Assange: “WikiLeaks is the intelligence agency of the people”

The site chief discusses radical journalism and WikiLeaks’s main threat in an exclusive <em>New Stat

In an exclusive essay for the New Statesman, the editor-in-chief of WikiLeaks, Julian Assange, argues that the whistleblowing website is a return to the days of the once-popular radical press. He also discusses why the New York Times dislikes the website and reveals the biggest threat to WikiLeaks today.

"WikiLeaks is part of an honourable tradition that expands the scope of freedom by trying to lay 'all the mysteries and secrets of government' before the public," writes Assange, who compares WikiLeaks to the pamphleteers of the English civil war and the radical press of the early 20th century. "We are, in a sense, a pure expression of what the media should be: an intelligence agency of the people, casting pearls before swine."

Assange argues that the New York Times's hostility to WikiLeaks stems from the newspaper's illiberal tradition of failing to back organisations or figures that challenge established elites. He highlights the newspaper's failure to support the American pacifist and anti-war campaigner Eugene Debs, who was imprisoned for ten years for making an anti-war speech in 1918.

"The New York Times, true to form, had been calling for [Debs's] imprisonment for more than two decades, saying in an editorial of 9 July 1894 that Debs was 'a lawbreaker at large, an enemy of the human race. There has been quite enough talk about warrants against him and about arresting him,' " writes Assange. "Seen within this historical perspective, the New York Times's performance in the run-up to the US-led invasion of Iraq, and its hostile attitude to WikiLeaks today, are not surprising."

In its major leaks, the website only agreed to work with the NYT, among others, "for reasons of realpolitik", according to Assange.

WikiLeaks is able to succeed because, unlike many of its forebears, it does not rely on advertisers, he continues. "As well as the hostility of governments, popular grass-roots publishers have had to face the realities of advertising as a source of revenue. [T]he Daily Herald . . . was forced to close despite being among the 20 largest-circulation dailies in the world, because its largely working-class readers did not constitute a lucrative advertising market."

WikiLeaks has other problems, however, writes Assange: "How do we deal with an extrajudicial financial blockade by Bank of America, Visa (including Visa Europe, registered in London), MasterCard, PayPal, Western Union, the Swiss PostFinance, Moneybookers and other finance companies, all keen to curry favour with Washington?"

To read the piece in full, pick up a copy of this week's New Statesman, on news-stands from Thursday, or click here to subscribe to the magazine.

Show Hide image

Can Trident be hacked?

A former defence secretary has warned that Trident is vulnerable to cyber attacks. Is it?

What if, in the event of a destructive nuclear war, the prime minister goes to press the red button and it just doesn't work? 

This was the question raised by Des Browne, a former defence secretary, in an interview witht the Guardian this week. His argument, based on a report from the defence science board of the US Department of Defense, is that the UK's Trident nuclear weapons could be vulnerable to cyberattacks, and therefore rendered useless if hacked. 

Browne called for an "end-to-end" assessment of the system's cybersecurity: 

 The government ... have an obligation to assure parliament that all of the systems of the nuclear deterrent have been assessed end-to-end against cyber attacks to understand possible weak spots and that those weak spots are protected against a high-tier cyber threat. If they are unable to do that then there is no guarantee that we will have a reliable deterrent or the prime minister will be able to use this system when he needs to reach for it.

Is he right? Should we really be worried about Trident's potential cyber weaknesses?

Tangled webs 

The first, crucial thing to note is that Trident is not connected to the "internet" we use every day. Sure, it's connected to the main Ministry of Defence network, but this operates totally independently of the network that you visit Facebook through. In cyber-security terms, this means the network is "air-gapped" - it's isolated from other systems that could be less secure. 

In our minds, Trident is old and needs replacing (the submarines began patrolling in the 1990s), but any strike would be ordered and co-ordinated from Northwood, a military bunker 100m underground which would use the same modern networks as the rest of the MoD. Trident is basically as secure as the rest of the MoD. 

What the MoD said

I asked the Ministry of Defence for a statement on Trident's security, and while it obviously can't offer much information about how it all actually works, a spokesperson confirmed that the system is air-gapped and added: 

We wouldn't comment on the detail of our security arrangements for the nuclear deterrent but we can and do safeguard it from all threats including cyber.

What security experts said

Security experts agree that an air-gapped system tends to be more secure than one connected to the internet. Sean Sullivan, a security adviser at F-secure, told Infosecurity magazine that while some hackers have been able to "jump" air-gaps using code, this would cause "interference" at most and a major attack of this kind is still "a long way off". 

Franklin Miller, a former White House defence policy offer, told the Guardian that the original report cited by Browne was actually formulated in response to suggestions that some US defence networks should be connected to the internet. In that case, it actually represents an argument in favour of the type of air-gapped system used by the MoD. 

So... can it be hacked?

The answer is really that any system could be hacked, but a specialised, independent defence network is very, very unlikely to be. If a successful hack did happen, it would likely affect all aspects of defence, not just Trident. That doesn't mean that every effort shouldn't be made to make sure the MoD is using the most secure system possible, but it also means that scaremongering in the context of other, unrelated cybersecurity scares is a little unjustified. 

Barbara Speed is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman and a staff writer at CityMetric.