responsive and timely sharing of incident information and tools and techniques. (Valerie L. Thomas, “NASIRC Receives NASA Group Award”, National Space Science Data Center, June 2, 1995)
Is there any relation between Assange’s prosecution for hacking in 1996 and this exchange?
Was he collaborating with these institutions?
For example, in his e-mail, Assange updates Blonder on his work, referring to “other platforms I have not as yet tested”, seemingly indicating that he was collaborating with the NASA employee. One thing we can confirm is that Julian Assange was in communication with people working for NASA and the Los Alamos Lab in the 1990s.
Who’s Who at Wikileaks? The Members of the Advisory Board
Here are some interesting facts about several members listed in 2008 on the Wikileaks advisory board, including organizations to which they belong or have links to.
Philip Adams, among other things, “held key posts in Australian governmental media administration” (Wikileaks’ Avisory Board, Wikileaks.org, 27 March 2008), chaired the Australia Council and contributed to The Times, The Financial Times in London and The New York Times. Confirmed by several reports, he is the representative of the International Committee of Index on Censorship. It is worth mentioning that Wikileaks was awarded the 2008 Economist Index on Censorship Freedom of Expression award. (Philip Adams, Milesago.com)
Adams worked as a presenter for ABC (Australia) Radio’s Late Night Live and as columnist for The Australian since the 1960s. The Australian is owned by News Corporation, a property of Rupert Murdoch, member of the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR).
Adams also “chairs the Advisory Board of the Centre for the Mind at Sydney University and the Australian National University”. CFR member Michael Spence also serves on this board and Rupert Murdoch’s son, Lachlan Murdoch, has served as well until 2001. The 2008 Distinguished Fellow of the Center for the Mind was former British Prime Minister Tony Blair, who has faced a slew of accusations for war crimes. Does Adams have conflicting allegiances: serving on the advisory board of the Wikileaks organization whose mandate is to expose war crimes, yet at the same time sitting on another board which honors an accused war criminal.
According to an article in The Australian:
Adams, who has never met Assange, says he quit the board due to ill-health shortly after WikiLeaks was launched and never attended a meeting. “I don’t think the advisory board has done any advisoring,” he quips.
CJ Hinke, “writer, academic, activist, has lived in Thailand since 1989 where he founded Freedom Against Censorship Thailand (FACT) in 2006 to campaign against pervasive censorship in Thai society.” (Wikileaks’ Avisory Board, Wikileaks.org, 27 March 2008) FACT is part of Privacy International, which includes among others on its Steering Committee or advisory board, the American Civil Liberties Union and the Index on Censorship.
In the US, Privacy International is “administered through the Fund for Constitutional Government in Washington DC.”(About Privacy International, 16 December 2009).
One of the board members of this fund is Steven Aftergood, who wrote one of the first articles on Wikileaks before the website was even functional. In a report from Technology Daily dated January 4, 2007, it is stated that “Wikileaks recently invited Steven Aftergood, a government secrecy researcher at the Federation of American Scientists [FAS], to serve on its advisory board.”
“’WikiLeaks allegedly has an advisory board, and allegedly I’m a member of it… I don’t know who runs it…’ Laurie says his only substantive interaction with the group was when Assange approached him to help design a system that would protect leakers’ anonymity.” (David Kushner, Inside Wikileaks’ Leak Factory, Mother Jones, 6 April, 2010)
This article appeared in Mother Jones in April 2010. An article of the New York Daily News dated December 2010 quotes Ben Laurie as follows: “‘Julian’s a smart guy and this is an interesting tactic,’ said Ben Laurie, a London-based computer security expert who has advised WikiLeaks.”
Despite his denial of being an advisor to Wikileaks, his name still appears on the list of advisory board members, according to reports. It is also worth noting that Ben Laurie is a “Director of Security for The Bunker Secure Hosting, where he has worked since 1984 and is responsible for security, cryptography and network design.” He is also a Director of Open Rights Group, funded by the Joseph Rowntree Reform Trust Ltd and the Open Society Foundation.
Chinese and Tibetan Dissidents on the Advisory Board
Tashi Namgyal Khamsitsang:
Tashi Namgyal Khamsitsang, a “Tibetan exile & activist” is a former President of the Washington Tibet Association, and was a member of the Tibetan Government-in-Exile. In July of this year he was appointed by the Governor of Washington State to the State Commission on Asian Pacific American Affairs. (A Tibetan Appointed to the Washington State Commission on Asian Pacific American Affairs, Tibetan Association of Washington, 17 July 2010)
Wang Youcai co-founded the Chinese Democracy Party and is another leader of the Tienanmen Square protests. Imprisoned for “conspiring to overthrow the Government of China… he was exiled in 2004 under international political pressure, especially from the United States. He is also a “member of Chinese Constitutional Democratic Transition Research and a member of the Coordinative Service Platform of the China Democracy Party” (Wikileaks’ Avisory Board, Wikileaks.org, 27 March 2008)
Xiao Qiang, is one of the Chinese dissidents listed on the Wikileaks board. He “ is the Director of the Berkeley China Internet Project…[He] became a full time human rights activist after the Tienanmen Massacre in 1989… and is currently vice-chair of the Steering Committee of the World Movement for Democracy”, according to Wikileaks’ description. He received the MacArthur Fellowship from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation in 2001 and is a commentator for Radio Free Asia. (Wikilieaks’ Avisory Board, Wikileaks.org, 27 March 2008)
Xiao Qiang is also the “founder and publisher of China Digital Times” (Biographies, National Endowment for Democracy), which is a grantee of the National Endowment for Democracy (NED) (Directives from China’s Ministry of Truth on Liu Xiaobo winning Nobel, Democracy Digest, October 8, 2010).
The Steering Committee of the World Movement for Democracy is an initiative of the Washington, DC-based NED. (World Movement for Democracy). In 2008, Xiao Qiang was part of a discussion panel intitled “Law Rights and Democracy in China: Perspectives and Leading Advocates”, held by NED before the Democracy Award Ceremony. (2008 NED Democracy Award Honors Heroes of Human Rights and Democracy in China, National Endowment for Democracy, June 17, 2008).
Radio Free Asia is funded by the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG) which describes itself as a body that “encompasses all U.S. civilian international broadcasting, including the Voice of America (VOA), Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL), Radio Free Asia (RFA), Radio and TV Martí, and the Middle East Broadcasting Networks (MBN)—Radio Sawa and Alhurra Television.” Eight of its nine members are appointed by the President and confirmed by the U.S. Senate; the ninth is the Secretary of State, who serves ex officio”. (Broadcasting Board of Governors)
RFE/RL no longer hides its covert origins: “Initially, both RFE and RL were funded principally by the U.S. Congress through the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA)… In 1971, all CIA involvement ended and thereafter RFE and RL were funded by Congressional appropriation through the Board for International Broadcasting (BIB) and after 1995 the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG). (A Brief History of RFE/RL)
Interestingly, in a report from 2002, the CFR suggested “creating a Public Diplomacy Coordinating Structure (PDCS) to help define communications strategies and streamline public diplomacy structures. ‘In many ways, the PDCS would be similar to the National Security Council’… PDCS members would include the secretaries of State, Defense, Treasury and Commerce, as well as the director of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) and BBG chairman”, a suggestion officially objected by the BBG “to preserve the journalistic integrity.” (BBG Expresses Concern With Report Recommendations on U.S. International Braodcasting, 31 July 2002)
Among the Chinese dissidents once listed on the board is Wang Dan. He was a leader of the Tienanmen Square democracy movement, which “earned him the top spot on China’s list of ‘21 Most Wanted Beijing Student Leaders’.” He was imprisoned for his subversive activities and “exiled in 1998 under international political pressure to the United States.” (Wikilieaks’ Avisory Board, Wikileaks.org, 27 March 2008)
He is chairman of the Chinese Constitutional Reform Association, and sits on the editorial board of Beijing Spring, a magazine funded by NED, the “chief democracy-promoting foundation” according to an article by Judith Miller in The New York Times. One of the founders of NED was quoted as saying “A lot of what we [NED] do today was done covertly 25 years ago by the CIA.” (quoted in William Blum, Rogue State: A Guide to the World’s Only Superpower, 2000, p. 180).
In 1998, Wang Dan was granted the NED’s Democracy Award “for representing a peaceful alternative to achieve democracy and for [his] courage and steadfastness in the cause of democracy”. (1998 Democracy Award honors Heroes of Human Rights and Democracy in China, National Endowment for Democracy)
The Battle for “Transparency”
In 2007, Wikileaks described itself as an “uncensorable Wikipedia for untraceable mass document leaking and analysis.” Its priority? “[E]xposing oppressive regimes in Asia, the former Soviet bloc, Sub-Saharan Africa and the Middle East.” Like the advisory board member list, this description no longer appears on Wikileaks’ website. The organization also claimed to be “founded by Chinese dissidents, journalists, mathematicians and startup company technologists, from the US, Taiwan, Europe, Australia and South Africa.” (Wikileaks.org, 17 December 2007)
In the currently available description, the reference to the Chinese dissidents and the origins of the other members has been removed. Wikileaks rather puts the emphasis on not being a covert operation.
Assange encourages blind faith in Wikileaks as he puts a lot of emphasis on the trustworthiness of his opaque organization. In the words of Assange:
“Once something starts going around and being considered trustworthy in a particular arena, and you meet someone and they say ‘I heard this is trustworthy,’ then all of a sudden it reconfirms your suspicion that the thing is trustworthy. So that’s why brand is so important, just as it is with anything you have to trust.”(Andy Greenberg, An Interview with Wikileaks’ Julian Assange, Forbes, 29 October, 2010, emphasis added)
“People should understand that WikiLeaks has proven to be arguably the most trustworthy new source that exists, because we publish primary source material and analysis based on that primary source material,” Assange told CNN. “Other organizations, with some exceptions, simply are not trustworthy.”(The secret life of Julian Assange, CNN, 2 December 2010, emphasis added)
While Wikileaks no longer discloses the names of the members of its advisory board, nor does it reveal its sources of funding, we have to trust it because according to its founder Julian Assange, it “has proven to be the most trustworthy news source that exists”.
Moreover, if we follow Assange’s assertion that there are only a few media organizations which can be considered trustworthy, we must assume that those are the ones which were selected by Wikileaks to act as “partners” in the release and editing of the leaks, including The New York Times, Der Spiegel, The Guardian, El Paìs, Le Monde.
Yet The New York Times, which employs members of the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR) including Wikileaks’ collaborator David E. Sanger, has proven more than once to be a propaganda tool for the US government, the most infamous example being the Iraqi WMD narrative promoted by Pulitzer Prize winner Judith Miller.
In an interview, Assange indicates that Wikileaks chose a variety of media to avoid the use of leaks for propaganda purposes. It is important to note that although these media might be owned by different groups and have different editorial policies, they are without exception news entities controlled by major Western media corporations.
A much better way to avoid the use of leaks for disinformation purposes would have been to work with media from different regions of the world (e.g. Asia, Latin America, Middle East) as well as establish partnership agreements with the alternative media. By working primarily with media organizations from NATO countries, Wikileaks has chosen to submit its leaks to one single “worldview”, that of the West.
As a few critics of Wikileaks have noted, the Wikileaks project brings to mind the “recommendations” of Cass Sunstein, heads the Obama White House’s Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs. Sunstein is the author of an authoritative Harvard Law School essay entitled “Conspiracy Theories: Causes and Cures”. As outlined by Daniel Tencer in Obama Staffer Calls for “Cognitive Infiltration” of ” 9/11 Conspiracy Groups”:
Sunstein “argued that the government should stealthily infiltrate groups that pose alternative theories on historical events via ‘chat rooms, online social networks, or even real-space groups and attempt to undermine’ those groups”.
Sunstein means that people who believe in conspiracy theories have a limited number of sources of information that they trust. Therefore, Sunstein argued in the article, it would not work to simply refute the conspiracy theories in public — the very sources that conspiracy theorists believe would have to be infiltrated.
Sunstein, whose article focuses largely on the 9/11 conspiracy theories, suggests that the government “enlist nongovernmental officials in the effort to rebut the theories. It might ensure that credible independent experts offer the rebuttal, rather than government officials themselves. There is a tradeoff between credibility and control, however. The price of credibility is that government cannot be seen to control the independent experts.” (emphasis added)
Links to The Intelligence Community
Wikleaks feels the need to reassure public opinion that it has no contacts with the intelligence community. Ironically, it also sees the need to define the activities of the intelligence agencies and compare them to those of Wikileaks:
“1.5 The people behind WikiLeaks
WikiLeaks is a project of the Sunshine Press. It’s probably pretty clear by now that WikiLeaks is not a front for any intelligence agency or government despite a rumour to that effect. This rumour was started early in WikiLeaks’ existence, possibly by the intelligence agencies themselves. WikiLeaks is an independent global group of people with a long standing dedication to the idea of a free press and the improved transparency in society that comes from this. The group includes accredited journalists, software programmers, network engineers, mathematicians and others.
To determine the truth of our statements on this, simply look at the evidence. By definition, intelligence agencies want to hoard information. By contrast, WikiLeaks has shown that it wants to do just the opposite. Our track record shows we go to great lengths to bring the truth to the world without fear or favour.” (Wikileaks.org, emphasis added)
“Is Wikileaks a CIA front?
Wikileaks is not a front for the CIA, MI6, FSB or any other agency. Quite the opposite actually. […] By definition spy agencies want to hide information. We want to get it out to the public.” (Wikileaks.org, 17, December 2007, emphasis added)
Quite true. But by definition, a covert operation always pretends to be something it is not, and never claims to be what it is.
Wikileaks’ Entourage. Who Supports Wikileaks?
The people gravitating around Wikileaks have connections and/or are affiliated to a number of establishment organizations, major corporate foundations and charities. In the Wikileaks’ leak published by John Young, a correspondence dated January 4, 2007, points to Wikileaks’ exchange with Freedom House:
“We are looking for one or two initial advisory board member from FH who may advise on the following:
1. the needs of FH as consumer of leaks exposing business andpolitical corruption
2. the needs for sources of leaks as experienced by FH
3. FH recommendations for other advisory board members
4. general advice on funding, coallition building and decentralised operations and political framing
These positions will initially be unpaid, but we feel the role may be of significant interest to FH.”
The request for funding from various organizations triggered some doubt among Wikileaks collaborators.
John Young became very sceptical concerning the Wikileaks project specifically with regard to the initial fund-raising goal of 5 million dollars, the contacts with elite organzations including Freedom House and the National Endowment for Democracy and the alleged millions of documents:
“Announcing a $5 million fund-raising goal by July will kill this effort. It makes WL appear to be a Wall Street scam.
This amount could not be needed so soon except for suspect purposes.
I’d say the same about the alleged 1.1 million documents ready for leaking. Way too many to be believable without evidence. I don’t believe the number. So far, one document, of highly suspect provenance.”
Young finally quit the organization on January 7, 2007. His final words: “Wikileaks is a fraud… working for the enemy”.
Four years after its creation, we still don’t know who funds the whistleblower site.
Wikileaks, Hackers, and “The First Cyberwar”
The shady circumstances around Julian Assange’s arrest for “sex crimes” have triggered what some mainstream media have called the “first cyberwar”. The Guardian for instance, another Wikileaks partner, warns us with this shocking title: “WikiLeaks backlash: The first global cyber war has begun, claim hackers”.
Some people suspect that this is a false flag operation intended to control the Internet.
It is no secret that hackers are often recruited by governmental authorities for cyber security purposes. Peiter Zatko a.k.a. “Mudge” is one of them. Here is an excerpt of a Forbes interview with Assange regarding his connection to Peiter Zatko:
Assange:Yeah, I know Mudge. He’s a very sharp guy.
Greenberg: Mudge is now leading a project at the Pentagon’s Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency to find a technology that can stop leaks, which seems pretty relative [sic] to your organization. Can you tell me about your past relationship with Mudge?
Assange: Well, I… no comment.
Greenberg: Were you part of the same scene of hackers? When you were a computer hacker, you must have known him well.
Assange: We were in the same milieu. I spoke with everyone in that milieu.
Greenberg: What do you think of his current work to prevent digital leaks inside of organizations, a project called Cyber Insider Threat or Cinder?
Assange: I know nothing about it.
Peiter Zatko is an expert in cyber warfare. He worked for BBN Technolgies (a subsidiary of Raytheon) with engineers “who perform leading edge research and development to protect Department of Defense data… Mr. Zatko is focused on anticipating and protecting against the next generation of information and network security threats to government and commercial networks.” (Peiter “Mudge” Zatko, Information Security Expert Who Warned that Hackers “Could Take Down the Internet in 30 Minutes” Returns to BBN Technologies, Business Wire, 1 February 2005, emphasis added)
In another Forbes interview, we learn that Mr. Zatko is “a lead cybersecurity researcher at the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency [DARPA], the mad-scientist wing of the Pentagon.” His project “aims to rid the world of digital leaks”. (Forbes, emphasis added)
There also seems to be a connection between Zatko and former hacker Jacob Appelbaum, a Wikileaks spokesperson. Zatko and Appelbaum were purportedly part of a hacker group called Cult of the Dead Cow.
Appelbaum currently works for the Tor Project, a United States Naval Research Laboratory initiative. The sponsors of that project listed on its website are:
NLnet Foundation (2008-2009), Naval Research Laboratory (2006-2010), an anonymous North American ISP (2009-2010), provided up to $100k. Google (2008-2009), Google Summer of Code (2007-2009), Human Rights Watch, Torfox (2009) and Shinjiru Technology (2009-2010) gave in turn up to $50k.
Past sponsors includes: Electronic Frontier Foundation (2004-2005), DARPA and ONR via Naval Research Laboratory (2001-2006), Cyber-TA project (2006-2008), Bell Security Solutions Inc (2006), Omidyar Network Enzyme Grant (2006), NSF via Rice University (2006-2007).
Zatko and Assange know each other. Jacob Appelbaum also played a role at Wikileaks.
The various connections tell us something regarding Assange’s entourage. They do not, however, provide us with evidence that people within these various organizations were supportive of the Wikileaks project.
Recent Developments: The Role of the Frontline Club
Over the last seven months, the London based Frontline Club has served as de facto U.K “headquarters” for Wikileaks. The Frontline Club is an initiative of Henry Vaughan Lockhart Smith, a former British Grenadier Guards captain. According to NATO, Vaughan Smith became an “independant video journalist […] who always hated war, but remained […] soldier-friendly”. (Across the Wire, New media: Weapons of mass communication, NATO Review, February 2008)
Upon his release from bail, Julian Assange was provided refuge at Vaughan Smith’s Ellingham Manor in Norfolk.
The Frontline Club is an establishment media outfit. Vaughan Smith writes for the NATO Review. (See NATO Web TV Channel and NATO Nations: Accurate, Reliable and Convenient). His relationship to NATO goes back to 1998 when he worked as a video journalist in Kosovo. In 2010, he was “embedded with a platoon from the British Grenadier Guards” during Operation Moshtarak in Afghanistan’s Helmand Province. (PBS NewsHour, February 19, 2010). According to the New York Times, The Frontline Club “has received financing for its events from the Open Society Institute”. (In London, a Haven and a Forum for War Reporters – New York Times, 28 August 2006)
Concluding Remarks: The Cyber Warfare Narrative
Wikileaks is now being used by the authorities, particularly in the US, to promote the cyber warfare narrative, which could dramatically change the Internet and suppress the freedom of expression Wikileaks claims to defend.
Peter Kornbluh, analyst at The National Security Archive, argues that “there’s going to be a lot of screaming about Wikileaks and the new federal law to penalize, sanction, and put the boot down on organizations like Wikileaks, so that their reactions can be deemed illegal.”
Ultimately, Wikileaks could spark off, intentionally or not, entirely new rules and regulations.
Julie Lévesque is a journalist at Global Research, Centre for Research on Globalization (CRG).