Daniel Domscheit-Berg, OpenLeaks founder. (photo: re:publica 2011)

(update w/ correction)

Daniel Domscheit-Berg (DDB), founder of OpenLeaks who defected from the media organization WikiLeaks last year, has apparently destroyed a cache of documents he stole from WikiLeaks when he left the organization. According to reporter Holger Stark of the German news organization Der Spiegel, Domscheit-Berg told Stark some time on August 20 that the cache was gone forever.

On August 19, DDB confirmed to another German news organization, Heise, that he would be destroying at least “3000 unpublished private whistleblower communications.” DDB said before taking the risk for the sources that submitted material to WikiLeaks he wanted to be on the safe side. He indicated the files would, under supervision of a notary, be deleted. The deletion would also be confirmed with an affidavit.

He inexcusably decided the files and the encryption keys for the cache would have to be deleted and that those who had submitted documents to WikiLeaks would have to send the material again.

Der Spiegel reports on the contents:

…In the data base was among other things, the so-called “no-fly list” of the U.S. government, on which the names of suspects were listed, which are prohibited from entering an aircraft. Assange said the material would also have insider information from 20 right-wing organizations.

On August 20, WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange immediately reacted to news of the cache’s destruction, “WikiLeaks does not record or retain source identifying information, however the claimed destruction of documents entrusted to WikiLeaks between January 2010 and August 2010 demands the revelation of inside information so sources can make their own risk assessments.”

Assange describes how DDB entered into a relationship with the woman he is now married to, Anke Domscheit-Berg. Anke was “Director of Government Relations” for Microsoft Germany. Daniel moved into Anke’s house in Berlin in 2010 and began to live more openly “without any counter-intelligence cover.” That led WikiLeaks to issue a “policy directive” that Daniel would no longer be permitted to come in contact with “source material.”

Daniel and Anke married. And following their marriage:

DDB secretly, and in clear violation of WikiLeaks internal security directives, recorded internal WikiLeaks encrypted “chat” conversations. He initially publicly denied having done so, but attempted to place many of these recordings into his ghostwritten book, most of which were rejected by his publishers’ lawyers as violations of German privacy law. Others he secretly conveyed to hostile media, such as Wired magazine, which had been involved in the arrest and persecution of US intelligence analyst Bradley Manning.

Assange goes on to claim that a “Western intelligence officer” told him Daniel has been in contact with the FBI. He adds Anke was in contact with the CIA when she worked for McKinsey & Company, a consulting group. Assange doesn’t jump to conclusions but supplies the information to cast further doubt on the character and motives of a man that has clearly displayed malice toward WikiLeaks in the past months.

DDB Thrown Out of Top German Hacker Club

Just one week ago, DDB was thrown out of the Chaos Computer Club (CCC) for trying to exploit the group for his own ends. Der Spiegel interviewed Andy Müller-Maguhn, the group’s spokesperson, on why the group had lost faith in DDB and his OpenLeaks project. The group’s leaders tried to mediate the situation between him and WikiLeaks over the documents he had taken, he refused to cooperate. They also rejected DDB’s plans to have (CCC) test and give OpenLeaks a “seal of approval.”

Müller-Maguhn told Der Spiegel:

For 11 months, I have tried to intercede between Julian Assange and Daniel, because I know them both and I believe the idea of a whistleblowing platform is right. When Domscheit-Berg left WikiLeaks amid conflict there, he also took the archive and unpublished submissions with him. He said that he had no plans to use the material for himself or OpenLeaks. But now I have my doubts about that. I have put lots of patience and discussion into this. Still, flimsy excuses have led to unbelievable delays in the handover of the archive. I can no longer believe in his willingness to hand over the unpublished material either.

Müller-Maguhn’s reservations have turned out to be correct. DDB did not just steal from WikiLeaks; he appears to have destroyed everything he took in a move that may have whistleblowers thinking twice about submitting material to leak organizations.

Human Rights Lawyer: “I Trusted and Contributed to WikiLeaks,” Not OpenLeaks

DDB’s decision to take it upon himself to “liberate” a cache of files from WikiLeaks has implications beyond the fact that he has now destroyed them. Even if he had not deleted the cache, Renata Avila, a human rights and information rights lawyer who works in Central America, wrote a letter detailing how she gave documents to WikiLeaks when she stayed at DDB’s home in May 2009.

Before leaving I gave WikiLeaks some documents detailing proof of torture and government abuse of a Latin America country. The documents were only in hard copy. I entrusted those valuable documents – the only copy available - to Wikileaks because of the expertise of the people running it, their procedures and the mechanisms they used to maximize impact when published. I did not intend to give such material to Mr. Domscheit-Berg personally, as was made clear to him by me at the time. My intention was to give it to the platform I trusted and contributed to; to WikiLeaks. The material has not been published and I am disturbed to read public statements by Mr. Domscheit-Berg in which he states that he has not returned such documents to WikiLeaks.

Avila’s letter contains many revelations on DDB and definitely affirms many of the claims Assange and WikiLeaks have made about DDB (claims which the press and various others have suggested were false and simply a result of bad blood between DDB, Assange and WikiLeaks). Upon announcement from DDB that he would launch an OpenLeaks project, Avila had two questions. Would “those behind the new platform have access to copies and they intend to publish documents people like me sent to WikiLeaks”? If this was going to be case, Avila concluded it would be “wrong and largely disrespectful of the will of the sources” because thow who sent the documents wanted WikiLeaks to publish them.

Avila also asked if OpenLeaks would be requesting permission to publish the documents from those who had submitted them. “Is it legitimate to free ride on the trust of people like me have in WikiLeaks?” It appears DDB and all those affiliated with the OpenLeaks project have provided Avila and others an answer: They aren’t going to “ride on the trust of people” but, instead of returning the documents to WikiLeaks so whistleblowers can be respected, destroy everything and start from scratch, with the hope that people somehow still have faith in the organization and submit “leaks.”

Leaks Darling’s True Character Finally Exposed to World

For the past months, media have held up DDB and his OpenLeaks as a solid alternative to WikiLeaks—a project that would do “what WikiLeaks is trying to do without the drama.” He has been a darling to the press, someone organizations like PBS have put on a pedestal to show what someone who wants to be “responsible” with leaks can do versus “rogue” Julian Assange, who has no regard for national security or how releases might put innocent people at risk.

People who loathe Julian Assange, like David Leigh of The Guardian, held OpenLeaks up as this venture that would be more “transparent and democratic” than WikiLeaks. They lauded the fact that it would work “alongside mainstream media” and not work to expose how the press is complicit in covering up numerous crimes and wrongdoing committed by governments in the world. They celebrated the fact that OpenLeaks would only “clean” leaks so they could be submitted safely and anonymously online and the leaks would be turned over to newspapers and broadcasters.

Micah Sifry, author of WikiLeaks & the Age of Transparency, has detailed with clarity why he has problems with WikiLeaks and Julian Assange. In the final chapter of his book, he explains, based on an experience, Assange is hard to work with and has autocratically managed WikiLeaks. Sifry questions the “tight editorial control and promotion of the Collateral Murder video and website” asking, “Who is making the editorial decisions and why should whistleblowers trust that their information is will be used appropriately and fairly?” He criticizes how WikiLeaks is prone to conflict with media partners. And, he casts doubt on Assange’s ultimate goals for the project.

This is what Sifry has publicly discussed at panel discussions like the 2011 Personal Democracy forum in New York. He has been part of a group of people, who think WikiLeaks has a problem because they are not accountable to anyone and just do whatever they want with material in their possession. This is what a supporter of WikiLeaks (and someone whom I have had the pleasure of meeting in person) has concluded.

Supporters of the concept behind WikiLeaks have suggested the organization has run its course. They have turned to DDB believing his project could get right what WikiLeaks got wrong the first time. Unlike opponents of WikiLeaks (some which have suggested WikiLeaks be designated a terrorist organization and Assange be assassinated), they genuinely believe in the cause of transparency and open government but appear to dislike the way that confronting governments and institutions seems to mar the efficiency of WikiLeaks’ operations.

This recent action by DDB means those who have suggested OpenLeaks is a valuable “alternative” to WikiLeaks can no longer in good conscience elevate DDB’s project as a credible project that can do what WikiLeaks set out to do. If they think the information WikiLeaks has belongs to the public and not WikiLeaks and are angry with Assange and WikiLeaks because material is not being released fast enough, then they must be equally appalled by DDB’s decision to grant himself the authority to decide the cache of files he stole from WikiLeaks must be destroyed.

The Work of WikiLeaks Will Continue

There has been a long line of attempts to delegitimize and further isolate the organization. WikiLeaks has been accused of endangering lives yet nobody has quantified or provided exact evidence that any persons have been endangered. In many cases, they have been told what they are doing is not journalism. The organization, instead, has had its staff members categorized by the media as a group of “sources,” which means Assange is “a source” and Assange and all those linked to WikiLeaks are much more vulnerable to prosecution from governments especially the US government. And, they have been in the crosshairs of US agencies like the CIA, the Pentagon, the FBI, the State Department, the Justice Department and the ASIO and ASIS in Australia.

In the face of all this, WikiLeaks has somehow managed to forge a number of media partnerships. It has grown in popularity. And, WikiLeaks has helped energize struggles around secrecy and open government that were weak prior to WikiLeaks.

Julian Assange and its staff have stood up in the face of efforts to delegitimize, isolate, sabotage and smear WikiLeaks. DDB didn’t just take files and the files’ encryption keys but he also allegedly damaged the WikiLeaks’ submission system in such a way that WikiLeaks has not been able to receive new leaks.

This is what any legitimate and effective leaks organization can expect. This is what DDB could no longer stand—confrontation and being in the crosshairs of power—and so he developed a project that would seek to work with the system instead of outside the system.

As one supporter of WikiLeaks said on Twitter following the news, “If I was a repressive autocrat or a corporate criminal, little would make me happier than a leak org covering my tracks for me.” Another accused DDB of “ransacking our historical record. (Not surprisingly, Adrian Lamo, who turned accused WikiLeaks whistleblower Bradley Manning into authorities, defended DDB’s decision to destroy the files.)

Anyone who knows what is at stake when someone leaks documents or information should understand DDB committed a crime against whistleblowers. OpenLeaks should now be dead on arrival.

UPDATE

Correction: WikiLeaks asserts 3000 unpublished whistleblower communications were destroyed by DDB, not 3000 documents. This is much worse and definitely different than saying 3000 documents.

WikiLeaks confirmed on Twitter on Sunday that the cache included the following: US intercept arrangements for over a hundred internet companies and 5 GB of files from the Bank of America. People asking when WikiLeaks will release the Bank of America data has become a regular occurrence. Now, if what WikiLeaks says is true, there will never be a release of BofA data and the Big Bank can now breathe one giant sigh of relief.

Early in July, Assange claimed at an event at the Frontline Club WikiLeaks was under a “kind of blackmail” over leaked Bank of America documents. Is DDB having the files what Assange made a veiled reference to when he said they were under a “kind of blackmail”?

For the latest on WikiLeaks, follow me on Twitter  at @kgosztola