Exclusive: WikiLeaks's ex-spokesman on Julian Assange

Daniel Domscheit-Berg on his fears for the site -- and why Assange was nicknamed "the Disco King".

Want to know what's odd about Julian Assange's trousers? What his dancing style is like? Or how he treats cats?

All these questions are addressed in Inside WikiLeaks: My Time With Julian Assange at the World's Most Dangerous Website, the new book from former WikiLeaks spokesman Daniel Domscheit-Berg.

Now, I should be fair here. The book is not the hatchet job on Assange it will inevitably be made out to be and Domscheit-Berg is still committed to the idea of a whistleblowing website (he launched his own, OpenLeaks, at the end of last year). But its author does give some insight into why WikiLeaks -- and particularly its controversial founder -- has received so much criticism in the past few months.

The portrait of Assange that emerges is of an uncompromising man who doesn't want to live by social norms. He rarely carries cash, can sleep pretty much anywhere and often wears two pairs of trousers (presumably because he lives a nomadic existence and carries all his clothes in a small backpack).

The New Statesman will have an exclusive interview with Domscheit-Berg in next week's magazine but here are some of the key revelations from the book in the meantime. Perhaps the biggest is that when Domscheit-Berg left WikiLeaks in the autumn of 2010, he and "the architect" -- the programmer who built the website -- removed the secure submission system and Assange's access to the existing documents. "Children shouldn't play with guns," writes Domscheit-Berg. "That was our argument for removing the submission platform from Julian's control."

On Wednesday, WikiLeaks hit back with claims that they had begun legal proceedings against Domscheit-Berg for this act of "sabotage". Domscheit-Berg claims: "We just took away these dangerous toys so that Julian could not do harm to anyone else."

When we spoke, he reiterated this. "We had a three-week hand-over period and we had no idea where to put these documents safely. No one [at WikiLeaks] bothered." He added: "We've just made sure that these documents are stored away safely and we're now still waiting for a handover to happen. Those documents have been sent to WikiLeaks. I wouldn't ever want to doubt that they are in WikiLeaks' possession."

The other surprise is that, in its early days, Assange often overstated the scale of the WikiLeaks operation. Domscheit-Berg wrote emails as "Thomas Bellman" or "Leon from the tech department" and he suspects that several other team members he knew only online -- such as "Jay Lim" from the legal department -- were, in reality, pseudonyms used by Assange.

Then there are the questions he raises about WikiLeaks's finances. How much of the donations given by the public have been spent on the site itself and how much has been used by Julian personally? (The WikiLeaks website currently solicits cash for the "Julian Assange and WikiLeaks Defence Fund")

There's also the niggling question of the involvement of Israel Shamir, a Holocaust denier who's often been accused of anti-Semitism. He currently appears to be brokering deals for WikiLeaks material in Russia and Scandinavia.

In all, it's a fascinating book. The impression I was left with was that Domscheit-Berg has, as he claims, not written it out of spite, but rather a sense that the "project" is too important to be left to an increasingly isolated Assange.

"But what about the dancing?" I hear you cry. Well, here you go:

I remember one evening at a club in a former slaughterhouse in Wiesbaden. The others we were with nicknamed Julian "Disco King" or something like that for his unusual way of dancing. Julian took up quite a lot of space when he danced -- almost like a tribesman performing some ritual. He'd spread his arms and gallop across the dance floor, taking huge steps. He didn't look very rhythmic or co-ordinated and he didn't seem to have that much feeling for the music but he did possess a certain cool. He didn't care anyway what other people thought of him. You need space, he once told me, if you want your ego to flow. That statement fit well with his dance style.

As for the cat, well . . . Domscheit-Berg tells of how he let Assange stay in his flat in Wiesbaden:

Julian was engaged in a constant battle for dominance -- even with my cat, Mr Schmitt . . . Julian was always attacking the poor animal. He would spread his fingers into a fork shape and pounce on the cat's neck. It was a game to see who was quicker. Either Julian would succeed in getting his fingers around the cat and pinning it to the floor, or the cat would drive Julian off with a swipe of its claws. It must have been a nightmare for the poor thing. No sooner would Mr Schmitt lie down to relax than the crazy Australian would be upon him. Julian preferred to attack at times when Mr Schmitt was tired. "It's about training vigilance," Julian explained. "A man must never forget he has to be the master of the situation."

At the end of our interview, I couldn't resist asking Domscheit-Berg if Mr Schmitt had now recovered from this treatment. He laughed, and said: "He is doing good. He is recovering from the trauma. He is now with my parents where he can go out and hunt for mice and birds and stuff. Sometimes he is still a bit weird . . . but doing well other than that."

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

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How Labour activists are already building a digital strategy to win the next election

Momentum volunteers are developing, coding and designing online tools to get Jeremy Corbyn elected.

Part way through Momentum’s launch of its digital hub, participants join in with a “Clivestream” – a Google Hangout with the Labour MP Clive Lewis – projected on to a wall, calling in from a field at Tolpuddle Festival.

The stunt is intended to fuse the future of socialism with its deep historical roots. The festival is held annually to remember the 19th century Tolpuddle Martyrs, early trade union activists whose harsh treatment sparked massive protests. “[Tolpuddle] is often seen as a turning-point in the rights of working people,” says Lewis, before the call is briefly gate-crashed by an animal rights campaigner approaching from behind in a “Spanish Civil War Ale” T-shirt.

“In terms of what you guys are doing, you’re basically on the cutting-edge of 21st century socialism,” Lewis continues. “And its ability to be able to connect through to hundreds and thousands and millions of people. You’ve seen in the last election, how powerful the technology [is] and the growing impact it’s having on our democracy.”

The symbolism of the video link is not lost on those present.

“I think it’s really significant to have an MP livestream in from Tolpuddle, which is obviously a traditional left-wing event to commemorate the Tolpuddle Martyrs, livestreaming into an East London hackathon done by Momentum,” says Joe Todd, Momentum’s press and communications officer.

At the launch, a young and diverse group of around 60 volunteer coders, developers, and designers, meet at Newspeak House in Shoreditch – a “community space for political technologists”. Most are Londoners, but some have come from as far afield as Yorkshire, and even Paris. Momentum hopes to replicate this at regular events in different cities across the UK, as it aims to develop the technological tools to help Labour win the next election.

Although this officially isn’t until 2022, Momentum doesn’t want to be taken by surprise again if a general election is called early. The group built its carpool site to help activists know where to canvass, called My Nearest Marginal, in about a week when the last election was called. “No one slept, basically, for the whole of the campaign,” recalls Todd. "We went on an absolute bare-bones budget.”

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By planning a long-term digital strategy, Momentum hopes to improve on Labour’s 2017 election performance. Its social media team is developing tools to analyse the success of videos and posts among each demographic (one in three people on Facebook viewed its videos during the campaign), in order to expand its reach further.

The team is also building its own online payments system – it had been using PayPal, which charges a fixed fee, meaning “losing about a quarter of our donations to the one per cent”, according to digital officer and former Bernie Sanders staff member Erika Uyterhoeven. 

She is not the only former Sanders campaign worker interested in Corbynism. Supporters of the two left-wing politicians built a fruitful relationship during the election campaign, with activists coming over from the US to help train canvassers. Ben Packer, who helped code during the campaign, says: “I’m just trying to help people steal our stuff… Even though the issues are somewhat country specific, they’re analogous – you want a better National Health Service, we want some national health service; the tech is the same.”

He’s currently trying to build an app for Momentum that allows anyone to create an event, which will then appear to other members in the area.

Much of the technology being developed is used for internal Labour Party votes as well as external election campaigning – the phone bank app, for example.

Momentum members are currently being canvassed to vote in potentially crucial conference committee elections. Yet activists at the digital hub launch said such internal party organising won’t lead to deselection attempts.

Todd dismissed recent stories about a “deselection list” of MPs floated on a local Momentum branch’s Facebook group, saying it was “patently not a deselection plot”, and the story “really lowers journalistic standards”.

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Momentum’s membership is up to 27,500, from 5,000 before the leadership challenge to Corbyn last year. Add in Labour’s polling lead – the most recent YouGov survey put it eight points ahead of the Tories – and “momentum” is a feeling as well as a name.

The group thinks it has the Tories on the run, and finds the idea of the Conservatives copying its strategy laughable. “If you don’t have the political programme or the vision that mobilises people and makes them enthusiastic and passionate, the technology’s useless. So the Tories can steal it all they want,” says Todd.

However, he sees no prospect of this happening any time soon. Looking at Theresa May’s potential successors, he says: “Their most inspired choice seems to be David Davis, which is a real indictment of the party” (perhaps Davis could make “Momentum’s most inspired choice” his leadership election slogan).

The activists recognise criticisms as well. While the enthusiasm and expertise represented by the digital hub may well attract more young people, it seems less apparent that it would win over older working-class voters in the Midlands and North.

“There was a swing against Labour in some places, and I don’t think the strategy should be to replace those seats with seats in the South, it needs to be a coalition,” Todd acknowledges. Yet he argues that “Momentum’s a lot more than what you see today”, referring to members across the country who are “embedded in all sorts of communities”.

How closely this central structure of Momentum is linked with its members across the country is up for debate, especially after controversial constitutional changes earlier this year. Rida Vaquas – who wasn’t at the event but is a member of Momentum’s governing National Coordinating Group – argues: “There is very little way, if any, that local branches can co-ordinate Momentum’s national activity in line with their own work, as local branches are no longer represented in Momentum’s democratic structures.”

When asked whether they do a good job co-ordinating national social media activity with local branches, Harry from the social media team admits: “Not really, that’s something we need to work on”. Ruth Berry, digital officer, sees the Hub as a promising way for “communicating with our membership across the country”, as “local groups can now use this digital hub to feed into us what their problems are, and how they can be best fixed”.

In a recent article, Tony Blair panned the electoral offerings put forward by both sides in June – particularly as far as Brexit strategies were concerned – calling them “two competing visions of the 1960s”.

Still, the campaign being built at Momentum’s digital hub appears as innovative as it was electorally useful at the election. However, Berry is adamant that Momentum has no cause to be complacent now: “We haven’t won a general election yet, so our work isn’t done.”

Thomas Zagoria is a Danson Scholar studying History and Politics at St Anne's College Oxford. 

Rudy Schulkind is a Danson scholar who recently graduated in philosophy and politics from St Anne's College Oxford.