The State of Assange

Photo: Andrew Parson/I-Images/ZumaPress/Newscom

Until very recently, there have been only a hand­ful of people on the planet with a precise sense of how much interest the world’s intelligence agencies have in them. Some schizophrenics have been con­vinced someone was always monitoring them, but they were wrong. Most of the rest of us have assumed that we did not matter to spies at all, but after the Edward Snowden dis­closures, that seems wrong, too: Each of us, evidently, is of a very tiny bit of interest to spy agencies.

In 2010, as he was publishing Bradley (now Chelsea) Manning’s revelations of the crimes of the American military and the inner workings of the U.S. diplomatic corps, Julian Assange was the rare individual with a good idea about who was watching him, and how intently.

When Assange, already infamous, fled London for the English manor house where he would prepare the Cablegate disclosures, and costumed himself for the trip as a giant woman with an implausible wig; when his assistants, watching American politicians on television calling for their boss’s murder by drone, heard planes passing overhead and flinched; when he insisted on paying for everything in cash to avoid leaving an electronic trail—when he did all of this, Assange was being amateurish and overly theatrical. But he was probably not being crazy.

Which makes one aspect of Assange’s behavior especially surprising: how trusting he was with new volunteers, how quickly they breached his inner circle. “There was no vetting at all,” says James Ball, who was part of Assange’s inner circle at WikiLeaks for several months in 2010. It helps to explain Ball’s own story. He was 24 years old, working for a production company pitching documentaries about the Iraq War, when he heard that WikiLeaks had a tremendous trove of secret documents related to that war. Ball managed to arrange an introduction to Assange, and at the end of their first evening together, Assange slipped him a thumb drive containing everything about Iraq that WikiLeaks was preparing to release. If he was at all cautious about the motives of newcomers like Ball (and the whole genre of literary British spy fiction is built around characters like Ball, a couple of years out of Oxford, government internships in his past), Assange did not act like it. No encryption, no conditions, no formal nondisclosure agreements. Here it was.

Assange’s entire public life has been an experiment on the theme of trust, one devoted to the conviction that the public trust in government has been badly misplaced. But for a time, in 2010, Assange felt a part of something larger—if not affiliated with any institution other than his own, then at least part of a broader political movement against American power. The Fifth Estate, a thoughtful drama out this week with the English actor Benedict Cumberbatch as Assange, focuses on the extraordinary eight-month period when WikiLeaks published the military’s war logs from Afghanistan and Iraq, the State Department’s internal cables, and the “Collateral Murder” video—everything that made Assange famous. There was a casual brutality to the way that powerful states and com­panies seemed to behave in these documents: A Shell executive bragged about having packed the Nigerian government with sympathizers, American military officers substantially underreported the numbers of Iraqi civilians their soldiers were killing. In London, Wiki­Leaks became an Establishment liberal cause, and the Australian found himself joined by human-rights crusaders who had been knighted by the queen, journalists and filmmakers, concerned citizens and TED Talk celebrities.

These allegiances were always bound to collapse—Assange is simply too weird, in his person and his politics, to have become part of any mainstream coalition—but they have collapsed so completely that there is little left of Assange’s public image right now beyond the crude cartoon. Vain and self-mythologizing, he has been accused of sexual assault by two of his supporters; a prophet of the mounting powers of the surveillance state, he now reportedly lives in a fifteen-by-thirteen-foot room in London’s Ecuadoran Embassy, sleeping in a women’s bathroom, monitored by intelligence agencies at all times; still trusting of the volunteers around him, he gave one such man access to secret American diplomatic cables about Belarus, only to find that information passed along to the Belarusian dictator. It is as if Assange has been consumed by his own weaknesses and obsessions. Calling around, I’d heard that the last prominent London intellectual who still supported him was the writer Tariq Ali, but when I finally reached him, via Skype, on an island in the Adriatic, it turned out that Ali, too, had grown exasperated with Assange. “He hasn’t formulated his worldview,” Ali said. “Certainly he is hostile to the American empire. But that’s not enough.” Assange has come to be seen, as a journalist at The Guardian put it, as nothing more than “a useful idiot.”

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.

Some of these tools seem to have been sold despite embargoes; in many more cases, there are simply no rules at all. Hacker-activists have detected web-filtering and blocking software made by a Sunnyvale, California, company called Blue Coat Systems being used by the Syrian government to restrict the Internet; the Sudanese and Iranian governments have also used Blue Coat’s products. (The company has admitted this but says it did not directly sell its products to the Syrian regime.) Though it’s impossible to verify, King says he often hears that Western intelligence agencies tolerate these sales because they have back doors built in, so that they can monitor, say, the Libyan government as it monitors its own dissidents.

Spying turns out to be extremely cheap. One prominent tool sold by the U.K.-based Gamma Group, FinFisher, lets a government agent take remote control of any user’s cell phone by infecting it with malware, allowing the agent to pinpoint that user’s location, record his calls, and even turn on a microphone in the phone to listen to the user’s off-line conversations. This technology costs around $500,000—“a sixth of the cost of a secondhand tank,” King says. “That’s dictator chump change.” FinFisher has been sold to 36 governments, among them the brutal dictatorship of Turkmenistan.

America, of course, is where Assange’s ideas have been most coolly received. The crimes of Task Force 373 were a big story in The Guardian and Der Spiegel, but they played much smaller in the American press, including in the Times. In Congress, the task force has not been mentioned once. The Fifth Estate is steeped in a kind of expository triumphalism—figures around Assange are forever explaining how much the world is about to change or how much it just has. And yet in real life, the revelations have demonstrated the tremendous inertia of American politics, of the enduring capacity of things to stay almost exactly as they are.

The great puzzle of the recent scandals in American public life—in the banks and refinance shops during the mortgage crisis, in the military and the national-security apparatus during the war on terror—is why our institutional loyalties have remained so strong, and why whistle-blowers have been so rare. Why, if 480,000 people have Snowden’s security clearance and more than 1 million have Manning’s, have there been no other leaks?

Peter Ludlow, a Northwestern philosophy professor who studies hacker activism, thinks the answer may lie not in the nature of American politics but in something more basic and human. He pointed me to the work of a sociologist named Robert Jackall, popular among hacker-activists, who found that in large companies and governmental institutions, middle managers routinely followed the internal codes of corporate life rather than their own ethical convictions, even when confronted by clear evidence of wrongdoing. “Conspiracy doesn’t have to mean old white dudes at a mahogany table,” Ludlow says. “It can be an emergent property of a network of good individuals, where all of a sudden you’ve got a harm-causing macro entity.”

The consequence of the WikiLeaks revelations has been to persuade some people to see these patterns, and so to see the world more like Assange himself does. But this perspective is not for everyone; it is not really for anyone, even Assange. He suffers from fears that the sushi he eats might be poisoned; he knows that everything he does is monitored by large intelligence agencies; he believes that women he had sex with may have been in cahoots with spies. From the Ecuadoran Embassy come, now and then, these lunging gestures for a connection: The warm letter to Benedict Cumberbatch, praising the actor’s performance while denouncing the film; the doomed attempt to build a political party in Australia while imprisoned halfway around the world; the instinct to take the goodwill of new volunteers on faith, to press thumb drives full of secrets into the palms of strangers. Which leaves Assange as both a prophet and a warning: If his work has proved the dangers of trusting too much, then his life has demonstrated the impossibility of living without any trust at all.

The State of Assange