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Julian Assange: The man who exposed the world

Crusader. Hacker. Megalomaniac. Extortionist.


 
A man of many secrets

Assange calls himself the ‘editor-in-chief’ of WikiLeaks, and says his group has created ‘scientific’ journalism; WikiLeaks’ confidential files are stored in a Cold War bunker in Stockholm | Leon Neal/AFP/Getty Images; Banhof AB/Polaris

When Julian Assange was finally arrested in London on Dec. 7, it was on allegations of having had unwelcome, unprotected intercourse with two Swedish women, and not for convulsing global diplomacy with his slow, controversial leak of diplomatic cables that infuriated allies, embarrassed kings and princes, were condemned by Washington for endangering lives, and dismissed by Tehran as a CIA plot. In a story worthy of a bestseller by Stieg Larsson, with its mix of state secrets, sex, and self-righteous computer geeks, it could come to pass that the man at the helm of WikiLeaks, who could not be pinned down by the U.S. Espionage Act, is vulnerable to a Swedish law against “sex by surprise.”

Assange, with his pale Warholian looks, is now a world hyper-celebrity or international super-villain, out of hiding and in custody, but still defiant. The Swedes may be the first to get him, but many more governments would like to get their hands on him. It has been a remarkable journey for someone who started out as a teenage hacker in his native Australia but became one of the most notorious men in the world—an individual who may have drastically altered the rules both in the world of diplomacy and the business of journalism. It is a story that has left people wondering about his motives, and pondering the question: what drives Julian Assange?

Assange’s first encounter with the law, and his first fight for the secrets of a government bureaucracy, trace back to 1990, when the then-20-year-old Australian hacked into the Melbourne computers of the Canadian company Nortel.

Assange had been hacking since he was 16, an escape from a childhood that could charitably be described as unstable. He was born in Townsville, a small city on the northeastern coast of Australia, and grew up, among other places, on Magnetic Island—a coastal island named for its mysterious interference with Capt. James Cook’s ship’s compass in 1770. His mother Christine was a roving, bohemian artist who moved her son through dozens of homes and schools before he was 15 (Assange’s parents split shortly after his birth, and his mother married a fellow artist when he was two).

The Townsville Bulletin reported in July that school friends “described Mr. Assange’s family as very alternative, borderline hippies, adding it was: ‘quite exciting to go to their house, so many different things were happening.’ ” Sometimes Assange went to school, sometimes he didn’t, but he was self-taught in a variety of subjects and had a passion for computers. His mother and stepfather travelled around Australia, putting on theatrical plays—his stepfather directed and his mother designed the sets.

They divorced when Assange was nine, and his mother took up with a musician whom Assange would later describe as “a manipulative and violent psychopath.” By his teens, mother and son were on the run from the abusive ex-boyfriend, criss-crossing Australia, and hiding under assumed names. They finally settled on the outskirts of Melbourne, in a rural town called Emerald. There, when he was 17, Assange married his girlfriend, whom he has described as “an intelligent but introverted and emotionally disturbed 16-year-old he had met through a mutual friend in a gifted children’s program.” A year later, they had a son, Daniel.

It was in Emerald that Assange, under the handle “Mendax,” turned a $700 Amiga computer from his mother into a portal through which his roving mind could reach into the outside world. The details of Assange’s childhood and his hacking exploits are detailed in a 1997 book entitled Underground: Tales of Hacking, Madness and Obsession on the Electronic Frontier, by Australian academic Suelette Dreyfus (on which Assange is credited as a researcher).

According to the book, the young Assange worked as part of a trio of young hackers who called themselves the International Subversives, and infiltrated computers around the world. They bragged of carrying out cyber “assaults” on what they called a “who’s who of the U.S. military-industrial complex,” from the 7th Air Force’s command group headquarters in the Pentagon, and Lockheed Martin’s Tactical Aircraft Systems plant in Texas, to corporations such as Motorola and Xerox. On one such occasion, Mendax discovered Pentagon hackers infiltrating military computers on what he surmised to be a practice mission. The possibility disturbed him. “Hackers, he thought, should be anarchists,” wrote Dreyfus. “Not hawks.”

Assange and his friends hacked for sport and bragging rights, following a credo of not damaging the computers they infiltrated and not profiting from the information they found. They used technical prowess and, at times, human deception. On one occasion, Assange resorted to calling a user of a computer system he was trying to hack, posing as a computer technician and asking for his account password, ostensibly to perform maintenance. To make the call credible from his country perch, he recreated the buzz of a Sydney office building by tape-recording a soundtrack of printer noises, his own typing, and the background murmur of his own voice reading out lines from Macbeth.

The undoing of the International Subversives would be Nortel, which sold high-tech equipment that ran some of the world’s largest telephone companies, including Australia’s. Mendax set his sights on Nortel in order to find documents that would help him manipulate telephone exchanges, or to install “back doors” in the company’s software that could enable him to control telephone switches installed by Nortel all over the world. “What power! Mendax thought, what if you could turn off 10,000 phones in Rio de Janeiro, or give 5,000 New Yorkers free calls one afternoon, or listen into private telephone conversations in Brisbane. The telecommunications world would be your oyster,” the book recounts.

Once he hacked into the system, Mendax started playing. One of his first acts was to instruct the computer to make 1,000 telephones all ring at once. He found internal security to be relaxed. “By sneaking in the back door, the hackers found themselves able to raid all sorts of Nortel sites, from St. Kilda Road in Melbourne to the corporation’s headquarters in [suburban] Toronto,” wrote Dreyfus. “One of them described it as being ‘like a shipwrecked man washed ashore on a Tahitian island populated by 11,000 virgins, just ripe for the picking.’ ”

They used a password-cracking software, which they set up on computers they believed to be located in Canada, and cracked 5,000 passwords, giving them access to thousands of Nortel computers across the globe. The hackers mused that they could dig up information on new product development or business strategies or internal memos and sell them to competitors or manipulate stock prices. But they considered themselves explorers, not spies, and such a move would have violated their ethics. And rather than get rich, they got caught—the Nortel hack led to the arrest of Assange and his friends. By May 1995, the three hackers faced 63 charges in total, 31 of them for Assange.

On Dec. 5, 1996, Assange pleaded guilty to charges, and got off with a good behaviour bond for three years and a $2,300 fine. But the consequences were severe. In the months leading up to his arrest, Assange had become paranoid, dreaming about police raids, “of footsteps crunching on the driveway gravel, of shadows in the pre-dawn darkness,” and of gun-toting police bursting in, according to Underground. His personal life fell apart. His wife left him and took their son. While awaiting trial, he fell into a depression and was hospitalized. And once the legal troubles were over, he focused on getting his son back, launching a bruising custody fight that lasted nearly a decade and eventually pitted Assange and his mother Christine against Health and Community Services, the Australian child protection agency.

During that battle, they alleged that Assange’s girlfriend’s boyfriend was a danger to the child, but had trouble getting the bureaucracy to intervene. The custody proceedings involved more than 40 legal hearings and appeals, according to the Brisbane Times. The Assanges started a group, Parent Inquiry into Child Protection, to campaign for changes to Australian law. Their investigations into Health and Community Services included a low-tech rehearsal for WikiLeaks: asking social workers to leak internal documents for the creation of a central database. They were able to obtain some internal documents, including a manual, that helped in their advocacy efforts. “What we saw was a great bureaucracy that was trying to squash people,” Christine Assange told The New Yorker magazine this year. She said the emotional toll left her son’s brown hair drained of colour, and left him scarred by what she called post-traumatic stress disorder. In 1999, he finally got a custody agreement for Daniel.

Whether his child custody battle left him with a permanent hostility to government institutions, only Assange knows for sure. But in 1999, the same year he reached the settlement, he registered the website that would later become WikiLeaks. Through the 1990s, he had been concerned with free speech and technology. In 1993, he’d started a free speech Internet service provider in Australia. In 1997, he co-invented a form of encryption that helps human rights workers protect sensitive data. He studied math and physics at universities in Australia for several years, but became disenchanted, he told the Age newspaper, with how many of his fellow students were conducting research for the U.S. defence system. In 2007, he quit his studies and went to work with an international group of dissidents, mathematicians and academics to create WikiLeaks. “Our primary interests are oppressive regimes in Asia, the former Soviet bloc, sub-Saharan Africa and the Middle East,” the website said. “But we also expect to be of assistance to those in the West who wish to reveal unethical behaviour in their own governments and corporations.” Assange was then described in the media as a WikiLeaks official and cryptographer.

According to The New Yorker, the first document posted on the website was a Somali rebel leader’s call to use criminals to assassinate government officials. WikiLeaks went on to post a procedural manual for the detention camp at Guantánamo Bay in Cuba in 2007. In 2008, it released documents alleging wrongdoing at the Cayman Islands branch of the Julius Bär banking group of Switzerland, internal documents from the Church of Scientology, and the contents of Sarah Palin’s private emails during the 2008 presidential campaign. In 2009, it released correspondence relating to climate change research at the University of East Anglia. WikiLeaks was honoured by Amnesty International for the 2008 publication of a suppressed official report about police killings in Kenya.

Assange has often discussed authoritarian conspiracies, but he has not specified whether he considers the United States to be among them. Eventually, though, WikiLeaks did come to focus on American actions—based on a huge cache of hundreds of thousands of secret government documents allegedly downloaded by a low-level military analyst. Last April, WikiLeaks posted a video of U.S. soldiers firing from a helicopter on a group of men in a Baghdad street, in an attack that killed at least 12 people, including two journalists, and injured two children. It was the beginning of a deluge of U.S. documents, all allegedly leaked by Bradley Manning, a low-ranking Army intelligence analyst who confessed in online chats to a former hacker that he downloaded them from army networks.

In July, WikiLeaks released more than 90,000 American documents, most of them classified secret, detailing six years of the war in Afghanistan. Reaction was furious: the U.S., Canada, allied governments and various human rights groups including Amnesty International condemned the release, saying that Afghan informants were endangered. But Assange has insisted there is no evidence the documents led to any harm.

After the Afghan controversy, WikiLeaks released the “Iraq war logs” that detailed the U.S. war effort. This time they were more vigorously redacted, by both the website and a consortium of international news outlets. In a deal that had started with the Afghan documents, the outside journalists would sift through the documents ahead of time, writing articles and posting a sampling of the documents that the journalists had contextualized on their own websites.

Daniel Domscheit-Berg, a former associate of Assange’s who served for several years as the spokesman for WikiLeaks, told Maclean’s that WikiLeaks has evolved its methods through a process of trial and error. “WikiLeaks is working on a very new terrain of society,” he says. “No one has worked in that field in that way.” One decision was to release the leaks only to that small consortium of international news outlets before they were made public—a process that was itself cloaked in secrecy and left the news media of entire countries such as Canada out of the initial loop. “It was a natural consequence of what we learned: if you just put out information, people won’t touch it,” Domscheit-Berg says. “The news media wants exclusive access, they want the scoop, they want to be the first to publish, and so you have to meet that economic consideration.” By making the material exclusive to certain organizations, WikiLeaks was able to “get more resources” dedicated to analyzing the documents, Domscheit-Berg says.

While Wikileaks published all the Iraq documents—albeit heavily redacted by a computer program that left many indecipherable—it is unclear whether or when it will release all of the U.S. diplomatic cables. To date, only a small fraction have been reported on by the press and released by WikiLeaks. According to Assange, he is also in possession of documents relating to corruption in Russia, and is planning another “mega-leak” in 2011 concerning a “big U.S. bank.”

Assange has also said, even before the release of the U.S. cables, that his goal is to expose wrongdoing. At a July conference in Oxford he said that such documents would expose “the true state of, say, what Arab governments are like. They prove human rights abuses.” Asked about his values, Assange once described himself as a “combative” person who seeks to “police perpetrators of crime.” And since the cables have started to be released, he has called on President Barack Obama and U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton to resign, on the grounds that some of the released documents allege they instructed U.S. diplomats to spy on foreign dignitaries at the UN (an accusation U.S. officials deny).

Clinton has called WikiLeaks’ disclosures “an attack on the international community” that puts lives at risk. Defense Secretary Robert Gates played down their impact. “Is this embarrassing? Yes. Is it awkward? Yes,” he told reporters. “Consequences for U.S. foreign policy? I think fairly modest.” Gates’s sanguine attitude aside, there is no question that American diplomacy, which the Obama administration had been trying to shore up, has been damaged.

Personal relationships have been strained; relations with the leaders of countries such as Russia and Turkey have become more difficult (some released documents were heavily critical of Vladimir Putin’s regime in Moscow, while others were critical of the Turkish government). Public opinion in some countries may nurse insults long into the future: witness the angry British reaction after the release of cables with U.S. officials criticizing the effectiveness of British troops in Afghanistan. There is also the cost of time and effort as diplomats scramble to do damage control rather than proceed with their work.

The cables have illustrated some instances of wrongdoing, or, at the very least, grey areas. They showed that the government of Yemen was claiming responsibility for bombings aimed at Islamic terrorists that were secretly carried out by U.S. forces; Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh told U.S. Gen. David Petraeus: “We’ll continue saying the bombs are ours, not yours.” In Spain, El Pais newspaper reported that the cables showed the role of high-level U.S. officials in trying to stymie Spanish criminal investigations into incidents of alleged torture by the United States, violations of the laws of war in Iraq, or kidnappings in connection with the CIA’s extraordinary renditions program. And Obama was criticized in Israel for telling Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu it was essential to make progress on the Palestinian issue in order to build up support among Arab states for putting pressure on Iran: in fact, he was already in possession of the cables in which King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia called on the U.S. to “cut off the head” of the Persian “snake.”

But the leaks have also shown diplomats doing their jobs, with some instances of success: the Obama administration put together a coalition—including a previously recalcitrant China and Russia—to impose harsh economic sanctions against Iran over its nuclear program. The cables suggest U.S. diplomats got Russia on board by moving Bush-era plans for a missile defence system out of Eastern Europe and onto ships closer to Iran. China’s co-operation was achieved by brokering an agreement in which Saudi Arabia guaranteed a supply of oil if the Chinese lost their Iranian energy source.

The cables also showed that the U.S. resisted calls from Middle Eastern leaders to attack Iran. “In the Middle East, we are portrayed as these gunslingers who shoot up Iran and Afghanistan, but what comes across is that we are playing a moderate role,” says Fariborz Ghadar, a senior adviser to the Center for Strategic International Studies, a Washington think tank. “Where Arabs and the Israelis want to bomb Iran, we are basically holding everyone back. The silver lining in the Middle East is that in the public’s eye we are more reasonable than they are.”

On the other hand, the cables and the coverage they have received in the U.S., taken as a whole, paint a grim, Hobbesian picture of a world full of threats, unstable leaders and unreliable allies—some with ulterior motives, as alleged by the cable describing a cozy and lucrative relationship between Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi and Putin. They suggest that no country, not even China, has a reliable window into the regime running North Korea. Foreign policy hawks see in the bleak picture painted by the documents an affirmation of their hardline positions. “The cables show a world with a lot of threats and challenges for the United States,” John Bolton, who served as U.S. ambassador to the UN under president George W. Bush, told Maclean’s in an interview. Bolton added that President Obama’s efforts to curtail Iran’s nuclear program “have failed badly” and, “absent some pre-emptive military action, Iran will get military weapons.” The cables also show, he contended, that “the whole idea that a military attack on Iran’s nuclear weapons program would somehow cause chaos in the Middle East has not been the correct analysis.”

It is unlikely that Assange’s goal was to embolden American foreign policy hawks. In a letter to the Australian newspaper published on the day of his arrest, he wrote, “People have said I am anti-war: for the record, I am not. Sometimes nations need to go to war, and there are just wars. But there is nothing more wrong than a government lying to its people about those wars, then asking these same citizens to put their lives and their taxes on the line for those lies.”

It is far too early to judge the full impact of the leaked cables. One unintended consequence may be to make the U.S. more cautious in pressing the issue of press freedom abroad. On the same day Assange was arrested, State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley announced that in May, Washington would host a three-day UNESCO meeting to mark World Press Freedom Day. “The theme for this commemoration will be ‘21st Century Media: New Frontiers, New Barriers,’ ” announced Crowley. But, he added, “Obviously, we decided upon this before the latest round of news.”

Meanwhile, Manning, 22, the alleged leaker, is being held at the military brig at Quantico, Va., facing a possible 52-year prison term. The U.S. Justice Department is looking for charges to bring against WikiLeaks. But whatever his personal fate, Assange’s work is now bigger than himself. He has distributed the contents of other document caches to his supporters in encrypted form, and has threatened that if something happens to him, he will release the key and they will flood the Internet with their unredacted, and presumably very dangerous, contents.

Moreover, the phenomenon is about to become bigger than even WikiLeaks. Assange’s former associate, Domscheit-Berg, says he is planning to launch his own site next week. It would provide a secure way of sharing leaked documents online without publishing them on the website, he said. “Analogous to the world where you as a journalist can have someone send you a document, you should have the possibility in the digital age to receive documents via an online mechanism,” he said.

Domscheit-Berg—who left WikiLeaks after three years due to differences with Assange over the way the organization was being run—says he wants to see the proliferation of more whistle-blower websites. “I do not believe that there should be a single monolithic website that deals with this need for society to handle information. I believe in decentralization. I think we should have plenty of these sites,” he told Maclean’s.

He says he regrets that WikiLeaks has become what he calls “a pop culture phenomenon.” Public attention should focus on the documents, not the organization, Domscheit-Berg says. “The form is distracting from the content in some way which I think is sub-optimal.” Assange held on to power too closely, he said—putting himself in danger and hurting the organization. “I do not think this should be in one man’s hands—that’s partly why I left.” But as long as the focus is on the group, Domscheit-Berg plans to have his own say. The German says he is writing a book about his WikiLeaks experiences that is to be published in Germany in January.

Assange, meanwhile, is making the high-stakes case that WikiLeaks is a journalistic organization and entitled to the same legal protections as the free press. He pointedly calls himself the “editor-in-chief” of WikiLeaks, and says his group has created “scientific” journalism. “Scientific journalism allows you to read a news story, then to click online to see the original document it is based on,” he wrote in the Australian. “That way you can judge for yourself: is the story true? Did the journalist report it accurately?”

But Assange has also distanced himself from the profession. “It’s a worry, isn’t it, that the world’s media is doing such a bad job that a little group of activists is able to release more [classified] information than the rest of the world’s media combined,” he once said. But pressed further by an interviewer who described him as a former teenaged hacker, Assange shot back: “I was a young journalist/activist at an early age. I wrote a magazine and was prosecuted for it when I was a teenager. You have to be careful with ‘hacker.’ ”

According to the account in Underground, the book Assange himself helped author, that electronic magazine he edited, “The International Subversive,” recorded modem numbers and passwords collected by Assange and his two collaborators, and compiled instructions on hacking. Prosecutors used it as evidence of “incitement” to hack. It had a circulation of three.


 

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