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The WikiLeaks Palace Revolt

Revolt or man overboard? A spectacle seen through the spectacles of Daniel Domscheit-Berg.

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Daniel Domscheit-Berg was with the WikiLeaks organisation just over two years. He started visiting the WikiLeaks chatroom and made inquiries about volunteering in 2007 and was finally given 'menial' tasks towards the end of the year. He met up with WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange at the Berlin Conference Centre in the last week of 2007, first greeting him at the spiral staircase as he tells it in his book.

Two years and nine months later, Daniel Domscheit-Berg was out of the organisation he wished he'd founded, after two unsuccessful attempts to yank control from Julian Assange and the WikiLeaks staff.

There have been many stories about what happened with WikiLeaks in the late summer/early autumn 2010, about who was involved and what they did, and most of these stories are incompatible with one another. Even Daniel Domscheit-Berg's story is incompatible with itself. But as Daniel Domscheit-Berg is at the epicentre of these events, as he's the cause of most if not all of them and likely the only player involved, and as he's going to portray himself in the best possible light, his own writings might be the best starting point for approaching the truth.

No one can damn Daniel Domscheit-Berg quite like he damns himself.


Julian and DDB traveled back to DDB's hometown Wiesbaden after the CCC conference at the BCC on New Year's Day 2008, both sick with the flu. Julian stayed with DDB off and on for two months. Those two months become the 'meat and cauliflower' of DDB's book on WikiLeaks.

The book is a sad experience, as related in The Life and Times of the Leberkäse Kid. Leberkäse is a particularly funky spam product popular with people in the south of Germany (and abhorred by everyone else). But DDB loves Leberkäse and ironically is turning into it - in the eyes of his countrymen.

Although much of DDB's book is about his conflicted (and conflicting) relationship with Julian and the WikiLeaks concept, he does deal with some actual events. The reader can follow him and Julian through the Bär controversy, through the fight with L Ron, through the Trafigura incident, and so forth.

Things are looking very good at the end of 2009. Julian and DDB once again guest the annual conference of the Chaos Computer Club in Berlin, get a standing ovation for their talk, and very much seem to be a dynamic duo. Yet things were to turn sour little more than a month later.

Julian and DDB join up with other WikiLeaks collaborators and meet on Iceland where they hole up in a hotel flat for a month. But by 5 February DDB has had it, is losing his cool, has shattered nerves, and runs out. He never meets with Julian again.

One month after their triumph in Berlin and Daniel Domscheit-Berg and Julian were no longer on good terms. Daniel had run from the group on Iceland. He felt himself returning to 'normal' back in Berlin, he'd run into his future wife, he more and more saw Iceland as something remote, and above all he understood intuitively he wasn't welcome back anymore. Daniel stayed on in the organisation with a limited role until August 2010 when he was further phased out, this time completely.

It's what happens between 5 February and 14 September 2010 that'll be interesting here. Particularly the month of August: things are put in motion by DDB that have come to be referred to as the mythical 'WikiLeaks Palace Revolt'.

But back on track. The year is 2009.

Daniel & The Benjamins (2009)

Julian took WikiLeaks offline early in 2010 to boost donations. And it worked. The organisation made over $200,000 in the first big push. This represented cash like never before. And Daniel's eyes popped.

So Daniel argued with Julian - argued about the money. Daniel always found something he didn't like, found a reason to challenge Julian's wisdom and way of running WikiLeaks, but most of all he argued about the money - he wanted it.

Daniel suggested splitting WikiLeaks into two parts - one for him in Germany and one for everyone else, including Julian, anywhere else in the world. He wanted exclusive control of the great bulk of donations to use as he saw fit.

Daniel was given authentication to withdraw money from the Wau Holland Foundation where WikiLeaks donations went. But he had a bad habit of doing things without checking with the others first. He admitted he'd taken somewhere between 15 and 20 thousand euros to buy new computer equipment for WikiLeaks, and also a German rail pass for €3,800. He also took 'advances' on his own expenses. Most of the time he didn't check with the others and consequently caused a lot of friction.

The following passage from his book is very telling in several aspects.

'The foundation advanced me money and I bought things and submitted the receipts. Once I received €10,000 and later on another occasion €20,000, which went to buy hardware and pay for transportation and travel costs. In late August we updated our infrastructure again.'

'When I left WikiLeaks in September 2010, the project was in the sort of technological shape I'd always dreamt of. We had Cryptophones, satellite pagers, and 'state of the art' servers - everything we needed. We were on solid footing and our architecture was exemplary.'

No one can damn Daniel Domscheit-Berg quite like he damns himself.

WikiMail in the Ruhr (2009)

A telling aspect of Daniel's tale concerns a WikiLeaks mail server set up in Germany's infamous Ruhr valley, an industrial area known to scare away the most hardened of heart. Things will improve over time as environmentalists get to speak their minds, but try to imagine smoke billowing out of a hundred smokestacks all at once, covering the sky and clouding out the sun. Yet it was here years earlier Daniel suggested putting up the WikiLeaks mail server - he and Julian packed all the computer gear they could afford into an automobile and then motored around the country, finding colocations for their network.

DDB was to get into real trouble with everyone in WikiLeaks for something he did with that mail server two years later - more precisely on 14 September 2010. DDB claims in his book that he needed to repair the server as it was 'ancient' and kept going down for the count.

There's something that doesn't add up there. DDB had only recently spent up to €20,000 on new computer hardware for WikiLeaks. He was proud that the organisation now had top class computer hardware. Yet what happened to the mail server? That server had their most precious work - their internal correspondence, external mail. That mail server was the life line of the organisation. Yet DDB didn't replace that 'ancient' box as he called it when he splurged €20,000 on new equipment? Why? Or is there something DDB isn't telling us in his book?

No one can damn Daniel Domscheit-Berg quite like he damns himself.

Nerves! (2010)

Things started going south for DDB on Iceland. He couldn't get along with anyone. The lack of sunlight affected him deeply - that happens to a lot of people, even Icelanders. But DDB showed the most wear and tear by far. DDB ran for it on 5 February 2010 when he could take it no longer.

Yet the irony is it's now WikiLeaks really takes off. The month of March was used to assemble their Collateral Murder video; shortly afterward they released the Afghan War Diaries. They were front page news all across the globe. But Daniel wasn't part of that news - he was no longer on the team.

The new WikiLeaks people were doing the amazing things now and they were doing them in a class like never before. Kristinn Hrafnsson and Ingi Ingason traveled to Iraq to meet with the victims of the helicopter attack. Everything was documented and a lot of time went into validating the video itself. The team included even a real founding member of The Pirate Bay. The clip was decrypted, edited, and readied for public consumption. Daniel Domscheit-Berg was nowhere around.

But it's getting ahead of one's story to call DDB 'Domscheit-Berg'. That's the name he goes by today - but it's not the name he used back then and it's not his real name either. DDB was known back then as Daniel Schmitt. He's a bit vague on why and how he chose a fake name. But he claims he named himself after his cat.

When he finally decided to come out about his breakup with WikiLeaks and contacted Spiegel, he made sure they ended his interview by asking him about his real name. Up to then he'd gone under what most people assumed was his real name. DDB is most likely only 'Daniel Berg' but even that's not a sure bet anymore.

It's impossible to understand what went on with DDB in August 2010 without knowing a bit about the person DDB himself. Although DDB writes his book as if he's a fly on the wall, he gives a lot away about who and what that fly is. DDB has so much to say about everyone and everything, not just Julian. And in so doing - in serving up too much information for the reader - he inadvertently exposes himself.

And yet DDB's break with WikiLeaks was much the same as his break with EDS only months earlier.

'Increasingly, my job was getting on my nerves. Investing my energies on behalf of my clients was leading me nowhere. What was the point of Opel producing more cars, or another of my customers boosting his turnover? That didn't make the world a better place.'

Nerves nerves nerves.

Interlude: What's in a (Fake) Name

Daniel never quite explains why he chose to use a fake name. There are a few references to the name in his book but none really explain why he did this. The first reference is the following.

'Of course, we ourselves were hardly free of this sort of self- referentiality: WikiLeaks was WL, Julian was J, I was S (for my alias last name Schmitt) and others on the team were also referred to by individual letters. There was an internal logic to the abbreviations. The more important someone was within WL, the shorter his nickname.'

A few chapters after that first mention he waxes a bit more revelatory.

'My pseudonym was Daniel Schmitt. That wasn't particularly creative - it was the name of my cat. But I hoped it would be good enough to keep the private detectives at bay. We had heard from other people that big banking houses didn't shy away from hiring a detective agency to shadow anyone who made their lives uncomfortable. I had no desire to be spied upon. Since the Julius Bär leak I've been stuck with my pseudonym. The press knew me only as Daniel Schmitt.'

No one else in the WikiLeaks organisation ever used a fake name.

Daniel consistently accuses Julian and the others of being paranoid - something he implies he never is. And yet when he figures out the Cablegate files are about to be released, he drops everything, rushes home to Anke's flat, and begins dumping anything that might remotely be construed as incriminating - this despite his being formally severed from the organisation.

At any rate: Daniel's official name is Domscheit-Berg. For now. And the cat's name is officially 'Herr Schmitt'. Though who can tell what tomorrow might bring.

Interlude: DDB's Background

Not much is known about DDB's background other than what he tells. And he's shy and doesn't tell much. EN Wikipedia's page says simply:

'Domscheit-Berg grew up in Germany.'

And later in a new section:

'He began working with WikiLeaks through his work with the Chaos Computer Club.'

DDB does admit to being a member of the CCC (who doesn't like paying his dues) but he never explains what he did there.

DE Wikipedia is a bit more informative.

Domscheit-Berg studierte ab 2002 angewandte Informatik [applied computer science] an der Berufsakademie Mannheim [State University of Cooperative Education Mannheim] und schloss sein Studium 2005 ab. Danach arbeitete er bis Januar 2009 bei Electronic Data Systems wo er bereits den Praxisteil des dualen Studiums absolviert hatte als Netzwerkingenieur. [He did an apprenticeship with EDS.] Sein beruflicher Schwerpunkt lag auf IT-Sicherheit und WLAN-Technologie. [He specialised in security and wireless technology.]

DE Wikipedia also mentions DDB was a spokesman for WikiLeaks 'after Julian Assange and Kristinn Hrafnsson'.

Daniel himself is the most informative - in a loose jawed interview with Wired from 2009 where he takes credit for the development of the entire galaxy we live in.

But who is behind Wikileaks? The site claims to have been founded by a concerned group of journalists, political dissidents and hackers. Curious to learn more, Wired travelled across Europe to track down the people behind the organisation.'

With a slow, lilting walk, weighed down by a laptop bag that is rarely out of his sight, Daniel 'Schmitt' - he won't give his real surname - sits down at a table in the rear of a café in central Italy. He got involved with Wikileaks prior to its launch in December 2006, he says, giving up his career, and salary, to work for the group. Born Daniel, he adopted the nom de plume 'Schmitt' after his cat, Mr Schmitt. His background is in computer security: he worked as a network engineer at an international technology-services company. He is cagey about his previous life and says it isn't relevant.

Dressed in his signature black shirt, combats and Doc Martens boots, he begins his explanation of what Wikileaks is. His words are guarded, almost rehearsed, and the more he talks, the more the syntax of his native German permeates his English.

'When we started, we thought we'd become the Intelligence Agency of the People', says Schmitt. 'There would be thousands of people involved, digging out the dirt on their governments. It would create a revolutionary spirit.'

The latest is DDB's claim he never took anything from WikiLeaks. That's a new one. So mix it all together: he says in his book he discovered the WikiLeaks site in the autumn of 2007, was given menial tasks in December, met Julian at the CCC conference in Berlin the same month, and started working more on the 'inside' the following month. Yet for Wired a year and a few months before that, he claimed he founded the organisation and had been with it since 2006.

This isn't a case of 'he says/he says' - two people with conflicting stories. This is a case of the same person - the one and same person - unable to make up his mind about the Truth of the Month™.

No one can damn Daniel Domscheit-Berg quite like he damns himself.

The Revolt (2010)

Daniel claims a lot of people were involved in the 'palace revolt' but that isn't at all clear. What's clear is that Herr Hyperbole was involved - perhaps him and no more. And on 25 August, just when Julian Assange was in the thick of it in Stockholm, he decided to strike. He waited until his opponent was at his weakest.

And what did he do? The way he excuses his behaviour in his book has such brio.

'Nothing major, nothing nasty. Just a symbolic act of protest.'

A 'symbolic act of protest'. The type of thing that's done all the time in corporations across the globe. The type of thing he did to his employer EDS. Only worse. Far worse. But it was major, it was nasty, and it's grounds for dismissal anywhere.

Deftly switching blame to others for what happened, DDB writes:

'On 25 August 2010 the architect and technician switched the system into maintenance mode.'

They evidently needed two people to pull the lever. Perhaps it was rusty.

'The submission system, the email system, and the chat room remained online. Only the wiki was down. We tweeted to say there was temporary maintenance work going on. We also changed the password for accessing the Twitter and email accounts.'

Nothing major, nothing nasty. DDB now gives his retrospective blessing to it all.

'We were trying to shake Julian up.'

So what happened? So how well planned was that 'nothing major, nothing nasty' 'symbolic act of protest'? Julian saw what happened and he did what any responsible administrator would do - he shut the whole thing down. That's the first thing you do in situations like that - stop activity on the system and conduct a thorough post mortem. DDB comments.

'We caved in almost immediately, restored the wiki, and gave him the passwords.'

There's a lot of detail missing. The 'we' is not a given no matter what. Julian couldn't have known DDB sabotaged the system that fast unless DDB told him. Something along the lines of the following, to quote from his chat with Julian the following day.

'BAHAHAHA you are not anyones king or god you behave like some emporer or slave trader haha.'

For Julian knew by later that same day 25 August who had done what to the system. And he confronted DDB in chat the following day. DDB tries to make out the topic is the release of the Iraq War Logs - something he's not involved in - but it's obvious from the context what's happening. DDB had also scheduled a leak to Newsweek for 26 August, so he was really in the thick of it.

DDB was suspended on very good grounds and was never reinstated. He'd been kept out of the innermost loops for all of the year because of his erratic unstable behaviour. But now this was it. He'd begged Julian for forgiveness in the past. Julian wasn't interested. And understandably so. He'd asked Julian to iterate what he was doing wrong. Julian told him the list was too long and it wouldn't help things anyway. So now a stupid temper tantrum - a 'symbolic act of protest'.

But 'nothing major, nothing nasty'. Of course not. It's the sort of thing mature people do all the time.

No one can damn Daniel Domscheit-Berg quite like he damns himself.

The Second Attack I (2010)

DDB is a loose cannon. The people at MI6 know how to deal with loose cannons. Take a look at 'Licence to Kill'. They give them a sedative and fly them home. DDB's not getting a sedative even if he needs a whole box.

DDB, more out of control all the time, will next target a critical piece of WikiLeaks infrastructure: the mail server located in the Ruhr valley. There are a number of things to keep in mind when reviewing this part of the DDB narrative.

  • DDB has already admitted (to Birgitta J and others and mentioned in his book) that he spent perhaps as much as €20,000 on new computer hardware. He's also stated he's very happy with the way things are with WikiLeaks hardware at this point - that this is the way he's always wanted it. Top drawer, current generation nuts and bolts.

  • Julian, not particularly confident in DDB anymore, blocked DDB from the mail server. DDB claims others were blocked too but again: that's not a given when one's dealing with fairytale weaver DDB.

  • DDB now claims the mail server crashed. That new piece of fantastic hardware DDB had purchased with unapproved funds from WikiLeaks donations? Not quite. DDB now has to tie conflicting versions of his story together.

  • DDB says 'a discussion commenced about whether I should go and repair it, something I had done on quite a few occasions in the past'. That's patently untrue, as any reader can see from the story that follows. The discussion did not include Julian, that's for sure, and most likely involved only DDB and the Man in the Mirror™. DDB certainly isn't naming names - he's not even using his pat 'architect and technician' to implicate others.

  • Furthermore, DDB was suspended, and no one working for WikiLeaks would have considered such a thing. And it's important to remember why DDB had been suspended: for sabotage. Would Kristinn and Ingi and the rest have seriously discussed the use of a suspended saboteur to repair a mail server - if something were in fact truly wrong with it?

  • How could DDB claim in his book he was so happy with the current WikiLeaks hardware he'd taken upon himself to upgrade - and then write in pseudo-casual fashion as he braces his reader for the next adventure:
    'It was the only server we hadn't updated.'

  • This adventure is going to take several days as DDB has to muster the courage. Feel for him.

The Second Attack II (2010)

The adventure now begins.

'On September 10 or 11, I got on a train. It was a very hot late-summer day. The train wasn't particularly full, and luckily, the few people in my open-seating compartment were all preoccupied with their own affairs. I spent the whole time typing in the chat window of my computer and tapping on the floor with my feet.'

Tap tap tap. Bojangles smiles.

'I continued the discussion in the chat room, unsure of whether I was doing the right thing.'

Discussion with who precisely? DDB names names when he needs to shift blame away from himself, but he doesn't like to name them when he wants to give the impression he's got everybody on his side. They might either appear too few or come out in public and deny it.

And don't buy a train ticket until you're sure, dude. Oh that's right: you already allocated €3800 from WikiLeaks donations for a year's rail pass.

'Should I in fact access the server without Julian's knowledge?'

So Julian is not involved. What a surprise. What a shocker.

'It was a matter of conscience: should we mutiny?'

So deftly put: there is no 'we', it's not a matter of conscience as DDB's type of actions aren't constructive anyway, and all this is really about is DDB not being able to keep his hands to himself and not trying to take over someone else's organisation.

Ask yourself this. Try to picture all that's transpired in the past year with WikiLeaks and Julian Assange, but now take Julian out of the pictures you see in your mind and put Daniel in there instead. How would Daniel handle the threat of a 'WTF' - WikiLeaks Task Force - out of Washington and Langley? How would he have measured up in conference after conference?

How would he have dealt with the death threats? With the suggestions his children be kidnapped?

Would Daniel ever have won Time's readers poll for person of the year? Would he have cornered an Amnesty award? The Sydney Peace Medal? Would you have listened to him speak? Be honest now.

Could Daniel have run the WikiLeaks organisation, dealt with the media, orchestrated the releases?

Daniel can't even stay on the train to sabotage the WikiLeaks mail server.

'After three hours I decided to turn around. I can't remember the name of the station, but as we pulled in I grabbed my backpack, pressed a button to open the train door, and jumped out onto the platform. It was like when you spot a police car in your rearview mirror and suddenly get the irrational feeling that you've done something wrong. That was the way I felt.'

Nerves of steel. Irrational feelings. Copyright © Daniel Domscheit-Berg. All rights reserved.

The Second Attack III (2010)

But he's gonna try again, folks!

'On 14 September I set off for the computer centre again. I switched off my cellphone and computer for the duration of the journey and did my best to read a book. I wanted to force myself to remain firm.'

Those irrational feelings can be devastating.

'I had tried to contact the person who had registered the server for us but hadn't managed to get in touch with him. He didn't know a lot about what had been going on recently, but he had reacted very sceptically when I had told him about my first trip.'

Aha. So there weren't really all that many people who approved of what you were doing or approved of you, were there?

'To him, it sounded as if we were doing something behind Julian's back.'

Sounded as if? Wherever did he get that idea?

'It didn't matter how many times I told him that I just wanted to get the server back up to speed again so we could continue our work.'

No it wouldn't. He's probably been warned about you. Or worse still: he knows you. And there's no way he can or should do anything but what he did. And for that matter: 'our work'? What work? You're out of all the loops.

So DDB somehow makes it all the way to the data centre with the brand new WikiLeaks server that somehow isn't brand new at all, despite DDB taking €20,000 without approval and somehow missing just this one server on his rogue spending spree.

And he enters the centre and is immediately struck by how no one reacts to him being there. He speculates it might be because he's been there so many times before to repair that very same mail server.

Hold on just a sec. That mail server was breaking down all the time? DDB mentions this several times in his narrative: the mail server kept breaking down and he kept taking the trip out to repair it.

How noble of him. So he had other servers that broke down more often? O RLY? For that must be the case if he actually did purchase computer hardware for that money (and not pocket it). In fact that would mean that each and every other WikiLeaks server prior to DDB's phenomenal upgrade was worse off than the mail server. And what are the odds of that?

'I waited impatiently for the server to boot up. My laptop was next to me. I was online, of course, and in touch with the others.'

Of course you were, DDB. You were only doing it for them. All the others in WikiLeaks except Julian of course. And Kristinn. And Ingi. And the new interns. And Gavin. And all the hundreds of volunteers worldwide. And... But yeah, everybody else.

'I didn't feel very comfortable.'

That's good to know, DDB, in more ways than one.

'It was much too hot in the data centre, and I was sweating. The air-conditioning unit was humming loudly, but pumping out far too little cool air. It was no wonder our ancient machine broke down.'

Ah that ancient machine. Yet far better than the rest before your super-upgrade. Don't complain, DDB.

Now someone from the data centre comes in to see what DDB is up to. Something's up. He comes and goes and comes back again. He's obviously not happy to see DDB there. He goes again, ostensibly to check the console to see what DDB is doing - better chance of getting a reliable answer. And now someone pops onto DDB's computer screen. Things are happening fast.

'What are you doing?'
'I'm here at the server.'
'I know. The centre informed me. What on earth are you up to?'
'Listen, I'm just carrying out repairs. I'm not doing anything that anyone should have a problem with.'
'I've been in contact with Julian. He freaked out.'
'He has no reason to.'

And so forth. What's amazing about DDB at this point is he doesn't see the obvious. What's even more amazing is he's so psychotic he doesn't understand how this is going to look in print in a book. He's suspended for sabotage - and he goes out to fix a mail server that shouldn't be broken? Unless he squandered the WikiLeaks donations money he took without approval?

DDB was even aghast that the other party in the above conversation didn't begin by saying 'hello'. How psychotic can psychotic be? Has the DDB of Iceland taken over the spirit of DDB of Berlin again?

You don't go fucking with somebody's mail server if you've already been suspended for fucking with their networks. Not unless you want to get permanently booted out of the organisation.

Which is what DDB must have realised would happen when he finally got back to Anke's flat and took more of her Prozac. For DDB didn't wait for the official reaction - he resigned the following day.

And he registered the OPENLEAKS domains (org, net, et al) two days after that.

Domain ID:D160176152-LROR
Created On:17-Sep-2010 20:06:16 UTC
Last Updated On:16-Dec-2010 00:32:45 UTC
Expiration Date:17-Sep-2011 20:06:16 UTC
Registrant Street1:Level 14, Perak Techno Trade Centre (PTTC)
Registrant Street2:Bandar Meru Raya, Off Jalan Jelapang
Registrant State/Province:Perak Darul Ridzuan
Registrant Postal Code:30020
Registrant Country:MY

No one can damn Daniel Domscheit-Berg quite like he damns himself.

Epilogue: Who Left, What DDB Stole (2010 - Present)

No one but DDB has yet to comment on what he stole from the WikiLeaks organisation. No one would have suspected him of being a thief if he hadn't mentioned it himself. The latest from DDB is that he didn't take anything at all.

DDB does say between the lines what the WikiLeaks Watership Down was all about - it wasn't a 'mass migration' at all.

'Why did the architect and I decide in the early morning hours of 15 September 2010 to quit WikiLeaks?'

Everyone knows why you quit WikiLeaks, DDB. You were up shit's creek worse than ever before, had absolutely no chance of being pardoned, had attempted to get back on good terms with everyone for over half a year, and had now been caught with your fingers in the till and your hands on the hardware. It was either quit or be sacked and publicly disgraced.

No one can damn Daniel Domscheit-Berg quite like he damns himself. The mythical 'WikiLeaks Palace Revolt' wasn't so much a revolt as a single deranged individual going berserk and wreaking havoc in an organisation.

Pathological liars always have great faith in their own honesty. That's what helps them lie.
 - Julian Assange
I was an incorrigible dreamer. A starry eyed idealist. It was time to wake up and smell the coffee.
 - Daniel Domscheit-Berg
You have fucked up in so many ways and you want me to enumerate them but what is the point if you can't see things for yourself?
 - Julian Assange to DDB May 2010
Anything I'd do differently? Yes. One staff hire.
 - Julian Assange

Further Reading
The Technological: Daniel Domscheit-Berg: The Reviews
Rixstep Industry Watch: Schmitt Suspended from WikiLeaks
The Technological: The Life and Times of the Leberkäse Kid

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