Special Report: Julian Assange versus the world

WASHINGTON Mon Dec 13, 2010 2:16pm EST

Julian Assange, founder of WikiLeaks, which has made public about 500,000 classified U.S. files on the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, holds a news conference at the Geneva Press Club in Geneva, November 4, 2010, the day before the United Nation's Human Rights Council examines the U.S. human rights record in its universal periodic review programme. REUTERS/Valentin Flauraud

Julian Assange, founder of WikiLeaks, which has made public about 500,000 classified U.S. files on the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, holds a news conference at the Geneva Press Club in Geneva, November 4, 2010, the day before the United Nation's Human Rights Council examines the U.S. human rights record in its universal periodic review programme.

Credit: Reuters/Valentin Flauraud

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.

WIKI-STANDS

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.)

TURBULENT FAMILY BACKGROUND

By most accounts, Julian Assange is a dazzling, world-class computer programing wizard. On a personal and political level, however, he is a complex, volatile, sometimes inscrutable, often difficult man, according to people who have worked with him.

Assange has described himself to collaborators, only partly in jest, as "somewhere on the autistic spectrum."

Assange guards his privacy so ferociously that when he turned himself in to British police in connection with the Swedish sex case, he refused to be fingerprinted, photographed or swabbed for a DNA sample. Once in court, he refused to tell the judge his address, offering first a post-office box and then an Australian address where he lived several years ago. The "red notice" sent out by the international law enforcement group Interpol, which came after Swedish authorities issued their European warrant for his arrest, listed Assange's age as 39, and his place of birth as Townsville, Australia.

According to press reports, including an in-depth profile published in the New Yorker magazine in June, shortly before WikiLeaks' first dump of Pentagon files, Assange's early life and family background were almost as turbulent as the recent events surrounding him.

Published accounts -- including stories cited by Assange's lengthy entry in the online data bank Wikipedia -- say that when he was one year old, his mother married a theater director, with whom she collaborated on touring productions. At one point the family lived on a rock outcropping known as Magnetic Island, where, according to the New Yorker, their house burned down.

The magazine says that when Assange was eight years old, his mother left his father and took up with a musician, with whom she had another child. That relationship then soured, causing a bitter custody fight over Assange's half-brother. In turn, Assange's mother took up an itinerant existence in an effort to avoid the ex-boyfriend, who Assange told the New Yorker may have belonged to a sinister cult known as "The Family." By the time he was 14, Julian and his mother had moved 37 times. For education, Julian was partly home-schooled, but also heavily self-taught.

"I spent a lot of time in libraries going from one thing to another, looking closely at the books I found in citations," he told the magazine.

At some point in his early teens, according to the New Yorker's account, Assange's mother rented a house across the street from an electronics shop. Assange wrote his first programs on a primitive Commodore 64 and was immediately hooked by the wonders of technology.

Later, he acquired a modem, which enabled him to plug into primitive computer networks. This in turn introduced him to the world of computer hacking, a pastime he is reported to have embraced with gusto.

Using the nickname "Mendax" -- a classical Latin word for "liar" -- Assange joined two other fledgling hackers to form a posse which called itself the "International Subversives." The group launched forays into the computer systems of some of America's most sensitive government installations, including nuclear weapon labs.

But according to a book about the budding hacker subculture called "Underground," for which Assange served as Australian author Suelette Dreyfus' researcher, he and his pals tried to operate by what in hindsight sound like a notably benign set of self-imposed guidelines: Don't damage or crash networks you hack into; don't mess with the data and share information.

Before he was out of his teens, Assange's involvement in the hacker subculture involved him in clashes with authority. At one point, Australian police raided his residence and confiscated his computer gear, though they later gave it back. In the early 1990s, Australian federal authorities launched a major investigation into the International Subversives, which, according to an account offered in the book he researched, fueled Assange's own growing paranoia. "Mendax dreamed of police raids all the time. He dreamed of footsteps crunching on the driveway gravel, of shadows in the pre-dawn darkness, of a gun-toting police squad bursting through his backdoor at 5 am."

According to the New Yorker, Assange became so strung out waiting for the knock on the door that his teenage sweetheart, whom he had married, found his behavior so intolerable that she moved out, taking with her their young son. He subsequently became embroiled in a bitter child custody fight with the child's mother; Assange's mother told the magazine this inculcated in her son a deep antipathy to bureaucracy which he believed was "squashing people." She and Julian even launched an organization to campaign against local child protection authorities.

Eventually the police also arrived on Assange's doorstep, arresting him and charging him with 31 counts of computer-related crime. However, after years of pre-trial litigation, when the case finally came to court, even though he pleaded guilty to 25 counts, he got away with paying a small sum in compensation.

EVERYONE AND NO ONE WANTS TO SAVE THE WORLD

Burned out by his epic legal battles, Assange toured Asia, took on freelance work as a computer consultant and studied physics at the University of Melbourne. He also began blogging his thoughts to the world on matters both technical and metaphysical. His blog entries, which can still be found on the web, are a mixture of pseudo-scientific and philosophical gibberish, cultural and literary observations ("Kurt Vonnegut is dead."), extremely technical computer coding sequences and often jumbled political statements. But they also contained germs of ideas that seem to offer insights into Assange's psyche and signposts to his future pursuits.

In one lengthy September 23, 2006 post, he reprints an essay by somebody named Grady Towers musing about the late William James Sidis, a math prodigy who had a brief but spectacular academic career but suffered an equally rapid decline into destitution.

According to the essay, Sidis had an IQ somewhere between 250 and 300 and by age three had become a New York Times reader and had taught himself Latin and Greek. He matriculated at Harvard at age 11, became the youngest professor in history and propounded some of the earliest theories about the existence of black holes. But he subsequently had a psychic meltdown, drifted between menial jobs, rarely bathed and died a virgin at age 46.

The essay uses this woeful tale as the touchstone for a meditation on gifted children, concluding that despite Sidis' unhappy end, science subsequently demonstrated that, as Towers put it: "The gifted are not weak or sickly, and ... they are generally thought to be better looking than their contemporaries: they are not nerds."

But it also quotes a dark observation Aldous Huxley made about the Sir Isaac Newton: "The price Newton had to pay for being a supreme intellect was that he was incapable of friendship, love, fatherhood and many other desirable things. As a man he was a failure; as a monster he was superb."

In an essay entitled "Jackboots," Assange describes how he felt that his own personal travails were comparable to the experiences of Gulag prisoners in Alexander Solzhenitsyn's novel "The First Circle" -- the story of a brilliant mathematician imprisoned by Stalin and forced to choose between aiding the state or being transferred to a Siberian camp.

"To feel that home is the comraderie (sic) of persecuted, and infact (sic) prosecuted, polymaths in a Stalinist slave labor camp! How close the parallels to my own adventures!" Another essay, this one almost incomprehensible, is headlined: "Everyone and no one wants to save the world."

Also featured in Assange's blog are postings like a 2006 item entitled "What are the origins of hactivism," in which he talks about how U.S. government networks in 1989 had been penetrated by a worm whose source Assange claims to have traced to Melbourne, Australia, his own backyard.

From these and other more technological ruminations Assange began to create the concept, and later the physical and electronic architecture, of what became WikiLeaks. According to his web-postings, he was deeply affected by the incident in Somalia involving the American military helicopter that was the inspiration behind the film "Black Hawk Down." Blog entries from December 2006 include an item headed: "Black hawk down, white wash (sic) up" and another entitled: "The pending total annihilation of the US regime in Somalia."

Around this time, the fledgling WikiLeaks posted its first purported leak: some kind of secret edict from a Somali rebel leader. Soon, Assange was touting the merits of his website to a conference of left-wing activists in Kenya, where he stayed for several months.

By December 2007, Assange was plugged in deeply enough into the world of international computer outlaws to find himself at the annual conference of the Chaos Computer Club, a German hacker group with a pedigree going back to 1981, the cyberspace equivalent of the Stone Age.

At the conference, he met up with like-minded hacktivist Daniel Domscheit-Berg, a German programer who received his first computer at age eight. Domscheit-Berg, according to a blurb for a WikiLeaks book he is writing -- which Reuters has reviewed -- once worked 420 hours over four weeks trying to rescue a computer project in Moscow which had become fouled up.

At the time he met Assange, Domscheit-Berg was working as a troubleshooter for the international data services firm EDS. For him, WikiLeaks was initially a hobby. But in early 2009, Domscheit-Berg left his job to join WikiLeaks full-time, and for the next 18 months, he and Assange were partners and soulmates.

FROM PRANKSTERS TO PARIAHS

In its early stages, WikiLeaks was hardly an international sensation.

The eclectic selection of other people's secrets that the website initially published included some of Sarah Palin's private emails and the confidential membership list of a British neo-fascist party. A year ago, the website stirred up an international furor by publishing emails exchanged among global warming experts. Conservative critics suggested that the messages showed academics tampering with scientific evidence. But investigations later found the accusations wildly overblown.

WikiLeaks first major media breakthrough came last April. Assange journeyed to Washington, where he unveiled a 2007 combat video. Filmed from the flight deck of an American Apache helicopter in Baghdad, it showed the chopper crew repeatedly opening fire on a group of people on the ground, including some people in a van which approached and began helping the wounded.

Two of the men killed in the incident were a Reuters photographer and his driver. WikiLeaks took the official video, which the Pentagon had tried to keep secret, and inserted it in its own presentation of the material, which it captioned "Collateral Murder." Assange introduced the material by accusing the helicopter crew of treating its work like a video game. "Their desire was simply to kill," he claimed. "Their desire was to get high scores on that video game."

Pentagon officials shot back that WikiLeaks had taken the video out of context and some independent commentators agreed, accusing Assange and his website of distorting the evidence to make a political point.

The contretemps put WikiLeaks and its founder on the mainstream media map.

FROM TRIUMPH TO TRIBULATION

As his and WikiLeaks' fame and notoriety grew, influential members of the media reached out in what they described as an effort to help. A few weeks after the release of the Iraq video, Nick Davies, a veteran British investigative journalist and author affiliated with London's Guardian, cornered Assange at the European Parliament with an intriguing proposal.

In a long conversation on a train and then in a Brussels cafe, Davies told Reuters, he argued to Assange that the material in WikiLeaks possession might have more impact if it was carefully researched and turned into stories by respected mainstream media outlets.

Davies said he proposed to Assange that the Guardian and The New York Times should work on the material together. He pointed out that while under British law it might be easy for authorities to get a court order stopping the Guardian from making secret documents public, U.S. law would make it virtually impossible for any authority to shut down The New York Times. At Assange's insistence, the German weekly Der Spiegel was also added to the team.

Davies says that he and Assange worked out a secret password and wrote it down on a napkin. The password included the logo of the cafe where they were meeting. Two days later, Davies says, the Guardian team downloaded its first tranche of U.S. government secrets -- over 90,000 field reports generated by U.S. military units fighting in Afghanistan -- from a secret WikiLeaks website, which Davies says existed only for a few hours before it disappeared from cyberspace.

As Davies had predicted, the stories had a huge impact.

But even as Assange and his media collaborators congratulated themselves on the attention they had brought to the leaked Afghan War papers, trouble was brewing behind the scenes. In particular, there were allegations that Assange had exaggerated how carefully he had vetted the Afghan War material before posting the documents on the WikiLeaks website.

Not long after the Afghan documents were published, Assange gave the Guardian, New York Times and Der Spiegel advance access to the second of what he told associates was four tranches of secret U.S. documents acquired by WikiLeaks. This time the leak involved a set of almost 400,000 incident reports generated by U.S. military units in Iraq.

The plan was for both the media outlets and WikiLeaks to take a bit more time going through the material and redacting it if necessary to avoid accusations that lives were being put in jeopardy.

By then, however, associates say that Assange's personal problems became a distraction. After two Swedish women went to the police in August following separate sexual encounters with Assange, some longtime supporters and even close associates began to turn on him.

One erstwhile WikiLeaks collaborator who became so irked by Assange's antics that she felt compelled to speak out was Birgitta Jonsdottir, a political activist in Iceland who won election to parliament in the wake of that country's financial meltdown. She had been so intrigued by the idea behind WikiLeaks that she helped Assange put together WikiLeaks "Collateral Murder" video package.

But Jonsdottir was appalled at events unfolding in Sweden and proposed Assange step down as WikiLeaks leader at least until the Swedish sex inquiry was resolved. She even talked about convening an extraordinary meeting of WikiLeaks activists to oust Assange as leader in the event he did not step down voluntarily.

Not long afterward, Daniel Domscheit-Berg, the German programer who had been Assange's closest WikiLeaks collaborator, broke with Assange in even more spectacular fashion.

Already distressed by what he viewed as WikiLeaks' careless editing of the Afghan War documents, Domscheit-Berg and Assange got into the online equivalent of a shouting match when Assange accused Domscheit-Berg of leaking information to a journalist about internal WikiLeaks criticism of Assange over the sex case.

According to Threat Level, a Wired Magazine blog, Assange did not respond well to insurgency in the ranks of WikiLeaks. "I am the heart and soul of this organization, its founder, philosopher, spokesperson, original coder, organizer, financier and all the rest," Assange wrote to another disillusioned WikiLeaks volunteer from Iceland, Herbert Snorrason, according to Threat Level. "If you have a problem with me, piss off."

Domscheit-Berg is now writing a book about his WikiLeaks experience, and in a copy of a three-page blurb about the book which is being circulated by his German publisher, Domscheit-Berg says about Assange: "It is not for nothing that many who have quit refer to him as a 'dictator.' He thinks of himself as the autocratic ruler of the project and believes himself accountable to no-one."

In a conversation with Reuters a few weeks ago, Domscheit-Berg, who is also creating a disclosure website called Open Leaks as a rival to WikiLeaks, said: "I have been working with him for three years. I didn't feel until the beginning of this year that this is where we were going. Maybe it's the fame that went to his head, or feeling that he could get away with it... The moment you start to say that (the allegations against Assange) are a smear campaign, you are using the power of your organization to protect an individual."

Key journalists who worked with Assange on stories dug out of WikiLeaks cache of secret U.S. government files -- including its latest dump of around 250,000 State Department cables, which has been roiling international diplomacy for more than a week -- also became disillusioned by Assange's imperial manner. They lambasted his penchant for making deals with additional media organizations behind the backs of outlets which thought he had promised them relative exclusivity.

With Assange in jail, WikiLeaks has continued rolling out the State Department cables, though the site appears more cautious than it had been when releasing the Pentagon's Afghan and Iraq documents. For example, in the latest batch of secret diplomatic exchanges, potentially sensitive information, including the names of foreigners with whom American officials were in contact, was redacted from cables posted by WikiLeaks itself.

To his most ardent admirers -- and there still are many, including the hackers who have launched repeated cyber attacks on his perceived enemies -- even if Assange's activities and personality is flawed, his achievements and brilliance should earn him forbearance.

Suelette Dreyfus, the Australian author whose book on hackers Assange helped to research, put it this way: "It does take a certain type of strength and backbone to do (what Assange does), and these are pretty rare qualities because the risks are pretty high."

(Editing by Jim Impoco and Claudia Parsons)

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