The recent release of more than 90,000 classified and secret documents on the war in Afghanistan by Wikileaks has sent alarm bells ringing in Washington and around the world and brought new attention to the shadowy organization, as it was intended to do.
Wikileaks, which depends on donations to fund its activities, is no traditional whistleblower or open-government group. It’s a loose and apparently fluid conjoining of techno-geeks and activists—without offices and without discernable staff—that’s hell bent on information transparency no matter the consequence except when it applies to them.
“Our goal is reform; our message is transparency,” Wikileaks founder Julian Assange said in London last week. “We do not put the message before the goal.”
So who exactly is Julian Assange, the ring master of the Wikileaks circus? Information on the self-appointed king of transparency is scant. But what has been garnered from a handful of interviews with him and his mother, plus court records, paints a picture of obsession spawned by a helter-skelter upbringing.
Julian Paul Assange was born in Townville, Queensland, Australia in 1971 to non-conformist parents who operated a touring theater troupe. His life was the road, first with both parents and later with his mother and a step-brother, who were trying to evade the step-sibling’s abusive father who they believed belonged to a cult and had informants in government agencies who gave the man information as to their whereabouts.
By age 16, Assange had attended 37 different schools, yet through the education he formally received and that he gained from reading books, he was able to later enter a university to study pure mathematics and physics. He reportedly left university in 2006 prior to starting Wikileaks a year later.
Some reports have said Assange’s mother was against formal schooling because it taught deference to authority, so she mainly home-schooled him.
Assange, reports say, entered the hacker underground as a teenager, first with a Commodore 64 and modem, which he used to illegally enter computer systems. With two friends he formed a group called “international subversives” and regularly hacked without malice into the computer systems of the U.S. Department of Defense, the Los Alamos National Laboratory as well as the systems of Australian and Canadian organizations.
“The austerity of one’s interaction with a computer is something that appealed to me,” he told a writer for the New Yorker recently. “It’s like chess—chess is very austere, in that you don’t have many rules, there is no randomness and the problems are very difficult.”
When he was still 19 (some reports say 20) Assange was in trouble with the law. The Australian Federal Police scooped up the International Subversives and the amateur hacker eventually pled guilty to 25 charges.
No jail time for the budding crusader. He paid a fine and was set free.
”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 told a reporter from The Age newspaper in Melbourne earlier this year. “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.”
Between then and university—mainly in Melbourne—he reportedly made a living as a computer programmer.
It was while in university that Assange put out his first big expose. Through a variety of means he discovered physics professors were doing work for defense and intelligence agencies and he spilled the beans in a blog. He called the physicists “sniveling fearful comformists of woefully, woefully inferior character.”
It was from that blog that the idea of Wikileaks was born. The struggle of man, he believes, is not one political leaning versus another but of individuals struggling against institutions, Raffi Khatchadourian wrote in the New Yorker. “As a student of Kafka, Koestler and Sola membezhenitsyn, he believed that truth, creativity, love, and compassion are corrupted by institutional hieracrchies.”
Khatchadourian spent time with Assange and other Wikileaks activists in Iceland earlier this year who were preparing to release a video of U.S. forces in Iraq killing a group of people, including a news reporter.
Like the few reporters who have met with Assange, the journey to the venue was circuitous and reminiscent of a John LeCarre spy novel.
Assange and other activists briefly rented a house in Reykavik, which they turned into a bunker filled with computers. People used initials instead of names and took their direction from Assange, who worked in feverish bursts of energy in front of a computer screen.
The only two named people in the house, besides Assange, were Rop Gonggrijp, a Dutch activist, and Birgitta Jonsdottir, an Icelandic radical and member of the country’s parliament.
Assange travels constantly. He has no known home, no fixed address. Instead he roams the world with only a laptop and a backpack of clothes. He does, however have four bases. Among the four are Iceland and Kenya.
”I have four bases where I would go if I was sick, which is how I think about where home is,” he told The Age.
Since the release of the video of the helicopter shooting in Iraq he avoids the United States fearing arrest.
Why the particular obsession with government institutions and bureaucracy? Possibly the answer lies in a battle Assange fought in his early 20s over full custody of his daughter.
Assange’s girlfriend, who whom he had an “unofficial” marriage, left amid the turmoil over his hacking arrest and trial. He wanted full custody, apparently, arguing that the former girlfriend and then-current beau were a danger to the child.
The State Child Protection Agency disagreed.
“What we saw was a great bureaucracy that was squashing people,” Assange’s mother was quoted as saying.
She said the result was “full-on activist” methods, including taped conversations of agency officials and flyers urging agency workers and others to provide information for entry into a database on child protection.
Assange and his former girlfriend later settled matters between themselves, but one can only imagine what the father’s experience with the bureaucracy was like and the anger it could engender.
Assange says Wikileaks, which uses multiple servers and whose material appears on many domains, practices what he called “harm immunization” before putting documents out on the Internet to protect sources and innocent people mentioned. But he also likened anyone who was inadvertantly harmed to “collateral damage.”
“When governments stop torturing and killing people, and when corporations stop abusing the legal system, then perhaps it will be time to ask if free-speech activists are accountable,” he said.
There is little doubt that there is illegality in obtaining and leaking secret documents, but Assange says Wikileaks is an international effort and thus doesn’t recognize “national security” concerns.
”We’re not interested in that. We’re interested in justice,” he’s quoted as saying. “We are a super-national organization. So we’re not interested in national security.”
Perhaps the rationale for Assange and Wikileaks activists would use to justify their actions in their own minds is one written in 100 BC by Publilius Syrus: “For a just cause, wrong-doing is virtuous.”
But there’s another that comes to mind when contemplating their disregard of legalities and the damage that could be caused by their actions.
“Everyone, sooner or later, sits down to a banquet of consequences,” Robert Louis Stevenson wrote.
What will be the consequences for Assange and Wikileaks?