The most troubling aspect of Andrew O’Hagan's narrative is its padding. While the story of his and Canongate's creative differences with Julian Assange is misrepresented, the gossip that surrounds it is often dangerously inaccurate. It is hard to find a reasonable explanation for this lack of professionalism.
After all, it took O’Hagan 883 days to write and publish the London Review of Books (LRB) article, and yet it seems that he did not find the time to give it even a cursory fact check, or omit sensitive information that would threaten WikiLeaks security.
On 18 February 2014, Glenn Greenwald and Ryan Gallagher published an article in First Look entitled 'Snowden Documents Reveal Covert Surveillance and Pressure Tactics Aimed at WikiLeaks and Its Supporters'. With regards to the U.S. government's counter-WikiLeaks strategy the article states:
The effort, it explains, “exemplifies the start of an international effort to focus the legal element of national power upon non-state actor Assange, and the human network that supports WikiLeaks.” The entry does not specify how broadly the government defines that “human network,” which could potentially include thousands of volunteers, donors and journalists, as well as people who simply spoke out in defense of WikiLeaks.
This story received worldwide coverage and, considering the subject matter of O’Hagan's yet to be published (three days later, on the 21 February) LRB article, one would expect him to have been aware of this information and taken prudent steps to protect WikiLeaks personnel “and the human network that supports WikiLeaks.” However, O'Hagan chose not to do this and 'outed' activists and volunteers associated with the organisation.
In the same manner that WikiLeaks does not generally disclose identities when receiving information, they expected O’Hagan to apply the same principles when granting him access to the organisation:
No staff member from WikiLeaks will ever claim to be a staff member of WikiLeaks in the context of receiving sensitive information from you, with the exception of Julian Assange and Kristinn Hrafnsson, or as personally designated by them to you.
O’Hagan stated that: “Only once was I asked to sign a confidentiality agreement” but fails to say whether he actually signed it or not. Either way, naming activists engaged in a journalistic enterprise in the knowledge that they will be targeted is morally questionable.
Besides endangering WikiLeaks personnel, O’Hagan's article had the temerity to repeat an updated version of The Guardian's thoroughly debunked WikiLeaks-Cablegate allegation, that Assange “decided to dump the whole cache of 250,000 US cables supplied to him by Bradley Manning on the internet” and “by doing so, risked exposing people mentioned in them.”
David Leigh's 'encryption key fiasco' is probably one of the most infamous breaches of cryptographic security in the history of journalism. Without consulting WikiLeaks, Leigh had used the Cablegate archive's passphrase (including the salt element) as the subheading to Chapter 11 in his slightly ridiculous WikiLeaks cash-in book. When the book was published on 1 February 2011, WikiLeaks were dumbfounded.
The journalist Guy Rundle (who often writes for The Guardian) has put it like this: “everyone, even this luddite, knows that you don’t reveal a full password.” The journalist Nigel Parry:
Unless the original file was carefully protected throughout its entire life, decrypted and unzipped, then destroyed after the data was released, that password will work on copies of it for ever. So regardless of how David Leigh & Co. imagine computer security works - and right now they are desperately trying increasingly ridiculous arguments to blame WikiLeaks for Leigh's actions - there's no reason to publish any password this sensitive – ever.
However, O’Hagan spins it like this:
Firstly, according to a very well-known Assange sound bite (or trope), he believes that “transparency is for the state, privacy is for the rest of us.” If O’Hagan is suggesting that Cablegate caused harm to the U.S. government, then he is mistaken. U.S. State Department officials have consistently stated that the leaks were "embarrassing but not damaging." U.S. Vice President Joe Biden: “I don’t think there is any substantive damage.” And former Defense Secretary Robert Gates: “Is this embarrassing? Yes. Is it awkward? Yes. Consequences for U.S. foreign policy? I think fairly modest.’’
Secondly, WikiLeaks remained silent about Leigh’s passphrase breach because they understandably did not trust The Guardian's security. Besides, the book was published and the damage was irreversible; informing The Guardian could only speed up a process it had set in motion.
Thirdly, the files were not “left online”, they were deliberately placed 'online' (and made accessible via a torrent file) in the aftermath of Daniel Domscheit-Berg's sabotage of WikiLeaks' whistleblower submissions and submission system. At this time WikiLeaks not only faced Domscheit-Berg, but a sustained 'denial of service' (DDOS) attack. In response, WikiLeaks mirrored itself. It is generally thought that the torrent was created as part of this process. However, it is clear that WikiLeaks would be aware - given Assange's cryptography background - that they also faced the NSA's full suite of hacking techniques. No server is completely secure and numbers made little difference in this kind of conflict. The servers were essentially a collection of self-designated targets. The torrent was created as a fail-safe. Only a few WikiLeaks staff members knew the file's name and the location of the obscure Croatian server housing it.
The story of how this file became public is not complex. Domscheit-Berg once again flawlessly imitated the behaviour of an intelligence agency asset. He discovered the Croatian server's location and told the German press, just enough. He then discovered the file's passphrase was searchable via the PDF format of the e-book version of Leigh's book and told the German press, just enough. Together this was more than enough to ensure the whole affair unravelled. Domscheit-Berg's clues were solved on 31 August 2011, after which (1 September) WikiLeaks published the now public Cablegate files.
O’Hagan states that “I hung my head when I learned what [Assange had] done.” But the question remains; is he deliberately misleading his readers in order to damage WikiLeaks, or is it plausible to be this ignorant of a subject after two and a half years of research? Further, if such a critical issue has been reported inaccurately, can anything O’Hagan says be considered trustworthy?
A significant portion of O’Hagan's article is taken up with conversations. Sarah Harrison (WikiLeaks section editor and legal researcher) features in many of them. O’Hagan describes her as “Assange’s personal assistant and girlfriend”. These dialogue segments have to be taken on trust. O’Hagan states that they “were recorded contemporaneously, either on tape or in notes”. But how accurate are these transcriptions and notes? For the most part it is (currently) impossible to verify their content, with one exception:
The manoeuvre brought so many infamous Julian tropes together: the hatred of the US; the showing off about security while having no real sense of how it works - why were the files left online?
Leigh’s book had been out for seven months, and not once during that time - or during his dozens of interviews with me - had Julian mentioned that the book might contain the password. Not once did he refer to it or try to put it right.
(No privacy is necessary, according to Assange, but he’s wrong about that.) After he released all the cables, many of his allies turned against him. He had ruined the last of his reputation as a responsible publisher, just to get one over on the Guardian. I hung my head when I learned what he’d done, feeling it spelled long-term disaster for him.
About midnight, [Assange] and Sarah, while continuing to talk, lifted over their Macbooks and opened them and began to type with their faces strangely lit. After a while, Sarah exclaimed.
‘What?’ I asked.
‘Bloody hell.’ She looked at Assange.
‘What?’ he asked.
‘The Guardian have redacted the following from a cable about Tunisia,’ she said.
‘Read what they’ve redacted,’ said Julian.
She read two sentences about a deposed president having sought cancer treatment abroad. ‘They’re taking them out,’ she said.
Julian made a face. ‘They’re disgusting.’
‘Why do it?’ Sarah asked. Julian said they were obviously worried about being sued.
In this segment, Sarah Harrison can only be referring to one cable. This is because, with the exception of 06TUNIS55, no other redacted Tunisia related cable (39 out of 2147 Tunisia cables were redacted) mentions cancer. And the only cable that does mention cancer does so in the context of a “deposed president”, specifically Ben Ali. Interestingly, the cable says nothing about Ali seeking “cancer treatment abroad”. The cable was redacted by The Guardian on 17 January 2011, the redactions were as follows (deleted material in red, inserted material in blue):
On the heels of Ben Ali's recent illness (Ref A) and a new law providing for "former presidents" (Ref B), these discussions seem, on the surface, to be more relevant that the usual rumors. While we have no evidence that Ben Ali's cancer has reached the life-threatening stage or that he is actively contemplating his retirement, there are some interesting scenarios being discussed, including the possibility that Ben Ali may groom a successor to run in the next presidential elections. XXXXXXXXXXXX Given the constitutional framework and the political scene, a successful candidate will likely come from the RCD Politburo.
3. (S) A Cabinet-level GOT official reportedly favored by the President XXXXXXXXXXXX recently told the Ambassador at a small luncheon XXXXXXXXXXXX that Ben Ali wants to avoid the "difficulties" that arose when Tunisia's first president, Habib Bourguiba, declined in 1987.
One way for Ben Ali to ensure a smoother transition would be to groom a replacement and present him as the only viable candidate in 2009. A European with strong ties to the Presidential Palace XXXXXXXXXXXX later told the Ambassador that, in fact, Ben Ali does not intend to run again in the 2009 presidential elections.
Ben Ali, who has been rumored to have prostate cancer since early 2003 XXXXXXXXXXXX maintains an active schedule and appears healthy; but Tunisians often discuss whether he appears pale, thin or otherwise physically ill.
Instead of O’Hagan's trivial redaction, which makes Assange and Harrison's concerns look foolish, the actual subject matter and context is fairly serious. That a cabinet-level Tunisian government official and a “European with strong ties to the Presidential Palace” were keeping the U.S. ambassador informed about a Ben Ali's 'state of play', is revealing of U.S. statecraft and diplomacy. But this information could also have allowed the ambassador's sources to be identified, in which case the redaction might have been justifiable (from a certain perspective). The redaction of the fact that Ali had cancer and had contemplated his retirement was not justifiable, and it was of significance to the people of Tunisia.
Across the entire cable archive, The Guardian's redaction decisions were not consistent or explained. It is self-evident that Assange was referring to this issue when he used the term “disgusting”.
O’Hagan's Tunisian cable is, in reality, not what he portrayed it to be. The fact that this segment of dialogue has not been accurately reported means that the integrity of all of O’Hagan's quotes is questionable.