WikiLeaks is back in the news with two new, high-profile publications of secret documents. But the circumstances surrounding the organization’s true loyalties and motives are murkier than ever.
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The secretive organization, headed by 43-year-old Australian Julian Assange, was launched in December 2006. It’s devoted to exposing wrongdoing by governments and corporations, courtesy of whistle-blowers prepared to leak secret documents.
On Sunday November 28, 2010, as evening descended, we waited in the Haaretz newsroom – like in hundreds of other news organizations around the world – for a group of five newspapers to publish, together with WikiLeaks, thousands of diplomatic cables between the U.S. State Department and U.S. embassies worldwide.
When the cables finally came out, they didn’t disappoint. Intimate details from meetings held by U.S. diplomats with their allies, and rivals, were spread out in public, along with diplomats’ assessments and intimate details gleaned from sources around the world. The details were part of a collection of more than 250,000 embassy cables passed onto WikiLeaks by U.S. Army intelligence analyst Bradley Manning (now known as Chelsea, following her gender transition in 2013). The leak of America’s diplomatic secrets embarrassed Washington and heralded a new age of digital exposure. It would also have other global implications.
Three months later, I met Sofiane Belhaj – or, as he’s known online, Hamadi Kaloutcha – in Tunis. An unemployed student, Belhaj had taken the cables that had been sent to Washington by the U.S. embassy in Tunisia, detailing the corruption of President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali and his entourage, and translated them into Arabic and French. The international media had paid little notice to these cables – Tunisia was just another small dictatorship in northern Africa – but the translations Belhaj posted on Facebook were in one week viewed by 170,000 readers and fuelled the protests sparked by the January 2011 suicide of street vendor Mohamed Bouazizi, who set himself on fire after local officials forbade him from selling produce in Sidi Bouzid market.
Within weeks, the protests had brought down Ben Ali’s government and triggered a chain reaction of unrest and revolution across the Arab world, in Egypt, Libya, Bahrain, Syria and elsewhere. WikiLeaks and its supporters were quick to take credit for these developments, which were toppling veteran Arab dictators.
Meanwhile, back in London...
In Britain, however, things weren’t going so well for Assange. American legal pressure and mysterious online attacks had made it much more difficult for WikiLeaks to receive donations and secret information through its online service. Periodic arguments with the mainstream news organizations that it had originally partnered with caused a series of fall outs. Journalists and former supporters accused Assange of taking a cavalier attitude toward the safety of vulnerable individuals mentioned in leaked documents. He bristled when his partners counseled caution and demanded that identifying details be redacted before publication. In an interview with British satirical magazine Private Eye, he launched an anti-Semitic tirade against the editors of U.K. daily The Guardian, which had stopped cooperating with him. Unedited documents were dumped online en masse, without redaction. And the worst was yet to come.
Controversial allegations against Assange – sexual assault against two women during a visit to Sweden – ballooned into an investigation and extradition order, which, after a series of appeals, was upheld by the British courts. Assange claimed it was part of a U.S.-orchestrated plot to ultimately ensure his extradition to the United States, where he would be indicted for treason.
In June 2012, Assange claimed diplomatic asylum in the Ecuadorian embassy in London (behind Harrods department store in Knightsbridge), and has been holed up there ever since. With British police waiting for him outside, his stay has so far cost the U.K. taxpayer over 11 million pounds ($17.3 million). Three years living in a couple of rooms in the small embassy haven’t cowed Assange or prevented him working with new partners. For a short while, he fronted a political interview show, from the embassy, on the Kremlin’s international television network, Russia Today. His first special guest, in April 2012, was none other than Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah.
Shortly after he took refuge in the embassy, in July 2012 WikiLeaks published a database of nearly two and a half million Syrian emails. This was the only leak carried out by the organization that was in any way damaging to a non-Western government or corporation. The database contained details of business deals carried out between the Assad regime and companies in the West – even of shopping orders by President Bashar Assad and his wife Asma. By that time, though, Syria was already embroiled in its bloody civil war and the leaks had little effect.
There was another disturbing detail. By now, WikiLeaks was partnering with more radical news organizations, including Al Akhbar (“The News”), the Hezbollah-supporting, pro-Syrian Lebanese daily. Allowing Al Akhbar early access to the emails – which included the private communications of Syrian citizens, many of them not supporters of the regime – potentially put them at risk of retribution.
The Russian connection also proved useful when WikiLeaks took under its wing another young American with a vast haul of secret documents: National Security Agency systems manager Edward Snowden, who escaped first to Hong Kong in May 2013 with an unprecedented number of documents. These detailed the Americans’ electronic surveillance operations, where they cooperated with some of the largest technology companies and Internet providers in the world.
Snowden reached Moscow in June 2013 and eventually received asylum there from the Russian government, with WikiLeaks’ assistance. One of Assange’s closest collaborators, Sarah Harrison, travelled with him and stayed with him throughout his weeks spent at Moscow’s Sheremetyevo Airport, until the asylum terms were agreed upon. The whereabouts of the documents taken by Snowden, and the nature of his relationship with WikiLeaks and cooperation with the Kremlin, are still unclear. Still, Assange joined a long list of journalists, news organizations and websites that became the beneficiaries of Snowden’s leaks.
Julian Assange speaking from the balcony of Ecuador's embassy in London in this August 19, 2012. (Reuters)
Back in the news
Over the last two years, closed away from the world, Assange has struggled to draw attention. Occasionally, WikiLeaks took documents leaked by other mysterious groups of hackers – like the Sony Corporation emails dumped on the Web in December 2014 – and relaunched them after scanning them and making them easily searchable online.
Over the last week or so, though, WikiLeaks has enjoyed what appeared to be two major coups to put it back in the public eye. One was the publication, last Friday, of 61,000 diplomatic cables from Saudi Arabia’s foreign ministry (out of allegedly half a million that have been lifted from its archives). The other, earlier this week, concerned details of covert surveillance carried out by the NSA against the French president, François Hollande, and his two predecessors, Nicolas Sarkozy and Jacques Chirac. In both cases, these do not seem like anonymous leaks passed onto WikiLeaks’ website.
The Saudi cables are not the original files stored in the ministry’s computers in Riyadh, but photocopies that were only later – most likely by WikiLeaks or its collaborators – scanned using optical character recognition (OCR) software to make them searchable.
The revelations in the Saudi cables were interesting, though hardly surprising. Many of the documents detailed how Saudi diplomats were prepared to use money – in some cases millions of dollars in bribes and secret payments – to further their country’s interests and to corrupt journalists in various countries. Naturally, it was embarrassing for the Saudis, but nothing that others in the Middle East hadn’t already suspected.
Again, the “media partner” was Al Akhbar. And while WikiLeaks never identifies its source, there had been statements by the Saudis last month acknowledging that their computer networks had been breached by the “Yemen Cyber Army.” The similarity in name to a similar Syrian organization, allegedly working for the Assad regime; the presence of Hezbollah-backing Al Akhbar; and the fact that Hezbollah’s patron, Iran, is in intense regional rivalry with the Saudis – a rivalry that’s currently focused on the civil wars in Syria and Yemen, where both sides are backing rival Sunni and Shia groups, and actively involved with military advisers (Iran in Syria) and airstrikes (Saudis in Yemen) – makes it hard not to see Iran’s hand somewhere in the leak, with WikiLeaks acting as a convenient conduit.
One notable absentee
Interestingly, there’s very little of interest regarding Israel in the cables. There’s the title page of a document regarding alleged strategic cooperation between the Saudis and Israel, but the document itself is missing. It could be a technical error, or someone may have had reason to remove it.
The leak regarding NSA surveillance of French presidents was, of course, uncomfortable both for Washington and Paris. But since the Snowden leaks had already detailed how the United States listened in on foreign leaders, especially German Chancellor Angela Merkel, it wasn’t earth-shattering, either. And the French, while making the obligatory protests, have a relatively laid-back take on such matters, being no slouches in electronic skulduggery themselves.
Once again, there was no indication by WikiLeaks as to the provenance of the NSA documents. However, it is widely assumed that they’re more of the trove taken by Snowden (rumored to be as many as 1.7 million documents).
What’s interesting about this batch is that WikiLeaks chose to head it with a Hollande conversation from 2012, in which the French president discussed engaging with members of the German opposition, behind Merkel’s back, over the European Union’s problems with Greece’s debts. Giving this particular issue prominence now, in a week of crisis talks between the EU leadership and the Greek government – which is on the verge of defaulting and perhaps leaving the Eurozone, with potentially disastrous consequences – could simply be good news savvy on Assange’s part. On the other hand, there are those who would be very interested in sowing discord between France and Germany at this point: Russia, currently the subject of EU sanctions and a supporter of Greek ruling party Syriza. Russian news organizations were certainly very quick to trumpet the leak and this particular detail on Monday night, minutes after it was released on WikiLeaks’ website.
Whatever the real story behind Assange and WikiLeaks’ loyalties and actions, its periodic leaks have served a clear narrative over the years. It has continuously been damaging to Western governments, yet not once – with the exception of the Syria cables – has it targeted Russia, Iran or one of its clients. What this says about the organization and its supporters is open to speculation. However, it’s impossible to argue that the conspiracy-theorizing industry it fuels online doesn’t have concrete implications in the real world. On the Golan Heights on Monday, we saw how the rumors of Israel aiding Syrian rebel group the Nusra Front – which began on pro-Syrian and Iranian websites, and quickly seeped into even Western mainstream news sites – led to an angry mob attacking an Israel Defense Forces ambulance, killing one wounded Syrian inside and nearly killing another.