The WikiLeaks Hoax, Part II

In part I of “The WikiLeaks Hoax,” I adduced a number of reasons for concluding that the much vaunted “whistleblower organization” WikiLeaks is, in fact, just a facade. This was not always the case. The original WikiLeaks website was, as I have put it, an “equal opportunity” platform for leaks of all sorts. It did not share the current site’s single-minded focus on alleged American misdeeds. The original site went offline in December 2009. Despite the new site’s common logo and “branding,” in substance, the old site has never returned.

Just who or what stands behind the WikiLeaks facade is not clear. But what is clear is that WikiLeaks has a special relationship with Germany, a country that spearheaded the opposition to the Iraq war and that -- despite the avowed Atlanticism of its current chancellor -- has continued to take a generally dismal view of America’s war on terror. Indeed, Germany has done much not only to malign, but even to obstruct the war on terror. (For related links, see here.) In a recent documentary on The Hunt for Bin Laden, Germany’s ZDF public television went so far as to insinuate that American authorities purposely allowed Osama bin Laden to escape from his mountain hideout of Tora Bora in December 2001.

The special relationship of WikiLeaks with Germany is manifest in the inclusion of the German weekly Der Spiegel among the new site’s chosen three “media partners.” It is also manifest in the site’s maintenance of a special account for donations at the Berlin-based Wau-Holland Foundation. (The WikiLeaks donations pages note that “this may be the best choice for German residents” and, furthermore, that donations to the Wau Holland account are even tax-deductible for the latter!) And it is manifest, finally, in the sketchy details that are available about the “structure” of the supposed WikiLeaks “organization.”

For if the reportedly Australian-born Julian Assange is the WikiLeaks spokesperson for the rest of the world, WikiLeaks also has a special dedicated spokesperson for Germany -- or “that region,” as Assange put it in a testy comment on a September 2009 Wired exposé about the site. The German spokesperson is named Daniel Schmitt. But “Schmitt” has admitted -- to Wired, as well as several German publications -- that his last name is a pseudonym.

In an interview with the German daily Die Welt, Schmitt was asked who has decision-making power in WikiLeaks and how many people were at his “level in the organization.” Schmitt’s head-spinning response was as follows:

Five people, I’m one of them. Though I am left out of all technical decisions. You can’t get hold of me to find out something. I don’t know anything. We are doers. None of [us] has a lot of time to discuss and to over-democratize everything. The only way to build up a reputation and trust within the organization is to collaborate: to show that one is competent. Around the inner circle, there are about 1000 experts with whom we work and whom, of course, we test in advance.

Schmitt’s logorrhoea hardly inspires confidence in the reliability of his account of the “organization.” In any case, one may be permitted to wonder what exactly “1000 experts” contribute to a site that, despite its association with two publicity-generating coups, has essentially been inactive. One thousand “experts”… and WikiLeaks could not manage to renew a SSL certificate.

As discussed in my “The Strange Career of WikiLeaks,” the “old” WikiLeaks had a somewhat conflictual relationship with Germany and, in particular, with the German foreign intelligence agency, the BND. Perhaps ironically, arguably the biggest genuine scoop produced by the old site involved blowing the agency’s online cover. In November 2008, the site published a list of IP address ranges that had been assigned to the BND under a disguised domain name by the German telecommunications firm Deutsche Telekom.

At the time, the WikiLeaks submissions form was still functional, and it is presumably via the form that the document was uploaded to the WikiLeaks servers. The story became even bigger when it was discovered that the outed BND-linked IP addresses had been used to edit Wikipedia entries. In the most astonishing of the known edits, a presumptive BND employee added advice on how to build a “dirty bomb” to a German-language Wikipedia entry on "Nuclear Weapons Technology." The same IP address was used to edit the German-language Wikipedia entry on the BND itself, editing out a reference to the “open secret” that the agency uses branches of the Goethe Institute in foreign countries as its “unofficial headquarters.”

Oddly enough, the WikiLeaks editors somewhat downplayed the significance of their scoop. The WikiLeaks “summary” on the matter suggests that the BND contributor to the "Nuclear Weapons" entry “apparently had second thoughts” and quickly deleted the advice on “dirty bombs.” Simple consultation of the relevant Wikipedia user logs shows, however, that this is false: the contributor had added the same passage twice and merely eliminated the redundancy. Otherwise, the WikiLeaks “summary” page tells us that the BND personnel made “a lot of standard edits.”

This may well be true. But contrast this treatment to the treatment that WikiLeaks reserved for a story one year earlier on internet activity, including Wikipedia edits, traceable to U.S. military computers at the Guantánamo Bay detention center. Note that the story involved no leak whatsoever. The activity in question was traceable because -- unlike the BND’s online activity -- it had never in fact been hidden. The domain name associated with the IP address of the computers was jtfgtmo.southcom.mil: namely, for the “Joint Task Force Guantánamo” of the U.S. military’s Southern Command. Nonetheless, the headline on the WikiLeaks article crows, “Wikileaks busts Gitmo propaganda team.”

The author of the piece happens to have been none other than Julian Assange, the future “WikiLeaks founder” who at the time was identified merely as a WikiLeaks “investigative editor.” In accusing the U.S. military of propaganda, it is clear that Assange had already discovered his own propagandistic calling. Thus, in a classic example of the incestuous self-referential nature of disinformation, the piece cites a blog post from NY Daily News correspondent James Gordon Meek as confirmation that the “job” of one JTF member was “posting positive comments on the Internet about Gitmo.” Assange even puts the phrase in bold, as if it had some special importance. But in fact the phrase is nothing more than Meek’s notably chummy clin d’œil toward the allegations in the original WikiLeaks article.

The full list of the Wikipedia edits made from the “busted” Gitmo IP address is available here. Note that the U.S. Southern Command was so rattled by being “busted” by Assange that it has continued to use the IP address. This behavior also contrasts with that of the BND, which -- with the help of Deutsche Telekom -- rapidly ditched its outed IP addresses after they were published on WikiLeaks.

Readers may judge for themselves whether the edits bear the hallmarks of a propaganda operation. Unsurprisingly, many have to do with military topics; some directly concern Guantánamo; and others are on totally unrelated subjects like South Park and Pokémon. A Wikipedia entry such as that on Michael Winterbottom’s anti-Gitmo film The Road to Guantanamo would seem to be ripe for editing by a Gitmo-based “propaganda team.” And, lo and behold, we discover that on October 29, 2007 -- only weeks before being “busted” by Julian Assange -- the Gitmo IP address was indeed used to edit the entry -- namely, in order to change the word “organisations” to the American-English spelling “organizations.”

Perhaps the last major leak to turn up on the old WikiLeaks site was a classified German report on a German-ordered airstrike in Kunduz, Afghanistan, in which numerous civilians were killed. About two weeks later, the site went down. The new site has yet to rediscover the old site’s taste for classified German material.

The pleas of financial duress notwithstanding, the fact is we do not know why the site went down. Nor do we know why it returned in such a radically altered form, with the very heart of the old WikiLeaks project, the “secure submissions” form, essentially cut out of it. In fact, we know virtually nothing about the WikiLeaks organization or even if there really is such an organization.

What the world needs now are some useful leaks about WikiLeaks. Disaffected participants in the old project undoubtedly would have some tales to tell. As the current site’s motto puts it, “Courage is courageous.”