All of this is Assange’s own doing. And yet it is strange how completely these dramas have obscured the power of his insights and how fully we now seem to be living in Julian Assange’s world. His real topic never was war or human rights. It was always surveillance and the way that technology unbalanced the relationship between the individual and the state. Information now moves through electronic circuits, which means it can all be collected, stored, analyzed. The insight that Assange husbanded (and Snowden’s evidence confirmed) is that the sheer seduction of this trove—the possibility of secretly knowing everything about other people—would lead governments and companies to abandon their own laws and ethics. This is the paranoid worldview of a hacker, assembled from a lifetime of chasing information. But Assange proved that it was accurate, and the consequence of his discovery has been a strange political moment, when to see the world through the lens of conspiracies has not only made you paranoid. It’s also made you aware.
Assange’s detractors often call him a conspiracy theorist and mean it as a simple slur. But in the most literal sense, Assange is exactly that: a theorist of conspiracies. He gave his major pre-WikiLeaks manifesto the title Conspiracy As Governance, and in it he argued that authoritarian institutions relied on the people working within them conspiring to protect potentially damaging information. In large institutions like militaries or banks, to keep these kinds of secrets requires an enormous number of collaborators. If you could find a way to guarantee anonymity, then even the most peripheral people within these institutions could leak its secrets and break the conspiracy. WikiLeaks was built to receive these leaks. Bradley Manning, in other words, did not simply find WikiLeaks. WikiLeaks was designed for Bradley Manning.
The image that Assange used to describe how these conspiracies worked was of an array of nails hammered into boards, with connecting twine looped around the nails. Each nail was a person and the twine was the information; snip it and the whole system would unravel. WikiLeaks was the snipping mechanism. And yet in the three years since Assange’s major disclosures, the twine has not detectably unraveled. Governments have not fallen because of what WikiLeaks exposed. Policies have mostly been left unchanged; there are more secrets than ever. Some other force was at work.
None of this diminishes the power of the revelations. To take just one example from the military logs released by Manning: In 2007, in the Afghan district of Zarghun Shah, American rockets hit a school, killing six young men and seven children. Military spokesmen then said that the rockets had been fired as part of a normal patrol, and the soldiers were responding to insurgents who had taken refuge in a nearby mosque. The classified record looked different. The rockets had actually been fired by members of a secret squad of Special Operations soldiers called Task Force 373, dedicated to high-value targets, who had gone after the mosque when intelligence reports said that a senior Al Qaeda leader was holed up in the complex. It wasn’t until the WikiLeaks revelations three years later that we learned that the reports had been wrong and that the military had simply made up other details to try to excuse the murders and that the local Afghan politicians had been pressured to echo them. This was an extreme case, but even so, the ease with which murders were turned into secrets is startling. “The principle is trust and verify,” says William Binney, a former NSA crypto-mathematician turned anti-secrecy advocate. “But in reality there is no verify, only trust.”
WikiLeaks’ last major document release, at the end of 2011, was called the “Spy Files,” and it consisted in large part of information gathered by an English lawyer named Eric King, who, working for the British organization Privacy International, spent several years traveling to trade fairs where Western digital-surveillance companies presented their new technologies. Often the customers were government officials from Third World countries. In Kuala Lumpur, King told me, he watched a delegation from South Sudan, a nation then just a few months old, being taken from booth to booth by a group he took to be from the Chinese government, being told what they needed to buy to spy on their own citizens, as if they were pushing a cart around a supermarket.
King noticed a particular mentality at the conferences among those who kept official secrets. “The attitude at the conferences was often, ‘If you don’t have a security clearance, then you just don’t understand how the world really works,’ ” King says. During the revolutions of the Arab Spring, when activists and journalists cracked open abandoned secret police offices, their discoveries seemed to confirm how dependent the governments were on Western surveillance technology. In one Tripoli intelligence center, Qaddafi’s spies were using a tool Libya had bought from the French company Amesys to monitor all e-mail traffic, and technology from the South African firm VASTech to monitor all international calls.