New Orleans I realize this might seem to be a contrarian position, but as an organizer I totally understand – and support — the complex and intricate structure devised by Julian Assange and his associates at Wikileaks. I realize there is some uproar and even internal dissension among the Wikileakers about some of the decisions made in the acquisition and distribution of information of war reports from Afghanistan, and Assange may very well have made some wrong calls there, but in the main I think there should be a “fair use of available weapons of dissent” doctrine on both sides of the dispute when thousands of lives are at stake in pressurizing an important debate about the war, and therefore it’s a public service. We should talk more about that some other time, because now I want to argue that this guy, Julian Assange, should get some slack while he’s under pressure and on the run.
Where I think Assange was unequivocally correct is in creating an opaque organizational and financial structure in order to protect the mission of Wikileaks and its ability to exist and survive against wilting and strenuous legal and governmental attack. Some of this stuff is simply brilliant. Some of it may be totally paranoid. On any level it’s a case study on how to at least think about constructing operational opposition formations.
According to a piece in the Wall Street Journal a couple of months (8/23/10) part of the strategy involves incorporating and registering Wikileaks in different countries under different auspices that provide maximum protection under the laws of these countries: a library in Australia, a foundation in France, and a newspaper in Sweden, and two no-name tax exempt 501c3 non-profits in the United States are some examples. Many of the releases of documents for a while were based in Iceland where laws are extremely protective of speech. All of those moves are simply to protect the organization. There’s no question that creating a federation and registering separately in all of the countries where ACORN International worked was valuable in much the same way, both internally and externally, in protecting the work.
The night moves necessary to protect donors and the location of servers and internet hook-ups are even more extreme and almost unworkable it would seem in practice. First they have an “account” at a foundation in Germany called Wau Holland Foundation. In German law donors names cannot be publicly disclosed, which is very interesting, especially given the controversy right now in the US on donors in the current midterm elections. On the other hand the Wau Holland Foundation only releases money by invoice to Wikileaks, so although Wikileaks encourages contributions to the foundation, the process of redeeming the money must be an accounting nightmare, always leaving a bigger balance than expended. In addition the invoices to Wilileaks, according to Assange, are bundled up by other “foundations” to disguise the vendors. He may be gilding the lily a bit there. The bookkeeper or whoever is handling this for Wikileaks is likely as indispensible, if not more so, than Assange as the founder and spokesperson for the operation!
When this is working it probably only is doing so because the operation is relatively small with a volunteer core of 40 and a budget Assange and his crew claim is hardly $1 million USD per year, which is nothing to sneeze at of course, but is small in the way of these things. The Wau Holland Foundation claims that Wikileaks only needs $200,000 USD to keep the whole operation up and running, which is an easier mountain to both climb and protect in this byzantine fashion.
The process for donors to give is also challenging. PayPal is a main conduit, which works well enough it appears. They also tout two others services, one in the UK called Moneybookers, which seems to have been abandoned, and the other Flattr.com in Sweden, that seems jazzed to help Wikileaks, which must be reassuring to them. I found Flattr.com fascinating, but I’m not totally clear I understand it, and the website is friendly in a smile and grin way, but not really in a user-friendly way. The bottom line seems to be that an organization would put a Flattr.com button on their site, and a donor would allocate a certain amount of money to an “account” and then “flattr” various groups on a monthly or whatever basis that it wanted to support. It’s worth checking out more thoroughly, though it may be a localized site with more popularity in Sweden than elsewhere.
For all of the press reports about internal dissension in the Wikileaks ranks, I wonder if the root cause of this problem isn’t the more prosaic, but frequently deadly, issue of money itself. There have been reports that there is an internal discussion about paying the volunteers, which in any organizational transition would create tension between those about to be paid and those who think their volunteer service is less valued and would remain unpaid, and parties on both sides would hold Assange, as founder and director, responsible for their unhappiness and any felt inequity. Additionally, the Journal reported that the proposal under discussion within Wikileaks this summer was to pay 5 people which Assange said would raise the cost of operating Wikileaks by 600,000 Euros ($841,859.00). Five folks would go from volunteers on the run or under cover to pretty high clover with six-figure salaries, and I would bet money there was has been some big league dissension internally about such salaries and what it means to the future of the organization.
Hopefully they can keep this whole thing up in the air, because it seems both wildly inventive and essential, and equally delicate and fragile.