A WikiLeaks Family Feud Erupts on Twitter

As revelations about the National Security Agency’s intelligence gathering activities continue to trickle out, the ghost of Julian Assange has begun to haunt the activists and journalists fighting back against the all-mighty NSA. On Thursday, a Twitter spat broke out among a group of former WikiLeaks activists who are now at the forefront of the ...

Stefan Wermuth-WPA Pool/Getty Images
Stefan Wermuth-WPA Pool/Getty Images

As revelations about the National Security Agency’s intelligence gathering activities continue to trickle out, the ghost of Julian Assange has begun to haunt the activists and journalists fighting back against the all-mighty NSA.

On Thursday, a Twitter spat broke out among a group of former WikiLeaks activists who are now at the forefront of the Snowden revelations, a fight that’s exposing the degree to which Assange continues to loom over a new generation of activist journalism. According to Jacob Appelbaum, a former WikiLeaks associate, the Guardian is sitting on a story about how the NSA handles Tor, the premier application for protecting user anonymity online. On Thursday Appelbaum attacked an editor for the paper and another WikiLeaks alum, James Ball, for refusing to show Appelbaum, a Tor developer, the documents behind that story.

What exactly the Snowden files reveal about the NSA and Tor is, at this point, unclear. But recently-released documents show that the NSA has actively worked to undermine tools for anonymous communication online. Tools like Tor, in other words.

With Tor potentially compromised by the world’s premier intelligence organization, a minor fight in one corner of the Twittersphere is illuminating just how divided Assange’s protégés are about how to carry out investigative journalism in the digital age. Welcome to the front lines of the war between the fourth and fifth estates.

Here’s how that fight played out:

Besides personal animosity, the central question of this debate between two former WikiLeaks employees — one now reporting on the Snowden documents, the other figuring out ways to protect privacy online — is animated by the following question: To what extent should journalistic organizations make public secret documents that they have obtained? Over the long course of the Snowden revelations, the Guardian has shown itself willing to redact large portions of the documents it has obtained and has declined to publish others in their entirety. That philosophy deeply rankles activists like Appelbaum and rejects the radical transparency espoused by WikiLeaks.

So why does an internecine fight on Internet politics even matter? In taking his documents to the Glenn Greenwald and the Guardian, Snowden in a sense rebuked Assange and his journalistic methods. By creating a repository for secret, searchable documents, Assange hoped to inspire a revolution in journalism — but that revolution didn’t quite work out as planned. Assange’s decision to make public huge troves of sensitive documents tainted him. Viewed as a pariah and an activist unwilling to consider the security implications of publishing secret cables and battlefield reports, Assange’s reputation plummeted — a fact helped in no small part by the sexual assault charges leveled against him. But Assange’s methods presented a further problem: Publishing huge archives just wasn’t splashy enough, as his audience had neither the attention span nor the expertise to make sense of millions of documents. As made clear by his decision to go to the Guardian, Snowden absorbed all these lessons, taking his documents instead to Glenn Greenwald.

The journalists pushing the Snowden story forward now find themselves in a strange place. Given his central role in helping Snowden attain asylum in Moscow and his position as a founding member of what might be called transparency movement, Assange remains a central figure, especially in light of the revelations about the NSA. He retains the ability to make news and has access to Snowden — about as hot a commodity possible in the world of Internet activism. At the same time, the journalists reporting on the Snowden documents have largely disavowed Assange’s methods. At once, they are both indebted to his work and hesitant to be associated with him. Greenwald, who for years publicly trumpeted WikiLeaks’ cause, said in a Tweet to Tom Cooper that Assange’s methods are downright "dumb."*

That sense of disillusionment is rampant among the journalists working on the Snowden story. In a May essay for the Daily Beast, Ball, the journalist whom Appelbaum attacked Thursday, described WikiLeaks as "an organization crumbling under pressure, crossing ethical boundaries, and placing people needlessly in danger." Assange, Ball believes, has become twisted by the experience of running WikiLeaks. "Julian Assange has become everything he originally, rightly, despised," Ball wrote.

Appelbaum, however, remains something of an evangelist for WikiLeaks and illustrates the deep divide between establishment journalists and digital activists, a division sometimes referred to as the difference between the fourth and fifth estate. (The forthcoming Assange biopic with Benedict Cumberbatch in the starring role is title "The Fifth Estate.") Whereas mainstream outlets are content to report on the general outlines of government activity and disclose only parts of the documents they have obtained, members of the so-called fifth estate want them to go further and release documents in their entirety. Concessions to government requests not to release certain information that might damage national security are, in Appelbaum’s words, censorship.

But for activists like Appelbaum, the stakes of this debate are also deeply personal. For years, they have been engaged in a struggle to set up an Internet free of government surveillance, and documents like those provided by Snowden are key to that struggle. Tor, for example, was recently penetrated by federal agents in taking down the head of Freedom Hosting, which served as a hub for child pornography. In that operation, FBI agents used a so-called "zero day exploit" to compromise Tor’s anonymizing features. If the NSA has figured out other ways to do the impossible — determine user identities on the Tor network — Appelbaum and his colleague’s have a lot of work to do deliver on the promise of their system.

As a result of this ongoing debate, the ghost of Assange is hovering the background of the Snowden story. He hasn’t completely gotten his way — his revolution in journalism remains a far way off — but he’s still, even from the confines of the Ecuadorean embassy in London, able to weirdly define the terms of the debate.

At the very least, he’s haunting the dreams of intelligence officials scared stiff of what will be leaked next.

Update: Oct. 4, 2013, 9:45 a.m.

In a tweet Friday morning, Greenwald pushed back on this story to say that he remains a supporter of WikiLeaks’ "pioneering methods." Appelbaum pushed back as well, arguing that this story did not state why he is interested in the Guardian article on Tor: that a "delay may be harmful to Tor users."



*Clarification: In a tweet describing document dumps as "dumb," Glenn Greenwald was addressing himself to Tom Cooper, not Asher Wolf or Jacob Appelbaum.

Elias Groll is a staff writer at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @EliasGroll

 Twitter: @KatelynFossett

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