Menu Close

Democracy field notes

Wikileaks: A Few Secrets

The following words on the subject of secrets and politics were spoken at a recent Sydney public symposium, organised by my colleague Benedetta Brevini, Beyond Wikileaks (8th October 2013).

There are three sensitive secrets I’d like to reveal about the topical subject of secrets. The first is surely the most obvious, and shouldn’t really be secret: we live in the age of monitory democracy in which muckraking, the public exposure of secrets kept by the powerful, is the new norm. Public struggles to tame arbitrary power are chronic. Individuals and groups using mobile phones, bulletin boards, news groups, wikis and blogs, sometimes manage, against great odds, to heap embarrassing publicity on their powerful opponents. Corporations are given stick by well-organised, media-savvy groups such as Adbusters. Power-monitoring bodies like Human Rights Watch,, Global Witness and Amnesty International regularly do the same, usually with help from networks of supporters spread around the globe. There are initiatives such as the World Wide Web Consortium (known as W3C) that promote universal open access to digital networks. There are even bodies (like the Democratic Audit network, the Global Accountability Project and Transparency International) that specialise in providing public assessments of existing power-scrutinising mechanisms and the degree to which they fairly represent citizens’ interests. Politicians, parties and parliaments are roughed up by muckrakers like California Watch and Mediapart (a Paris-based watchdog staffed by a number of veteran French newspaper and news agency journalists). And, at all levels, governments are grilled on a wide range of matters, from their expenses claims and human rights records to their energy production plans and the quality of the drinking water of their cities.

Even the military strategies and arms procurement policies of states - notoriously shrouded in strict secrecy - run into trouble, thanks to media-savvy citizens’ initiatives guided by the spirit, and sometimes the letter, of the principle that under democratic conditions there should be no secrets in matters military. In his Commentaries on the Laws of England (1765 -70), William Blackstone famously wrote: ‘There is and must be in every state a supreme, irresistible, absolute, and uncontrolled authority, in which the right of sovereignty resides.’ In the age of monitory democracy, this early modern principle of sovereignty becomes questionable, and is vigorously questioned. States certainly carry on keeping secrets, and justifying them, for instance on the ground that talk of transparency is all ‘la-di-dah, airy-fairy’ (David Cameron), or that revealing all causes ‘harm’ to citizens by offering the enemies of state a ‘gift they need to evade us and strike at will’ (the recent solemn words of MI5 director-general Andrew Parker).

Such reasoning is refused by those who know that secrecy is the refuge of scoundrels, greedy for power over others. Justice Potter Stewart, in the United States Supreme Court’s famous opinion in New York Times Co. v. United States (1971), the so-called Pentagon Papers case, summed up the point: ‘In the absence of governmental checks and balances’, he wrote, ‘the only effective restraint upon executive policy and power in the area of national defense and international affairs may lie in an enlightened citizenry – in an informed and critical public opinion which alone can here protect the values of democratic government’.

Second secret: from the time of its formation in 2006, WikiLeaks challenged the decadent political principle that in geo-military affairs ‘secrecy lies at the very core of power’ (Elias Canetti). WikiLeaks set out to be a public sentinel. It wasn’t alone in its brave rejection of sovereign secrecy. These are times in which terrifying state violence directed at citizens is witnessed and, against tremendous odds, bravely confronted by citizen-uploaded videos, digital sit-ins, online ‘hacktivist’ collectives and media-savvy monitory organisations, such as the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, Anonymous and Burma Watch International. There are small citizen groups, such as the Space Hijackers, which manage to win big publicity by acts of daring, for instance driving a second-hand UN tank to Europe’s largest arms fair in London’s Docklands, ostensibly to test its ‘roadworthiness’, then to auction it to the highest market bidder, in the process offering prosthetic limbs for sale to arms dealers.

Demonstration by the Space Hijackers against an arms fair in East London (September 2007) Guy Smallman, with permission

Then there are global headline-making initiatives that lunge non-violently at the heart of highly secretive, sovereign power. Until recently (it has now been overtaken by Edward Snowden’s revelations), WikiLeaks was the most talked-about experiment in the arts of publicly probing secretive military power. Pundits at first described it as the novel defining story of our times. That missed the point that its spirit and methods belonged firmly and squarely to the age of monitory democracy. WikiLeaks engaged in a radical form of muckraking motivated by conscience and supported by a shadowy band of technically sophisticated activists led by a charismatic public figure, Julian Assange. It took full advantage of easy-access multi-media integration and low-cost copying of information whizzed around the world through digital networks. Posing as a lumpen outsider in the world of information, aiming to become a watchdog with a global brief, WikiLeaks first sprang to fame by releasing video footage of an American helicopter gunship cursing and firing on unarmed civilians and journalists. Then it managed to send shock waves throughout the civil societies and governments of many countries by releasing sprawls, hundreds of thousands of top-secret documents linked to the diplomatic and military strategies of the United States and its allies and enemies.

With the help of mainstream media, WikiLeaks produced pungent effects, in no small measure because of its mastery of the clever arts of ‘cryptographic anonymity’, military-grade camouflage designed to protect both its sources and itself as a global publisher. For the first time on a global scale, WikiLeaks created a viable custom-made mailbox that enabled disgruntled muckrakers within any organisation to release classified data on a confidential basis, initially for storage in a camouflaged cloud of servers. WikiLeaks then pushed that bullet-proofed information into public circulation, as an act of radical transparency and ‘truth’.

WikiLeaks was guided by a theory of hypocrisy and democracy. Its aim was to construct an ‘intelligence agency of the people’ (Julian Assange). He supposed that individual employees within any organisation would be willing to act as whistleblowers, not just because their identities would be protected by encryption, but above all because they would spot intolerably wide gaps between the publicly professed aims and private filthy secrets of their organisation. For Assange, hypocrisy would function as the night soil of muckrakers. Its rakes in the Augean stables of secretive government and business would have a double effect: multiply the amount of muck circulated under the noses of shocked citizens, whose own sense of living amidst the muck of secrecy would make them angry, and move them to action.

Muckraking in the style of the WikiLeaks platform had yet another source, which helps explain why its attempted criminalisation and forcible shut-down is already spawning many similar offspring, such as ICIJ revelations from the arcane world of the mega-rich, and Publeaks, a newly-launched Dutch website designed to protect whistleblowers, shed light on wrongdoings and to encourage investigative journalism. Put simply, WikiLeaks fed upon a contradiction deeply structured within the digital information systems of all large-scale complex organisations. States, corporations and other large organisations take advantage of the communications revolution of our time by going digital and staying digital. They do so to enhance their internal efficiency and external effectiveness, to improve their capacity for handling complex, difficult or unexpected situations, swiftly and flexibly. Contrary to the famous thesis of Max Weber, the data banks and data processing systems of these organisations are antithetical to red tape, stringent security rules and compartmentalised data sets, all of which have the effect of making these organisations slow and clumsy. So they opt for dynamic and time-sensitive data sharing across the boundaries of departments and whole organisations. Vast streams of classified material flow freely - which serves to boost the chances that leaks of secrets into the courts of public opinion will happen. Without knowing it, WikiLeaks in effect followed the wisdom of the old rhyming French proverb: ‘Secret de deux, secret de Dieu; Secret de trois, secret de tous’ (secrets between two are God’s; among three, they become secrets known by everybody).

Julian Assange in the Ecuador embassy, February 2013. John Keane

WikiLeaks ventured further. It reasoned that if organisations respond to leaks by tightening internal controls on their own information flows, a move that Julian Assange once described as the imposition of a ‘secrecy tax’, the chances are that these same organisations will trigger more than their own ‘cognitive decline’, their reduced capacity to handle complex situations swiftly and effectively. They would also increase the likelihood of resistance to the secrecy tax by motivated employees repulsed by the hypocrisy and injustice of their organisations. Little wonder, thanks to WikiLeaks, that figures like Bradley Manning, Edward Snowden and Glenn Greenwald have become symbols, unelected but legitimate public representatives, of such virtues as courage, staying power, decency, dislike of dirty secrets, openness and truth in public life. Little wonder, too, that in the name of state secrets the United States government in particular wants to hunt them down, using dirty tricks, just like the highwaymen denounced by Abraham Lincoln as a threat to democracy: 'A highwayman holds a pistol to my ear, and mutters through his teeth, “Stand and deliver, or I shall kill you, and then you will be a murderer!”’.

There’s a third, less well-known secret, to do with WikiLeaks and parliamentary politics. When spending time (eight months ago) with Julian Assange in his embassy prison, discussions about forming a political party were only in their infancy. Events since that time suggest that WikiLeaks and its star dissident leader were unprepared for entering the democratic fray as a democratic party. It was not just that they failed to grasp the basic difference between dissident publishing of secrets using technical genius and the mechanics of running for public office. Their election campaign revealed a dirtier secret. Julian Assange and WikiLeaks fell short of the principles of monitory democracy: political humility, public openness and accountability, the willingness to admit mistakes, even to say sorry. For this transgression they were punished, initially by becoming embroiled in a disastrous public scandal of their own making.

Let’s return to a thought of Elias Canetti. ‘Adults find pleasure in deceiving a child. They consider it necessary, but they also enjoy it’, he wrote. ‘The children very quickly figure it out and then practise deception themselves.’ The children, it should be added, are in turn found out, as we would expect in the age of monitory democracy. The point is relevant for what has been going on in and around WikiLeaks. Here was a fledgling political party competing in the recent Australian elections, committed to ‘accountability and oversight’, a party potentially poised to attract substantial numbers of disaffected voters, Beppe Grillo style. Political victory, even just one seat in the Senate, might have helped free Julian Assange from his Knightsbridge prison cell, backed by a global public willing to stand up for transparency and justice.

The WikiLeaks Party instead crashed and burned. Mid-way through the campaign, over a third of its governing National Council protested against the lack of internal democracy and resigned, among them one of its leading candidates (Leslie Cannold) and one of Julian Assange’s oldest and most trusted political friends, Dan Mathews. The WikiLeaks Party ended up receiving less than 1% of the national vote (opinion polls throughout 2012 showed by contrast that Assange had enjoyed substantial levels of public support, especially among Labor and Green voters).

Worse: we now know that Julian Assange virtually attended only one of the first thirteen meetings of the National Council (that could be excused because he was busy supporting Edward Snowden). He also attempted to grant himself veto rights and to reduce the National Council to a rubber stamp, whenever he didn’t like its leanings. He insisted that since he had ‘founded the party’, he was entitled to appoint himself its president.

Then came the weird preference deals, in defiance of the wishes of the National Council. The Wikileaks Party, like all others, was forced by law to submit a preference flow based on deals struck with other political parties. Public statements and leaked emails show how intensely the National Council was divided about collaborating with a shadowy preference fixer Glenn Druery, a man who knows a thing or two about secrets, an operator who advises a motley crew known as the Minor Party Alliance on how to leverage the preference system. While discussions within the National Council were lengthy and difficult, they did produce directives, but these weren’t followed in either New South Wales or Western Australia.

These deals, with such odd parties as the Motoring Enthusiasts, the Sex Party and Shooters and Fishers, were more than mere ‘administrative errors’, as Julian Assange later claimed. Poison was spat in the direction of the Greens - the closest allies of Assange and the WikiLeaks Party. In Victoria, where there were 40 parties, the Greens ranked WikiLeaks second and the WikiLeaks Party responded by ranking the Greens 24th. In New South Wales, where there were 45 parties, the Greens placed their allies third (after themselves and the Pirates) and were rewarded with a ranking of 28th by the WikiLeaks Party, behind the Shooters and Fishers and the xenophobic Australia First Party. Most absurd, and most consequential, was the scrapping of the straight preference swap agreed in Western Australia between the Greens and the Wikileaks Party National Campaign Manager Greg Barns, who went on to appoint a journalist and disaffected former Greens member, Gerry Georgatis, as the WikiLeaks Party candidate. While the Greens ranked him as their first preference, he took revenge on his old party by ranking them 6th, after the WA Nationals. This was said to be a mere ‘gesture’, but it had much to do with both spite and the popularity of the WA Nationals, their 12 WA parliamentarians and record vote at the March 2013 state election in Western Australia. While some WikiLeaks Party preferences did eventually flow to Senator Scott Ludlum, the closest political ally of Julian Assange and WikiLeaks, the so-called gesture cost both parties time and the row became the focus of media attention. Ludlam lost on the first count, but he was granted a Senate recount (only the second in Australian history), which is still underway.

Faced with a public outcry about the byzantine preference deals, the WikiLeaks Party announced that there would be an ‘immediate independent review’ to ‘ascertain why National Council directives were not achieved’. That was over two months ago. It seems that the ‘independent review’ will probably never happen. John Shipton, the father of Julian Assange and CEO of the party, attacked the National Council (and threatened legal action) as a ‘bunch of raving fucking lunatics. On Twitter (over 20 times), Assange’s mother has meanwhile denounced the WikiLeaks Party and in effect declared that she no longer politically supports her son. Julian Assange himself has lashed out digitally, in all directions. He has cursed those who resigned from the National Council and insisted (see the video interview below) that all criticisms of his actions are ’simply false’.

When I had the privilege and pleasure of meeting Julian Assange in the Ecuador embassy in London, I was impressed by his daring technical skill, his bold courage, his raw resilience, his resourcefulness under intense political pressure. I still am, just as I continue to feel deep upset about the great injustice of his confinement and the organised smear campaigns against WikiLeaks as a publishing organisation; there are even days when I fear for his life. Back then, I was struck as well by the way he lived the principle that there’s only one thing in the world worse than being talked about, and that is not being talked about. Nowadays, performing on a global public stage and trapped in a wretched prison, Julian Assange acts as if it is outrageous the way people go about saying things and revealing secrets behind his back, despite the fact that they’re often painfully true. What a rotten twist of fate. So lamentable, so disappointing, so tragic…so politically unnecessary.

Julian Assange explaining why he’s ‘not a politician’ to The Drum, 30 August 2013.

Want to write?

Write an article and join a growing community of more than 185,700 academics and researchers from 4,983 institutions.

Register now