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WikiLeaks Mastermind Julian Assange: Evil Genius or Visionary Hacker?

5 years ago
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As they said about John Galt in Ayn Rand's "Atlas Shrugged:" Who is Julian Paul Assange?

He is, of course, the lean, tall, and pale 39-year-old Australian master hacker at the white-hot center of the whistle-blowing website WikiLeaks and, after revealing thousands of secret Afghan battlefield reports this week, the subject of investigation by U.S. authorities.

By now we've heard quite a bit about the Assange mystique and his cutesy-named website. WikiLeaks devotes itself to obtaining and posting secret government documents and information from unidentified sources. With WikiLeaks' heightened profile, stories about Assange have appeared recently in several publications, on TV, on the Internet, on cable, yet he remains one of the most elusive and enigmatic figures of the moment.

With a handful of unpaid volunteers working in secret in remote places like Iceland, Assange -- with a backpack carrying not a laptop but a desktop computer -- has obtained classified material that cast a shadow on the American military, both in Iraq and Afghanistan.

He rattled official Washington and its allies and drew the world's attention with the disclosure this week of 76,000 leaked classified documents from Afghanistan on its website and in the pages of The New York Times, the Guardian in Britain and the magazine Der Spiegel in Germany.

In a weeklong series of press conferences and interviews from London, the publicity-savvy Assange, donning a professorial tone and Zen-like demeanor, contended that the documents showed that perhaps thousands of war crimes might have been committed in Afghanistan.

"It is up to a court to decide clearly whether something is in the end a crime," he said. "That said, on the face of it, there does appear to be evidence of war crimes in this material." That is a major reason, he suggested, why he released the documents.

The Pentagon struck back. Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates on Thursday called the leak a breach the military would "aggressively investigate and prosecute." Adm. Michael Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said, "Mr. Assange can say whatever he likes about the greater good he thinks he and his sources are doing, but the truth is they might already have on their hands the blood of some young soldier, or that of an Afghan family."

Assange, who is reportedly working and living in northern Europe, has said he had no plans to travel to the United States for fear of being detained. U.S. government lawyers are reportedly looking into the possibility of charging WikiLeaks and Assange with a crime, like "inducing or serving as co-conspirators in violations of the Espionage Act, a 1917 law that prohibits the unauthorized disclosure of national security information,'' according to The New York Times.

On Thursday, U.S. authorities said they had found evidence linking Pfc. Bradley Manning, 22, of Crescent, Oklahoma, to the leak of the Afghan war reports. Manning was charged in July with illegally obtaining State Department cables and disseminating a secret video, which he is believed to have turned over to WikiLeaks, showing a U.S. helicopter firing on and killing a group of civilians, including two Reuters journalists, in Baghdad. Manning, an Army intelligence specialist, has been held in Kuwait and is being moved to Quantico, Virginia, where he will be held and may face court-martial.

The swirl surrounding WikiLeaks has increased the media focus on Assange.

Julian Paul Assange (pronounced AH-SANJ), an obsessive hacker and computer master, is a citizen of the globe, an itinerant warrior of the cyber age, a philosopher and visionary of the encrypted universe. He has been called "The Robin Hood of Hacking," more a physicist and mathematician, the two disciplines he studied at the University of Melbourne, than a swashbuckling James Bond. His mission -- "to maximize the flow of information to maximize the amount of action leading to just reform" -- may seem grandiose and quixotic but he is said to attract a small following of volunteers and donors.

In a relatively short time, he has fashioned a persona tailor-made for a media fascinated with celebrity. His life seems to be an accumulation of charming and intriguing anecdotes. Like a character out of "The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo," he is a stealth operator, living secretively and pursuing his goal single-mindedly. He moves under the radar around the world, though he seems to favor the icy countries of northern Europe.

But he's no European Viking. He's a product of the Asian tropics. He was born in 1971 in Townsville in northeastern Australia. He was partly home-schooled and partly not schooled at all. By the time he was 14, he and his mother, a painter, actress and artist's model, had reportedly moved 37 times.

His parents met at a protest against the Vietnam War. According to the Guardian, his father studied architecture. But the couple apparently did not marry and split when Julian was very young. His mother then married a theater director. They moved often, and when Julian was 8 years old, his mother left her husband and began dating a musician with whom she had a child, a boy. That relationship, according to a profile of Assange in The New Yorker, became abusive and they separated. Afraid that the musician would take away her younger son, she took Julian and the child and disappeared. Julian moved from city to city with her from the age of 11 to 16.

A computer-smart teenager, Assange began hacking and assumed the code name Mendax, from the Latin splendide mendax, or "nobly untruthful." He joined with two hackers to form a group that became known as the International Subversives and, according to The New Yorker, they successfully broke into computer systems in Europe and North America, including Pentagon networks. Websites did not exist yet -- it was 1987 -- but hackers could disrupt computer networks and telecom systems. Assange was in his element.

But his life was about to change. At 18, he fell in love with a 16-year-old in Melbourne and married her after she became pregnant. They had a son. But like his own mother, he couldn't settle down to a domestic, ordinary life. Hacking remained a grand passion.

A few years later, in 1991, when Assange was 20, he and a few fellow hackers broke into the master terminal of Nortel, the Canadian telecom company. He was caught, charged and eventually tried, but a sympathetic judge let him off with a fine. While he awaited trial for three years, his wife left him, taking their son. He became so depressed he checked himself into a hospital, moved in with his mother, and slept in parks. But the worst time of his life came later, during his eight-year custody battle for his son. In 1999, a custody agreement was finally worked out. By then his hair, which had been dark brown, had turned completely white.

In 2006, Assange founded WikiLeaks. He wanted to use the website as "an instrument of information warfare.'' With a fervor that would become a trademark, Assange didn't sleep for days while building the site, and he wouldn't eat. The website works in mysterious ways. It is hosted on a Swedish Internet server. Submissions to WikiLeaks are routed through a cyber maze that crosses in and out of several nations. Secrecy is at a premium.

Assange and his volunteers gather documents and videos that governments and agencies keep secret and publish them on The site is only three-and-a-half years old but it has already made a name for itself, publishing online an archive of secret information, including Sarah Palin's private Yahoo account and the Standard Operating Procedures at the U.S. facility at Guantanamo, Cuba. In the spring, WikiLeaks released a secret U.S. helicopter cockpit video showing American soldiers killing at least 18 people, including two Reuters journalists, in Baghdad in 2007. The video ignited a debate about U.S. conduct in the war.

Then on Sunday came "The War Logs," one of the biggest leaks in U.S. military history. Now WikiLeaks and Assange are famous. Assange said this week that he was expecting a "substantial increase in submissions" from whistleblowers.

Now that he is a celebrity, Assange may find it harder to escape the media's scrutiny. For the time being he is presumably moving quietly from place to place, carrying his desktop computer in a rucksack, his clothes in a bag, finding shelter somewhere far from prying eyes, staying up all night, his fingers busily tapping on the keyboard, decrypting the next trove of secrets.
Filed Under: WikiLeaks

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I don't care who you are, for the war, or against, this leak was a huge mistake. Julian Assange should be ashamed of himself. Lock him up, no TV, no Internet, but a good dose of hard labor, bad food, and Bubba. Leak that. And please, for you whiney boy's, this isn't a liberal issue. There's plenty of "liberals" upset about this as well.

July 31 2010 at 10:46 PM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply
You are AMAZING!

I think he is not as smart as he thinks he is. I'm no Harvard MBA but not removing the names of the Afghans who are helping the US was very short sided on his part. Obviously he is 'just a hacker' and not a person who can think of anything beyond what is right in front of him...If you think about all the news coverage on the war and do an analysis of the politices of this war I don't think the reports have told us anything we didn't already know, except the names of the Afghans who were helping the US.

July 31 2010 at 10:39 PM Report abuse +2 rate up rate down Reply

Fact being said, Assange is not an American, who happens to be in possession of US Military Classified Information. This is not freedom of press... this is theft of United States Documents, property which Assange does not legally have the right to own nor distribute, whatever his reasons appear to be.. good or bad. He should be prosecuted, as such. Assanges interests are not with the USA!

July 31 2010 at 10:37 PM Report abuse +3 rate up rate down Reply

You people who think this leak is okay are sad just sad

July 31 2010 at 10:22 PM Report abuse +5 rate up rate down Reply

"Evil Genius or Visionary Hacker?" I prefer to go with EVIL HACK!!

July 31 2010 at 9:07 PM Report abuse +4 rate up rate down Reply

If not now, when does Truth matter more than politics, policy? The spin machine would have you believe all this is "Treason" anything but the true past events that happened in the past This outrage is manufactured by the very people that had access to all the information in "Real Time." They're pissed off that now everyone knows it and realizes we have "Stayed the Course" regardless. The policy of these wars amounts to Americans funding BOTH sides. I can't believe we as a people are that stupid. Treason, like pornography, is recognizable when you see it. This is pornography, not treason. Get over it America, you've been had...again.

July 31 2010 at 8:29 PM Report abuse -1 rate up rate down Reply

These are wars of choice not defense, we have killed literally scores of thousands of innocent civilians, thousands of our own kids and the government tells us nothing but that we're right and the other side is wrong. It's all about power, empire and profits for Wall St, Big Business, Big Oil and the MIC.
Assange is a hero for the ages and I'm proud to say I stand with Assange and Brad Manning. The truth will be free.

July 31 2010 at 8:21 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

When wikileaks broker the "global warming" e-mail's the media wouldn't give this guy an ounce of attention, but the war in Afghanistan and it's front page news?

July 31 2010 at 6:11 PM Report abuse +5 rate up rate down Reply

Let's tap into every liberal's computer and divulge the information on wikileaks - we'll call it freedom of the press. We can even blame it on George W. Bush, so liberals can have some buy in.

July 31 2010 at 5:24 PM Report abuse +4 rate up rate down Reply

He is not guilty of anything but freedom of the press and telling the American people the truth. Hopefully this will get posted as well as the pro-war ones. It is time to get out of Afghanstan and Pakistan and use our resources to cut the deficit and help Americans. Our money now is just going to the enemy and our kids are getting killed for nothing.

July 31 2010 at 4:31 PM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply

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