David Leigh and Luke Harding
WikiLeaks: Inside Julian Assange’s War on Secrecy
Guardian Books, 2011
This has been the year of Julian Assange. The American embassy cables disseminated by WikiLeaks have dominated headlines and backstories across the world, from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan to the Arab Spring. But what drives this enigmatic personality to risk his life and liberty to disclose some of the world’s most sensitive conversations? Is he a renegade anarchist who should be, as American conservative darling Sarah Palin put it, “pursued with the same urgency we pursue al-Qaeda and Taliban leaders”? Or is he a master of accountability, subjecting unwilling governments around the world to a glare of scrutiny unprecedented in its breadth?
In WikiLeaks: Inside Julian Assange’s War on Secrecy, Guardian journalists David Leigh and Luke Harding recount with insight and rigour their time spent working directly with Assange and his eclectic mix of associates as they figured out how to report on and publish over 250,000 leaked diplomatic cables. As investigations editor and Moscow correspondent (respectively) at one of the five privileged news outlets that coordinated with Assange on the first round of cables, they were afforded an intimate, first-hand perspective on the documents’ trajectory from confidentiality to the public domain.
The leaks are political dynamite, and Leigh’s and Harding’s task is to trace the blast. Some of the memoranda are amusing; one describes French President Nicolas Sarkozy as a “short man with a Napoleon complex”. Others are mundane, providing extensive details on the endemic kleptocracies of Asia and Africa. Yet others offer revelations, for example that BP is effectively stealing Azerbaijan’s hydrocarbon reserves. Leigh and Harding draw extensively from existing media coverage and the original text of the cables themselves to provide thought-provoking, unique analysis and deeper explanations for recent geopolitical events.
WikiLeaks goes beyond a simple account of the contents and publication of the cables, delving into Assange’s troubled past. Assange’s blazing intelligence, his occasional paranoia, his recurring sense of self-aggrandisement, his overt and sexually predatory behaviour toward women, his intense dedication to his cause—Leigh and Harding cover the remarkable spectrum of Assange’s character qualities to allow the reader to grasp some of the intricacies of this strange man. It becomes clear that he is unpredictable, prone to the exigencies (real or contrived) of a given situation, and deeply suspicious of anything that represents what he calls the MSM (MainStream Media). This psychological investigation allows them to transcend accepted coverage of the organisation, dissecting its figurehead’s overwhelming influence on its formation and on its dialogue with the targets of its struggle for transparency.
For New York Times editor Bill Keller, the leaked cables advance our knowledge of the world not in great leaps, but rather by small degrees. Yet although many of the disclosed facts—from the alcohol-fueled Saudi Arabian princes’ sex parties to the appalling US-led murders of innocent civilians in Iraq and Afghanistan—have long been suspected or readily acknowledged by foreign policy experts, their open publication grants them undeniable authenticity. It is now proven rather than merely conjectured, for example, that energy giant Shell Oil purposefully inserts employees into every major Nigerian state department to ensure political expediency and compliant regulatory oversight. States clearly feel threatened by the validation of what they willingly tolerate as rumours. Harding himself was denied entry to Russia following his WikiLeaks-sourced delineation of the complex web of Russian corruption, implicating legislators, public servants, and criminal elements, with the entirety directly overseen by the mayor of Moscow.
These accounts are only the tip of iceberg. Leigh and Harding were also afforded access to the cables in non-redacted form, the versions that included ultra-sensitive information. It is frustrating not to find their contents here, for they surely provide the details of covert US operatives and contain embarrassingly frank assessments on the competency of global leaders. We are left to wonder about the level of censorship, but the policy is understandable, for the dissemination of such information would gravely endanger the intelligence personnel involved.
While unveiling the murky practices of purportedly democratic states is unobjectionable, Assange’s unshakeable moral certainty is unsettling; as Leigh and Harding note, WikiLeaks has already had unpredictable consequences. Will the pillars of power be shaken by the threat of potential publication of unsavoury, unethical, or illegal acts? Or will governments remain determined to fight transparency and proceed with business as usual, devising new punishments to mete out to those who attempt to challenge the established order? It seems inevitable, according to Leigh and Harding, that we will see an erosion of the impunity with which despots and corporate entities have acted in the past. They argue that this process of greater accountability is still evolving, but it is undeniable that WikiLeaks will continue to shape, in a strongly positive way, the methods used by corporations and governments to run the world as we know it. Accountability is here to stay.
Joel Krupa graduated in 2010 with an MSc in Environmental Policy from Mansfield College, Oxford.