Interview Daniel Domscheit-Berg

Daniel Domscheit-Berg

Domscheit-Berg first heard about WikiLeaks through his connections in the German hacking community. He worked with the group until September 2010, when he broke with founder Julian Assange. Domscheit-Berg wrote a book about his experiences, Inside WikiLeaks: My Time With Julian Assange at the World's Most Dangerous Website. Since leaving WikiLeaks, he has continued to advocate for transparency and has started a new whistleblowing platform, OpenLeaks. This is the edited transcript of an interview conducted April 2, 2011.

Let's talk about WikiLeaks. When do you first hear about it?

I heard about WikiLeaks first in around September 2007, just from a few friends that I talk to. I saw the website. I started to read the very lengthy "About" section giving the philosophical background of the project. I talked to people about it. So that's around September 2007.

And what was that philosophical basis?

The idea basically was to use the Internet to provide a very simple service, and that is to enable whistleblowers or sources of information to anonymously convey the information they have to a website that is dedicated to making this information public.

“We need a society that has transparency as its default and secrecy for good reasons.”

So basically it's a really simple idea: making use of the very powerful technology, such as an Internet, in order to create some kind of a wholesale, at least in a very large scale, possibility for the leakage of information. ...

So what was it about Julian [Assange], WikiLeaks that clicked for you? ... You could have moved on. Somehow you became a major part of the organization.

First of all, there was this feeling that the few people that were there were building up something so new that there were no limits, so it had the potential for becoming really important and also really positive. So this was about the project, which was interesting.

And on the other hand, there were just a few really dedicated people working on it. When I decide to work on something, I'm quite a dedicated person, too. And it just felt like I'm among people that are similar in their approach to how much they dedicate themselves to a certain cause. ...

These were days when, at least for my part, and for the part of my life, I woke up every morning, and I was excited. Every day had some news. Every day something new developed. New documents came in; we made new releases. There was just new things to be taken care of, whatever you perceived in the project that needed to be developed or whatever. So it was very, very dynamic and interesting times. ...

The people around you, the people at the Chaos [Computer] Club, your hacker friends, how did they react to this idea? I mean, you were throwing your whole life into it.

Yes. Well, my friends thought it was a good thing. On the other hand, they were quite skeptical, because no one knew if it would turn out. And especially here in the neighborhood of the Chaos Computer Club, in Germany, which is a hacker club that has a very strong focus on protecting privacy, and on let's say countering state technology provided by the state, it was big skepticism in the beginning, because it was actually felt that WikiLeaks could betray the privacy of people or invade the privacy of people in a way that it would not be appropriate. ...

What was your response to that criticism?

Well, I thought it was just really unlikely. And I thought that given all the common sense of people involved, it would just not happen, so even if someone submitted us data that would not contain anything but private information about people, that had no public value.

I thought that there would be a clear line at some point in time, where we would say, "This has just no use for the public, so why publish that?"

I'm a real friend of full disclosure, and I think one should try to make as much visible and public as possible, and the default should be a transparent default, not a secret one, a secretive one. But on the other hand, I think there is a true reason for having privacy as well, and for not having everything exposed in the public.

When you met Julian, and first you talked online -- you chatted online, and then you met here, in Berlin, and he articulated to you more about his idea, his vision for what WikiLeaks was and could be. Can you remember what words he used?

Well, back then, WikiLeaks had just been online for about a year. And the idea back then was a bit different to what we followed up on the next few years. So the idea originally was to build what we call the largest intelligence service, which would be the intelligence service of the public, the first public intelligence service.

So the idea was to build -- and this was why a wiki was also used -- to build a website that people could really easily use, because the interface was so familiar from Wikipedia, where you would publish all of this information, and where people would get interested in involving, in analyzing material that had not been disclosed before, so whether this is information from the corporate world that shows corruption in some organization, or whether this is governmental or military information or whatever.

So the idea was secret information would be posted and then people would --

Would analyze it.

Anybody would be invited, just as with Wikipedia, to make edits or changes or add --

Yeah. To write stories, basically; to analyze it. Not to modify the content of documents, but rather to --

Comment up on them.

Yeah, to contribute building the context, which is what people need the media for. ...

So in the beginning, we were quite enthusiastic about being able to just pull the public into this whole process, make them write analysis, summaries, put the context, research the context and all of that. But that is just something we found out doesn't really work, because most people, at least today, still do not know how to approach such a topic. ...

So Julian explained this idea to you.

Yes. We talked about just really a lot of things, maybe some technical ideas behind it, plus the whole part -- what is this actually trying to change in society.

We talked a lot about journalism. What's the state of investigative journalism? How can you help that state by tweaking on a couple of screws, like loosening or tightening these screws? And one of these screws could be the provisioning of good information, of primary-source materials.

How do you establish independent checks of the press? So how can we make sure that people understand better that the work the press does has good quality? So how do we make that work more transparent? How do we make it more scientific? All of these issues. So there really was a lot of talk about so many topics. ...

In an e-mail, Assange argued that WikiLeaks could advance [by] several years the total annihilation of the current U.S. regime, and any other regime that holds its authority through --

That was in an e-mail he wrote?

Apparently. According to another journalist. Does it sound like Julian to you?

That's really something I'm not sure about.

But that general idea --

I think that the U.S. focus is wrong, because for him, it doesn't make so much of a difference, I think. But he has this very generic idea that if you deny people secrecy, you destroy all sorts of conspiracies. And for him, just regular dealings are part of a conspiracy as well, because they are happening in secret. ...

... What was Julian expressing to you at the time that you began to work together?

... We were talking more about the value of transparency in general and about issues that whistleblowers have in certain parts of the world. And it was really very focused on specific issues. We didn't talk about this broad agenda so much.

So a bit later on, I read a few of these blog entries he made. He wrote this one piece, I think in 2006, about conspiracies that I read maybe in 2009 or so, so I found out new stuff then. And I thought this was not a view that I shared entirely.

So that's something I'm wondering about a lot today, is that the whole development this project has taken today, is that something that I just didn't understand in the beginning; that this is where it ultimately is aiming at? Or is that something that has come in over time? Is it just the way it established itself, or the way it went? And that's something I'm not entirely clear about.

In 2009, when you read those 2006 blogs, what was being expressed? What was Julian saying?

He elaborated on how much conspiracies were at the root of the evil in society, and how much if you ridded the world of conspiracies, of all secrets, basically, yeah, how you could, first of all, get rid of these conspiracies, and by that also make sure that they cannot exist anymore, and they cannot be established anymore. And this is sort of, I think, his vision of what is the ultimate state, where there are just no secrets.

Is that practical?

No, it's not practical, and it's not something I would want. ... We need a society that has transparency as its default and secrecy for good reasons. ...

Do you think Julian's ideas have evolved since those 2006 writings?

I don't know. I feel a lot that I'm not understanding him at all anymore, so I really don't know if his ideas have advanced since then. I'm still struggling with understanding what his ideas were back then.

Did you talk to him after reading the 2006 blog entries about those ideas? What did he say to you?

Not specifically about any of these writings. ...

It was not really problematic, because we were all working on something together. And at that time, in 2009 even, it was not that Julian was ruling this project all by himself, but we were working in a team. And I may have some weird views on the world in the same way that he has his share of weird views. It's just a matter, again, of balance. And as long as people are working in a team, not too much can go wrong.

What's the Tor network?

Tor is the only router, and it's an anonymization network that was originally built, at least in large parts, by the U.S. military. And it is just technology you can use in order to use the Internet in an anonymous fashion. ...

Tor is, I have to say that is a really important project, because it enables people in some parts of the world to use the Internet to freely communicate, and these people wouldn't otherwise be able.

Anonymously.

Yes, anonymously, yeah. So in a lot of very oppressive regimes that we have in the world, where political activists need this anonymity, Tor is playing a really vital role.

And in that respect, it was important for WikiLeaks, too, not just to siphon off data for something like this -- that's a totally different issue -- but to provide a mechanism that would provide robust anonymity to people that wanted to deliver information to the project. And this is just a really vital function. And it's very, very important that we, as a world, have such technology that we can use.

You're aware of the stories about WikiLeaks using the Tor network by setting up listening posts at the edges of the network in order to siphon off data.

Yes.

As far as you know, none of that's true?

I don't know. But this happened before my time, and therefore I don't know what people were doing.

What I can tell you is that if WikiLeaks did that, it is one of many organizations and projects doing that. That's what I'm very convinced every intelligence service in the world is doing, setting up Tor exit nodes just to look at that stuff. This is part of, I don't know, getting to know your neighborhood in the digital age. And that's what everyone is doing.

So I have no illusions about the security of these exit nodes. But by the concept of Tor, it doesn't really matter, because Tor is not about making sure your communication is secure end to end, but it is rather about making sure you remain anonymous. And that's what's still the case. People can, at the edge, siphon off your data, but they don't know who you are.

But perhaps they can figure out who you are by the nature of your data.

Yeah, but that's a different story. Then again, from a network perspective, it is keeping you anonymous.

In January 2008, WikiLeaks, you publish a whole raft of documents from the Bank Julius Baer.

Yes. Bank Julius Baer in Switzerland.

What was the significance of that at the time for WikiLeaks?

At that time, it was the biggest scoop, or one of the biggest scoops we had. There were similar big scoops that had been published shortly before. The Guantanamo Bay manuals were very important in the same way as the documents from Kenya that showed corruption in the billions of dollars in Kenya, in the Kenyan government.

But the Bank Julius Baer documents had, first of all, the big significance in the European area, especially in all the German-speaking countries, because there was a big debate going on in Germany at that point in time about tax evasion in Switzerland. ...

So these documents just came at a good time, and they caused a lot of attention worldwide. And they were one step more toward making the world aware about WikiLeaks being in existence.

And you were for the first time shut down.

Yes, well, that was the consequence of the publication, was that Bank Julius Baer filed a lawsuit against Dynadot, which is a company in California that is where WikiLeaks has registered its .org domain name. So they filed a lawsuit forcing the company to shut down the DNS, the Domain Name Server. So WikiLeaks was not available via the WikiLeaks.org address anymore.

And that was the first time, I think in the United States, that a website had been shut down.

It was the first time, first of all, that there was a lawsuit. And it was the first time that actually a judge acted on such a threat and shut down the website. It was shut down for 10 days. And it was still available via maybe 100 or 200 other domain names at that time, so WikiLeaks.de, .se, .org.uk, or wherever you wanted to go. It was still available from Germany to the Christmas Islands [sic]. And yeah, it just took 10 days, and the judge took back his decision. There were some First Amendment concerns.

But it was a big deal in terms of you determining or figuring out who your friends in the world were going to be.

Yes.

Tell me what happened?

Well, that was a time when we depended on some support, so whether this is now legal support that you need or support from organizations and networks that publicly say that you should be defended. ...

I think almost 20 organizations sent lawyers to the court defending us, published an amicus brief, I think it is called in the U.S., and similar actions, just from making sure that there was something happening to defend us.

And so what was the feeling around WikiLeaks?

Oh, it was great. We had taken on a very big player in the form of a big Swiss bank, private Swiss bank -- basically an organization that has infinite amounts of money they can spend of defending themselves -- and winning. So that was great.

And that publication was really important, because there's so much in that publication that is important to learn about, understanding how these offshore tax structures work, how customers benefit from this, how the bank itself benefits from this, how the whole scheme behind this whole thing worked. And that, I think, is really important information for the public.

What message was sent to other corporations?

Well, I think the message that was sent for the first time was that even in a Swiss bank, you're not safe. And that, I think, is at the core of where WikiLeaks can do something good. If you look at how a Swiss bank operates, or how all of these offshore businesses actually operate, is that they make use of the complexity of globalization in order to do something that was not foreseen.

So they are basically in a position where they are hackers, because they make use of a complex system in a way that it shouldn't be used, because they make sure that, I don't know, people from Germany can evade taxes that were foreseen in Germany by depositing money or assets in the Cayman Islands.

And this is where we are back at balance in society, because we have one entity that is putting it out of balance by using that complexity, by hiding in the complexity. And you need another organization balancing that out by creating transparency. And in the end, you are back in the middle. And hopefully, it is balanced out of it.

You restored power to the public.

Yes. And that is a good example of where it is important to have a project like WikiLeaks.

And the feeling around those of you -- I mean you and Julian and a few others that were involved in this.

Yes, it was great, because we were a very small and efficient team at that time. We were tackling one of the bigger players that we could possibly tackle, and it just felt like things are really moving forward. It was one major evolutionary step. ... It was just clear that if we were able to defend the publication exposing a Swiss bank, then there basically were really not too many limits.

And so what effect did that have on the number of submissions that were coming in?

Well, all these big submissions that we made had an effect on the number of submissions. It's similar as going into a new country. Whenever we had a document about a country that we hadn't published anything on before and we made the first moves in such a country, you could see that a couple of more documents came in. And then, from then on, the curve was rising very steadily, very steep, actually. ... So it's a bit like a lot of things on the Internet: It's just viral. ...

Around that time, you said it was becoming increasingly clear that we're not going to be able to handle everything that's coming your way.

Yes. That's one of the downsides of this whole project. It was too successful, basically. Or let's say it did not have the structure it would have needed in order to address its popularity.

What was the structure? What was WikiLeaks?

There was none.

There was none?

No. That was the whole problem of this whole topic, is that we had been too lazy, or let's say we had been too busy, and we'd been using that busyness as an excuse to ourselves why we did not establish any structures. ...

It was clear that we would have to build the organization in some way, but that was nothing anyone had really experience with. So it was not something that was very easy for us. And, in that respect, I feel like we used being busy and keeping publishing, keeping putting out material and these things, as an excuse for not building out the structures. ...

And then, in 2010, when we again went over a certain threshold in respect to popularity, and also in respect to political pressure, at that time, it became clear that without these structures, it was really difficult to handle the situation.

So you just weren't ready.

Yes.

So you published Scientology bibles, published Sarah Palin's e-mail.

Yeah, that was part of the whole story, too.

Was there any limit to what you would publish?

For me there was. And there were a couple of occasions where we had discussions about these limits, practical discussions. ... So we had this publication of a U.S. senator, Sen. [Norm] Coleman [R-Minn.], ... where on his website for some time, you could download all the information about people contributing to his election campaign, and that with all the detail, credit card numbers, security numbers on the credit cards -- the whole shebang basically, everything you needed to do for stealing someone's financial identity.

So someone notified the senator that this information was available on his website, and he decided to remove it from there. ... For a couple of weeks that this financial information was spreading on peer-to-peer networks, and probably part of it was being used for people to purchase things and to steal someone's identity, but no one was informed. ...

Because it was too embarrassing?

Yes. Yeah, it is embarrassing. But that's not the answer to the problem you have. So at some point in time, someone notified us. And that's where WikiLeaks comes into the game, that maybe we can help in notifying all of these people.

So we decided to publish this database, to make sure that everyone can see what the extent of information was that was leaked, and that was being spread on some kind of a gray or black market. But what do you do about these credit card numbers? So what's the benefit of revealing all of these credit card numbers? And I think there is none.

And as much as you want to promote full disclosure, and as much as I think you shouldn't censor -- but it's not really censorship, taking away these credit cards. You're not destroying any kind of conspiracy by publishing these credit card numbers. You're actually just putting a lot of people into trouble.

So Julian disagreed with this idea?

Yes. I think he believed -- and there is some truth in that belief -- that once you start censoring yourself, you will find more and more reasons why you should censor yourself. So there is really a risk that you're running that once you start giving in to the sentiment of censoring that you might lose the hard edge you are trying to find.

But weren't you already in a situation where you had more data coming in than you could possibly publish?

Yes. No, but that's true. But then again, there's the whole censoring or the redaction part is actually causing you more work. So it doesn't help if you start censoring material. It actually causes you more work than just publishing.

But you had more material coming in than you could possibly publish?

Yes.

So you had to begin to make decisions, editorial decisions, as to what was worthy of being published and what was not?

Yes. At least it was at that point it was developing into this direction, because we were just getting too popular.

Did you expect that?

Yeah.

You did expect that?

I expected that if this all worked out, it would become very, very popular, and it would actually be very attractive to a lot of people. Then again, it was just clear that if this happened, WikiLeaks in the form it had in these days would not be able to survive or sustain itself, just because you can't take on documents in all languages from all regions of the world in whatever kind of sizes and forms and whatever and ensure that you can responsibly publish these things.

How many people were you?

Around that time about five. There have always been around a handful of people working in the core team.

Less than seven or eight?

Yeah. So it's a very low number. It's far away from the kind of organization we would need in order to be able to address all the possibilities.

And what was the state of your physical infrastructure on the Internet? Servers, that kind of --

At that point in time it was already developing into something quite large. So in the beginning, it was just a hack. Again, it was a small setup that was a beta test created [for] proof of concept, basically, just to show that it actually works.

And WikiLeaks was pushed out into the public a bit prematurely. So right from the beginning it had quite a rough start because it was in the open, in the wild, it was out there without being finished. So right from that beginning, Julian and whoever else was there in the beginning I think were behind the curve trying to get ahead of it again. And this was a constant struggle that we had over years, getting ahead of the curve. So we were basically for a long time just trying to build out WikiLeaks in a way that we could scale to the popularity we had gotten.

There was this episode where Assange sent a thank-you note out to a bunch of your donors. What happened?

There were a couple of, I don't know, communication mistakes that happened in the beginning. So we basically had to leak ourselves quite early on, when we sent a note out to the people that have contributed to us via PayPal in the early days.

So I think we sent e-mail to about 30 or 40 people saying thank you for whatever $20 donation they had made, something in that magnitude maybe. And actually the mistake was that all the recipients were in the "To" field of this e-mail, so each recipient could see who else had received this thank-you mail. ...

And one of them, I think it was even [hacker] Adrian Lamo, decided to congratulate us publicly for this, and he made a few Tweets about this.

And then the mail that we had sent out appeared in our leaking system, and it was submitted as a leak. And then we had to publish it ourselves, which was kind of ironic, but it felt good as well, just because even if it was not really significant, it felt like we were sticking to our own rules, even if it regarded us.

Because Adrian Lamo took it upon himself to leak it back to you to show you your mistake?

Yeah.

And so you decided that you needed to publish that in fairness.

Yeah, well, it was a leak, and whatever we had said that, right from the beginning, that whatever else, whatever would be leaked on WikiLeaks would also be published.

But that wasn't the case. You did get things that you didn't publish?

Yeah, but that problem arose in the end of 2009 when there was just too much material. There was never a conscious decision against the publication of anything specific. There were just conscious decisions for the publication of something. ...

In November of 2009 you get hold of these 9/11 pager messages.

That's when we published them, yes.

And that even more so demonstrated how weak your system was. You wrote that it exhausted your resources?

Yes. That was the last thing we could do before we actually had to shut down the website for a funding drive, unfortunately. But it was the last effort we took from, and after that we were so popular that it became clear that there had to be some major technical restructuring of the whole site.

And what are you living on during this period of time?

Nothing. (Laughs.) I personally was living on my savings. I've invested every penny I ever had into this project. And that's the same for other people working on that project.

Including Julian?

Yes. I mean, I'm not entirely sure about his financial situation.

But most of you were crashing on couches, working --

Yes.

-- all night. Give me a description of sort of the inside look at WikiLeaks at the time.

It's not for everyone. There are some really just very conservative people living a regular life that are involved in this. But at least for Julian, it had always been the case, as long as I knew him, that he was constantly on the road, moving from one place to the other.

And for me that was the case from sometime in summer 2009 until the beginning of 2010. I actually had planned to move to Berlin, but I was just so busy that I never made it here. And all my stuff was just packed away in storage, and I was living off my savings and affording the travel for WikiLeaks, buying new equipment we needed, sustaining myself, sustaining a couple of other people that had to be sustained.

What's the first that you hear about the Apache video? How does that information come to you? How do you hear about it?

Well, as with everything else, I hear about it on a chat. ...

From?

That's a good question. I think I heard about it from Julian.

What did he say?

That we had a really bad thing that came in. And this was for days, if not weeks. It was for everyone that saw this and that had do with this video. It was really horrifying. I don't know. I mean, I've seen similar things before, but it's really a different kind of issue if you're involved in exposing this for the first time.

Can you recount when you first saw it and what went through your mind? Where were you? What did you see?

I was at home. And I felt really terrible about this.

So it was sent to you over a secure --

Yeah, I can't go into technicalities there. But yeah, I just got a hold of it and had a look, just to see what it is. It's a long video, so it takes some time. And right in the beginning, I mean, it's almost -- for me it felt a bit like it was planned by someone.

I mean, it has this whole storyline that is building up, where in the beginning -- I mean, for minutes you feel like something is about to go wrong, but you don't exactly know what. And then it goes wrong on such a really inhumane level that it just feels terrible.

What do you remember specifically about it most vividly?

When I saw for the first time, there's this delay in between the audio communication and what's happening on the ground. And when this group of where the two Reuters reporters are in, and this group is there, and you get the feeling that these guys really want to shoot.

And they ask for permission to shoot a couple of times. And it's clear at some point in time they're going to get it. And then you hear someone say, "Shoot." And you can hear the shooting going on, but you can't see what's happening on the ground. There's about maybe a second, one and a half seconds of delay in between.

That's what felt terrible, those first moments when you realize something really bad will happen. And you could hear it happening, but you couldn't see it yet. And then this whole impact. And then this poor man crouching through the streets for his life, and all of them following up with their cameras.

And then you get this short moment of hope where the civilians arrive in a van and you feel like, "OK, finally at least this guy has made it." And then they're all dying. And the whole van is blown up. That just feels terrible. Feels terrible today. No matter how often I've seen this video by now, it still feels just so wrong. ...

So as you watch this video, you get toward the end of it, what are you thinking?

I think I just felt a bit empty at the first time that I was seeing this. There was not much thinking going on. I just was shocked, and it took me quite some time to deal with this. I didn't go back to the chat immediately or anything like this. This had to be digested. And I mean, just felt terrible. Looked terrible. Whatever you hear on this video is really terrible, because it's so inhumane. … Took me some time to realize actually that this was real.

Did you know where it had come from?

No. Not at all.

Not at all.

No. I hadn't been in touch with anyone in respect to this video. ... It was just there, as a lot of other stuff that we had received.

Did you know what you wanted to do with it?

Publish. That was clear. But this was right in the beginning. ... Even at the time when I wrote my book, I didn't know that this is one of the moments where opinions of how to go on about this really differed.

So there were a lot of people that were in favor of just publishing it. And it seems that Julian had this crazy idea right in the beginning to sell it. So his idea was to market it for $1 million exclusively to CNN or someone else who would be interested in the material. And that just feels so wrong.

Did you talk to him about that?

I knew he had this idea of finding someone to give it to exclusively. ... I didn't know that he had this plan of how much money could be raised or stuff like this. And I would have immediately objected. I objected to giving it to someone exclusively, because this video was much too important and much too powerful also. ... And so I felt it should just be distributed.

And in the beginning, there was some argument about how much we also had a duty to inform Reuters, for example. And that unfortunately also has not happened in time. I think they only had a few days of being made aware of this video before it was published. And I think this could have been much longer. But that's something we just didn't manage to do.

How did you learn that Julian wanted to ask $1 million for the sale of the Apache video?

I heard from someone that had discussed it at this point in time with him.

Somebody from CNN?

No, someone at WikiLeaks that he had told this, "Let's sell it for $1 million," and that person had said: "Are you crazy? We're not going to do that." ... So that whole discussion never reached me, so to say, because it was cut off before it was clear that no one would participate in Julian selling that video.

So the next conversation you have with Julian, do you discuss the other material that was also coming your way at this point?

No. So at that time, we're already at a stage where -- well, around the time of the "Collateral Murder" stuff, we were just busy with "Collateral Murder." And I was working on a couple of more organizational things, also funding issues and these kind of things, totally independent from this video. ...

Why was the decision made that [Assange] would go to Washington to present this at the National Press Club?

It was a matter of how to release this appropriately. And we had thought about making the press conference for larger releases a couple of times. It never felt like this would be needed or so much necessary that we would actually bother going through all of that hassle. But for that video, it was clear that this was just a different quality of what we had before.

This was more sensational than anything you had seen?

Yes. Yeah, it is sensational in some way. And on the other hand, it is also material that, because it is graphic, that you can very easily present. So giving a press conference and explaining, I don't know, tax evasion in the Cayman Islands or whatever else is going on is such a dry topic. You can't really make this any kind of an interesting press conference.

And how did that press conference go?

I think it went pretty good.

Were you pleased, satisfied with the impact?

No.

Why not?

Not at all, because we made a lot of mistakes in how we actually presented it. So first of all, we gave it this title called "Collateral Murder." So when we came up with that title, I thought that this was the best title we could pick, because I'm a person that has -- I like word games, and I liked this word game. And I think it was really appropriate.

And then we started to write a dictionary kind of definition for what the term "collateral murder" actually meant. And we put that on the Web page, but it never went live because it got dropped in favor of this other quote. But I thought it was a really fitting title.

And then there was the whole decision about how do we publish this document. And we decided to publish one uncut version, but also to publish a redacted version or a produced version of the video. So that edited version plus the title is what made everyone distracted. So everyone was just discussing the pick of this title and if it was appropriate or not, and the decision to edit the video.

Well, the decision was made by you to editorialize on the document rather than to simply leak the document.

Yes. Well, it was also leaked. But there was an editorialized version that also had some context information. It was a journalistic piece.

But why did you do that? You had the idea of WikiLeaks, which was to publish submissions in raw form. Why did you editorialize on that video?

Because we had found out that you need a context, and people want to be introduced into some kind of context. So the question is how do you give context, and for that, you need to provide some more information. You need to say this is an incident that happened on this and that date, and there are these and these civilians involved in what has happened with these civilians, and --

But you went further than that?

Yeah. Let's say what are the most important pieces in that video. So, yeah, it was the decision to produce a journalistic piece that has a length that people can digest, that fits the attention span that people have. And it was just one of these very fundamental decisions of producing a journalistic comment piece.

Would you do it that way again?

No. It has to be done, but I think it has to be done by someone that is not associated with the process of providing raw information, because this is where you mix up these two topics. People would have been really happy if someone had editorialized it in this way. But it should have been clearer what the journalistic piece was, the editorialized piece, and who was responsible for that, and what was the mere publication of raw material.

And this is what confused people, because they thought WikiLeaks is now starting to move away from these raw publications. But it was just an exception. It was just because of this very important piece that there was an analysis basically.

So it was a mistake, really, in your view?

Yeah. It helped everyone that didn't want to discuss the content of the document, because it enabled them to just keep discussing the title and keep discussing the fact that WikiLeaks had left its cause, that we had gotten distracted or whatever. ...

At that same time, there were three other packets of information.

I don't know if these packets of information were there at this point in time.

When were you aware of these other packages?

Some time toward the summer. I'm really terrible with any kinds of dates. ...

At some point in time, I heard about these Afghanistan war logs that existed. And it sounded like the next even bigger kind of release than the "Collateral Murder" video. So it was a totally different kind of document, so not as graphic, not as easy, not as cruel as well, as that video.

But on the other hand, it was just a really large collection. And because of covering this whole time span, it was a big historic relevance. Just to understand how -- I don't know -- years of war, actually what they look like.

And prior to that, you had read the chat logs that were published first by Wired magazine?

Yes.

And that had to have a big impact on you?

Yes. That was terrible as well. This is when that one problem occurred that we had always feared, which is that one of our potential sources would be exposed. Reading these chat logs -- if they are genuine, and if this is [Pfc.] Bradley Manning, and if this is the person that has leaked all of that to us -- it's actually someone that I have a great deal of respect for.

Just reading his motivations and looking at his background and the way he describes himself, and I don't know -- all of the stuff that has appeared in that chat log in the next few days when he found these -- they had this picture all over the Internet of this really sympathetic-looking guy, that when you read the chat logs that has this really high moral understanding. ...

He's believing in this, and he's willing to rather do what he thinks is right than just blindly sticking to some kind of agreement or an oath or something like this. And he's such a young person.

So it's kind of extraordinary that someone at this age is also in such a, I don't know, profound position on where he has these really profound views on things and is actually willing to take a risk. I think actually this is one of the people we would need more of in the world.

Some say he was reckless, self-destructive.

Well, you see, that's something I can't say. I haven't known him, and I don't know what the whole psychological angle of all of that was.

But whistleblowers are often complex people.

Yes. That is something. And that's something basically, I think, everyone has to understand. So if you look at the evolution of a whistleblower, it's not like someone is starting in an organization, and after three days he finds out this is all wrong and I'm going to expose it.

Usually these people have a very long history of how they got to the point where they took this one decision to betray some kind of a secret. And that process is actually causing a change in the personality as well, because you are constantly in this conflict that is building up over time, where you feel you are part of something that you cannot morally support, where you wonder if you should tell someone else about it, and where over weeks or months or maybe years, you are building up this conflict where you're basically, I think -- at least that's my impression -- where you're torn between your own values and the values imposed on you by something you have become part of.

And that process I think is really difficult for a human being, because for a long time you're not sure what side you're on. And once you take that decision, I think especially if we're talking about critical information, about something that if you reveal it, it could really backlash on you personally as well, so if you take that risk, I think you're at a point where you have given up worrying too much about yourself. And this is a bit self-destructive in some way. ...

Did you make a distinction between the release of the Apache video, the "Collateral Murder" video, as you retitled it, and the larger document dumps? He could not have read all of those. He could easily watch the video, but he could not have read 91,000, 92,000 Afghan war logs, or 391,000 Iraq war logs, or 260,000 diplomatic cables. So these were indiscriminate releases. Did you make a distinction between the two?

I have to say I'm nobody, ever thinking in terms of sources, so I didn't compare these two, thinking about what was the underlying motivation of the source. I'm just trying to compare the content. So it was clear one was really easy to understand, because it's a video I can watch, and everyone that can watch can see what this is about, [they] don't need much context.

On the other hand, these other three big collections of material are way more complex. This is where the whole consideration of, is there any information in there that should not be public? What is the implication if this is published unredacted? Who do you need to give some lead time maybe in order to arrange things in order to prepare for being exposed? Whatever. All these considerations come into these publications.

When you first discussed this with Julian, what was his reaction, the idea of redacting names of informants?

I had the problem that at this point in time, I was not directly involved with these large stashes. We had this general disagreement that I thought it would be much more important to build out the organization rather than publishing these really big, big caches of documents.

You wanted to go slower?

Yes. Just very shortly, we had been in this position where in December 2009 or beginning 2010, people had started to donate money to the project. And we finally had this flexibility that we had craved for in order to build out the project, in order to build out its structures, its infrastructure, its processes and roles and responsibilities, all of that. ...

So setting up servers around the world?

Yeah, yeah. And building up a proper infrastructure that like the next generation of WikiLeaks, out of its beta phase, but rather release WikiLeaks 1.0, something like this.

But he just disagreed?

Julian was more focused on working with these documents. And he made clear, pretty clear from the beginning, that he wanted to build this coalition. So that was his idea of how to go about this. ...

What about the concern that this would harm the source, that releasing more material would make it more difficult on Bradley Manning, who had been arrested and accused? ... He talks [in the chat logs] about having released other material.

Yes.

Including the diplomatic cables?

Yes. So for me, it was clear for me that these diplomatic cables should not be released.

Why?

Because it was unclear how much that would implicate someone that had gotten into trouble. It's a very hard distinction you have to [make]: What is more important, bringing the truth to the light or protecting one person?

What is the right choice?

I don't know. ... My gut and my heart say that you should protect the person, and you should at least do whatever you can to protect them. And if that just means delaying the publication for as long as it's necessary or doing whatever is necessary to minimize the impact this is going to have or whatever -- I mean, I don't know. There's no definite answer to that.

But he had been charged with leaking this even before you published it?

He had been charged with leaking 50 documents, 50 cables to WikiLeaks, and with obtaining access to a large cache of these cables. But he had not been charged with leaking to a third party this large collection.

So when you raised your objection about publishing these documents, what did Julian say to you?

Well, the thing is that I have not been part of publishing the cables.

But you were chatting with Julian through this period of time?

No. The cables have been released ... in December, and I quit in September.

But you objected to publishing more even earlier than that.

I objected that we should focus on that so much, because I thought we should build out WikiLeaks in a way that we could just keep up with whatever was submitted, and not just focusing on one. And when I found out the whole plan about the publication for the Afghanistan material, I objected to the way it was going to be published, and that is in respect to redactions and to editorial care in --

What did Julian say?

He didn't care about that.

He didn't care about the names?

He didn't care much about the names of informants of the U.S. military.

What did he say?

Julian had promised that the basis under which the Guardian, The New York Times and Der Spiegel had agreed to collaborate was that there was redactions to be made before publication. And Julian had obviously agreed on that. And then he had made interviews with all the three papers, where in these interviews he was describing the harm-minimization process that this material was going through.

But that was all an illusion, because there was no harm-minimization process. He hadn't cared about setting it up, and he hadn't cared about telling anyone else that he needed someone to take care of this. So he gave this promise, but he never told anyone that this work actually had to be done.

So five days before the publication -- the publication day was a Monday, and on the Wednesday before that, I was sitting at lunch with the reporters from Spiegel, and they had asked me how that process was going.

The harm --

Harm minimization, yeah. And it kind of caught me on the wrong foot. And I thought, well, maybe I just don't know anything about it, because I'm not involved in this particular release. So I checked with the others, and no one knew anything. And then we asked Julian. And his reaction was, on the Thursday -- so four days before publication -- his reaction was that he wanted to tell us tonight.

So, four days before publication, when the printing of the magazines and newspapers is actually already under way, and there was no way to stop this whole project, he says that he was going to tell you tonight that 90,000 documents needed to be redacted.

But you must have at that point said --

That it doesn't -- yeah. It was in between not believing that this actually is happening and on the other hand being completely desperate about how to get out of that situation. I mean, what do you do? It's 90,000, and there's just no way that anyone could screen 90,000 documents over the weekend.

And once you told Julian that it was absurd, what did he say?

He had a long list of stuff that needed to be taken care of. That was at the time when he didn't even really respond to these things anymore. He was just saying, "It's none of your business," or "I don't know; I have 15 other things that need to be taken care of, so stop whining around or whatever; just deal with it."

In the end, if all went wrong, he would just go offline.

So you couldn't reach him?

Yeah.

In your book, you describe him becoming abusive.

Yes. That was at this time, around the time, that is when he started to behave irresponsibly and when he also made clear that you might have a different view, but he doesn't care very much about your views, and it's either his way or the highway, or however you would want to put that, you know.

So it had changed from a small team that was working as a team to him having set up whatever agreements in the U.K. that he didn't share with anyone. He wouldn't tell anyone in WikiLeaks what the agreements precisely were, who was actually involved, what kind of other people he was working with in Sweden or the U.K., and I don't know all of that.

And it just really got abusive, to a point where if you criticized it, he started to threaten people. And he was saying that, I don't know, leadership should not be challenged in times of crisis, and all sorts of really just unacceptable stuff like this, especially in times of crisis, where leadership has to be challenged.

It was just so wrong, you know. It developed in a direction where I and others had become part of something that we didn't understand anymore. And if you're speaking about these publications, then that's just something that doesn't feel too good if you don't understand that publication.

You're operating at a very high and powerful level.

Yes. Yeah. I mean, it was clear that this would be a different thing. I mean, if a Swiss bank doesn't like what you're doing, that's one quality already compared to other stuff. But this was just a different level. So I always thought you would have to be as intelligent as possible of how you go about this; intelligent, I don't know, responsible, grown-up, mature, and not just saying, "I'll do it, and I don't have time to think about the detail." That's just the wrong approach.

So tell me, you decide to really sabotage the operation at one point?

No. Actually, that was not a plan for sabotage. It was a plan to make it functional again.

But it was an idea to send a message to Julian? Those were your words in your book.

Yeah. Well, maybe that is part of a bad translation there. It was not really -- OK, it was supposed to send a message. ...

You tell me what happened.

We had this one server that was dysfunctional. Well, Julian had locked everyone out of that server, and then the server became dysfunctional. And it was an essential server for people to be able to work.

So the question [was], what do we do? Do we go to that server and make it work again, gain control over that server, or do we just leave it up to Julian how to sort it out? And so I took a train going here. And the plan was to regain access over that machine so that everyone else could start to continue working where Julian had locked us out.

And on the way there, I just turned around again and drove home. So I never made it there that day, just because it felt wrong, yeah, to start a mutiny. Yeah. This was a really big decision we had to take. From all the people that have built the project up -- everyone disagrees with the founder; what do you do? I mean, do you take away the project from its founder, from the one that owns the idea or that has started all of this?

But that's what you finally decided to do?

No, we decided to leave him with his project.

But weren't his passwords -- wasn't there some issue where he had no access?

No, some of the technology was taken away from him. So a couple of people that in 2010, end of 2009 and mainly 2010, had started to develop the next-generation WikiLeaks technology, they decided to not provide that development anymore to him, because they said you don't give swords to children, and they felt it wouldn't be right to leave him, to leave someone that is acting unaccountable and irresponsibly, to leave that person with such powerful tools. And that's all that was taken away. We did not take away any passwords or whatever.

But at that point that WikiLeaks is at the pinnacle of its impact on the world, releasing all this material, it's in a state of mutiny?

It almost was a mutiny. It changed from a mutiny to all the sailors just leaving the ship and leaving the captain alone, basically. And I mean, the captain was claiming to have the whole crew under the deck anyway that no one knew about. So basically, as much as I can tell, the people sailing the ship decided to leave him with his whole new crew that he was bragging about all the time. And that's what's left today.

Are they taking submissions? If a document [is leaked], is WikiLeaks able to take in --

No.

So it's not operating?

Well, they claim they have too many documents, and that's why they're not accepting any more. Then toward others, Julian has claimed that we have stolen his technology, which is not true. It's not his technology. It is the technology of people that have developed it and that have decided to leave.

And other than that, I mean, it doesn't make sense anyway. It's because WikiLeaks had a submission platform from 2006 to the beginning of 2010. And that technology is still with Julian. He could just use that again, just flip back to the old system and it would work.

Why doesn't he?

I don't know. Most likely because he's so busy fund raising. Someone has to raise the funds so his legal defense here in Germany can write me letters that have no content but hot air, you know? (Laughs.)

So at the end of the day, how do you feel about this? And how do you feel about what you accomplished?

Well, I feel -- and that, I think, is the only important thing about WikiLeaks. It has set in motion a cultural change in some way; that it has created this whole debate that we are having today. What is secrecy? And is there a need for secrecy? And what is the need for breaking these secrets? And where do you have to draw the line in between these things?

So this is a question that is at the heart of an information society, of the globalized society that we're steering into. And I think this is the most important thing WikiLeaks has accomplished, to industrialize that question, to make it so big that it has entered the homes of basically everyone on this planet. Everyone has heard about WikiLeaks on the 8:00 news. People that wouldn't usually deal with these subjects at all are aware of that problem. So it has set in motion this whole debate, ... and now it is up to other projects and also maybe to our new project.

OpenLeaks?

Yes, to OpenLeaks to approximate more closely to an ideal standard. ...

Some people will listen to you and say, "You're not an elected official."

No, I'm not.

Why are you in a position to decide what gets out there and what doesn't?

That's what the press does. And I'm not aware that anyone is electing officials of the press. I don't know. That's the wrong approach, I think. So any elected official is a representative of me and of you and everyone else. That's their job. They are not better than me or anything else. They're just representing me. So it is their duty to represent me in an accountable and responsible manner.

Newspaper reporters are accountable to their editors.

Yes.

And those newspapers are in some way accountable to their readership.

Yes. Absolutely.

Your background is as a hacker.

Yes.

Who are you accountable to?

Well, that's what I think is part of what the whole WikiLeaks concept raises, is that WikiLeaks, by the way it is designed, is not accountable to anyone. And Julian is the only one right now [making] any decisions, and he's not accountable to anyone either, not even toward others in the project.

So he's a pirate?

That is a really bad situation, because the whole topic is too important to just be handled like this.

But you were part of that group?

Yeah, I know.

You were part of WikiLeaks, and you were not accountable to anybody.

I know. And it was OK. And I think it was OK up to a certain complexity that we reached. And then the questions raised, the moral questions, were too complex to be answered in such a black-and-white manner. This is where we require a better organization, better structures.

That's what I was in favor of in WikiLeaks also. And this is why we are, in OpenLeaks, addressing these issues completely differently, and why we're not going to ever publish any documents, but while we're just providing the technology so that you can leak a document to an organization that you trust.

So if I decide to be a source and leak a document, you're going to help me with my staying anonymous and getting it to a newspaper or organization of my choice?

Yes. Exactly. Any NGO [non-governmental organization] and a newspaper or whoever. And then again, these organizations, they have standards. They have editorial standards, editorial expertise. They have accountability structures, all of that by which they have to [make] that decision how to publish this document.

You describe yourself as an anarchist?

Yes. But that is a political --

But what you're talking about now, it doesn't sound like anarchy at all?

Oh, it does. You see, anarchy is nothing more than the lack of a master. Anarchy is not a lack of rules, but it is the existence of rules that you mutually agree on. It is the lack of a master dictating you these rules.

So I am all in favor of -- and that is I think what we need, of society, people, finding mutual agreements of how we want to live together, of the standards we want to live up to, and that what we do is developing such a standard. And that I think is really important.

COMMENTS

blog comments powered by Disqus

In order to foster a civil and literate discussion that respects all participants, FRONTLINE has the following guidelines for commentary. By submitting comments here, you are consenting to these rules:

Readers' comments that include profanity, obscenity, personal attacks, harassment, or are defamatory, sexist, racist, violate a third party's right to privacy, or are otherwise inappropriate, will be removed. Entries that are unsigned or are "signed" by someone other than the actual author will be removed. We reserve the right to not post comments that are more than 400 words. We will take steps to block users who repeatedly violate our commenting rules, terms of use, or privacy policies. You are fully responsible for your comments.

Posted May 24, 2011

Watch WikiSecrets »
FRONTLINE series home | Privacy Policy | Journalistic Guidelines | PBS Privacy Policy | PBS Terms of Use

FRONTLINE is a registered trademark of WGBH Educational Foundation.
Web Site Copyright ©1995-2014 WGBH Educational Foundation

SUPPORT PROVIDED BY

NEXT ON FRONTLINE

Losing IraqJuly 29th

RECENT STORIES

FRONTLINE on

ShopPBS