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11 February 2011

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".

By Helen Lewis

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).

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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.”