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The Man Who Took America Head-On.

Loner without a home, an alleged rapist, boss from hell and Twitter addict. Who is Julian Assange? Why does he elicit extreme emotions?

Afront-runner for Time magazine's Person of the Year, 2010. The 2009 awardee of the Amnesty International Media Award. Twenty-third on New Statesman's 2010 list of "The World's 50 Most Influential Figures", and a speaker at top journalism school UC Berkeley's seminar on investigative journalism. There are almost as many ways of describing Julian Assange, 39, the reigning deity of investigative journalism, as the confidential documents he has published on his million-document leaking baby, WikiLeaks. For every accolade, there is an accusation that could have anyone blanche as much as Assange's faded mop of hair. Earlier this week, he was arrested in London, and his extradition to Sweden on the charges of alleged sexual abuse is pending.

The US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has accused Assange of endangering lives around the world -- to which he has retorted to Time magazine, "This sort of nonsense is trotted out every time a big military or intelligence organisation is exposed by the press." There are more unsavory words being used to describe the hunter who has become the hunted: WikiLeaks' former spokesperson Daniel Domscheit-Berg has lashed out against him in a soon-to-bepublished memoir, calling him "the prosecutor, judge and hangman". Just who is this man who shook America by first publishing its Iraq logs and Afghan diaries, and then following those up by leaking half a million diplomatic cables starting November 28? For one, he is a man who has no home. Long before he was incarcerated in London's Wandsworth prison, Assange led the life of a peripatetic whistle-blower, lugging around a desktop and a rucksack filled with clothes, often sleeping at airports. That is, if the insomniac got his forty winks at all.

Assange's sense of rootlessness is possibly rooted in his childhood. Born in Townsville, Australia, he travelled with his mother's theatre group -- changing 37 schools along the way. It by Neha Tara Mehta wasn't work alone that kept the mother-son duo on the road -- Assange's mother (who is now claiming her son's innocence) was on the run from Assange's half-brother's father, a cult follower of yoga teacher Anne Hamilton-Byrne's Santiniketan Park Association. Assange's journey to being on the wrong side of law started when he got himself a modem at 16. Soon, he got an e-avatar of 'Mendax', and formed the third leg of a triumvirate of hackers called the International Subversives. This is when he broke into the security systems of the U.S. Department of Defense and the Los Alamos National Laboratory. Cops swooped down in his Melbourne love-nest, which he shared with his now ex-girlfriend. Though Assange was let off soon after, he wasn't so lucky in 1991 when he hacked into the server of Nortel, a Canadian telecom company. He was arrested and charged on 31 counts of hacking. He confessed to 24, and needed psychiatric help for depression. This wasn't the end of his troubles -- his girlfriend left him, and he lost custody of their son, Daniel. His hair rapidly blanched in the period -- and he hasn't coloured it ever since. Assange threw himself into academics at the University of Melbourne, studying maths and physics and dream of becoming a physicist.

But when he saw physicists working for military intelligence, he got another idea -- also rooted in physics. If a small amount of energy can lead to a much larger energy release, surely, small actions could drive big reforms? WikiLeaks was born in Sweden in December 2006, as an "uncensorable Wikipedia for untraceable mass document leaking and analysis". Assange used to his advantage the liberal privacy laws of countries like Belgium and Iceland to preside over WikiLeaks's million document operation. He went on to ruffle several feathers. WHEN asked by the church of Scientology to remove internal material from WikiLeaks, Assange responded by tweeting: "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."

This April, Assange raised over $200,000 after leaking Collateral Murder, a video of a U.S. Army helicopter pummeling a Reuters photographer, among others, with bullets in Baghdad in 2007. A smug Assange, otherwise a recluse, came into his own on the 160-character medium of Twitter, when he tweeted: "New funding model for journalism: try doing it for a change." WikiLeaks has grown large enough to survive Assange's incarceration. Among the servers it uses are those of Swedish company PRQ, which boasts of "bulletproof hosting". It has a thousand mirror sites, several hundred domain names, and stores its data at a former Swedish Cold War nuclear bunker. But with the noose tightening around him, Assange may have to soften his bluster. If he gets away from the Swedish charges against him, there are charges to defend in Domscheit-Berg's forthcoming memoir, Wikileaks, The Inside Story. Then, there is OpenLeaks, being launched by his former employees, including Domscheit- Berg.

Will the world's most famous whistle-blower survive the whistle- blowing by those who were once his comrades-in-leaks?

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Publication:Mail Today (New Delhi, India)
Date:Dec 12, 2010
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