By Tom Cowie Friday, 03 February 2012
Townsville’s most famous former computer hacker is changing how the media and diplomats operate
Editor in chief and founder of WikiLeaks
Editor in chief and founder of WikiLeaks
Born in: Townsville, QLD
Foes: The Guardian | New York Times | US government
No person has snatched, wielded and lost more power in the past eighteen months than Julian Assange. The WikiLeaks founder has been responsible for the publication of hundreds of thousands of US government secrets, helped spark revolutions and changed the face of journalism – perhaps forever.
Now, he’s under virtual house arrest and may soon find himself in a Swedish courtroom. He’s also a wanted man by the US government who want him to answer for what he’s released. Meanwhile, his organisation is close to broke.
Along the way he’s tried to revolutionise the way people leak confidential information, using the power of the internet to harvest and distribute massive tranches of sensitive documents.
Assange tells The Power Index WikiLeaks is an organisation intent on freedom of information and helping the public see in full view how their governments operate: “it is our role to make sure that information relevant to that is published,” he says.
And he’s managed to do just that through a series of major newsworthy leaks. Most prominently with the publication of classified documents concerning the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, and then with the disclosure of more than a quarter of a million secret US embassy cables.
It’s the latter, aided by major newspapers worldwide, which has been credited by groups like Amnesty International with having helped spark last year’s Arab Spring protests. In the process it’s made Assange both an iconic and vexed figure: journalist freedom fighter to some, treasonous spy to others.
“We thought that they would cause a lot of discussion and debate around the world, we specifically thought that they would restabilise the Middle East,” says Assange when asked what effect he anticipated Cablegate would have.
“They do seem to have contributed towards the revolutions there and perhaps the most significant ongoing thing to come out of them was the radicalisation of internet-educated youth.”
Assange acknowledges WikiLeaks wasn’t alone in what happened in the Middle East. Social networking sites like Twitter, Facebook and YouTube are also said to have played a role in helping to mobilise the protests, as did the coverage of WikiLeaks’ media partners.
But when you consider the allegations of corruption the cables revealed, it’s not too much of a stretch to say the Townsville-born former computer hacker was at the centre of a revolution.
During our phone interview (despite expectations, there was no Skype chat) Assange is measured and calm, pausing for a brief moment of thought before answering each question. We speak to him not long before his current extradition hearing in a UK Supreme Court.
He says everything that’s mentioned in an official communicae back to Washington is important, no matter how trivial it seems:
“If it’s poisonous gossip it is extremely important when it’s sent from Karachi to Washington,” Assange tells The Power Index in his familiar baritone voice. “It is no longer mere gossip, it is an instrument of diplomacy.”
WikiLeaks has provided a new model for how people leak information. In theory, the concept makes it possible for anyone with an internet connection to be able to safely disclose state and corporate secrets without fear of being uncovered. The encryption is supposed to be so good even WikiLeaks doesn’t know its sources.
As Suelette Dreyfus, author of cult classic hacking book Underground (on which Assange collaborated), puts it: “His idea was to use technology to make it safer for whistleblowers … his idea changed the risk profile for revealing wrongdoing.”
It’s all part of Assange’s open governance philosophy, built on his background as a computer hacker breaking into organisations like NASA and the Pentagon as a teenager. It’s a concept prominent academic Robert Manne lauds as one of the “few original ideas in politics”.
And if a measure of influence is having imitators, then Assange scores highly: a string of WikiLeaks copycats have popped up since its inception.
“There’s no doubt that WikiLeaks, and by extension Assange, has been responsible for some of the most important and game changing acts of journalism over the past two or three years,” Chris Warren, secretary of journalists’ union the MEAA, tells The Power Index.
Tall and slender, with his trademark shock of ghost-white hair, the 40-year-old Assange has one of the most recognisable faces in the world. Adding to his mystique is a penchant for dark suits, which gives him the air of an international jewel thief.
But it’s not precious stones he’s after; it’s nuggets of classified information. Operational since 2006, WikiLeaks initially had success exposing clandestine activities in counties like Iceland and Kenya. But they really hit the big time with the release of a video titled ‘Collateral Murder’ in 2010, which showed an American military helicopter opening fire on Iraqi civilians.
After that came the war logs and then Cablegate. Their most recent release was Spy Files, which exposed details of the surveillance industry.
As a result, Assange has become the subject of an ongoing investigation by an embarrassed superpower hell-bent on seeking justice for the biggest leak in its history.
It’s here where his influence takes on shades of grey. A financial embargo has meant submissions have been unavailable on the WikiLeaks website since Cablegate, as Assange’s legal team battles his extradition from UK to Sweden on sexual assault allegations. And if, as his supporters fear, Assange ends up in a US prison, it could spell the end for WikiLeaks as an organisation.
There are also concerns over the future of Bradley Manning, who is currently facing trial in the US for allegedly passing on documents to the organisation. If he’s convicted it could cast doubt on Assange’s promises to protect whistleblowers.
While WikiLeaks has not confirmed Manning as one of their sources, the organisation has provided him with legal support. There are some who think they haven’t done enough.
Former WikiLeaks spokesman and Assange confidant Daniel Domscheit-Berg wrote in his book Inside WikiLeaks that the organisation had “utterly failed” in providing Manning with financial and other support.
Domscheit-Berg isn’t the only former associate to have had a falling out with Assange. Two of WikiLeaks’ former media partners, the Guardian and the New York Times, have also sought to distance themselves from him. Both sides have accused each other of reneging on how the US state cables were to be published.
“They were involved in an underhanded business to breach the Cablegate contract to the exclusion of all the other partners,” Assange tells The Power Index, adding that the cable redaction process of the mainstream media had been “corrupting”.
“He tried to stop all three partners publishing, claiming that they belonged to him and that he had a legal right to sell them,” counters Guardian journalist Nick Davies, telling The Power Index that Assange’s claim is an example of his “weird compulsion to make things up”.
That the organisations who once championed Assange have now turned on him so thoroughly gives an insight into his personality. Those who have dealt with him say he is arrogant, narcissistic, paranoid and controlling.
Still, no one questions his intelligence. And he knows how to be charming when he wants to be. It’s both those qualities he’ll be putting to the test when hosting a new chat show set to air in Russia on a state-run television station.
It’s an irony not lost on many: that a man so committed to free information would work willingly in a country ranked 142nd for press freedom in the world. Observers say it shows how far Assange has fallen, perhaps irreversibly, from the great heights he promised.
Still, the man himself is not ready to look too far beyond what he’s dealing with right now. When The Power Index asks him how he would like to be remembered, Assange answers in the abrupt fashion he has become known for.
“I think we’re a long way before thinking about legacies,” he says. “We are right in the middle of the fight.”