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.

GERRY BRAKUS
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“Like a giant metal baby”: whether you like it or not, robots are already part of our world

For centuries, we have built replacements for ourselves. But are we ready to understand the implications?

There were no fireworks to dazzle the crowd lining the streets of Alexandria to celebrate Cleopatra’s triumphant return to the city in 47BC. Rather, there was a four-and-a-half-metre-tall robotic effigy of the queen, which squirted milk from mechanical bosoms on to the heads of onlookers. Cleopatra, so the figure was meant to symbolise, was a mother to her people.

It turns out that robots go back a long way. At the “Robots” exhibition now on at the Science Museum in London, a clockwork monk from 1560 walks across a table while raising a rosary and crucifix, its lips murmuring in devotion. It is just one of more than 100 exhibits, drawn from humankind’s half-millennium-long obsession with creating mechanical tools to serve us.

“We defined a robot as a machine which looks lifelike, or behaves in lifelike ways,” Ben Russell, the lead curator of the exhibition, told me. This definition extends beyond the mechanisms of the body to include those of the mind. This accounts for the inclusion of robots such as “Cog”, a mash-up of screws, motors and scrap metal that is, the accompanying blurb assures visitors, able to learn about the world by poking at colourful toys, “like a giant metal baby”.

The exhibits show that there has long existed in our species a deep desire to rebuild ourselves from scratch. That impulse to understand and replicate the systems of the body can be seen in some of the earliest surviving examples of robotics. In the 16th century, the Catholic Church commissioned some of the first anthropomorphic mechanical machines, suggesting that the human body had clockwork-like properties. Models of Jesus bled and automatons of Satan roared.

Robots have never been mere anatomical models, however. In the modern era, they are typically employed to work on the so-called 4D tasks: those that are dull, dumb, dirty, or dangerous. A few, such as Elektro, a robot built in Ohio in the late 1930s, which could smoke a cigarette and blow up balloons, were showmen. Elektro toured the US in 1950 and had a cameo in an adult movie, playing a mechanical fortune-teller picking lottery numbers and racehorses.

Nevertheless, the idea of work is fundamental to the term “robot”. Karel Čapek’s 1920s science-fiction play RUR, credited with introducing the word to the English language, depicts a cyborg labour force that rebels against its human masters. The Czech word robota means “forced labour”. It is derived from rab, which means “slave”.

This exhibition has proved timely. A few weeks before it opened in February, a European Parliament commission demanded that a set of regulations be drawn up to govern the use and creation of robots. In early January, Reid Hoffman and Pierre Omidyar, the founders of LinkedIn and eBay respectively, contributed $10m each to a fund intended to prevent the development of artificial intelligence applications that could harm society. Human activity is increasingly facilitated, monitored and analysed by AI and robotics.

Developments in AI and cybernetics are converging on the creation of robots that are free from direct human oversight and whose impact on human well-being has been, until now, the stuff of science fiction. Engineers have outpaced philosophers and lawmakers, who are still grappling with the implications as autonomous cars roll on to our roads.

“Is the world truly ready for a vehicle that can drive itself?” asked a recent television advert for a semi-autonomous Mercedes car (the film was pulled soon afterwards). For Mercedes, our answer to the question didn’t matter much. “Ready or not, the future is here,” the ad concluded.

There have been calls to halt or reverse advances in robot and AI development. Stephen Hawking has warned that advanced AI “could spell the end of the human race”. The entrepreneur Elon Musk agreed, stating that AI presents the greatest existential threat to mankind. The German philosopher Thomas Metzinger has argued that the prospect of increasing suffering in the world through this new technology is so morally awful that we should cease to build artificially intelligent robots immediately.

Others counter that it is impossible to talk sensibly about robots and AI. After all, we have never properly settled on the definitions. Is an inkjet printer a robot? Does Apple’s Siri have AI? Today’s tech miracle is tomorrow’s routine tool. It can be difficult to know whether to take up a hermit-like existence in a wifi-less cave, or to hire a Japanese robo-nurse to swaddle our ageing parents.

As well as the fear of what these machines might do to us if their circuits gain sentience, there is the pressing worry of, as Russell puts it, “what we’re going to do with all these people”. Autonomous vehicles, say, could wipe out the driving jobs that have historically been the preserve of workers displaced from elsewhere.

“How do we plan ahead and put in place the necessary political, economic and social infrastructure so that robots’ potentially negative effects on society are mitigated?” Russell asks. “It all needs to be thrashed out before it becomes too pressing.”

Such questions loom but, in looking to the past, this exhibition shows how robots have acted as society’s mirrors, reflecting how our hopes, dreams and fears have changed over the centuries. Beyond that, we can perceive our ever-present desires to ease labour’s burden, to understand what makes us human and, perhaps, to achieve a form of divinity by becoming our own creators. 

This article first appeared in the 23 March 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump's permanent revolution