Blonde Swedish bombshell double agents, international espionage, shadowy government forces and computer hackers on the run from the military. It sounds like something from the Cold War but it is just an average day in the life of WikiLeaks.org, the whistle-blower website where anyone can anonymously share confidential government and corporate documents.
And bizarrely, Australia is shaping up as a key player in the saga, with explosive new allegations over the weekend that an Australian intelligence figure warned WikiLeaks about an impending character assassination campaign.
The latest chapter began last Friday. While Australia on the weekend was focused internally on counting votes, news broke worldwide that Swedish authorities had issued a warrant for the arrest of Australian-born WikiLeaks spokesperson Julian Assange on a charge of rape involving two women in Sweden. However, less then 24 hours later the authorities withdrew the charge, announcing there was no evidence that Assange had been involved in a rape crime, but was still under investigation for molestation, a lesser charger.
A complaint has now been filed to the Swedish Ombudsmen of Justice by a Swedian watchdog group against the prosecutor who made the original charge. WikiLeaks itself played a straight bat when the warrant was issued, announcing it would cooperate with any investigation, that it supported Assange, and that the site would continue operations as normally.
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This all came less than two weeks after another bizarre moment when some media outlets ran a Daily Beast story by Phillip Shernon, quoting anonymous sources in the US government “as pressing Britain, Germany, Australia, and other allied Western governments to consider opening criminal investigations of WikiLeaks”. This unsourced and nebulous news story was strange in the vague threatening nature of the story, which implied WikiLeaks was operating illegally without actually specifying which laws it had broken or naming a government official.
Australia’s intelligence community is about to be embroiled up to its poisoned-tipped umbrella in the WikiLeaks story, with reliable global news gathering service Al Jazeera reporting explosively that Assange “had been forewarned by Australian intelligence on August 11 to expect a campaign against him”. Australia, despite the best efforts of the government to ignore WikiLeaks, is slowly being enmeshed in the process. WikiLeaks is partly founded by Australians. Australian-born Julian Assange is the current spokesperson for the group. The postal address for WikiLeaks is the Mathematics department at the University of Melbourne. And the appearance of Australian troops in the most recent leaked batch of records from WikiLeaks, first reported here in Crikey earlier this month, has caused the government to launch an extraordinary care taker period investigation.
So what is this all pointing to? Are we seeing the beginnings of a counter intelligence operation by the US army against whistle-blower organisation WikiLeaks?
In 2008, the US Army’s Counterintelligence Center, part of the American Department of Defense Intelligence Analysis Program, prepared a top secret report on WikiLeaks. It concluded that despite the “diverse views … among private persons, legal experts, advocates for open government and accountability, law enforcement, and government officials” that the site was possibly “constitutionally protected free speech, supports open society and open government initiatives, and serves the greater public good” it likely constituted a “threat to the US Army”. It was a threat, the authors wrote, because the site “could be used to post fabricated information; to post misinformation, disinformation, and propaganda; or to conduct perception management”. All fair criticisms, and ones which WikiLeaks itself publicly grapples with each time it releases a document.
Interestingly, the army was not concerned with WikiLeaks as much as it was concerned with the people WikiLeaks enabled, from moles within the Department of Defence to foreign terrorist groups. Indeed, the report noted that so far WikiLeaks had mostly caused problems for “oppressive regimes in Asia, the former Soviet bloc, Sub-Saharan Africa, and the Middle East”.
The report concluded that the “most important center of gravity” for web sites such as WikiLeaks was “trust”. Destroy people’s trust in WikiLeaks and not only would people no longer send documents to WikiLeaks, the report noted, but it would “deter others from taking similar actions”. Certainly, threats of legal action and withdrawn accusations of rape fit the bill and since mud sticks, they do not even need to be successful prosecuted.
It is not every day members of the public get to see the counter intelligence operations of our governments in operation. Perhaps ironically, this report only came to light because it was leaked to, you guessed it, WikiLeaks.
Of course, despite evidence of a US government plot to destroy WikiLeaks, the existence of a motive to move against the organisation after the leaking of the Afghan war diaries, and two highly suspicious attempts to undermine the organisation, we must be careful not to ascribe malice what can be described by ordinary incompetence. The Swedish will investigate their botched case, the Australians will have to investigate the Al Jazeera claim, and WikiLeaks will controversially continue to place documents in the public domain
In many ways it is unfortunate that WikiLeaks has become the story.
The majority of information they publish has so far been targeted at oppressive regimes and corrupt corporations, for example, alleging money laundering, asset hiding and tax evasion for Swiss banks. Only a few of their more explosive releases have concerned the US military. In an attempt to gain publicity for the documents (an admitted goal of WikiLeaks) and to protect themselves with the shield of public visibility, Assange has purposefully placed himself in the public sphere. By making WikiLeaks the story they have created a defence against counter intelligence operations such as the one proposed by the US army in 2008. However, this has come at the expense of letting the documents speak for themselves.
As WikiLeaks is discovering (or anticipated), if you mess with the big guns, expect a fight, and expect to spend a lot of time jumping at shadows.