Robin Hood of hacking

 

Julian Assange of the Wikileaks website appears to have gone to ground after receiving more US military secrets. But keeping a low profile as he wages “information warfare” is par for the course for this hacker with a conspiracy theory and a grudge against authority, writes BRIAN BOYD

WITH HIS HALO of martyrdom, shield of truth and righteous sword at the ready to slay the beasts of government lies and military cover-ups, the Australian journalist Julian Assange, who is being breathlessly described as “the most dangerous man in the world”, is like some freedom-of-information cartoon hero come to life.

Reportedly on the run from Pentagon officials who want to talk to him about defence secrets he may have, Assange is coming across like Robin Hood with a Twitter account, tweeting tantalising hints about what potentially damning US “military cover-up” he may soon be making known to the public.

The 39-year-old, who describes himself as a journalist and internet activist, and is also a skilled computer hacker – useful in his line of work – is one of the founders of Wikileaks, an online organisation that publishes leaked documents that purportedly show government and corporate misconduct. Its whistle-blowing work is global in scope, but right now all media focus is on what, exactly, the organisation has in its possession about US military activity in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Assange is generally credited as the director of Wikileaks, an amorphous organisation that hit the headlines in April when it uploaded a classified military video showing a helicopter attack in Baghdad that resulted in 12 deaths – it shows the murder of Iraqi civilians and two Reuters reporters, according to Wikileaks. The US military disputes the claim and says it is investigating the incident.

Last month a US army intelligence analyst, Bradley Manning, was arrested after apparently revealing to a journalist that he was Wikileaks’s source for the classified video. The journalist, who gave the FBI a copy of the online conversation, says Manning said he also provided Wikileaks with a second video, detailing an incident in Afghanistan, along with 260,000 classified diplomatic cables.

Since the arrest, four weeks ago, Assange has been in hiding. “Pentagon investigators are trying to determine the whereabouts of Assange for fear that he may be about to publish a huge cache of classified State Department cables that, if made public, could do serious damage to national security,” reported the US Daily Beast web paper. “We’d like to know where he is; we’d like his co-operation in this,” a US official was quoted as saying.

Assange, who is in frequent contact with the media without revealing his exact whereabouts, said last week that Wikileaks would shortly upload the second classified video, which he says shows a US air strike in Afghanistan in 2009 that, according to the Afghan government, killed 140 civilians, including 92 children. The US claimed at the time that 95 people died, 65 of them insurgents, but it has subsequently wavered on the figure and admitted to making mistakes in the attack.

Given that the release of the first video brought wide condemnation of US actions in Iraq, this second video – which, if claims are to be believed, is a lot more damning – will pile more international pressure on the White House and the Pentagon. But it is the third part of Manning’s alleged leak that is attracting the most media heat.

In a Twitter post, Wikileaks has denied that it was provided with military cables. (Wikileaks has a habit of denying everything, in order to protect its sources.) It does have something relating to military intelligence, though, according to Assange, who, speaking to the Australian ABC network last week about the organisation’s next exposé, said, a little opaquely: “I can give an analogy. If there had been mass spying that had affected many, many people and organisations, and the details of that mass spying were released, then that is something that would reveal that the interests of many people had been abused.”

Assange has not gone totally underground. He appeared at a seminar in Brussels on freedom of information last week and said of the claims that the Pentagon was looking for him: “US public statements have all been reasonable. But some statements made in private are a bit more questionable. Politically it would be a great error for them to act. I feel perfectly safe . . . but I have been advised by my lawyers not to travel to the US during this period. There’s a need always to be on the alert.”

IF HE IS ONthe run, Assange should have plenty of experience that might come in useful. His parents, who ran a touring theatre company in Australia, moved the family 37 times before Assange was a teenager. And his mother believed a formal education would only give him an unhealthy respect for authority, so he was mostly schooled at home.

When he was eight his mother remarried, but the relationship didn’t last. Assange, his new half-brother and his mother went on the run – there were unsubstantiated claims that Assange’s stepfather belonged to a secretive religious cult and that he was determined to track down the family. Assange alleges that the cult had moles in government who provided his stepfather with leads on their whereabouts.

Assange fell in love with an early home computer at an electronics shop they lived beside for a while. He was soon able to crack into its programs, where, to his delight, he found hidden messages left by their creators. When he got his first modem, at the age of 16, he developed a reputation as a skilled hacker who could break into the most secure networks. With two fellow hackers he formed a group who called themselves the International Subversives; they broke into networks belonging to the US department of defence.

The bolder he got – he would leave bragging messages to administrators of sites he hacked into – the more he came to the attention of the authorities, and when he was 20 he was arrested by Melbourne police. After pleading guilty to 24 charges of hacking he was released on a bond and fined a nominal amount.

He had married at the age of 18; a few months after the wedding he and his wife had a son. When the relationship broke down, Assange tried to get custody. The details of the trial are protected by law, but Assange has said he felt in was in a bitter battle with the state. He founded an organisation called Parent Inquiry into Child Protection and petitioned child-protection workers to pass on information about their work. Assange has claimed: “We had moles who were inside dissidents.”

After dozens of legal hearings and appeals, Assange, by then 29, worked out a custody agreement with his wife. During the many hearings Assange’s dark-brown hair lost its pigment and became the dull grey it is today.

After the custody battle he drifted for a while, working, perhaps ironically, as a computer-security consultant before studying at the University of Melbourne. He set up Wikileaks when he graduated, in 2006, not eating or sleeping for days on end. Believing that “leaks were an instrument of information warfare”, he ran the site through a highly secure, no-questions-asked Swedish internet service provider whose owners were involved in the controversial Pirate Bay file-sharing site.

HE SAYS HIS WORKon Wikileaks is a calling. “Before this I was studying physics and maths, and I saw some things there that disturbed me. I saw the corruption of what should have been the purest part of intellectual life – pure mathematics – by spy agencies. In the journalistic work I had done, the real impacts occurred by revealing things that were secret, that had been suppressed from the population.” It’s a heady cocktail: a hacker with a conspiracy theory and a grudge against authority.

He says Wikileaks has just five full-time workers but 800 volunteers and a further 10,000 people “in our broader network who are signed up”. On its website Wikileaks says its “primary interest is in exposing oppressive regimes in Asia, the former Soviet bloc, Sub-Saharan Africa and the Middle East, but we also expect to be of assistance to people of all regions who wish to reveal unethical behavior in their governments and corporations”.

Assange reacts disdainfully to legal attempts to remove documents from the website. Two years ago Wikileaks posted what it claims are secret Scientology manuals. Lawyers representing the church demanded their removal. Assange replied: “Wikileaks will not comply with legally abusive requests from Scientology any more than Wikileaks has complied with similar demands from Swiss banks, Russian offshore stem-cell centers, former African kleptocrats, or the Pentagon.”

Despite that the fact that he can come across as a middle-management drone when he appears on television – he speaks in a quiet, monotonous baritone – there is little doubt he is revelling in his most-wanted status. The world he has dedicated himself to – one of leaks, bluffs, secret videos and grassy knolls – is usually the domain of cranks and crazies, but so far Wikileaks has gone about its work rigorously and methodically.

If Assange continues to adhere to one of the first principles of journalism – show, don’t tell – there could be trouble ahead, and plenty of it, for the US government.

CV Julian Assange

Who is he?A prime mover behind the whistle- blowing Wikileaks organisation. Keeping his head down because of information he claims to have about the US military in Afghanistan.

So he’s the new David Icke?Not at all. Assange is a skilled hacker who distrusts authority figures and official versions of events. He has made Wikileaks a respected and award-winning media organisation.

Do call himThe Bernstein and Woodward of the Twitter generation.

Don’t call himParanoid. He’s capable of hacking into your computer and revealing on Wikileaks the websites you visit when you’re supposed to be working.