Review: Inside WikiLeaks by Daniel Domscheit-Berg

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Julian Assange and Daniel Domscheit-Berg photo

Founder of WikiLeaks, Julian Assange is one of the most divisive public figures of the internet age. Infamous champion for the freedom of information or danger to public security depending on who you speak to, he has made enemies of some of the most powerful people in the world through his commitment to unbiased leaking of documents exposing secrets the Establishment would rather remain unknown. Following allegations of sexual assault, Assange has fought extradition to Sweden from inside the Ecuadorian embassy in London for more than three years, but how much do we, the public, know about the man who made his name through forcing openness upon others? More importantly, how much do we actually know about WikiLeaks and the other members who worked on the project as it rose to become one of the most feared and revered whistleblowing tools of the twenty-first century?

Inside WikiLeaks by Daniel Domscheit-Berg book cover
Unlike Julian Assange, Daniel Domscheit-Berg is not a household name (nor is his public moniker Daniel Schmitt) but he was a very important member of the small team that developed WikiLeaks from an idea to the global force it became. After a fall out with Assange and subsequent suspension from the project, Inside WikiLeaks: My Time with Julian Assange at the World's Most Dangerous Website (2011) is Domscheit-Berg’s attempt to shed light on everything that went on behind the scenes during the early years of WikiLeaks and the eventual splintering of the small team of activists behind the website’s ascent to prominence.

Ghost written by German journalist Tina Klopp, the book covers the near three year period when Domscheit-Berg worked on the project, encompassing some of its biggest leaks and its negotiations with media partners increasingly hungry for exclusivity, up to Assange’s legal troubles and Domscheit-Berg’s suspension. For those wondering if Inside WikiLeaks is either a chance to cash in on the notoriety of WikiLeaks or for Domscheit-Berg to snipe at Assange following their fallout, the answer is a resounding yes on both counts. If you’re looking for a cool, analytical take on the behind-the-scenes machinations of WikiLeaks then look elsewhere. If, on the other hand, you’re looking for a character study of both parties in a bitter divorce then look no further.

Domscheit-Berg appears entirely in Assange’s thrall on first meeting, carried away by the Australian’s potent single-mindedness and prepared to overlook perceived self-centeredness on Assange’s part. However, this adoration is never explored in terms of the politics the two shared or Assange’s strategic plan for WikiLeaks. All we learn of Assange’s opinions are through the broad brushstrokes of his actions, but these are widely known anyway. As the pages pass and the relationship between Assange and Domscheit-Berg deteriorates, it becomes clear that there are fairly fundamental personality differences that were magnified as the pair worked in close proximity but also differences in vision. Certainly, there seems to have been a culture clash as WikiLeaks began to grow and the level of bureaucracy needed to keep it going increased. The demands of a global media phenomenon are quite different from a backroom enterprise of a few IT anarchists.

Inside WikiLeaks often feels like a vehicle for Domscheit-Berg to ‘set the record straight’. This bias is something that a lot of people haven’t been able to see past when reading the book, and that’s pretty reasonable, but for me, I look at it like this: there are very few people who are in the position to write about WikiLeaks with the intimacy that Domscheit-Berg is able so even if it means wading through a lot of petty mud-flinging, his insights have to be of value, even if they are just as a portrait of the minds behind WikiLeaks. It’s also quite amusing to read a grown man put into print quibbles about who finished off the Ovaltine, so there’s always that (and, yes, that is a genuine criticism hurled at Assange in the book).




If we put aside the parting shots of a geeky bromance gone bad, then what is of value in the book? Well, it is fascinating to read about how small-scale the WikiLeaks operation was for a very long time, the site practically running out of Domscheit-Berg’s kitchen. The passages on the early days of crashing Chaos Computer Club Conferences and putting out leaks almost without considering the consequences are undoubtedly the most engaging. Partly because there is less bitterness here, but mainly for the wonderful verve of Assange and Domscheit-Berg as they pressed forward in a slightly chaotic but nevertheless well-intentioned way. Like a punk rock band churning out records on two chords, WikiLeaks flourished on the scantest of foundations and the personality of those behind the site.

In all of the Domscheit-Berg’s detailing of behind-the-scene minutiae and his personal responses to Assange’s behaviour, there is somewhat of a disconnect between the private life of WikiLeaks and the public side that we are familiar with: the Scientology leaks, the Afghan War Diaries, etc. Although there is mention of various leaks, it would have been good to have a slightly better sense of the chronology and how each leak fitted into the background events that Domscheit-Berg focuses on. Fundamentally this comes down to the quality of the writing which, at times, feels a little sloppy. Given how quickly media focus moves, it is unsurprising that Inside WikiLeaks was pushed out a quickly as possible, but more could have been done to turn the rambling narrative into a more coherent book.

Domscheit-Berg has come in for a fair amount of criticism following his split with WikiLeaks, particularly for his criticism of Assange for focusing too much on anti-American leaks. It is evident that many feel Domscheit-Berg has been recruited into the smear campaign they see being launched at Assange by the big players whose power WikiLeaks has challenged. Whether willingly siding with these critics of Assange or not, Domscheit-Berg does play into the idea that Assange became paranoid about the US operating to silence him, positioning Assange’s concerns as ill-founded and irrational rather than anything more sinister. Generally, though, Domscheit-Berg’s line is largely for transparency and equality in providing leaks rather than developing media relationships and prioritising leaks based on the impact they would have, which he criticises Assange for doing. His personal feelings towards Assange make him an easy to manipulate voice for the purposes of the Establishment against Assange but writing off his criticisms on this basis would be to miss the more important concerns about transparency that he raises.

Inside WikiLeaks is hardly the explosive exposé it is billed as or as some interested parties would like it to be. It is far smaller in scale than this and is really a document on the bickering of two grown men and the eventual fallout. That these men were at the centre of one of the most talked about projects in twenty-first century activism is what makes it valuable. Poorly written it might be, small-minded at times, but Inside WikiLeaks still offers the only book-length insight we have from Daniel Domscheit-Berg on the inner working of WikiLeaks, so it is inevitably worth a read (once you’ve exhausted slightly more nourishing sources).

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