By Mark Hosenball
WASHINGTON | Mon Dec 13, 2010 2:16pm EST
WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Hollywood has long had a weak spot for renegade computer hackers. In the 1983 film “War Games,” a teenage whiz breaks into military data networks and almost sets off World War III. In “The Matrix,” the 1999 blockbuster, a rebellious programer fights for humanity against soulless machines. And in this year’s model, the hero of “Inception” hacks into, and manipulates, people’s dreams.
Dream-hacking is still probably beyond the capabilities of Julian Assange, the 39-year-old Australian-born computer programer who created and, until his arrest last week, served as editor in chief of the website WikiLeaks.
But Assange, relatively unknown until earlier this year, has masterfully manipulated elite media outlets. He has exasperated and humiliated the U.S. government and its diplomatic partners by creating a resilient, hard-to-kill worldwide network of websites that reveals their secrets. And he has in short order turned WikiLeaks and himself into household names, demonstrating how reality can be stranger than Hollywood fiction.
With his ghostly complexion, floppy white hair (when it is not dyed or cropped to disguise his identity) and droning bass monotone, Assange not only behaves like a character sprung to life from a science-fiction screenplay but he even looks and sounds like one.
Today, Assange sits behind bars in a Victorian British prison awaiting a London court hearing on Tuesday on a request from Swedish authorities that he be extradited to face questioning in a sexual misconduct case. As the legal drama slowly unfolds, the world is debating whether Assange and his activities — his systematic exposure of government and business secrets — make him an arch-villain or a superhero.
At the same time, many are trying to figure out exactly who is this young Australian who has thrust himself into the spotlight, warts and all. An examination of a somewhat surprisingly long paper trail he has left behind — including an archive of Internet blog posts on subjects ranging from dense computer codings to spacey metaphysical essays — provides possible glimpses into his way of thinking.
Numerous interviews with close associates of Assange and others who have dealt with him extensively paint a picture of a man who can be brilliant and charming one minute but insufferable the next, who has alienated many of those around him and whose erratic personality risks undermining his mission.
Where you stand on Assange can depend on where you sit. Top U.S. officials, including the Secretaries of State and Defense, have denounced WikiLeaks. Attorney General Eric Holder has indicated his prosecutors are brainstorming creative legal strategies to bring criminal charges against the WikiLeaks front-man.
Others advocate more aggressive action. Former Alaska governor Sarah Palin has called for American authorities to pursue Assange with the same zeal that they hunt al Qaeda and the Taliban. Newt Gingrich, another potential Republican presidential candidate, has called Assange an “enemy combatant.” Former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee — also a potential presidential hopeful — has said: “Anything less than execution is too kind a penalty.”
Assange’s supporters are equally vehement in their admiration, though some praise his achievements while distancing themselves from the man himself.
Jack Shafer, press critic for the online magazine Slate, wrote that Assange “possesses such an ego-swollen head it’s a miracle that he can walk without toppling over.” Shafer also wrote that he believes WikiLeaks’ disclosures have shaken mainstream journalists out of complacency and reminded the media and the public to be skeptical of official and corporate secrecy.
At a London court hearing last week, British film-maker Ken Loach, known for his depictions of gritty working-class life, and Jemima Khan, a wealthy socialite and heiress, appeared before the judge, each offering to contribute to a 180,000 pound bail fund that Assange’s lawyers and supporters were organizing.
In a Twitter message last month, Khan, daughter of the late financier Sir James Goldsmith — who was so right-wing he created his own political party to challenge Britain’s Conservatives — wondered whether Assange was “the new Jason Bourne,” a reference to Robert Ludlum’s fictional rogue secret agent. (The Guardian reported that the Twitter message was subsequently removed from the Internet.)