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Martin Paul Eve

Professor of Literature, Technology and Publishing at Birkbeck, University of London

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For all the pains they take throughout to emphasise the vast quantity of editorial resources deployed in the redaction and publication of the most sensational scoops of 2010, the impression one gets reading David Leigh and Luke Harding's WikiLeaks: Inside Julian Assange's War on Secrecy is that some of those editors should have been deployed upon the book itself. It has, obviously from the timescale, been put together in a rush. The same quotations are trotted out to demonstrate the same points, although in some cases, such as the authors' threefold repetition of the embassy cable on Gadaffi's “luxuriant blonde nurse”, the purpose remains unclear. Furthermore, much of the book is preoccupied with triumphalist trumpet playing from the Guardian camp. It verges on libellous, at times. It demonstrates a clear weakness in the field of technical explication. The appendix is merely a reprint of a selection of already widely disseminated cables. Why, then, is it still such compelling reading?

The book is composed of fourteen chapters that focus on the rise of WikiLeaks from small fry to international media player and the central role that the personality cult of Julian Assange has played within that system. Two chapters are devoted to the biographies of Assange and Bradley Manning, the US soldier accused of leaking the vast cache of documents. If it sounds sensational, rather than descriptive, then you're already getting the correct impression. A lengthy portion of Manning's biography is set to debating (and then, I must add, admirably debunking) the role of the soldier's sexuality in his decision to leak the documents (27). Likewise, the section on Assange's childhood adds little substance while consuming much space. Some would argue that this is completist, others mere trivia. While it does, indeed, help to offer a fuller view of the “characters” (indeed, they are termed as characters, as though this is some fiction) involved, the overemphasis on personality serves to detract from the high mindedness of the enterprise.

Manning is, indeed, an interesting case in the book. While it is made clear that these are mere “allegations” at this stage, once that is out of the way, they proceed to present the events as though Manning has been tried, found guilty and that they are now presenting the record as it happens. I would have hoped that this would have been treated more sensitively, given the knowledge that Leigh and Harding have of legal systems (could this prejudice and abort a trial thereby being in Manning's favour?) and also the personal profit that they have as a result of his alleged conduct.
As I also mentioned, there are some technical deficiencies in the work. For instance, the following passage:

But their main anonymity protection device is known as Tor. WikiLeaks advertises that “We keep no records as to where you uploaded from, your time zone, browser or even as to when your submission was made.” That's a classic anonymisation via Tor. (53)

Except, it isn't. The authors do go on to correctly explain the principles of Onion Routing, yet this casual off-hand statement makes it seem as though somebody else wrote the technical portion and the authors themselves have grasped only the outer most, shall we say, layer. In this case, they have confused WikiLeaks recording of the data with the anonymisation of Tor. Tor will hide the originating address from all parts of the transport, but will not cloak your “browser” (user agent) or “when the submission was made” (WikiLeaks do have clocks). They have confused the fact that WikiLeaks doesn't record this information with the technical measures that one can take to evade traffic analysis en-route: Tor.

A small oversight? Perhaps. But in a work dealing with a “computer hacker of genius” (14) and what, according to the authors, is a highly sophisticated technological system for anonymity (actually, it's just a combination of existing technological measures and good operational security procedures), it seems careless to get the details wrong.

So, with such criticism levelled in this review, what was the end impression? It was still an enjoyable read; it just doesn't really put much new material out there. Most of the personal fallout is already detailed in the Vanity Fair piece. The cables are well known, as are the criticisms of Assange's personality. Perhaps the very culture of transparency WikiLeaks has fostered leads to information hunger. It is, therefore, sad when the book gives off a seemingly gloating atmosphere when Assange, himself, springs a leak. The writers do not make the case strongly enough for personal privacy – which should be a right – against the privacy of the state, which should not. It is an exercise in redistributing kratos to the demos. Always remember Assange's words: “Hence in a world where leaking is easy, secretive or unjust systems are nonlinearly hit relative to open, just systems. Since unjust systems, by their nature induce opponents, and in many places barely have the upper hand, mass leaking leaves them exquisitely vulnerable to those who seek to replace them with more open forms of governance.”