Two weeks ago, I reviewed the New York Times’ book: ‘Open Secrets: WikiLeaks, War and American Diplomacy‘. It’s a remarkable work of journalism, combining the paper’s collected reporting on Wikileaks, with editor Bill Keller’s personal account of working with Assange.
For my money, Keller’s account was the stand-out highlight of the book – a behind the scenes journalism thriller, punctuated by details from the leaked documents themselves.
In fact, as I read through the bulk of the book, I found myself wishing that Keller’s style had continued throughout. Even in edited, compiled form, the revelations from “Cablegate” and the Iraq war logs are a lot to digest and it would have been wonderful to have Keller as narrator to walk the reader through them all. That didn’t affect my review, though: it was too much to expect the Times to publish that kind of comprehensive narrative so quickly.
You can imagine, then, how delighted I was to receive a copy of the Guardian’s new crash-published Wikileaks book and discover that it was all the things I wanted from the Times’ book. And more.
Authored by Investigations Editor David Leigh and Moscow Correspondent Luke Harding, ‘Wikileaks – Inside Julian Assange’s War on Secrecy‘ (US, UK) tells the story of the Guardian’s relationship with Wikileaks and Julian Assange, from the moment Assange invited Leigh to a hotel room to show him an astonishing video of a US military helicopter killing ten Iraqis and two Reuters journalists – right up to the present day, with Wikileaks hailed for sparking revolution in Tunisia.
While the Times’ book was largely straight-faced (even po-faced) in its dealings with Assange, the Guardian’s Leigh and Harding don’t shy away from applying a very British sense of humour and irony when their subject demands it. Take, for example, the comic scene that opens the book: a paranoid Assange disguising himself as an old woman – Toad of Toad Hall style – to escape an imagined CIA tail. As British newspaper writers are wont to say – you couldn’t make it up.
The bulk of the narrative, though, is deadly serious, delivering page after page of incredible revelations. Those who hail Assange as an unalloyed hero might be given pause by his reaction when Leigh tries to persuade him to redact the names of informants in the Iraq war logs.
“‘Well they’re informants,’ he said. ‘So if they get killed, they’ve got it coming to them. They deserve it.”
To quote Keanu Reeves — woah.
Then there’s the sordid little twist of Israel Shamir: the Wikileaks collaborator who, we’re told, was paid €2000 by Assange for “services rendered – journalism” and who subsequently wrote articles attacking the two women who have accused Assange of sexual assault. Shamir is now Wikileaks’ official representative in Russia, where Assange has begun to cozy up with the government in order to get back at the American politicians who have called for his head. That story alone is worth the book’s price of admission.
One of the preemptive criticisms of Leigh and Harding’s work (this one from Assange’s new UK publishing partner, the Telegraph) was that it “outs” Private Bradley Manning as the source of the leaked documents. Obviously, the criticism is ludicrous: Manning himself took care of that when he confessed all to hacker Adrian Lamo. What the book in fact does to Manning is humanises him. Like many on both sides of the Wikileaks debate, I had initially been unsympathetic to the plight of a disgruntled soldier who took it upon himself to leak hundreds of thousands of secret documents. But Leigh and Harding’s account of Manning’s upbringing, career and subsequent breakdown persuaded me that the reality is somewhat more nuanced. Yes, Manning acted recklessly, but it’s clear from the evidence offered that Manning had some pretty legitimate concerns about his superiors’ attitude towards Iraqi civilians.
One episode in particular stands out: Manning was ordered to investigate the case of fifteen Iraqis arrested by local police for distributing “anti-Iraqi literature”. Diligently translating the literature, Manning discovered that the material was little more than a scholarly critique against government corruption. But, on reporting that fact to his superiors, he was told to “shut up” and ordered to “explain how to assist the Iraqi police in finding more detainees.”
As the authors put it:
“[Manning’s statements] make it clear he was not a thief, not venal, not mad, and not a traitor. He believed that, somehow, he was doing a good thing.”
Equally persuasive is the authors’ defense of the leaks themselves, and their contention that the world is a better place for their publication. Furthermore, for all the sound and fury from the American government, it seems pretty clear that – in redacted form at least – none of the documents published has put lives at risk.
When I last wrote about Wikileaks on TechCrunch, a number of commenters demanded to know what business a blog dedicated to technology had writing about Julian Assange. It was a frankly bizarre objection: this is, after all, a story about a disgruntled computer specialist leaking electronic files (some of which concern Google in China) to a hacker who uses encryption and p2p networks to publish documents on the Internet. As tech stories go, it makes the Matrix look like Ben Hur. Hopefully those commenters will be satisfied by the Guardian’s thorough account of the various technologies behind Wikileaks, as explained by technology editor Charles Arthur (disclosure: Arthur was my editor at the Guardian). Arthur’s description of how Assange and his collaborators used TOR (and what TOR is) is the best I’ve read. The contrast between that explanation and Leigh’s self-confessed technophobia are wonderful too, particularly the moment where Leigh has to drive across London in the middle of the night so that Assange can show him how to unzip a file.
It’s that same contrast of cultures – between traditional journalism and bleeding-edge hacker culture – that form the backbone of the book. Despite Assange’s loathing of “the mainstream media”, he soon learns that “citizen journalism” has its limits. By any metric, Wikileaks’ helicopter video was explosive – and yet when traditional news outlets (including Reuters) stubbornly refused to buy into Assange’s “Collateral Murder” narrative, the story quickly faded from public attention.
Likewise it quickly became clear that, when thousands of documents are dumped online without context or explanation, even the combined efforts of a million amateur bloggers can’t begin to make sense of them. Yet, in the hands of a small team of professional reporters, those same documents quickly become coherent narratives and world-changing headlines. Those who believe citizen media – or leak-dumping, or crowd-sourcing – is going to kill traditional journalism might ask themselves why, despite Assange having threatened to sue most of his previous media partners, he’s still desperately clamoring for new ones – most recently the Telegraph (UK) and Russia Today (described by Leigh as ‘[an] arm of [the] Russian state’).
Indeed, while ‘Wikileaks: Inside Julian Assange’s War On Secrecy’ is many things – a thriller, a story of international diplomacy, a tale of greed and ambition and double-crosses; a comedy, a tragedy – above all it’s a manifesto for the future of professional journalism.
Like lots of kids who ended up as professional writers or reporters, I grew up reading and re-reading Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein’s All The President’s Men. The tools – and media – might have changed dramatically since Watergate but, as Leigh and Harding show, the thrill and skill of great reporting is just the same. As such, if Wikileaks is this generation’s Watergate, then ‘Wikileaks: Inside Julian Assange’s War on Secrecy‘ might well prove to be its All The President’s Men; educating a whole new generation of would-be reporters on the power and importance of the professional press.
Watch My Interview With David Leigh
“They [Assange and Wikileaks] like to see us as the enemy. They like to see themselves as having some God-like virtue which enables them to behave in some pretty reckless and unethical ways”.
On Thursday morning, I spoke to the Guardian’s David Leigh via Skype. I asked him about his relationship with Julian Assange and Wikileaks, whether he stands by some of the more incredible revelations in the book – and how it feels for a liberal Guardian journalist to be described as “the man”. You can watch the whole conversation here.