Julian Assange A True Enlightened Man
Julian Assange is an Australian editor, activist, publisher and journalist. He is best known as the editor-in-chief and founder of WikiLeaks.
Julian Paul Assange [Ah-Sanj] 1971 -
Less than twenty years ago Julian Assange was sleeping rough. Even a year ago hardly anyone knew his name. Today he is one of the best-known and most-respected human beings on earth. Julian Assange, the mathematically-trained Australian changed the media landscape, and possibly the course of history, by releasing about 90,000 classified U.S. military records from the war in Afghanistan. As the founder and public face of WikiLeaks, a website that posts secret documents in the public domain, Julian Assange believes that total transparency is for the good of all people. He has been called "the Robin Hood of hacking."
Assange was the overwhelming winner of the popular vote for Time magazine’s “Person of the Year” and Le Monde’s less politically correct “Man of the Year”. If Rupert Murdoch, who recently turned eighty, is the most inﬂuential Australian of the post-war era, Julian Assange is undoubtedly the most consequential Australian of the present time. Murdoch’s importance rests in his responsibility for injecting, through Fox News, the poison of rabid populist conservatism into the political culture of the United States - Assange’s in the revolutionary threat that his idea of publishing damaging documentary information sent by anonymous insiders to WikiLeaks poses to governments and corporations across the globe.
• Assange was reportedly born in 1971 in the city of Townsville, north-eastern Australia. He was mostly homeschooled as a child, thanks in large part to his already peripatetic existence - By the time he was 14, he and his mother had reportedly moved 37 times.
• After his mother's relationship with a musician turned violent, Assange and his family lived on the run while he was between the ages of 11 and 16.
• When Assange turned 16, he began hacking computers, reportedly assuming the name Mendax - From the Latin splendide mendax, or "nobly untruthful."
• In 1991, at the age of 20, Assange and some fellow hackers penetrated the master terminal of Nortel, the Canadian Telecom Company. He was caught and pleaded guilty to 25 charges - Six other charges were dropped. Citing Assange's "intelligent inquisitiveness," the judge sentenced him to pay a small sum in damages.
• Assange studied math and physics at the University of Melbourne, though he dropped out when he became convinced that work by others in the department was being applied by defense contractors and militaries.
• In 2006, Assange decided to found WikiLeaks in the belief that the free exchange of information would put an end to illegitimate governance. The website publishes material from sources, and houses its main server in Sweden, which has strong laws protecting whistle-blowers. Assange and others at WikiLeaks also occasionally hack into secure systems to find documents to expose. In December 2006, the website published its first document: A decision by the Somali Islamic Courts Union that called for the execution of government officials. WikiLeaks published a disclaimer that the document may not be authentic but "a clever smear by U.S. intelligence."
• The website went on to get several prominent scoops, including the release in April 2010 of a secret video taken in 2007 of a U.S. helicopter attack in Iraq that killed a dozen civilians, including two unarmed Reuters journalists. Assange helped post the video from a safe house in Iceland that was referred to as "the bunker."
According to Assange, his mother, Christine Hawkins, left her Queensland home for Sydney at the age of seventeen, around 1970, at the time of the anti–Vietnam War movement when the settled culture of the Western world was breaking up. Christine’s father, Dr Warren Hawkins, was the principal of the Northern Rivers College of Advanced Education; her mother was a specialist in medieval literature. Christine fell in love with a man called John Shipton in Sydney. Soon after Julian was born, in Townsville, they parted. Assange did not meet Shipton again till he was twenty-five.
When Julian was about one, Christine met and married a roving theatrical producer, Brett Assange. Brett was the descendant of a Chinese immigrant who had settled on Thursday Island, Ah Sang or Mr Sang. Together Brett and Christine travelled around the country, performing. Julian claimed his stepfather was a decent man but also an alcoholic. His mother and a male friend had discovered evidence concerning the British atomic bomb tests that had taken place in Maralinga in greatest secrecy, which they intended to give to an Adelaide journalist. The male friend had been beaten by police to silence him. Christine had been warned that she was in danger of being charged with being “an unfit mother”. She was advised to stay out of politics.
When Julian was eight or nine years old, Christine and Brett Assange separated and then divorced. His mother then formed a relationship with an amateur musician, Keith Hamilton, with whom she had another child, a boy. Julian described Hamilton as a “manipulative and violent psychopath”. A brief bitter battle over access to Julian’s half-brother was fought. Christine’s family was now once more on the move - This time hiding on both sides of the continent in permanent terror. In his final years of education Julian was home-schooled or independently educated either by professors encountered on their travels or by following his curiosity in public libraries. By the time Julian was fifteen he “had lived in a dozen different places” and had “attended thirty-seven different schools”. “The figure of 37 includes schools I spent a single day attending.”
Eventually Julian’s family settled on the outskirts of Melbourne in Emerald and then Tecoma. Christine bought Julian a $700 computer and a modem. Assange fell in love with a 16-year-old girl, Teresa, whom he claims to have met through a program for gifted children. He left home and then married his girlfriend. They had a son. This was the period when the underground sub-culture of hacking was forming in Melbourne. Around 1988 Assange joined it under the handle Mendax. By October 1989 an attack was mounted from Australia on the NASA computer system via the introduction of what was called the WANK worm in an attempt to sabotage the Jupiter launch of the Galileo rocket as part of an action of anti-nuclear activists. No one claimed responsibility for this attack. In a Swedish television documentary, there are hints he was responsible.
Mendax formed a closed group with two other hackers - Trax and Prime Suspect. They called themselves the International Subversives. Their politics were fiercely anti-establishment - Their motive adventure and intellectual curiosity - Their strict ethic not to profit by their hacking or to harm the computers they entered. Mendax wrote a program called Sycophant. It allowed the International Subversives to conduct “massive attacks on the US military”. The list of the computers they could recall finding their way into “read like a Who’s Who of the American military-industrial complex”. Eventually Mendax penetrated the computer system of the Canadian telecommunications corporation Nortel. It was here that his hacking was first discovered. The Australian Federal Police conducted a long investigation into the International Subversives. Eventually Trax lost his nerve and began to talk. He told the police that the International Subversives had been hacking on a scale never achieved before. In October 1991 the Australian Federal Police raided Prime Suspect’s and Mendax’s homes. They found Assange in a state of near mental collapse. His young wife had recently left him, taking their son Daniel. When the police arrived, the incriminating disks, which he had been in the habit of hiding inside a beehive, were scattered by his computer. The evidence was removed.
Assange descended into a personal hell. He was admitted briefly to hospital, suffering from “a deep depression and consuming rage”. He tried and failed to return home to live with his mother. He frequently slept along Merri Creek in Melbourne or in Sherbrooke Forest. The formal charges against Assange were not laid until July 1994. His case was not finally settled until December 1996. Although Assange had been speaking in cautious tones about the technical possibility of a massive prison sentence, in the end he received a $5000 good behaviour bond and a $2100 reparations fine. The experience of arrest and trial scarred his soul and helped shape his politics.
By 1997 Julian Assange, with his friends Suelette Dreyfus and Ralf Weinmann, had written Rubberhose, a piece of “deniable cryptography” for human rights activists and troublemakers, the purpose of which was to make it impossible for torturers or their victims to know whether all the encrypted data on a computer hard drive had been revealed. It was designed to make torture to extract passwords pointless, and defection and betrayal in the face of such torture impossible. Assange argued a convoluted and rather improbable psychological case about why Rubberhose would cause rational torturers to put away their weapons. Danny O’Brien captured the obvious objection rather well. Despite Rubberhose’s deniable cryptography, “won’t rational torturers just beat you up ‘forever’?” Assange disagrees. “Rational torturers have opportunity costs and understand them.”
Assange was by now a committed member of the free software movement, pioneered by Richard Stallman, whose aim was to regulate communication in cyberspace by software not by law. As members of the movement put it, freedom here meant free speech rather than free beer. The movement stressed democratic, collective contribution. Assange tended to be somewhat sceptical about the movement, on one occasion arguing that in reality usually one or two people did 80% of the work. Assange was nonetheless involved in the development of NetBSD, an open source computer operating system derived from the original Berkeley Software Distribution source code.
While Assange was working on NetBSD he had been involved for several years with a movement known as the cypherpunks. It was the cypherpunks more than the free software movement who provided him with his political education. There were thousands of articles on Julian Assange circulating the world, but no common journalist so far has grasped the critical significance of the cypherpunks movement to Assange’s intellectual development and the origin of WikiLeaks.
At the core of the cypherpunk philosophy was the belief that the great question of politics in the age of the internet was whether the state would strangle individual freedom and privacy through its capacity for electronic surveillance or whether autonomous individuals would eventually undermine and even destroy the state through their deployment of electronic weapons newly at hand. Many cypherpunks were optimistic that in the battle for the future of humankind – between the State and the Individual – the individual would ultimately triumph. Their optimism was based on developments in intellectual history and computer software: the invention in the mid-1970s of public-key cryptography by Whitfield Diffie and Martin Hellman, and the creation by Phil Zimmerman in the early 1990s of a program known as PGP, “Pretty Good Privacy”. The seminal historian of codes, David Kahn, argued that the Diffie Hellman invention represented the most important development in cryptography since the Renaissance. Zimmerman’s PGP program democratised their invention and provided individuals, free of cost, with access to public-key cryptography and thus the capacity to communicate with others in near-perfect privacy.
At the time the cypherpunks formed, the American government strongly opposed the free circulation of public-key cryptography. It feared that making it available would strengthen the hands of the espionage agencies of America’s enemies abroad and of terrorists, organised criminals, drug dealers and pornographers at home. For the cypherpunks, the question of whether cryptography would be freely available would determine the outcome of the great battle of the age. Their most important practical task was to write software that would expand the opportunities for anonymous communication made possible by public-key cryptography. One of the key projects of the cypherpunks was “remailers”, software systems that made it impossible for governments to trace the passage from sender to receiver of encrypted email traffic. Another key project was “digital cash”, a means of disguising financial transactions from the state.
Julian Assange informed joined the cypherpunks email list in late 1993 or early 1994. There were many reasons Assange was likely to be attracted to it, in particular, he was interested in the connection between privacy and encrypted communication. Even before his arrest he had feared the intrusion into his life of the totalitarian surveillance state. Julian Assange contributed to the cypherpunks until June 2002. As it happens, almost all his interventions have been placed on the internet. On the basis of what historians call primary evidence, the mind and character of Julian Assange can be seen at the time of his obscurity.
From beginning to end Assange was, in short, a hardline member of the tendency among the cypherpunks that Tim May called the “rejectionists”, an enemy of those who displayed even the slightest tendency to compromise on the question of Big Brother and the surveillance state. However, Assange was at the opposite end of the cypherpunks spectrum from Tim May. At no stage did Assange show sympathy for the anarcho-capitalism of the cypherpunks mainstream which he regarded as “naive” about “the state tendencies of corporatism”. In October 1996, a prominent cypherpunk, Duncan Frissell, claimed that in the previous fiscal year the American government had seized more tax than any government in history. Assange pointed out that, as the US was the world’s largest economy and that its GDP had grown the year prior, this was a ridiculous statement designed to be deceptive.
There is also evidence that Assange was increasingly repelled by the corrosive cynicism common in cypherpunks ranks. Something in his spirit seems to have changed after his trial. From 1997 to 2002 Julian Assange accompanied all his cypherpunks postings with this beautiful passage from Antoine de Saint-Exupéry: “If you want to build a ship, don’t drum up people together to collect wood and don’t assign them tasks and work, but rather teach them to long for the endless immensity of the sea.”
On another occasion, a cypherpunk suggested that in the great struggle for privacy and against censorship ordinary people could not give a damn. Perhaps with Tim May’s contempt for “the clueless 95%” in his mind, in March 2002, in what was one of his final cypherpunks postings, Assange responded: “The 95% of the population which comprise the flock have never been my target and neither should they be yours; it’s the 2.5% at either end of the normal that I find in my sights, one to be cherished and the other to be destroyed.”
In 2003 Julian Assange seems to have considered living a more conventional life. He went to the University of Melbourne to study mainly mathematics and physics. As a student of mathematics his results were mixed but generally mediocre. This can hardly be explained by lack of talent. No one worked more closely with Assange than Suelette Dreyfus. “A geek friend of his once described Assange as having an IQ ‘in excess of 170’,” she wrote in the Sydney Morning Herald of 12 December 2010. “I suspect this could be true.” Assange claimed that he became disillusioned with the applied maths department when he discovered its members were working with defence authorities in the US on a military bulldozer adapted to desert conditions known as “The Grizzly Plough”. He also claimed that visits to the ANU were thoroughly dispiriting. On one occasion he represented University of Melbourne students at a competition. “At the prize ceremony, the head of ANU physics motioned to us and said, ‘you are the cream of Australian physics.’ I looked around and thought, ‘Christ Almighty I hope he’s wrong.’” On another occasion he saw 900 senior physicists in Canberra proudly carrying bags with the logo of the Defence Science and Technology Organisation. He described them as “snivelling fearful conformists of woefully inferior character”.
By 2004 Assange had reached the elevated position of vice-president of the students’ Mathematics and Statistics Society and chief organiser of their Puzzle Hunt - a quiz leading the winner to $200 of buried treasure. Assange explained that he “invented/founded the competition to improve the intellectual climate in Australia.” Nonetheless, organising a puzzle hunt was a somewhat less engrossing ambition than planning world revolution.
Between July 2006 and August 2007 – the period when WikiLeaks was being planned and actualised – Julian Assange maintained a blog at IQ.ORG, some of which he collected under the title “Selected Correspondence”. The correspondence can still be found on the internet. Because of its existence, a reasonably detailed map of his mind at the age of thirty-five and at the moment of WikiLeaks’ creation is available. The blog reveals a young man of unusual intellectual range, ambition and curiosity. As expected, there are references to cypherpunks and his work as a code-writer in the free software movement. Assange writes of his loathing for the “‘everything which is not explicitly permitted is denied’ security types” who “make concurrent salutes to the Fuhrer, Baal and Jack Straw”. He explains why as one of the committed developers of NetBSD he has refused to sign a proposed contract: “The contract as well as being an instrument of the state is written in the demeaning language of the corporate state. It should have been written in the language of our programmer world.” Some entries, such as his defence of altruism, are familiar to those who have followed his postings on the cypherpunks list. There are speculations on philosophy, mathematics, neuroscience, human physiology, the law, history and sociology.
In the struggle to create a truly human society, Assange warns his interlocutors not to believe they can think globally but act locally. This is an illusion. Action must be taken on a truly global scale. He is also witheringly contemptuous of those he calls “the typical shy intellectual”.
On 22 November 2006 Assange provides a link to a paper. He tells his coterie of readers: “No. Don’t skip to the good stuff. This is the good stuff.” He is pointing them to the central theoretical breakthrough that led to WikiLeaks.
Julian Assange published this paper twice, the first time on 10 November 2006 under the title “State and Terrorist Conspiracies”, the second time, in more developed form, on 3 December under the title “Conspiracy as Governance”. Stripped of its inessential mathematical gobbledegook, its argument goes like this. The world is at present dominated by the conspiratorial power of authoritarian governments and big business corporations. As President Theodore Roosevelt understood, behind “ostensible governments”, there exists “an invisible government owing no allegiance and acknowledging no responsibility to the people. To destroy this invisible government, to befoul this unholy alliance between corrupt business and corrupt politics is the first task of statesmanship.” Authoritarian governments and corporations maintain and entrench their power through a conspiracy. For Assange the conspiracy involves the maintenance of a network of links between the conspirators, some vital, some less so. Conspiracies naturally provoke resistance. Among revolutionaries of earlier generations resistance has involved the attempt to break the links between the leaders of the conspiracy by “assassination, killing, kidnapping, blackmailing, or otherwise marginalising or isolating some of the conspirators they were connected to”. Such methods are no longer appropriate. “The act of assassination – the targeting of visible individuals, is the result of mental inclinations honed for the pre-literate societies in which our species evolved.” The new generation of revolutionaries “must think beyond those who have gone before us, and discover technological changes that embolden us with ways to act in which our forebears could not”.
Contemporary conspiracies rely on unrestricted information flow to adapt to and control their environments. Conspirators need to be able to speak freely to each other and to disarm resistance by spreading disinformation among the people they control, something they presently very successfully achieve. Conspirators who have control over information flow are infinitely more powerful than those who do not. Drawing on a passage from Lord Halifax in which political parties are described as “conspiracies against the rest of the nation”, Assange asks his readers to imagine what would happen in the struggle between the Republican and Democratic parties in the US “if one of these parties gave up their mobile phones, fax and email correspondence – let alone the computer systems that manage their subscribes, donors, budgets, polling, call centres and direct mail campaigns”. He asks them to think of the conspiracy as a living organism, “a beast with arteries and veins whose blood may be thickened and slowed until it falls, stupefied; unable to sufficiently comprehend and control the forces in its environment”. Rather than attacking the conspiracy by assassinating its leading members, he believes it can be “throttled” by cutting its information flows. “Later,” he promises, “we will see how new technology and insights into the psychological motivations of conspirators can give us practical methods for preventing or reducing important communication between authoritarian conspirators, foment strong resistance to authoritarian planning and create powerful incentives for more humane forms of governance.”
The promise is fulfilled in a blog entry of 31 December 2006. Here he outlines finally the idea at the core of the WikiLeaks strategy. “The more secretive or unjust an organization is, the more leaks induce fear and paranoia in its leadership and planning coterie. This must result in minimization of efficient internal communications mechanisms (an increase in cognitive “secrecy tax”) and consequent system-wide cognitive decline resulting in decreased ability to hold onto power as the environment demands adaptation.
Hence in a world where leaking is easy, secretive or unjust systems are non linearly hit relative to open, just systems. Since unjust systems, by their nature induce opponents, and in many places barely have the upper hand, leaking leaves them exquisitely vulnerable to those who seek to replace them with more open forms of governance.” The agent of change would not be the assassin but the whistle-blower. The method would not be the bullet but the leak.
In arriving at this position, Assange had drawn together different personal experiences. It was as a “frontier hactivist” and as “Australia’s first electronic publisher” that he had become interested in the political potency of leaks. From his cypherpunk days he had become engaged in discussions about the political possibilities of untraceable encrypted communication. And from his involvement in the free software movement he had seen what collective democratic intellectual enterprise might achieve. In essence, his conclusion was that world politics could be transformed by staunching the flow of information among corrupt power elites by making them ever more fearful of insider leaks. He believed he could achieve this by establishing an organisation that would allow whistle-blowers from all countries to pass on their information, confident that their identities would not be able to be discovered. He proposed that his organisation would then publish the information for the purpose of collective analysis so as to empower oppressed populations across the globe. There are few original ideas in politics. In the creation of WikiLeaks, Julian Assange was responsible for one.
In late 2006 Assange sought a romantic partner through OKCupid using the name of Harry Harrison. Under the heading, “What am I doing with my life?”, he answered: “directing a consuming, dangerous human rights project which is, as you might expect, male-dominated”. Under the heading, “I spend a lot of time thinking about”, he answered: “Changing the world through passion, inspiration and trickery”. There was something distinctly Walter Mittyish about it all. Under the informal leadership of Julian Assange, a group of young men, without resources and linked only by computers, began to implement their plans for a peaceful global political revolution.
On 4 October 2006 Assange registered the domain name “WikiLeaks.org” in the US. He called it WikiLeaks because he had been immensely impressed by the success of the Wikipedia experiment, where 3 million entries had been contributed through the input of a worldwide virtual community. As he put it, WikiLeaks would be to leaks what Wikipedia was to the encyclopedia. Strangely and perhaps revealingly, it was registered under the names of two fathers, his biological one, John Shipton, and his cypherpunk political one, John Young, a New York architect who ran the intelligence leak website Cryptome, which could be seen as WikiLeaks’ predecessor. Assange explained his request for assistance to Young like this: “You knew me under another name from cypherpunks days. I am involved in a project that you may have a feeling for … The project is a mass document leaking project that requires someone with backbone to hold the .org domain registration … We expect the domain to come under the usual political and legal pressure. The policy for .org requires that registrants details not be false or misleading. It would be an easy play to cancel the domain unless someone were willing to stand up and claim to be the registrant.”
The choice of Young reveals something about Assange. For Young was undoubtedly the most militant security cypherpunk of all, who had published on his website an aerial photo of Dick Cheney’s hideout bunker, a photograph of the home of Fox News’s Bill O’Reilly, and the names of 276 British and some 600 Japanese intelligence agents and 2619 CIA “sources”. Young was also Jim Bell’s greatest champion. After Bell’s arrest and imprisonment, Young nominated him for the Chrysler Award for Innovation in Design. Bell had, he argued in his nomination, contributed “an imaginative and sophisticated prospective for improving governmental accountability by way of a scheme for anonymous, untraceable political assassination”.
Serious work on the establishment of WikiLeaks began in December 2006. One of the first tasks was to decide upon a logo. Before opting for the hourglass, the WikiLeaks team thought seriously about a mole breaking through a wall above which stood three sinister authoritarian figures, arms folded. Another early task was to put together an advisory board. The first person he wanted was Daniel Ellsberg. Assange explained the purpose of WikiLeaks and why he had been approached:“We’d like your advice and we’d like you to form part of our political armor. The more armor we have, particularly in the form of men and women sanctified by age, history and class, the more we can act like brazen young men and get away with it.”
Here was one generation speaking to another. A month after being contacted Ellsberg replied. “Your concept is terrific and I wish you the best of luck with it.” He did not agree to join the board. Two leading cypherpunks were approached - the British computer security specialist Ben Laurie and one of the cypherpunks’ founders, John Gilmore. Laurie became actively involved. Gilmore instead asked the Electronic Frontier Foundation he had also co-founded to help. Assange’s old cypherpunk sparring partner, Danny O’Brien, now with the EFF, offered to assist. Also approached not long after were two Chinese Tiananmen Square dissidents, a member of the Tibetan Association in Washington and Australian journalist Phillip Adams. All agreed to join the board of advisers and, then, most seem never to have heard from WikiLeaks again.
What do the early internal documents reveal about the charge that WikiLeaks was an anti-American outfit posing as a freedom of information organisation? In his invitation to Gilmore, Assange had pledged that WikiLeaks “will provide a catalyst that will bring down government through stealth everywhere, not least that of the Bushists”. In its first public statement, WikiLeaks argued that “misleading leaks and misinformation are already well placed in the mainstream media … an obvious example being the lead-up to the Iraq war”. And in an email of 2 January 2007 Assange even argued that WikiLeaks could advance by several years “the total annihilation of the current US regime and any other regime that holds its authority through mendacity alone”. And yet, despite these statements, the evidence surrounding WikiLeaks’ foundation makes it abundantly clear that anti-Americanism was not the primary driving force. Time and again, in its internal documents, it argued that its “roots are in dissident communities” and that its “primary targets are those highly oppressive regimes in China, Russia and central Eurasia”. China is a special focus. One or more of WikiLeaks’ inner coterie were Taiwanese hacking into Chinese government sources. At the time of its foundation, WikiLeaks claimed to have more than a million documents. Almost certainly almost all came from China. For this reason, WikiLeaks argued publicly that “a politically motivated legal attack on us would be seen as a grave error in western administrations”. Concerning its targets, the formulation is precise. WikiLeaks has in its sights authoritarian governments, the increasingly authoritarian tendencies seen in the recent trajectory of the Western democracies, and the authoritarian nature of contemporary business corporations.
What then of the charge that WikiLeaks was a revolutionary organisation pretending to be concerned merely with reformist liberal issues such as exposure of corruption, open government and freedom of information and expression? The internal WikiLeaks documents show that the answer to this question is complex. At its foundation, Assange frequently argued that WikiLeaks’ true nature did indeed need to be disguised. Because “freedom of information is a respected liberal value”, Assange argued, “we may get some sympathy” but it would not last. Inevitably governments would try to crush WikiLeaks. But if the mask of moderation was maintained, at least for some time, opposition would be “limp wristed”. The key to WikiLeaks was that its true revolutionary ambitions and its moderate liberal public face would be difficult for opponents to disentangle. Open government and freedom of information were standard liberal values. However, as explained in the theory outlined in “Conspiracy as Governance”, they were the values in whose name authoritarian structures would be undermined worldwide, through the drying up of information flows and a paralysing fear of insider leaks.
It was not only opponents who found it difficult to keep the public and private faces of WikiLeaks distinct. Despite those involved understanding the need for disguise, at its foundation the excitement was so palpable and the ambition so boundless that, when it was called upon to explain itself, the mask of apple pie liberal reformist moderation instantly fell away. On 3 January 2007 a small crisis arose when WikiLeaks’ existence was prematurely revealed. Assange immediately put together a brilliant description of WikiLeaks for public release.
“Principled leaking has changed the course of human history for the better; it can alter the course of history in the present; it can lead to a better future … Public scrutiny of otherwise unaccountable and secretive institutions pressures them to act ethically. What official will chance a secret corrupt transaction when the public is likely to find out? … When the risks of embarrassment through openness and honesty increase, the tables are turned against conspiracy, corruption, exploitation and oppression.
Instead of a couple of academic specialists, WL will provide a forum for the entire global community to examine any document relentlessly for credibility, plausibility, veracity and falsifiability … WL may become the most powerful intelligence agency on earth, an intelligence agency of the people … WL will be an anvil at which beats the hammer of the collective conscience of humanity … WL, we hope, will be a new star in the political firmament of humanity.”
Julian Assange recognised that the language of what amounted to the WikiLeaks Manifesto might appear a little “overblown”. He recognised that it had too much the flavour of “anarchy”, but in general he was pleased.
Assange was a true Enlightenment Man.
The next Social Forum was to be held between 27 June and 4 July in Atlanta. Assange wanted WikiLeaks volunteers to attend. Emails he sent in early June can be found on the internet. They provide the clearest evidence of his political viewpoint and strategic thinking at this time. In the first he assures his supporters that WikiLeaks’ future is secure. “The idea can’t be stopped. It’s everyone’s now.” Some people have apparently argued that WikiLeaks’ idealism or “childlike naivety” is a weakness. He believes they are entirely wrong. “Naivety is unfailingly attractive when it adorns strength. People rush forward to defend and fight for individuals and organizations imbued with this quality.” Confronted by it, “virtuous sophisticates” are “marooned”. Some people are clearly worried that WikiLeaks will be captured by “the Left”. Assange assures his followers they need not be concerned. In the US the problem is rather that WikiLeaks is seen as too close to the CIA and American foreign policy. In fact, “we’ll take our torch to all.” Some people have clearly expressed doubts about Social Forum types. Assange more than shares them. They are by and large “ineffectual pansies” who “specialize in making movies about themselves and throwing ‘dialogue’ parties … with foundation money”, while fantasising that “the vast array of functional cogs in brute inhumanity … would follow their lead, clapping, singing and videotaping their way up Mt. Mostly Harmless”. In Africa Assange has seen human rights fighters of real backbone. He warns his followers not to expect to find such people in the US. He quotes at length from Solzhenitsyn’s 1979 Harvard address about the radical decline of “civic courage” in the West especially among the “ruling and intellectual elites”. Nonetheless, to advance WikiLeaks’ cause, the Social Forum – the world’s biggest NGO “beach party” – matters. Assange anticipates that anti–Iraq War feeling will hold it together. Although WikiLeaks has so far concentrated on “the most closed governments”, he explains that it is about to publish explosive material on American “involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan”. He hopes that the anti-war movement will embrace these documents so that WikiLeaks can avoid the “retributive” blast from pro-war forces. It is vital to position itself “as everyone’s friend”. If anyone still needs it, this despatch is proof that Assange has a biting tongue, a mordant wit and a brilliant political mind.
Between 2007 and 2010 Assange’s political thinking was shaped by two key ideas. The first, as we have seen, was that all authoritarian structures – both governments and corporations – were vulnerable to insider leaks. Fear would throttle information flows. Assange called this a “secrecy tax”. Inevitably, he argued, because of this tax, governments and corporations with nothing to hide would triumph over their secretive, unjust conspiratorial competitors. This aspect of his politics amounted to a kind of political Darwinism, a belief not in the survival of the fittest but of the most transparent and most just. As an organisation that encouraged whistle-blowers and published their documents, WikiLeaks was aiding and speeding up this process.
There was, however, another dimension of his politics that reflected his long association with the cypherpunks. Assange believed that, in the era of globalisation, laws determining communication were going to be harmonised. The world would either opt for a closed system akin to Chinese political secrecy and American intellectual property laws, or an open system found to some extent in Belgium and Sweden. Once more, Assange hoped that WikiLeaks was assisting a positive outcome to this struggle through its role as what he called a global publisher of last resort. If WikiLeaks could survive the attacks certain to be mounted by governments and corporations, the rights of human beings to communicate freely with each other without the intervention of governments would be entrenched. WikiLeaks was, according to this argument, the canary in the mine. Assange was taken with the famous Orwell quote. “He who controls the present controls the past and he who controls the past controls the future.” The world was at a turning point. Either Big Brother would take control of the internet or an era of unprecedented freedom of communication would arrive.
This might have come straight out of a cypherpunks manifesto. In the first weeks of 2010 Assange was involved in an ultimately successful political manoeuvre to turn Iceland into the world’s first “data haven” with the most politically progressive anti-censorship laws on Earth.
There was an aspect of WikiLeaks’ work that was, through 2008 and 2009, beginning to trouble Assange. Although it was a peripatetic organisation with a small permanent staff, WikiLeaks had proven to be an outstanding success in attracting leaks and then publishing them. By late 2009 it had published documents concerning an Islamist assassination order from Somalia; massive corruption in Daniel arap Moi’s Kenya; tax avoidance by the largest Swiss bank, Julius Baer; an oil spill in Peru, a nuclear accident in Iran and toxic chemical dumping by the Trafigura Corporation off the Ivory Coast. Further, it had released the Guantanamo Bay operational manuals; secret film of dissent in Tibet; the emails of Sarah Palin; a suppressed report into an assassination squad operating in Kenya; American intelligence reports on the battle of Fallujah, and reports into the conditions in its jails; the Climategate emails; the internet censorship lists from Australia; and, finally, the loans book of the Icelandic bank Kaupthing. WikiLeaks had never been successfully sued, although Julius Baer had tried. None of the identities of the whistle-blowers who sought to conceal them had been uncovered. WikiLeaks had won awards from the Economist, in 2008, and from Amnesty International, in 2009. Assange believed that WikiLeaks’ information had determined a Kenyan election. He knew that the publication of the loans book in Iceland had riveted the nation, especially after Kaupthing had brought down an injunction against the national broadcaster’s evening television news. And yet, as his internal communications make clear, he was puzzled and appalled by the world’s indifference to his leaks.
Assange had once regarded WikiLeaks as the people’s intelligence agency. In January 2007 he sincerely believed that when WikiLeaks published commentary on the Somalia assassination order document it would be “very closely collaboratively analysed by hundreds of Wikipedia editors” and by “thousands of refugees from the Somali, Ethiopian and Chinese expat communities”. This simply had not happened. Commentary by the people on material produced by their intelligence agency never would. He had once hoped for engaged analysis from the blogosphere. What he now discovered were what he thought of as indifferent narcissists repeating the views of the mainstream media on “the issues de jour” with an additional flourish along the lines of “their pussy cat predicted it all along”. Even the smaller newspapers were hopeless. They relied on press releases, ignorant commentary and theft. They never reported the vitally significant leaks without WikiLeaks intervention. Counter-intuitively, only the major newspapers in the world, such as the New York Times or the Guardian, undertook any serious analysis but even they were self-censoring and their reportage dominated by the interests of powerful lobby groups. No one seemed truly interested in the vital material WikiLeaks offered or willing to do their own work.
In Iraq, a junior American intelligence analyst, Private Bradley Manning – at least according to very convincing evidence yet to be tested in court – had been following WikiLeaks’ activities with interest. On 25 November 2009 WikiLeaks released a document comprising 573,000 messages from September 11. As this material could only come from a National Security Agency leak, Manning was now convinced that WikiLeaks was genuine. Eventually, after sending WikiLeaks some cables concerning the American Ambassador in Iceland, he decided to download 93,000 logs from the Afghan War, 400,000 incident reports from the war in Iraq and 250,000 State Department cables, to which he and hundreds of thousands of American officials had access, and to send them to WikiLeaks. As a cover, he brought along Lady Gaga CDs and, while downloading these documents onto disc, pretended to be mouthing the words to the music. Sometime after, he confessed to a convicted hacker, Adrian Lamo, what he had done. The most secure encryption and re-mailing systems were powerless against human, all-too-human frailty. Lamo in turn informed the FBI and American military authorities. Shortly after, Manning was arrested and taken to a military prison in West Virginia. Lamo also went with his evidence to a longstanding acquaintance, another convicted hacker, Kevin Poulsen, who worked at the magazine Wired. Poulsen published the log of some of the alleged conversation between Manning and Lamo.
(12.15:11 PM) bradass87: hypothetical question: if you had free reign over classified networks for long periods of time … say 8-9 months … and you saw incredible things, awful things … things that belonged in the public domain, and not on some server stored in a dark room in Washington DC … what would you do?
(12.26:09 PM) bradass87: lets just say “someone” I know intimately well, has been penetrating US classified networks, mining data like the ones described … and been transferring that data from the classified networks over the “air gap” onto a commercial network computer … sorting the data, compressing it, encrypting it, and uploading it to a crazy white haired aussie who can’t seem to stay in one country very long.
One of the items sent to WikiLeaks was a video of a cold-blooded, American Apache helicopter attack on a group of Iraqis, in which up to fifteen men were gunned down. Assange made the decision to concentrate the resources and the energies of WikiLeaks on publishing it under the title: “Collateral Murder”. In early April 2010, he flew to Washington to launch it, with his temporary chief-of-staff in Iceland (where the video had been edited), Rop Gonggrijp, the Dutch veteran of Berlin’s Chaos Computer Club. On 5 April, Assange addressed the National Press Club. His frustration with the indifference of the world was, to put it mildly, about to end.
For once, the cliché is true. What happened over the next ten months is stranger than fiction. With the release of the “Collateral Murder” footage, WikiLeaks became instantly famous. Assange decided to publish the new material he had received from Manning anonymously in association with some of the world’s best newspapers or magazines. Complex and heated negotiations between WikiLeaks and the Guardian, the New York Times and Der Spiegel were now conducted. Even though these negotiations are one of the less interesting aspects of this story, already three books from the news outlets involved offering their own perspectives have been published. Assange had long regarded the Western media as narcissistic. It is likely that his judgement was now confirmed.
In July the first of the Manning tranche, the “Afghan War Diary”, was published. Assange held back only 15,000 of the 93,000 reports. Unforgivably, those released included the names of perhaps 300 Afghans who had assisted Western forces. A Taliban spokesperson, Zabiullah Mujahid, claimed that a nine-member commission had been created after the documents were released “to find out about people who were spying”. Assange was unrepentant. In a speech in Sweden of 14 August, in talking about the practical impossibility of redacting names from the 93,000 reports, he distinguished between those who are “innocent” and those who are not. Regarding the latter he asked: “Are they entitled to retribution or not?” He did, however, learn from the experience. When the Iraq War logs were released in October most names had been redacted.
By now, fissures were emerging inside WikiLeaks. Relations between Assange and Domscheit-Berg became increasingly tense, especially after Assange warned him, in April 2010, regarding the exposure of sources: “If you fuck up, I’ll hunt you down and kill you.” Birgitta Jónsdóttir, the anarchist Icelandic parliamentarian, was concerned about what she saw as the cavalier way in which Assange had handled the moral issue of the Afghan War Diary. The young Icelandic anarchist historian, Herbert Snorrason, resented what he thought of as the increasingly dictatorial tendency inside the organisation. He claimed that Assange had warned: “I don’t like your tone. If it continues you’re out. I am the heart and soul of this organization, its founder, philosopher, spokesperson, original coder, organizer, financier, and all of the rest. If you have a problem … piss off.”
On 21 August, Assange discovered that he was under investigation for sexual crimes after he slept with two Swedish supporters during a triumphal visit to Stockholm, one of whom, Anna Ardin, to complicate matters, had published advice on her blog concerning seven lawful kinds of revenge women might take after sexual mistreatment. Facing these charges, Assange expected total loyalty. Neither Domscheit-Berg nor Jónsdóttir were willing to give him what he wanted. Domscheit-Berg was suspended from WikiLeaks; Jónsdóttir quit. The man Domscheit-Berg called “the architect” followed. He and Domscheit-Berg took the WikiLeaks’ submissions with them, at least temporarily, on the grounds that its sources needed far more scrupulous protection. Assange regards this as a pure “post facto fabrication”. Yet there was more to the troubles at WikiLeaks than supposed concerns about Assange’s laxity over security or his cavalier and dictatorial behaviour. In December, Rop Gonggrijp confessed to the Chaos Computer Club: “I guess I could make up all sorts of stories about how I disagreed with people or decisions, but the truth is that during the period that I helped out, the possible ramifications of WikiLeaks scared the bejezus out of me. Courage is contagious, my ass.” Assange had taken on the power of the American state without flinching. His identification with Solzhenitsyn was no longer empty.
Assange decided to release the 250,000 US Department of State cables WikiLeaks still had in its possession on drip-feed so their content could be absorbed. On 28 November the first batch was published. The American vice president, Joe Biden, called Assange a “high-tech terrorist”. The rival vice-presidential candidate of 2008, Sarah Palin, thought he should be hunted down like Osama bin Laden, a suggestion that led Assange to quip to Paris Match that at least that option assured him of a further ten years of freedom. Visa, Mastercard and PayPal severed connections with WikiLeaks. A global guerrilla hacker army of WikiLeaks supporters anonymously mounted an instant counter-attack.
Assange was by now facing two legal threats – extradition to Sweden to be interviewed about his relations with Anna Ardin and Sofia Wilén or extradition to the US where a secret grand jury had been established to look into whether he had committed crimes outlined in the 1917 Espionage Act or broken some other law. After a preliminary hearing in London on the Swedish extradition request, he was first imprisoned in Wandsworth gaol and then placed under a form of house arrest.
In early April 2010 hardly anyone had heard of Julian Assange. By December he was one of the most famous people on Earth, with very powerful enemies and very passionate friends. A future extradition to the US was almost certain to ignite a vast cultural war, a kind of 21st-century equivalent of the Dreyfus Affair. In the coming cultural war, he would also be championed by millions of “average shy intellectuals” across the Western world who had watched on passively as the political and business elites and their spin-masters in the US and beyond plunged Iraq into bloody turmoil, brought chaos to the global financial markets and resisted action over the civilisational crisis of climate change.
Assange had long grasped the political significance of his compatriot, Rupert Murdoch. In "Conspiracy as Governance" he had called the disinformation the political and business elites fed the people to safeguard their power and their interests the "Fox News Effect". As the pressure on Assange mounted, Murdoch was clearly on his mind. In December, he spoke to Pilger in the New Statesman of an "insurance file" on Murdoch and News Corp his supporters would release if he came to harm and to Paris Match about Murdoch's supposed "tax havens". If a culture war was engaged over Assange's extradition to the US it would involve, the clash of cultural armies mobilised by the creators of Fox News and WikiLeaks, the two most influential Australians of the era.