WikiLeaks’ Sketchy Origins

Illustration: Stuart Bradford/Photo: <a href="http://www.flickr.com/photos/edyson/4125216594/">Esther Dyson</a> via Flickr

For indispensable reporting on the coronavirus crisis, the election, and more, subscribe to the Mother Jones Daily newsletter.

The New Yorker has a fascinating new profile of Julian Assange, the mastermind behind WikiLeaks. Raffi Khatchadourian’s piece is full of revelations about the enigmatic hacker-turned-“open-government activist”, from details of his peripatetic childhood to an exclusive glimpse of Assange at work on the “Collateral Murder” video of an American Army helicopter shooting journalists and civilians in Baghdad.

Check it out—but also check out MoJo‘s controversial profile of Assange by David Kushner, which has just been updated and expanded. Like Kushner, Khatchadourian concludes that Assange’s attempts to shine light on evildoers while lurking in the shadows is deeply contradictory: “The thing that he seems to detest most—power with accountability—is encoded in the site’s DNA, and will only become more pronounced as WikiLeaks evolves into a real institution.”

Perhaps the most interesting tidbit in the New Yorker story is its discussion of how WikiLeaks got its start. When WikiLeaks was in the planning stages in 2006, Assange said that he had more than 1 million documents; a claim that convinced Cryptome founder Jon Young that Assange was either exaggerating or up to no good. But now it seems that Assange did have his hands on a large, questionably obtained, cache of material. Khatchadourian reports that one WikiLeaks activist had access to a “tranche” of secret government documents obtained by Chinese hackers. The documents had been pulled off of Tor, the anonymizing network that WikiLeaks now encourages its leakers to use to stymie “internet spies.” According to the New Yorker, WikiLeaks posted only a few of those swiped documents. If it’s accurate, this anecdote raises some serious ethical and technical questions about how WikiLeaks operates. Does WikiLeaks condone this kind of online snooping? Has it relied upon it since its launch? Just how many of the senstive documents it’s posted were genuinely leaked and how many were hacked?   

From Assange’s response, the only thing that’s clear is that (yet again) questioning WikiLeaks’ M.O. makes him tetchy. He seemed to approve of the New Yorker piece, re-tweeting its assertion that “Some WikiLeaks documents were siphoned off of Chinese hackers’ activities”—a detail that helps its noble-hacker mystique. However, after Wired looked into the Tor issue, Assange tweeted that its “beatup on WL&Tor” had “no new info”: “Don’t be fooled.” The Register found this micro-denial “sketchy”; in a comment to the site, Assange implied that Wired and the New Yorker had gotten the Tor story wrong, but didn’t elaborate on whether WikiLeaks had in fact gotten its start with documents taken from the privacy network.

Perhaps the New Yorker misinterpreted the geekery behind WikiLeaks; perhaps Khatchadourian got stuck in Assange’s web of plausible deniablility. Either way, a more detailed response from Assange would go a long way toward clearing the air. As Ryan Sholin writes, “Is it OK to hack Tor in the name of the public good?…I have a hard time trusting Tor or WikiLeaks right now.”*

Update: I’ve emailed Khatchadourian to see if his description of the WikiLeaks-Tor episode still stands. I also emailed Assange twice, asking him to verify or correct what the New Yorker reported. To which he replied, “Get a life,” and, “Go do something useful and difficult for a change.”

SIX TRUTHS

Reclaiming power from those who abuse it often starts with telling the truth. And in "This Is How Authoritarians Get Defeated," MoJo's Monika Bauerlein unpacks six truths to remember during the homestretch of an election where democracy, truth, and decency are on the line.

Truth #1: The chaos is the point.

Truth #2: Team Reality is bigger than it seems.

Truth #3: Facebook owns this.

Truth #4: When we go to work, we're in the fight.

Truth #5: It's about minority rule.

Truth #6: The only thing that can save us is…us.

Please take a moment to see how all these truths add up, because what happens in the weeks and months ahead will reverberate for at least a generation and we better be prepared.

And if you think journalism like Mother Jones'—that calls it like it is, that will never acquiesce to power, that looks where others don't—can help guide us through this historic, high-stakes moment, and you're able to right now, please help us reach our $350,000 goal by October 31 with a donation today. It's all hands on deck for democracy.

payment methods

SIX TRUTHS

Reclaiming power from those who abuse it often starts with telling the truth. And in "This Is How Authoritarians Get Defeated," MoJo's Monika Bauerlein unpacks six truths to remember during the homestretch of an election where democracy, truth, and decency are on the line.

Truth #1: The chaos is the point.

Truth #2: Team Reality is bigger than it seems.

Truth #3: Facebook owns this.

Truth #4: When we go to work, we're in the fight.

Truth #5: It's about minority rule.

Truth #6: The only thing that can save us is…us.

Please take a moment to see how all these truths add up, because what happens in the weeks and months ahead will reverberate for at least a generation and we better be prepared.

And if you think journalism like Mother Jones'—that calls it like it is, that will never acquiesce to power, that looks where others don't—can help guide us through this historic, high-stakes moment, and you're able to right now, please help us reach our $350,000 goal by October 31 with a donation today. It's all hands on deck for democracy.

payment methods

We Recommend

Latest

Sign up for our free newsletter

Subscribe to the Mother Jones Daily to have our top stories delivered directly to your inbox.

Get our award-winning magazine

Save big on a full year of investigations, ideas, and insights.

Subscribe

Support our journalism

Help Mother Jones' reporters dig deep with a tax-deductible donation.

Donate