Non-fiction Review: Wikileaks by David Leigh and Luke Harding

wikileakscoverIf his commanding officers had listened to Specialist Bradley Manning (as he still was at the time Wikileaks was published), it would never have happened. When he first arrived at Contingency Operating Station Hammer in Iraq, he reported the poor systems security but nobody was interested in changing the way they had always done things. Being the inquisitive sort, Manning poked around to find out what a 22-year old with very low security clearance could access.

The answer, it turned out, was a lot. Diplomatic cables, combat reports and even recordings of classified operations popped up on his screen while he listened to Lady Gaga. As he read, his dismay at the poor security turned to disaffection from the army he was serving. It’s tempting to speculate that the turning point was the cockpit recording of an Apache gunship strafing what the crew believed to be insurgents, but who were actually a group of Iraqi civilians and Reuters journalists. Whether that was true or not, it was the first of the materials that he passed on to Julian Assange and his Wikileaks organisation.

Assange himself presented the video in a 2010 TED talk, apparently unaware of the storm that was about to break over him:


At the time, Assange was in discussion with an informal collaboration of newspapers and magazines in several different countries about releasing the rest of Manning’s material, which is presumably why he denied having it.

Assange’s first port of call was the Guardian, which is where the team of authors led by David Leigh and Luke Harding first became involved. Wikileaks tells the stories of Manning, Asssange and the Wikileaks organisation, but it is primarily the story of the Manning leak up to the time of publication in 2010.

Assange sits at the centre of the story: an unkempt, itinerant genius, founder of Wikileaks and freedom of information zealot. He comes across as an ambiguous figure, presumably because Leigh and Harding prefer to let us draw our own conclusions about him than to impose their own. This is a man who turned up late one night in the Guardian office having had nothing to eat and not knowing where he was going to stay. Leigh took him to a brasserie where he ‘ate 12 oysters and a piece of cheese’ and spent the next few weeks couchsurfing the homes of various journalists and on one occasion, was found explaining the big bang to a children’s party complete with equations. He eventually set up his base of operations in Ellingham Hall, a stately home belonging to libertarian journalist Vaughn Smith. He appears to have taken his backpacking lifestyle to something resembling Downton Abbey in his stride.

His view on how to handle the information that Manning had placed in his care was less endearing. When it was put to him that some documents needed to be handled carefully as they identified Afghans and Iraqis who had given information to the US military and would be killed, he replied, “well, they’re informants. So if they get killed, they’ve got it coming to them. They deserve it.”

For a man committed to passing on illicit information and at the time, protecting the identity of his own informant, the view that informants deserve to be killed appears less to do with the freedom of information and more anti-American than he admitted.

The biggest question around Assange remains what happened behind closed doors when he was seeking residence Sweden. Leigh and Harding devote a whole chapter to the allegations of sexual misconduct and Assange’s denial of them, though it’s impossible to draw any conclusions when they have never been tested in court.

Perhaps I read too much John Le Carré but when I first heard the allegations, I suspected he’d been set up in order to get his residency application denied. Sweden has some of the strongest legal protection for journalism in the world and if he’d been able to stay there, he would have been considerably harder for the American State Department and the many other enemies he’d made through Wikileaks to take action against. It wouldn’t be necessary for the case to come to court; the allegation alone would probably have been enough to get his application denied.

Assange’s supporters shot him in the foot by identifying the two women who had accused him. Presumably they were hoping to find a pair of shady femmes fatales who had been paid to set a honeytrap. They actually found two women with track records of political activism and a complete lack of anything to damn them with. One had been a university equality officer and neither reported him to the police until they met and compared notes about his behaviour. Their initial position that they wouldn’t report him if he took an HIV test may seem somewhat strange, but it is not the action of people whose priority was to get an accusation on record.

Much of the discussion online ignores the fact that one of the allegations clearly fits the legal definition of rape, not only in Sweden but in most countries.

In the twists and turns of the Manning documents’ path into the world, relatively few pages are given to the content of the documents themselves although there is an appendix containing some of the juicier diplomatic cables. Part of the reason for that is that the Guardian had set up an interactive guide to the documents online that we could have referred to, although none of the three appears to work anymore so any search tends to lead to articles about the documents rather than to the documents themselves.

Most of the discussion I have seen has revolved around the enormous stash of over 250,000 diplomatic cables that Manning leaked, which offer an insight into our recent history but as far as I know, do not expose any particularly egregious activities on the part of the US government.

If Manning can be described as a ‘whistle-blower’, it is not because of the diplomatic cables but because of the logs of the Iraq and Afghanistan war showing that the American military was covering up the number of civilian casualties in both wars. Those casualties were not deliberately killed by US forces and in fact, one thing to emerge was that the Americans went to great lengths to follow rules of engagement. In one of the more surreal excerpts quoted, an Apache helicopter gunship crew consulted with a duty lawyer before firing on a group of insurgents. However, many civilians were killed either because they were mistaken for insurgents, because they were in the line of fire or by insurgents, intentionally or otherwise.

The logs do not discuss the legality of the wars themselves, which would have been outside the scope of the military command. Since the book was published, the UK public inquiry on the Iraq War has come as close to calling it illegal as it’s possible to do outside a court of law.

A minor problem with reading Wikileaks now is that while it’s as definitive account as was available in 2010, the stories of Assange, Manning and the largest leak in American history were still ongoing at the time of publication, and were about to enter a whole new chapter thanks to Edward Snowden. The Snowden leak was the subject of Harding’s next book, The Snowden Files, which I pontificated about a few weeks ago.

When Wikileaks went to press, only around a tenth of the diplomatic cables had been published by the Guardian and its collaborators but the following year, Wikileaks published them on its own website, mostly unredacted.

Leigh and Harding’s account leaves Manning in solitary confinement awaiting trial, after he had made the mistake in confiding in Adrian Lamo who reported him to the American military. Since then, he was sentenced to 35 years in prison, undergone a sex change to Chelsea Manning and has recently had her sentence commuted by the outgoing President Obama. She will be released in May, by which time she will have served nearly seven years.

Assange was confined to Ellingham Hall by bail conditions, awaiting a court decision that would almost certainly see him extradited to Sweden. Soon after publication, he jumped bail and sought asylum in the Ecuadorian embassy. The reason he gave was that he feared extradition to the USA under espionage charges, although the USA has never requested his extradition. As Sweden has no extradition treaty with the USA while the UK has a fast-track extradition system, his reasons for staying in Britain seem somewhat disingenuous.

Even stranger is his recent tweeted statement that he would agree to be extradited to the USA if Manning’s sentence was commuted, making no mention of the fact that the extradition he is facing would be to Sweden, not to the USA.

The tale of Assange and Wikileaks shows no sign of reaching a conclusion any time soon.

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Posted in Book review: non-fiction, Wednesday Pontification

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