Wikileaks, the Australian angle
Posted: 10 Dec 2010 07:26 AM PST

Philip Dorling scored the exclusive Australian Wikileaks cables. He explains today how he did it:

Getting to WikiLeaks’s secret headquarters took quite some time and was not without complications.
This year a careful reading of statements by the WikiLeaks co-founder, Julian Assange, led me to conclude his small organisation had landed what could be the biggest leak of classified information – a vast trove of US documents that, among other things, would provide deep insight into the realities of Australia’s relationship with our most important ally, the US.
As a journalist I thought this was a story worth going for. Curiously few, if any others, thought likewise. Consistent with the old journalistic maxim that ”Noah is a better story than flood control”, most media interest was focused on Assange himself, admittedly an elusive and intensely interesting figure, rather than what he might be about to release through the WikiLeaks website.

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Six months of emails, clandestine meetings and confidential exchanges followed before arrangements for a visit to Britain were locked in.
WikiLeaks takes security very seriously, and it is right to do so. After all, it’s not paranoia when the vast intelligence and security apparatus of the US is arrayed against you. Consequently I flew out from Australia last month without a specific destination, only an instruction on arrival at Heathrow Airport to go to a certain railway station, taking precautions to see whether I was followed.
There, using a public telephone, I phoned a number that had been provided earlier through a secure channel. A voice on the other end gave a single-word reply to my call – the name of a railway station outside London.
I bought a ticket and some hours later arrived on a windswept, rain-splattered railway platform in rural England.
Only a couple of other passengers got off and the platform was quickly deserted. I wondered what the next step would be.
But after a moment a figure emerged from the early evening shadows, with cap pulled down over his head and coat collar turned up, perhaps to make identification difficult but more likely to protect against the bitter wind and sleet.
There was a quick greeting, then a long drive through the countryside to WikiLeaks’s temporary headquarters, made available by a benefactor.
I was greeted by the man himself: modest, unassuming, in T-shirt, tracksuit pants and socks with holes in them.
Assange doesn’t stand on ceremony and is always focused on the task. We got straight down to business – the imminent release, in conjunction with some of the world’s leading newspapers, of a torrent of highly sensitive US diplomatic secrets.
The setting was utterly incongruous. The home was a marvellous example of Georgian elegance, a relic of the pre-industrial age carefully preserved but demonstrating the challenges of maintaining buildings that are close to 300 years old.
On the walls of the drawing room, in effect WikiLeaks operations room, paintings of long-dead defenders of the empire, most in the scarlet uniforms, looked down on a tangle of laptops, printers, wires and power cables and other equipment.
It is said the security-conscious Assange changes mobile phones as often as most people change shirts. This is an understatement. Tables were covered with mobile phones and SIM cards were strewn around like confetti. Resting in one corner was Assange’s backpack, carrying all his worldly goods.
In the morning the countryside reverberated to the sounds of gunfire as the English upper class indulged its passion for bird shooting. Occasionally low-flying air force jets would rattle the windows, prompting jokes about a possible air strike.
For a tiny organisation under immense pressure the atmosphere in temporary WikiLeaks HQ was remarkably calm and relaxed. On the eve of its biggest documents release, the main work area was often silent apart from the sound of typing as documents were formatted and last-minute communications made with the newspapers partnered in the release.
Although WikiLeaks has a big pool of volunteers, the inner core is a small, highly committed group, all working on the basis of only expenses being reimbursed, with remarkably diverse skills ranging from computer programming and language translation to journalism and media liaison.
It is a truly multinational enterprise, with accents from around the globe heard across the breakfast table. Not that everyone appears at breakfast. WikiLeaks runs on a 24-hour, seven-day-a-week basis so a good proportion of the key personnel are essentially nocturnal.
As for Assange, he is an impressive figure. Highly intelligent, articulate and deeply committed to his cause. And he certainly isn’t in it for the money. For someone under immense pressure he was remarkably calm, focused and measured.
Contrary to reports that he is an eccentric egomaniac, he gave every appearance of being good-tempered and humoured, ready to discuss issues and carefully consider advice.
He is certainly a strategic thinker with a fair amount of political and media nous that has turned his organisation into a global phenomenon.
Having entered into talks on the basis of confidentiality, I will not repeat his observations but I found him a highly engaging, thoughtful conversationalist.
He pays close attention to political developments in Australia and has a keen sense of the importance of encouraging more openness.
A frequent theme is the need to cut through the hypocrisy and cant that fills so much of political discourse by enabling citizens to see and hear directly what their leaders think and say in private.
Assange has well and truly kicked the hornets’ nest. He is now in an English prison awaiting extradition proceedings that could mean he will be taken to Sweden to be questioned about sexual misconduct allegations, but which could also open the door for him to be sent to face the wrath of the US government.
It is reported that he is in good spirits and as a highly self-contained person he probably has the inner resources to cope with his difficult circumstances.
Whatever the outcome of these proceedings, one thing was clear. He has given much thought to how WikiLeaks might defend itself from sustained attacks and how it might function without him. The frenzy about WikiLeaks is likely to continue. There will be twists and turns but it looks like WikiLeaks is here to stay and governments will have to get used to that.
Philip Dorling is a Canberra writer and Fairfax contributor.

Guess which two countries are most angry towards Wikileaks?
Posted: 09 Dec 2010 11:23 PM PST

Watch the world laugh at American reactions to Wikileaks (and Australia is of course following our Washington masters step by step):

For many Europeans, Washington’s fierce reaction to the flood of secret diplomatic cables released by WikiLeaks displays imperial arrogance and hypocrisy, indicating a post-9/11 obsession with secrecy that contradicts American principles.
While the Obama administration has done nothing in the courts to block the publication of any of the leaked documents, or even, as of yet, tried to indict the WikiLeaks founder, Julian Assange, for any crime, American officials and politicians have been widely condemned in the European news media for calling the leaks everything from “terrorism” (Representative Peter T. King, Republican of New York) to “an attack against the international community” (Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton). Secretary of Defense Robert M. Gates called the arrest of Mr. Assange on separate rape charges “good news.” Sarah Palin called for him to be hunted as an “anti-American operative with blood on his hands,” and Mike Huckabee, the former Arkansas governor and Republican presidential candidate, said that whoever leaked the cables should be executed.
For Seumas Milne of The Guardian in London, which like The New York Times has published the latest WikiLeaks trove, the official American reaction “is tipping over toward derangement.” Most of the leaks are of low-level diplomatic cables, he noted, while concluding: “Not much truck with freedom of information, then, in the land of the free.”
John Naughton, writing in the same British paper, deplored the attack on the openness of the Internet and the pressure on companies like Amazon and eBay to evict the WikiLeaks site. “The response has been vicious, coordinated and potentially comprehensive,” he said, and presents a “delicious irony” that “it is now the so-called liberal democracies that are clamoring to shut WikiLeaks down.”
A year ago, he noted, Mrs. Clinton made a major speech about Internet freedom, interpreted as a rebuke to China’s cyberattack on Google. “Even in authoritarian countries,” she said, “information networks are helping people to discover new facts and making governments more accountable.” To Mr. Naughton now, “that Clinton speech reads like a satirical masterpiece.”

Sydney’s Daily Telegraph on big Sydney Wikileaks rally
Posted: 09 Dec 2010 11:01 PM PST

Today’s big rally for Wikileaks in Sydney (I think around 2000 people were there) saw a wide cross section of people outraged with the intimidation of Wikileaks and Julian Assange and the Gillard government’s capitulation to American demands. I spoke and chaired the event. This story appears in the Daily Telegraph:

Protestors today converged on Sydney’s town hall demanding that the Gillard government protect Australian-born Wikileaks frontman Julian Assange in the first offline mass action in the country since “cablegate” broke.
The message from the handful of speakers to the 1200-strong crowd, from Greens MPs through to an American businessman, was simple: the Australian government needs to do a better job in protecting citizens abroad and Wikileaks is critical for the democracy both here and internationally.
Independent journalist and author Antony Loewenstein said Prime Minister Julia Gillard had to condemn the death threats on Mr Assange’s life and should support the besieged whistleblower with as much government assistance as possible.
“We should not make the mistakes that we made with David Hicks and Mamdouh Habib,” Mr Loewenstein said today.
And he questioned just how much the Australian government is independent of the US after leaks this week revealed that Labor senator Mark Arbib was an American informant.
“Are we independent or are we a client state of the US?” he said to the cheers of the crowd.
Get Up’s Sam Mclean, one of a number of political groups represented in the crowd, said that in just 12 hours close to 50,000 people had donated a total of almost $250,000 to buy advertisements in the New York Times supporting Mr Assange.
“We want to make a statement to our allies in the States that the Australian people support Wikileaks,” Mr Mclean said.
“We are buying full-page ads in the New York Times because our government has failed to represent us.”
Former Get Up CEO Brett Solomon will appear on the Bill O’Reilly show today in the US taking Get Up’s message to conservative America, Mr Mclean said.
Greens senate-elect Lee Rhiannon said: “Right now our government should be celebrating the work of Julian Assange.”
But Ms Rhiannon said the government had instead engaged in sycophantic behaviour in claiming that Wikileaks had broken the law but could not say which laws had been broken.
“The government is big on sharing information on MySchool and MyHospital but not on My Government,” she said.
Melbourne-run website WL Central moderator Asher Wolf said recently the site had received 1.9 million hits per day as interest in the diplomatic cables had spiked.
However, she said that US government talk of listing Mr Assange and Wikileaks associates as terrorists was effectively a death threat against her and her colleagues.
During the speeches an elderly man made his way onto the town hall’s steps and held up a series of signs in support of free speech.
However, he drifted off topic with one anti-gay sign sparking an angry response from one member of the crowd who tore the placard off him and tore it up.


Wikileaks exposes the bromance between journalists and politics
Posted: 09 Dec 2010 10:03 PM PST

My following article appears on ABC Unleashed today:

Who can now say that the WikiLeaks cables detail no new information?
It was only last week that ABC TV’s 7.30 Report featured a story with supposed foreign affairs experts, including the Lowy Institute’s Michael Fullilove, who largely dismissed the significance of the document dump. Within a few days these men were all proven wrong.
Now we know Labor powerbroker Mark Arbib sends confidential information to the Americans. He’s not alone.
Crucially, however, our media class aren’t asking the next obvious questions.
The Australian’s Paul Maley argues that communication between politicians, journalists and diplomats is part of the daily job.
“It is no surprise the Americans were talking to Arbib,” he writes, “They talk to everyone.”
And yet the senior Murdoch journalist doesn’t understand that the general public are rarely told about such meetings. What is discussed? What are the agendas? Is there transparency in such dealings? And who is telling what information to whom? Who benefits and what stories are not being told to avoid embarrassing somebody?
The cosiness between these players is exactly what WikiLeaks is aiming to challenge. Why shouldn’t the voting public be privy to whims and wishes of the American government and their relationships with key government ministers, individuals voted in by all of us? If Arbib was warning the Americans he thought Rudd may fall, why wasn’t he telling his constituents, the ones who put him in office?
The fact that the US had followed the rise of Julia Gillard and approved her views on the American alliance, Afghanistan and Israeli aggression is worrying though unsurprising.
It’s extremely rare that a leader rises who hasn’t received American approval or extensive years of obedience grooming. Former Labor leader Mark Latham was loathed by the US because he publicly expressed scepticism about the US alliance, the war in Iraq and then-president George W Bush.
It’s worth recalling that Latham called former prime minister John Howard an “arselicker” of the Bush administration and described a delegation of Liberal party politicians going to Washington as “a conga line of suckholes”.
Latham would undoubtedly use equally colourful language to describe Arbib and Kevin Rudd. So why did ABC TV’s 7.30 Report feel the need to mitigate the damage to Rudd and Australia with the latest release of cables this week by featuring a soft-ball interview with assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific Affairs Kurt Campbell?
Host Kerry O’Brien didn’t even blush when he acknowledged that, “he [Campbell] asked to come on the program to counter the damage from today’s exposure in Fairfax newspapers of the US embassy cables”. Since when is the ABC designed to offer air-time to a senior US official with a clear agenda to kiss and make up with Canberra? Moreover, viewers were expected to believe that Rudd was one of Barack Obama’s “best mates”?
The interview was symptomatic of the greater media malaise in this massive story; journalistic jealousy and closeness to state power.
The latest leaks that show profound Australian Government doubts over the Afghan mission are damning. Ministers are complicit but what about the journalists who visit Afghanistan, embed with our troops and paint an overly rose picture of brave men and women in a winnable war? Scepticism is often in short supply when reporting from the front lines.
When Hillary Clinton recently visited Australia, she was treated to a light interview with ABC’s Leigh Sales (who even Tweeted a grinning photo of the two). There were no challenging questions, just friendly banter and space for the Secretary of State to spin lines about loving Australia and its hospitality.
To learn a few weeks later, via WikiLeaks, that Clinton directed US officials across the world to spy on unsuspecting governments and UN officials should elicit outrage from a media fraternity that recently offered little more than obsequiousness before American power. There’s been not a peep.
Such obedience doesn’t come naturally; it takes years of practice. Annual events such as the Australian-American Leadership Dialogue – a secret gathering of politicians, journalists and opinion-makers – consolidate the unhealthy, uncritical relationship between Australia and America. Many corporate journalists have attended, including the Sydney Morning Herald’s Peter Hartcher and former Labor MP and ABC reporter Maxine McKew. It aims to consolidate American hegemony rather than challenging it.
It’s largely a one-way street. Australians display loyalty to an agenda and the Americans are allegedly thankful. As US participant Steve Clemons wrote in 2007:
Phil Scanlan, founder of the Australian American Leadership Dialogue, is proud of the fact that in 15 years, no-one has leaked any of the internal conversations of the conference. I won’t either… unless I get permission from one of the speakers or commentators to do so which is allowed by the rules.”
The Australia-Israel Leadership Dialogue, inspired by the American one, is once again about to head to Israel for a short burst of Zionist propaganda. Journalists and politicians invariably return with the required Israeli talking points (let me guess this year; Iran is the greatest threat to the Middle East and the world?).
The Age’s Michelle Grattan tweeted this week of the post-WikiLeaks reality of the tour:
“All those pollies travelling to the Aust-Israel dialogue might be a bit more inclined to zip their lips in private.”
But why are such gatherings so secret? Why do journalists allow themselves to be romanced without revealing the kinds of agendas they’re pushing? It’s obvious why; being close to top officials and politicians makes them feel connected and important. Being an insider is many reporters’ ideal position. Independence is secondary to receiving sanctioned links and elevated status in a globalised world.
The WikiLeaks documents challenge the entire corrupted relationship between media and political elites. Founder Julian Assange is an outsider and doesn’t attend exclusive and secret meetings where the furthering of US foreign policy goals are on the cards. He aims to disrupt that dynamic. Many in the media resent not being leaked the information themselves and are jealous. Others simply dislike a lone-wolf citizen with remarkable tech-savvy to challenge their viability.
One can dismiss The Australian’s bragging of knowing virtually everything in the WikiLeaks cables before they were released – if only they more deeply scrutinised the effect of war policies they backed in Iraq, Afghanistan, Palestine and beyond – because the key point here isn’t merely covering disillusionment over Rudd or Gillard or anyone else. It’s something far bigger; a fundamental re-writing of the relationship between journalists and governments.
The WikiLeaks cable dumps have revealed a chasm between establishment attitudes towards truth-telling and furious attempts to protect the embarrassed. The sign of any healthy democracy is the ways in which it deals with the most sensitive of information. Senior media figures and government authorities are often remarkably consistent in their messaging. They move in similar worlds and they often rely on each other for sourcing.
It’s this kind of dangerous, mutual sycophancy that WikiLeaks could break.
Antony Loewenstein is a Sydney journalist, author of My Israel Question and The Blogging Revolution and currently working on a book about disaster capitalism

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