The man who knows too much


But ironically, not knowing he was wearing a leaky condom could prove to be an obstacle for WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, says Rishi Majumder

Maverick WikiLeaks editor-in-chief Julian Assange
Photos: AFP

CALLING THE States versus Julian Paul Assange. States he has antagonised with millions of secret documents leaked on States that must love the fact the editor-in-chief and sole spokesman of Wikileaks has been arrested for – among other reasons – a leak in his own condom. Big states. Like Russia and China. The Middle Eastern states. The United States of America. It is 7 December. Assange stands tall in the dock — a glass-panelled dock — at Westminster Magistrate’s Court, London. A mop of silver grey hair makes him look older than his 39 years. But it matches his grey eyes, black suit and open-collared white shirt. It also matched a black tie he wore at his lawyer’s office before the hearing. A black tie that would have looked right at home at an English court. But Assange has taken this tie off.

Understandably. The extradition hearing is for four charges against Assange that arose in Sweden. Charge 1: He used his body weight to hold down complainant A (she refuses to divulge her name) in a sexual manner. Charge 2: He “sexually molested” A by having sex with her without a condom when it was her “express wish” that he use one (this is where the condom is alleged to have leaked). Charge 3: He “deliberately molested” A by having sex with her “in a way designed to violate her sexual integrity”. Charge 4: He had sex with W (another complainant) without a condom while she slept. This amounts to rape.

Both women claim to have consented to have sex with Assange. And unlike in the UK, the definition of rape in Swedish law doesn’t revolve around consent.

These allegations, denied by Assange, were dropped by one Swedish prosecutor in August this year, only to be taken up by another a month later. Also, Assange had stayed on in Sweden for 40 days after these allegations arose to answer the charges and only left the country after being given “express permission” by the prosecutor.

Judge Howard Riddle denies bail despite socialite Jemima Khan, filmmaker Ken Loach, top lawyer Geoffrey Sheen, professor Patricia David and reputed journalist John Pilger offering sureties worth £1,80,000. The reasons Riddle gives are that Assange has “comparatively weak community ties in this country” and because he has the “means and ability to abscond”. But the clincher is that — just as there is no record of how WikiLeaks gets millions of confidential documents — there is no record of Assange having entered the country. So it’s presumed that he did so on a fake passport.

Assange’s eyes reflect a steely calm, but not complacence. As if he had expected all of this from the day WikiLeaks was launched in December 2006. Many have spoken about Assange’s fears of government crackdown from the early years of WikiLeaks bordering on paranoia almost.

This paranoia about the State, which may be driving his activism, took roots long before. In a blog on the now inactive website, Assange describes Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s The First Circle – an autobiographical novel about life in a Soviet gulag – as a book “whose feeling captures me”. He also sees the plight of imprisoned scientists in the book as “parallels to my own adventures”.

Underground, a book that he co-wrote, which records his early days as a hacker, says that Assange “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”. Even more prophetically, Assange writes in his blog: “True belief is when a voice booms ‘the prisoner shall now rise’ and no one else in the room stands”.

Assange’s nightmares have come true. The prisoner has risen – and been denied bail by a judge named Riddle. But to understand Assange’s relationship with the law we have to go further back. To childhood? “There’s a desire to perceive everything as coming from the childhood,” said Assange in a recent interview. “Probably due to the popularity of Freudian psychology… (but) personal temperament is genetic.” Possibly. At age 17, Assange’s mother Christine burnt her notebooks and fled home on a motorcycle. In 1971, Assange was born in Townsville, Australia. Christine married a theatre director a year later. She didn’t believe in a formal education, so Assange was schooled at home, and from correspondence classes or informal sessions with professors. “I spent a lot of time in libraries,” he said in another interview. “Looking closely at the books I found in citations, and followed that trail.” By the time he was 14, the family had moved 37 times.

Assange’s initiation into computers happened because of an electronics shop across the street from where he lived — where he went to write programmes on a Commodore. He first began hacking at the age of 16, under the name Mendax, from Horace’s Splendide Mendax — meaning ‘nobly untruthful’. Along with two other hackers, Assange formed a group called the International Subversives, broke into computer systems in Europe and North America, US defence networks and the Los Alamos National Laboratory. And in Underground, he outlined the hacking subculture’s early rules: “Don’t damage computer systems you break into (including crashing them); don’t change the information in those systems (except for altering logs to cover your tracks); and share information.”

He first began hacking at 16, under the name Mendax, from Horace’s Splendide Mendax — meaning ‘nobly untruthful’

When he was 17, Assange fell in love with a 16-year-old girl who he moved in with. This was where his tryst with the law began. Police raided his home because of an allegation that he had hacked into and stolen $5,00,000 from Citibank. He wasn’t charged, however, and his equipment was returned. He moved back in with his mother when he learnt his girlfriend was pregnant. They got married when he was 18 and had a son soon.

The hacking continued and his second tryst came soon. The Federal Police set up operation Weather, which caught onto Assange’s group when they hacked into Canadian telecom firm Nortel. Assange was 20 now, and lived in Melbourne. He was charged with 31 counts of hacking — and the charges took three years to come to court. The chief prosecutor, while proving Assange’s access as a hacker, said in court: “It was God Almighty walking around doing what you like.” But Assange was penalised only punitively by a judge who said, “there is just no evidence that there was anything other than sort of intelligent inquisitiveness.”

Meanwhile, Assange and his wife got separated. And he was involved in another legal battle — for the custody of his son Daniel. He believed his wife and her boyfriend posed a danger to the child, and sought to restrict her rights. Yet the government’s child protection agency refused to help him, nor allow him the right to appeal. This prompted him and his mother to form an activist group called Parent Inquiry Into Child Protection, which would create a “central databank” for inaccessible legal records related to child custody issues. The battle with his wife was finally resolved in 1999. But both cases had exhausted him completely. According to his mother, this was the time when “Assange’s hair, which had been dark brown, became drained of all colour”.

AFTER THIS, Assange switched various jobs — including, predictably, that of a computer security consultant. He studied physics and mathematics at the University of Melbourne. He also apparently studied philosophy and neuroscience. Then, ideas he had began to converge. He applied graph theory to politics to bring out a document titled Conspiracy as Governance. “The more secretive or unjust an organization is, the more leaks induce fear and paranoia in its leadership and planning coterie,” he wrote in a blog. “Since unjust systems, by their nature induce opponents, and in many places barely have the upper hand, mass leaking leaves them exquisitely vulnerable to those who seek to replace them with more open forms of governance.”

This was in 2006. In the same year, he locked himself up in a house near the university. He wrote out flow diagrams for systems that would finally be incorporated into what the world knows as WikiLeaks. He offered backpackers his house to live in — as long as they helped him build his website.

Today, WikiLeaks is hosted on a Swedish Internet service provider Submissions are routed from here to a Belgium server and then onto another country that has suitable laws. Some say servers used for WikiLeaks are the same as those serving as nodal points for the Tor network – which enables online anonymity. Assange has been quoted as saying these systems are “far more secure than any banking network”. But Swedish laws have turned out to be less than suitable for WikiLeaks and Assange. As a result of the charges against him, his funds have been frozen. He resists extradition to Sweden. His next hearing will be on 14 December.

Meanwhile, former US attorney general Michael Mukasey wants Assange to be extradited to America. He said the day before the arrest, “When one is accused of a very serious crime, it’s common to hold him in respect of a lesser crime… while you assemble evidence of a second crime.” Which means that allegations of rape and sexual molestation from two women who had consented to having sex with him isn’t the only thing Assange has to worry about. In the US, he has been accused of treason — even though he’s an Australian, not a US citizen. Sarah Palin says he should be “hunted down like Osama bin Laden”. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton started off by claiming WikiLeaks has acted illegally in posting cables that blemish the US government. A senior Republican has called for WikiLeaks to be designated as a ‘foreign terrorist organisation’ and charged under the Espionage Act.

Media circus Members of the press surround the vehicle carrying Assange after his arrest in London on 7 December

Under this Act, whoever obtains “unauthorised possession to information relating to the national defence” and has reason to believe it could harm the United States may be prosecuted if he publishes it or “willfully” retains it when the government has demanded its return. But things aren’t so simple. Extradition can be a lengthy process. And the problem with the Espionage Act is that it dates back to 1917 and has never before been used to charge a ‘recipient’ of such information. So the authorities are left without any precedent to guide them.

Not being able to get hold of Assange legally has frustrated American state actors into attacking Assange through the media. Some journalists have joined in these attacks too. These attacks aim to question his raison d’être as a journalist. And ‘journalist’ is the first word that Assange uses to introduce himself. Or in his precise words, “scientific journalist”.

One line of attack on Assange’s scientific journalism claims that it counts for nothing at all. That WikiLeaks only throws up information that is removed from their context. Also that WikiLeaks are mostly not news because information like the ISI backing the Taliban, or NATO operations leading to civilian casualties are things we suspected all along.

First, WikiLeaks openly says that what it puts out there is ‘raw information’. It’s true that diplomatic cables ridiculing foreign leaders might not be the whole truth of one country’s relationship with another. But one doesn’t really expect the reader to think so. If a reader were really as disconnected from current affairs as to not be able to understand what a diplomatic cable signifies, he wouldn’t be interested in reading them in the first place.

And doesn’t WikiLeaks anyhow collaborate with major news agencies that interpret what they post? Second, as for things we suspected all along does that mean we will overlook crucial in-your-face evidence that proves the same — or leads someone else to?

The second line of attack claims that WikiLeaks endanger lives as well as national security. That some correspondences have to be kept secret if we want nations to function as they are doing now. But the question here is — do we? The same diplomacy that Assange’s detractors seek to protect have killed millions of innocent civilians — while taking millions of uninformed voters for a ride. Do we wish to continue like this?

While creating WikiLeaks, he offered backpackers his house to live in — as long as they helped him build his website

What’s funniest about the WikiLeaks bashing is that up until the middle of this year, Assange was being toasted all around. Two of the many awards his organisation has won are the 2008 Economist magazine New Media Award and a 2009 Amnesty International’s UK Media Award. The latter was for its publication of a report titled Kenya:The Cry of Blood – Extra Judicial Killings and Disappearances in 2008, which led to a regime change in the country.

Then, in April this year, WikiLeaks posted a video of Iraqi civilians and journalists being killed by US forces, followed by the Afghan War Diary in July and the Iraq War Logs in October – both showing up the US in dismal light. Since then, many bouquets have turned into brickbats.

That leaves us with the third line of attack. Name-smearing. WikiLeaks is a new beast that no known name but Assange seems to understand or control. Let’s get back into that courtroom now. Marianne Ny, the Swedish director of public prosecutions, dismisses suggestions of a political motive for the rape allegations. She says the allegations against Assange are not connected to his role as WikiLeaks editor-in-chief. She hopes, in so many words, that we view them as removed from their context.



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