If hackers possess a look, then Julian Assange would probably be best placed to carry it onto the runways at New York fashion week. Except that the founder of WikiLeaks – brown cargo pants, computer rucksack, and this season’s must-have, prematurely silver hair – would certainly be arrested as he attempted to cross into the land of the free. Assange has been denounced by everybody from the US defense secretary, Robert Gates, to my nephew Rory, a student at the University of Aberdeen, who believes Assange is alone responsible for a general upswing in the fortunes of computer nerds at the expense of guitar heroes.
I have now read a number of the 92,000 reports leaked by Assange and his solemn cohorts onto the world wide web. I can’t tell you the exact number, because after a while they blend to become one big lump of air attacks and roadside bombings and mysterious operations with heavy civilian casualties, relayed to you in thick, stubby acronyms and gamer-speak. By the end you realise, first, that something much worse than we thought has been happening in Afghanistan, and, second, that journalism may never be the same again. Daniel Ellsberg, who, once upon a time, released the Pentagon Papers to the New York Times, has been quick to see the WikiLeaks stuff as being bigger than anything. Back in June 1971, the documents revealed Johnson’s escalation of the war into Cambodia and Laos: this time, even a glancing inspection reveals the broad incidence of ‘collateral murder’ and a collusion between Pakistan and the Taliban that flourishes behind the back of Hillary Clinton.
Still, such revelations are not unknown, and, in many cases, they are not revelations. The difference this time may prove pleasingly McLuhan-like: the Pentagon Papers (and Watergate) relied on the presence of a traditional journalistic source: WikiLeaks’s material is coming in a new way, involving not only unnamed sources but, in many cases, unknown ones. Even Assange claims he doesn’t know. And he admits he hasn’t read all the reports his team has made available on the net. WikiLeaks appears to be a vent, behind which stands a complicated series of pipes, multiple servers and shady ‘suppliers’ and ‘gatherers’, working through encryption to conceal themselves. Assange is a new kind of journalistic enabler, working, one day, from a rented room in Iceland, another day from somebody’s spare room in London, and, two days later, from some shady bedrock of hackerdom in China or Africa.
Assange’s triumph was to bring the Guardian, the New York Times and Der Spiegel into a joint ventilation of the facts: the whistleblowers are well placed but unknowable, and the interpreters (the people who will actually read the material and compare it with official reports and name the crimes) could be you or me or some computer-minded dude in a boxroom in the suburbs of Dallas. This potent new amateurism may flout the rules of journalism because, by and large, it aligns itself with no commercial body, no political party, no ‘national security interest’, and no code of honour about who is more likely to deserve our protection. Assange is a robust hacker-guerrilla, a believer in the truth for its own sake, and according to his view that every human being with access to a computer has the power to be a legislature if not a judiciary he represents the democratic instinct at its most blunt. Several years ago, in the most paranoid moment after 9/11, Homeland Security held that the ‘protection’ of America could be farmed out to any individual with a computer, paid to watch an entrance or a field or a block of houses for evidence of terrorist activity. That idea has, as it were, come home to roost, but not as the governors of security imagined. What it now means is that such individuals, unpaid and unsupervised, can go the other way, keeping watch over the government and the military and placing their findings in the public domain for other individuals to examine.
Assange himself, meanwhile, behaves like someone balanced quite delicately between ego-less humanitarian, autistic showman and outrageous monomaniac. The week of the big leaks, I went to see him at a club in Paddington. It turned out to be a long but enlightening evening with the hackerati. The room buzzed with multiple and simultaneous broadcasts, not via media outlets – this was a private meeting, so no CNN, no Channel 4 News – but by iPhone, iPad and Blackberry, all of which buzzed and beeped and grunted with business. During the boring bits of the tutorial, the man next to me went on Grindr, the gay and bisexual phone application, to see how many metres he was from a possible hook-up. Everyone else was blogging and tweeting like crazy.
Assange was pleased with the media attention and happy to be out front. He has the traditional hackers’ distaste for institutions and, when the mood takes him, for journalists too. He works with reporters in every country you can think of, yet, while seeing them as essential to his enterprise, he is capable of taking a fairly nihilistic view. At a press conference earlier that day he appeared to object to the fact that some of his friends and colleagues were still alive. ‘Very few Western journalists have died. I think it’s an international disgrace that so few Western journalists have been killed in the course of duty, or have been arrested in the course of duty. How many journalists were arrested last year in the United States, a country of 300 million people? How many journalists were arrested in the UK last year?’ When a question doesn’t suit him, he says ‘next question’ or ‘no comment’, which is something people almost never say nowadays. (Politicians have more lubricant ways of not answering questions.)
The night-time event was different. He wanted to be asked anything, but ‘no press-conference-type questions’, he said. Assange is the son of one-time actors, and you can tell: there is definitely some psychic itch being scratched as he goes about calling for ‘precise’ points, delivering his salvos, pressing for invisible recruits and agents of change. He described the success of the WikiLeaks’s ‘communications infrastructure’ in keeping the leaks anonymous. The whistleblowers, he said, could never be prosecuted and the material could never be used in evidence. But this has proved to be wishful thinking: it is alleged that US Army Specialist Bradley Manning, 22, presently awaiting a military tribunal, was responsible for supplying a video to WikiLeaks of the killing by helicopter gunship of a group of supposed Iraqi insurgents, a group that included two Reuters journalists, as well as other undisclosed material.
Assange was tetchy on this point, and tetchier still on the question of whether the leaked war reports would put US and coalition forces in danger. Someone in the audience asked him about increasing the threat to soldiers who were willing to give their lives out there. ‘Give their lives to what?’ Assange asked, before warning his audience against throwing up the ‘spectre’ of national security before the work he was doing. He is all for ‘victim-protection’ but soldiers, as he sees it, represent the national security state, whereas some of us believe that soldiers are basically poor guys from Blackpool who aspire to a better life but don’t have many options. Some victims wear battle fatigues.
‘We are a publisher of last resort,’ Assange said. Yet, for many people in the room, his organisation was set to become a totemic one for the new media. He showed us how to read the war logs, how to interpret them, and he ran an hour over his allotted time. ‘I could answer questions all night,’ he said. Somebody told me he had eaten one sandwich all day. He was sleeping on a Guardian journalist’s couch. But eventually the staff called time on the event and we had to leave.
Being obsessional, to these guys, is the same as being focused. That’s the activist’s creed. But the following days would seek to put manners on those obsessions. America’s paper of record, it turned out, did not (or never had) felt as much in agreement with Assange as he implied. They were worried about Afghan sources’ names appearing in the leaked documents. (They might just have been covering themselves.) While the rest of us were applauding this year’s Dr No, or applauding the world’s first truly stateless news feed, Andrew Exum, a fellow at the Center for a New American Security, was to be found on the op-ed pages of the New York Times, giving Assange what for. ‘By muddying the waters between journalism and activism,’ Exum wrote, ‘and by throwing his organisation into the debate on Afghanistan with little apparent regard for the hard moral choices and dearth of good policy options facing decision makers, he is being as reckless and destructive as the contemptible soldier or soldiers who leaked the documents in the first place.’
Contemptible? Heroic? Assange may simply be fulfilling the journalist’s role in the new ways allowed by the internet. He may not own a house but he owns a computer, and so do the guys at the Pentagon. They have something in common, too: they don’t have to live anywhere because they now live everywhere. The unmanned drones flying over Afghanistan are operated from computers on an airbase outside Las Vegas. And the people answering Assange’s call to defend the victims of war are to be found any place where a flashing cursor meets a human pulse.