Patrice Riemens on Tue, 25 May 2010 14:51:57 +0200 (CEST)

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<nettime> Nikki Barrowclough: The secret life of Wikileaks founder Julian Assange

bwo Geert Lovink
original at:

The secret life of Wikileaks founder Julian Assange

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.

May 22, 2010 - 10:03AM

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,, 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''

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-ops plot.

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 accent.

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 emails

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

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


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 quickly.''

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 says.

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-Saxon.''

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

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 national

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
software movement.

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 property.''

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 says.

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 replies.

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.

This story was found at:

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