Julian Assange - the Scarlet Pimpernel of cyberspace
For a man obsessed with leaking sensitive information, the founder of Wikileaks founder is remarkably reluctant to reveal anything about himself, says William Langley.
Opinions are divided on the motives and image of WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange
04 Dec 2010
Thanks to the latest WikiLeaks spillage, we now know lots of things for certain that previously appeared to be merely obvious: that Gordon Brown was useless, that Afghan politicians like a backhander, and that the success of any lunch party you might be planning could be seriously imperilled by the presence of the Duke of York.
What we still don’t know, even as the world wades through the rising floods of diplomatic verbiage, is what the chief leaker, Julian Assange, is up to, whether he deserves to be seen as a goodie or a baddie, and who, indeed, he really is.
For a man at the forefront of the full-disclosure business, Assange is remarkably reluctant to reveal anything much about himself. The rare interviews he gives are notable for the feinting and weaving deployed to avoid questions he doesn’t want to answer. Prominent among these are inquiries about his early life, his finances, why his hair went white at the age of 25, and what exactly happened between himself and two women he met on a visit to Sweden last year.
To those who like what WikiLeaks does, the Australian-born Assange, 39, is rock-star glamorous – a vagabond warrior wreathed in deadly cool. Give him a sombrero and replace his BlackBerry with a smoking carbine, and it isn’t hard to imagine him holed up in the hills with the compañeros, waiting for the corrupt citadels of concealment to fall. To those who don’t, he’s a slippery, self-aggrandising charlatan, running what amounts to a criminal enterprise.
What can’t be disputed is that Assange’s creation, three years ago, of WikiLeaks, a website that serves as a secure mail drop for sensitive information – mostly generated by American intelligence and diplomatic agencies – was exquisitely timed. A world rattled by recession and spooked by threats ranging from terrorism to oil depletion to global warming has bought into the idea that the full extent of our predicament is being kept from us.
And, up to a point, it is. Earlier this year, a long investigative series in the Washington Post revealed that more than 854,000 people working for the US government now hold classified-material clearance – more than 1.5 times the entire population of Washington, DC. “The top-secret world the government has created in response to the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, has become so large, so unwieldy and so secretive,” the Post concluded, “that no one knows how much money it costs, how many people it employs, how many programmes exist within it or exactly how many agencies do the work.”
The rise of this vast, opaque, hostile-to-scrutiny apparatus has created a divide between those in the know and those sweating nervously beyond it – and from the void has emerged WikiLeaks. Assange dedicated the site to what he terms “radical democracy”, a notion seemingly based on the idea of a newly enlightened, global cyber-citizenry living in full awareness of all that was done in its name. “I am a journalist, a publisher, an inventor,” he boasted. “I have tried to invent a system that solves the problem of censorship across the whole world.”
This soaring idealism came as something of a shock to those who knew him as a lonely, faintly oddball kid in Australia in the Seventies and Eighties. His artsy-Bohemian parents ran a travelling theatre troupe, moving around Australia, until they split up when Julian was 11. The boy changed schools with such frequency that he would later claim to be essentially self-educated, but he nevertheless shone in maths and physics, before catching the computer bug. By the age of 16 he was an accomplished hacker operating under the name Mendax, and in the late 1980s was arrested and prosecuted for several counts of computer crime. He later studied at Melbourne University, learning to develop and program software.
Many of the people who knew Assange in these formative years now find it advisable to remain anonymous. Even so, a picture of his strange, obsessive life has emerged. One woman who shared a house with him in Melbourne in the time before WikiLeaks was launched told the Sydney Morning Herald about his living arrangements. Glued to the computer, he would usually neglect to eat, sleep or change his clothes, while the doors and walls of his room were decorated with dense mathematical formulas. Only red light bulbs were permitted, on the grounds that early man, upon waking, would see only the comforting red glow of a campfire. “He was always extremely focused,” she added.
The nomadic life continues. Assange claims to have no real home or base of operations; to move constantly between friends in Britain, Scandinavia and Africa, carrying little more than a rucksack and a laptop. Given such meagre resources, it’s hard not to admire the global attention he has attracted.
But behind the headlines, not all is well for cyberspace’s Scarlet Pimpernel. Several of his closest aides have recently quit, complaining, as one critic put it, of his “erratic and imperious behaviour, and nearly delusional grandeur”. Beyond the personality clashes, it is no secret that many who originally believed in WikiLeaks’ mission were dismayed by the site’s random disclosures, particularly about the war in Afghanistan, that clearly put lives at risk.
Last year, under pressure from the United States, which was demanding its “stolen” files back, Assange sought sanctuary in Sweden, only to be accused of rape and sexual molestation by two women who had offered to help him. On Friday, the Swedish prosecutor’s office issued an international warrant for his arrest. On the same day, WikiLeaks was temporarily closed down when its internet service provider came under cyber-attack.
Yet the biggest problem for Assange, his International Man of Mystery image, and his ambition to free the world of censorship may be his failure, in this latest episode, to uncover anything terribly interesting. The hype surrounding last week’s revelations soon gave way to derisive headlines along the lines of “WikiLeaks latest: Pope a Catholic; Bear seeks relief in woods”. Perhaps soon to be followed by: “Whistleblower all out of puff”.