::fibreculture:: wikileaks story
geert at xs4all.nl
Sun May 23 09:17:44 CEST 2010
The secret life of Wikileaks founder Julian Assange
May 22, 2010
Setting knowledge free ... Julian Assange, the only self-identified
employee of the Wikileaks website.
Julian Assange, the man behind the world's biggest leaks, believes in
total openness and transparency - except when it comes to himself.
Nikki Barrowclough tracked him down.
Julian Assange has never publicly admitted that he's the brains behind
Wikileaks, the website that has so radically rewritten the rules in
the information era. He did, however, register a website, Leaks.org,
in 1999. ''But then I didn't do anything with it.''
Wikileaks appeared on the internet three years ago. It acts as an
electronic dead drop for highly sensitive or secret information: the
pure stuff, in other words, published straight from the secret files
to the world. No filters, no rewriting, no spin. Created by an online
network of dissidents, journalists, academics, technology experts and
mathematicians from various countries, the website also uses
technology that makes the original sources of the leaks untraceable.
In April the website released graphic, classified video footage of an
American helicopter gunship firing on and killing Iraqis in a Baghdad
street in 2007, apparently in cold blood. The de-encrypted video,
which Wikileaks released on its own sites as well as on YouTube,
caused an international uproar.
The Baghdad video has been Wikileaks' biggest coup to date, although
an extraordinary number of unauthorised documents - more than a
million - have found their way to the website. These include a
previously secret, 110-page draft report by the international
investigators Kroll, revealing allegations of huge corruption in Kenya
involving the family of the former president Daniel arap Moi; the US
government's classified manual of standard operating procedures for
Camp Delta at Guantanamo Bay, which revealed that it was policy to
hide some prisoners from the International Committee of the Red Cross;
a classified US intelligence report on how to marginalise Wikileaks;
secret Church of Scientology manuals; an internal report by the global
oil trader, Trafigura, about dumping toxic waste in the Ivory Coast; a
classified US profile of the former Icelandic ambassador to the US in
which the ambassador is praised for helping quell publicity about the
CIA's activities involving rendition flights; and the emails leaked
from the embattled Climate Research Unit at East Anglia in Britain,
last November, which triggered the so-called ''climategate'' scandal.
That's one leak which might have bemused those conservatives convinced
that Wikileaks was run by ultra-lefties. In the blogosphere,
meanwhile, conspiracy theories abound that Wikileaks is a CIA cyber-
Two years ago a Swiss bank in Zurich, Julius Baer, succeeded in
temporarily closing down the website with a US District Court
injunction after Wikileaks published documents detailing how the
bankers hid their wealthy clients' funds in offshore trusts (the
banned documents reappeared on Wikileaks ''mirror'' sites in places
such as Belgium and Britain).
The Australian government, too, has made noises about going after the
website, after the Australian Communications and Media Authority's
list of websites it may ban if the Rudd government goes ahead with its
proposed internet censorship plan turned up on Wikileaks last year.
To say that the list of rattled people in high places around the world
is growing because of Wikileaks is an understatement. The fact that
the website has no headquarters also means the conventional
retaliatory measures - phones tapped, a raid by the authorities - are
impossible. Intense interest in Julian Assange began well before the
Baghdad video was released, and viewed 4.8 million times by the end of
its first week. The former teenage hacker from Melbourne, whose
mystique as an internet subversive, a resourceful loner with no fixed
address, travelling constantly between countries with laptop and
backpack, constitutes what you might call Assange's romantic appeal.
But then there's the flip side: a man who believes in extreme
transparency, but evades and obfuscates when it comes to talking about
himself in the rare interviews that he gives. In the past, at least,
these have hardly ever been face to face.
The secretiveness extends to those close to him. One woman who speaks
to me on the condition of total anonymity lived in the same share
house in Melbourne as Assange for a few months in early 2007, when
Wikileaks was in its incubation period. The house was the hub, and it
was inhabited by computer geeks.
There were beds everywhere, she says. There was even a bed in the
kitchen. This woman slept on a mattress in Assange's room, and says
she would sometimes wake up in the middle of the night to find him
still glued to his computer. He frequently forget to eat or sleep,
wrote mathematical formulas all over the walls and the doors, and used
only red light bulbs in his room - on the basis that early man, if
waking suddenly, would see only the gentle light of the campfire, and
fall asleep again. He also went through a period of frustration that
the human body has to be fed several times a day and experimented with
eating just one meal every two days, in order to be more efficient.
''He was always extremely focused,'' she says.
Well before meeting Assange, I'd thought how much he seemed like a
character from Stieg Larsson's trilogy of blockbuster novels. One of
Larsson's brilliant computer geniuses, taking on the world's wicked
and powerful. Or a more youthful Mikael Blomkvist, with an Australian
Larsson died six years ago. But could the Swedish crime writer and
Assange have met?
Assange first visited Sweden in the 1990s - and Wikileaks is hosted on
a main server in Sweden, where the identities of confidential sources
are protected by law.
This doesn't prove anything, of course - and Wikileaks only moved its
main server to Sweden two years ago, after the Julius Baer Bank tried
to close down the website. Even so, I email Eva Gabrielsson, Larsson's
widow, to ask if the two of them ever met Assange - explaining that he
helped research a remarkable 1997 book, Underground, about the
exploits of an extraordinary group of young Melbourne hackers, written
by the Melbourne academic Suelette Dreyfus. The hackers all had
monikers in the book: Assange is said to be the character Mendax.
Assange convinced Dreyfus to release the book online, and according to
one source I spoke to, there was great interest in the book in Sweden
- and in China.
''About Julian Assange - well, why don't you ask him?'' Gabrielsson
It isn't the most urgent question I have for Assange, who I meet in
early May, the day after he slips back into Melbourne, his home town.
He arrived on a flight from Europe, via the US. Or so I understand
from the person acting as our inbetween.
The same contact provides a Melbourne address, and instructions.
''Don't call a cab, find one on the street; turn off your mobile phone
before you catch the cab and preferably, remove the batteries.''
And here he is - a tall, thin, pale figure with that remarkable white
hair, looking very tired, and wearing creased, student-style dark
clothes and boots, and backpack.
As we shake hands, he inclines his head slightly in a courtly, old
world manner, at odds with his youthful, student-traveller looks. When
I remark that there's a lot to ask him, he replies, ''That's all right
- I'm not going to answer half of it.''
Is Assange his real name? Yes, he replies, then says it's the name in
his passport. ''What's in a name?'' he then adds mysteriously, casting
doubt on his first answer.
At the time of writing, his passport status was apparently back to
normal after immigration officials at Melbourne Airport said that his
passport was going to be cancelled on the grounds that it was too tatty.
It has been in a couple of rivers, Assange allows of the state of his
passport. The first time, as he recalls, in December 2006, when he was
crossing a swollen river during heavy rain in southern Tasmania, and
was swept out to sea. He swam back in. ''My conclusion from that
experience is that the universe doesn't give a damn about you, so it's
a good thing you do.''
Why did he have his passport with him? He had everything he needed for
three weeks of survival, he replies. He needed his passport for ID
when he flew to Tasmania.
Doesn't he have a driver's licence? ''No comment.''
How true is the image of him as the enigmatic founder of Wikileaks,
constantly on the move, with no real place to call home? Is this
really how he lives his life?
''Do I live my life as an enigmatic man?''
No - is it true you're constantly on the move?
''Pretty much true.''
Does he have one base he'd call home?
''I have four bases where I would go if I was sick, which is how I
think about where home is.''
He has spent the best part of the past six months in Iceland, he says.
And the next six months? ''It depends on which area of the world I'm
needed most. We're an international organisation. We deal with
international problems,'' he replies.
Assange mentions four bases, but names only two. The one in Iceland
and another in Kenya, where he has spent a lot of time, on and off, in
the past couple of years.
The Kroll report, released on Wikileaks, reportedly swung the Kenyan
presidential election in 2007.
When he's in the country, Assange lives in a compound in Nairobi with
other foreigners, mainly members of NGOs such as Medecins Sans
Frontieres. He originally went to Kenya in 2007 to give a lecture on
Wikileaks, when it was up and running. ''And ended up staying
there,'' I suggest encouragingly.
As a result of liking the place or …
''Well, it has got extraordinary opportunities for reforms. It had a
revolution in the 1970s. It has only been a democracy since 2004 … I
was introduced to senior people in journalism, in human rights very
He has travelled to Siberia. Is there a third base there?
''No comment. I wish. The bear steak is good.''
Why did he go to Georgia?
''How do you know about that?''
I read it somewhere, I reply. It was a rumour. ''Ah, a rumour,'' he
But he did go there? ''It's better that I don't comment on that,
because Georgia is not such a big place.''
Living permanently in a state of exile, which can become addictive,
means that you always have the sharp eye of the outsider, I suggest.
''The sense of perspective that interaction with multiple cultures
gives you I find to be extremely valuable, because it allows you to
see the structure of a country with greater clarity, and gives you a
sense of mental independence,'' Assange replies.
"You're not swept up in the trivialities of a nation. You can
concentrate on the serious matters. Australia is a bit of a political
wasteland. That's OK, as long as people recognise that. As long as
people recognise that Australia is a suburb of a country called Anglo-
Could he ever live in one place again? A brief silence. ''I don't
think so,'' he says finally.
''I don't see myself as a computer guru,'' he remarks at one point.
''I live a broad intellectual life. I'm good at a lot of things,
except for spelling.''
At one point, thinking about some of the material leaked on Wikileaks,
I ask Assange how he defines national security. ''We don't,'' he says
crisply. "We're not interested in that. We're interested in justice.
We are a supranational organisation. So we're not interested in
How does he justify keeping his own life as private as possible,
considering that he believes in extreme transparency?
''I don't justify it,'' he says, with just a hint of mischievousness.
''No one has sent us any official documents that were not published
previously on me. Should they do so, and they meet our editorial
criteria, we will publish them.''
Assange isn't paid a salary by Wikileaks. He has investments, which he
won't discuss. But during the 1990s he worked in computer security in
Australia and overseas, devised software programmes - in 1997 he co-
invented ''Rubberhose deniable encryption'', which he describes as a
cryptographic system made for human rights workers wanting to protect
sensitive data in the field - and also became a key figure in the free
The whole point of free software, he comments, is to ''liberate it in
all senses''. He adds: ''It' s part of the intellectual heritage of
man. True intellectual heritage can't be bound up in intellectual
Did being arrested, and later on finding himself in a courtroom, push
him into a completely different reality that he had never thought
about - and eventually in a direction that eventually saw him start
thinking along the lines of a website like Wikileaks, that would take
on the world?
''That [experience] showed me how the justice system and bureaucracy
worked, and did not work; what its abilities were and what its
limitations were,'' he replies. ''And justice wasn't something that
came out of the justice system. Justice was something that you bring
to the justice system. And if you're lucky, or skilled, and you're in
a country that isn't too corrupt, you can do that.''
In another life, Assange might have been a mathematician. He spent
four years studying maths, mostly at Melbourne University - with
stints at the Australian National University in Canberra - but never
graduated, disenchanted, he says, with how many of his fellow students
were conducting research for the US defence system.
''There are key cases which are just really f---ing obnoxious,'' he
According to Assange, the US Defence Advance Research Project Agency
was funding research which involved optimising the efficiency of a
military bulldozer called the Grizzly Plough, which was used in the
Iraqi desert during Operation Desert Storm during the 1991 Gulf War.
''It has a problem in that it gets damaged [from] the sand rolling up
in front. The application of this bulldozer is to move at 60
kilometres an hour, sweeping barbed wire and so on before it, and get
the sand and put it in the trenches where the [Iraqi] troops are, and
bury them all alive and then roll over the top. So that's what
Melbourne University's applied maths department was doing - studying
how to improve the efficiency of the Grizzly Plough.''
Assange says he did a lot of soul-searching before he finally quit his
studies in 2007. He had already started working with other people on a
model of Wikileaks by early 2006.
There were people at the physics conference, he goes on, who were
career physicists, ''and there was just something about their attire,
and the way they moved their bodies, and of course the bags on their
backs didn't help much either. I couldn't respect them as men''.
His university experience didn't define his cynicism, though. Assange
says that he's extremely cynical anyway. ''I painted every corner,
floor, wall and ceiling in the 'room' I was in, black, until there was
only one corner left. I mean intellectually,'' he adds. ''To me, it
was the forced move [in chess], when you have to do something or
you'll lose the game.''
So Wikileaks was his forced move?
''That's the way it feels to me, yes. There were no other options left
to me on the table.''
Wikileaks, he says, has released more classified documents than the
rest of the world press combined.
''That's not something I say as a way of saying how successful we are
- rather, that shows you the parlous state of the rest of the media.
How is it that a team of five people has managed to release to the
public more suppressed information, at that level, than the rest of
the world press combined? It's disgraceful.''
Where does Assange see Wikileaks in 10 years? "It's not what I want
the world to be. It's what I want the rest of the world to be," he
He would like to see all media develop their own forms of Wikileaks.
That would put his own website out of business, I point out.
''We have a proposal to [an American foundation] for a grant to just
that,'' he replies, explaining that Wikileaks could create systems for
all media organisations.
A thought: has he ever met Rupert Murdoch? ''No.''
Nor has he met Stieg Larsson, Assange tells me.
Source: The Sydney Morning Herald
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