Hazel Press

As with the Tunisian cable, O’Hagan's Egyptian Revolution (25 January - 11 February 2011) anecdote can only be inaccurate. O’Hagan states:

Ghosting WikiLeaks. Part 3

At the time of the Egyptian uprising, Mubarak tried to close down the country’s mobile phone network, a service that came through Canada. Julian and his gang hacked into Nortel and fought against Mubarak’s official hackers to reverse the process. The revolution continued and Julian was satisfied, sitting back in our remote kitchen eating chocolates.

Fact and fiction

While the notion that “Julian and his gang [...] fought against Mubarak’s official hackers” and won, allowing the “revolution [to] continue..” might be evocative, but it is also a false picture of events.

 

In actuality, Hosni Mubarak's regime cut Egypt's communication networks on 27 January and several groups, including Telecomix, managed to partially restore the country's communications. The actions of Telecomix in the Arab Spring are famous. Shyamantha Asokan of the Washington Post:

When Hosni Mubarak, Egypt’s now ousted president, cut off the entire country’s Internet in January, Telecomix set up dial-up connections using two servers in Europe. The members then faxed the dial-up numbers to every Egyptian office, university and coffee shop they could find.

Peter Fein of Telecomix:

The internet was being cut off and telephones were cut off.. And so this created a need for internal communication.. So there were a number of tools, mesh technology [a way of creating a communication network, often using mobile phones' Bluetooth technology] and so on - that we tried to help people figure out. They just want to be able to communicate without being wiretapped.. so we'll send them Tor or something. Towards the end they were just asking us how they could hold the [Tahrir] Square - it's difficult and necessary to communicate across an area that large and packed and we helped them.

On 1 December 2011, WikiLeaks published 'The Spy Files' - which exposed the surveillance industry's relationship with repressive regimes. Jacob Appelbaum (a former WikiLeaks spokesman and Tor project founder): "These systems have been sold by Western companies to places for example like Syria, and Libya and Tunisia and Egypt. These systems are used to hunt people down and to murder." WikiLeaks:

When citizens overthrew the dictatorships in Egypt and Libya this year, they uncovered listening rooms where devices from Gamma corporation of the UK, Amesys of France, VASTech of South Africa and ZTE Corp of China monitored their every move online and on the phone.

Stuart Hamilton and Darren Moon writing in The International Federation of Library Associations and Institutions (IFLA):

WikiLeaks may be most famous for its exposé of U.S. government cables, but neither it nor groups of hackers like Telecomix have spared the business sector from the hard glare of publicity when it comes to their role in facilitating censorship and surveillance (Greenberg, 2011).

Both WikiLeaks and Telecomix have worked in the field of “documenting mass surveillance collaborators” and it is likely that Telecomix conferred with Assange and others on how best to advise Egyptian activists about these issues. Assange may have also assisted Telecomix with the circumvention of Egypt's blocked Internet service providers. This was achieved by connecting activists to foreign 'modem pools' via fax machines transmitting telephone numbers. Another element of Telecomix's work concerned the creation of 'wireless mesh networks' in Tahrir Square. In this case, activists bypassed the cellphone element of Mubarak's communications 'kill switch' by switching over to Bluetooth.

 

The Nortel battle never took place, not only because that was not how Egypt's communications were kept open, but because it happened in 1991.

 

In 1987, when Assange was just 16 years old, he created a small hacking group called 'International Subversives' with two friends. Their internet handles were Mendax (named after an Erle Cox sci-fi character), Trax and Prime Suspect. A Canadian telecommunications company (Nortel) was part of the group's gateway into the 11,000 linked computer systems that encompassed the world. The technology used by Assange to gain access to the network is called H/P and Telecomix used similar techniques in the Egyptian 'revolution'.

 

Whilst gaining access to the network was difficult, remaining hidden from system administrators was next to impossible. After exploring systems connected to MILNET, the Los Alamos National Laboratory and NASA, the group's activities caught the attention of the Australian Federal Police's nascent cybercrimes unit, which in 1991 launched an investigation called 'Operation Weather'. The prosecutions that followed are generally known as the 'Nortel case'. In May 1995 Assange plead guilty to 25 hacking charges and received a good conduct bond and a $2,100 fine. It is thought that the judge's leniency was based on a 1993 deal that involved Assange providing technical assistance to the Victoria Police child exploitation unit.

 

O’Hagan's Egyptian story turns out to be as incorrect as his account of the Tunisian cable and the Cablegate passphrase.

 

The reason for these and other inaccuracies is O’Hagan's use of 'creative licence', which he described in his article in these terms:

However it came, and however I unearthed it or inflected it, the Assange story would be consistent with my instinct to walk the unstable border between fiction and non-fiction, to see how porous the parameters between invention and personality are.

O’Hagan's “unstable border between fiction and non-fiction” can be found in almost every paragraph of his article. The sensationalist style of these 'based on actual events' fictions is reminiscent of Hollywood. The following is a good example of O’Hagan's embellishment:

“Just how good is [Snowden]?” [O’Hagan] asked. “He’s number nine,” [Assange] said. “In the world? Among computer hackers? And where are you?” “I’m number three.”

Daniel Domscheit-Berg and David Leigh both produced books about WikiLeaks that also preferred one side of 'the fine line between fact and fiction'. The fictional element dominated in these books, because it facilitated the authors' desire to attack WikiLeaks. They were both optioned and later turned into two anti-WikiLeaks Hollywood films. The first was 'We Steal Secrets: The Story of WikiLeaks' (2013), followed by 'The Fifth Estate' (2013). Hollywood's 'world's greatest hacker' trope is naturally wheeled out by 'The Fifth Estate' which then misrepresents Assange's former handle:

Julian, meet Marcus, the second greatest hacker in the world. [...]

 

I'm just basically following the tradition of some excellent hackers. One in particular who went by this curious name. Something out of Horace.. Splendid Mendax, noble liar.

When it came to describing the same events three years later, O'Hagan seems to have relied on nothing other than creative licence and enmity.

 

Part of the reason for this is that while O'Hagan stated that "my name was never intended to appear on the book", having his work associated with a successful book and a major film would have been incredibly valuable. Unfortunately (unlike O’Hagan's highly marketable take) the autobiography that Assange wanted to create was not exactly film script material (Terrence Malick aside). When Canongate's autobiography was not endorsed and, worse, was actually disowned by Assange, the future commercial opportunities that could have been created were lost.

 

The vitriol of O'Hagan's LRB article is an expression of failure. And no amount of film options or royalties could persuade Assange to stay on board a project that he felt was morally questionable. In that context O'Hagan's al-Jazeera segment is especially damning.

 

In October 2010, Channel 4's flagship current affairs show Dispatches joined forces with The Bureau of Investigative Journalism (TBIJ) and WikiLeaks to produce a TV program and a series of articles based on the Iraq war logs. Al-Jazeera (English and Arabic) also worked with TBIJ and WikiLeaks to produce a TV program and a series of articles based on the war logs.

 

Al-Jazeera and WikiLeaks began preliminary negotiations (19 January 2011) to explore the possibility of creating a series of TV programmes based upon the recently released diplomatic cables. In O’Hagan's article it is suggested that the proposed deal was only for access to the cables, something that would cost al-Jazeera $1.3 million.

Although O’Hagan “[has] no knowledge if the money was actually paid or if any of the material was used by al-Jazeera” it is not particularly difficult to discover that al-Jazeera produced 35 stories based on Cablegate material. The first was published on 29 November 2010 and the last on 26 December 2010.

 

Not only was al-Jazeera not negotiating for access to cables on 19 January 2011 (because they already had access to them through WikiLeaks' media partners), but it is unlikely that they received cables after that date, because by then they had completed their article coverage of Cablegate. No media partner has ever paid WikiLeaks for access to material. WikiLeaks spokesperson Kristinn Hrafnsson:

The meetings you are referring to were an exploration into creating a series of news programs for Al-Jazeera as part of Cablegate. I believe we discussed 10 half-hour programs. This did not materialize and I believe it would be a fair description to say we never entered into formal negotiations.

Although O’Hagan's article follows Domscheit-Berg and Leigh's model, his Canongate manuscript took a different approach, in that it was passably accurate. This divergence can be seen in the telling of the Nortel case. In Canongate's 2011 book, the case (PDF download link) is reported accurately (pages 88-90), and yet O’Hagan's 2014 version could not have been more inaccurate.

 

It is likely that the O’Hagan manuscript relied on Suelette Dreyfus' well researched 'Underground' book (1997) to describe the events of 1991. Fergus Ryan of China Spectator (22 February 2014):

The guy from al-Jazeera was hoping to strike a deal with WikiLeaks – that’s to say, with Julian. He was offering $1.3 million to get access (via encryption keys) to the data. [...]

 

Sarah did a lot of the negotiating over the al-Jazeera deal - it got quite heated at one point - but Julian would intervene and in the end everything was signed, though we have no knowledge if the money was actually paid or if any of the material was used by al-Jazeera.

I asked O'Hagan about ghostwriting the Assange book when he was in Beijing in 2011. O'Hagan told me he thought Underground would make a good movie and that they (he and Assange) were in talks with Paul Greengrass to direct the movie of the book they were writing.

The accusation of leak-"profiteering" has often been levelled against Glenn Greenwald, usually as part of an effort to criminalise his journalism. Glenn Greenwald:

Obviously, the rancid accusation that paid investigative journalism is tantamount to the buying and selling of government secrets is being made quite deliberately by the US government and its apologists with the knowledge that this is what sends people to prison. That language didn't fall out of Gen. Keith Alexander's mouth by accident. This Pando post is not only reckless with the facts but espouses a theory very few of the journalists cheering for it could or would apply to themselves.

 

Every worthwhile investigative journalist - by definition - at some point receives, and then publishes, classified information. They are virtually always paid for their work in exposing that information, because that's how professional journalists earn a living. […] If you are so infuriated by this NSA reporting that you short-sightedly embrace theories that suggest there's something untoward or criminal about this process, then you're essentially criminalizing all professional investigative journalism. Do you not see where this idiocy takes you?