Visiting Wikileaks in December 2010

Published in the Sunday Star-Times

I HAVE had many careful meetings with sources during the last 20 years, but never anything as cautious and mysterious as this. I was heading overseas to meet the WikiLeaks team in the midst of heavy threats from the United States government and more imminent threats of police action. They were staying at a hidden location, getting ready to make the largest unofficial release of official documents in history – 251,000 leaked United States embassy cables – and I was very conscious of not wanting accidentally to lead the authorities to them.

I was keen to find out what the cables revealed about New Zealand and NZ-US relations. I left home with only the following instructions. Fly to Britain, take the Heathrow Express to a station in central London and, once there, buy a new mobile phone to call a number I had been given by secure means before leaving home.

This could sound a bit like playing spies. But imagine being a small freedom-of-information group that finds itself with internationally important information in its hands and also an angry US government’s intelligence and security agencies directed against it. Who knows if the massive intelligence resources of the US-British alliance had managed to track it down anyway? But it seemed entirely reasonable to be taking precautions to avoid interference until the document release was safely under way.

I had had occasional contact with Julian Assange and WikiLeaks across the internet since the organisation was launched in 2006. WikiLeaks was the perfect and natural product of that year. After six years of the Bush administration, many people around the world were feeling disillusioned by the accumulated lies, secrecy and media manipulation, particularly over the Afghanistan and Iraq wars.

At the same time, the internet had developed to a point that made previously unimaginable things possible. The result was the idea that became WikiLeaks: that the internet could allow whistleblowers anonymously to leak information of public importance, and that this information could be posted on the internet as a freedom of information resource.

MY DIRECTIONS from the London station took me through the Underground and then on a long train journey into the English countryside, winter’s snow blanketing the fields. It is dark by 4.30pm. I was met at a station, where the parked cars were thick with snow, and then driven a long way in the dark to where the group was temporarily staying.

The atmosphere in that room was far removed from the portrayals of WikiLeaks coming from its critics. Remarkably, given the circumstances, it was relaxed and friendly. Much of the time it was completely silent, apart from typing, as they focused on formatting materials and liaising with media organisations in preparation for the release.I feel uncomfortable revealing some details of my visit; I went there on the basis of confidentiality. However, a journalist from another country visited them there and has already written about the house. This is how he described it: “The setting was utterly incongruous. The home was a marvellous example of Georgian elegance, a relic of the pre-industrial age… on the walls of the drawing room, in effect WikiLeaks’ operations room, paintings of long-dead defenders of the empire, most in the scarlet uniforms, looked down on a tangle of laptops, printers, wires, power cables and other equipment.”

You might imagine a room full of hackers and other shadowy types. But the small inner core of WikiLeaks’ workers was mainly journalists and computer specialists: competent, strikingly free of egotism and personal conflict, and very focused on the work that needed to be done.

One of the main criticisms of WikiLeaks after earlier releases was that it endangered the lives of people named in documents. There is no evidence that this happened and the US government would surely have publicised it if it had. But, anyway, WikiLeaks had decided on a very controlled release this time. The embassy cables were offered to a set of “media partners”, including the New York Times, Guardian and Le Monde, which are making all the initial decisions on which documents to publicise and which parts of them to redact.

Several journalists were visiting from different corners of the world. We sat in the tangle of computer cables and equipment, reading through the hundreds, or thousands, of embassy cables about our home regions. As I read, it dawned on me how remarkable these documents are.

WikiLeaks’s previous two large releases of leaked US government documents consisted of thousands of detailed military reports from the Afghanistan and Iraq wars. A mass of acronyms and jargon, they were hard to understand, and it took a lot of analysis to extract the important stories they told.

But the latest release is quite different. It consists of years of cables to and from US diplomats in nearly every country on Earth: articulate diplomats giving blow-by-blow accounts of United States’ foreign policy. Some is routine and unexceptional, but much is the unseen detail, country by country, of secret collaborations, pressures and agendas. Much is US diplomats revealing things about other countries that the citizens of those countries should, but did not, know.

Some of the early news coverage of the cables made them sound mainly like titillating and embarrassing diplomatic gossip. But it is a treasure trove of information about superpower politics and the inner workings of governments around the world. Journalists, researchers, film-makers, academics, students and many others will be using this information source for years to come.

I WAS LUCKY enough to be present when the embassy cable release was launched. Months of work was ready. The first bundle of documents went live at 6pm British time and immediately there was a massive denial of service attack. Unknown people somewhere in the world were bombarding the WikiLeaks’ websites, trying to close them down.

Everything was focused on a computer specialist who had arrived at the house to donate his time to overseeing the launch. He was obviously at the top of his profession. Everyone seemed in awe of his skills. He had prepared for the launch, typing computer code faster than most journalists can write words, apparently working straight through the night. Now he was engrossed in fending off the cyber attack: monitoring the waves of incoming traffic and identifying and blocking the attackers. The mood was tense until, after a long 30 minutes, he looked up with a little smile and said the attack seemed to be over.

I had a feeling of being present as history was being made.

The day before I left, I went for a long walk across the wide, snowy landscape with Julian Assange, the Australian who first had the idea of WikiLeaks. I had wondered what he would be like in person. I had gratefully used his and WikiLeaks’ work from a distance, but what about the man?

The first thing that usually happens when someone challenges powerful interests is that they get attacked personally, their character and motives smeared. It is most often unfair, but still seems inevitable. Assange has helped challenge very powerful interests. He is being called reckless and dangerous by the White House, a criminal and even a terrorist by the US right, and also dictatorial and an egomaniac by disaffected ex-colleagues. And then there are the Swedish sex charges.

I can tell you only what I saw. Working in that crowded room, he was very focused, but also good humoured and thoughtful of others. For someone at the centre of international news attention, and an international man-hunt, he seemed calm and considered, and not to be taking himself too seriously. He is clearly the central force in the organisation, but there were gutsy people working around him as well. Sometimes they sought his decisions on things and other times they bossed him around.

He is a likeable person who, in my opinion, is simply using his considerable skills and strengths, and the opportunity provided by WikiLeaks’ successes, to try to do some good in the world. Whatever went on in Sweden – a confused controversy with elements reminiscent of the Swedish Millennium trilogy – my instincts told me that he is, fundamentally, a good person.

Fortunately, he is also self-contained. While we were walking along the frozen farm tracks, our conversation was about things like longer-term academic uses for the embassy cables. The subject of Swedish and US legal threats did not come up. A few days later he was in Wandsworth Prison, with the threat of many more troubles to come. But, whatever happens along the way, Assange is going to be all right. So too WikiLeaks. At a time when western governments are less open and democratic, history has thrown up new ways of providing openness. This is the era of the geeks. History is on their side.