The Most Dangerous Man in the World
By Andrew Fowler
Melbourne University Press, 2011
271 pages, $32.99 (pb)
By Suelette Drefus & Julian Assange
William Heinemann, 2011
479 pages, $24.95 (pb)
WikiLeaks: Inside Julian Assange’s War on Secrecy
By David Leigh & Luke Harding
340 pages, $24.95 (pb)
Asked by the reporter Andrew Fowler whether he thought his life would ever return to normal after arrests, court cases and threats of execution, Julian Assange, the once obscure Australian computer hacker now editor-in-chief of WikiLeaks, replied:“I hope not.”
This attitude symbolises Assange's appetite for continued defiance of attempts to neutralise his campaign to publish the truth, via confidential leaked documents, about what powerful and secretive governments really get up to in our name.
Fowler outlines how the Queensland-born, precocious child with a taste for logic and math salvaged a disrupted childhood by discovering the exciting world of early-Internet computers and the delights of hacking.
Joining a group of Melbourne teenagers called The International Subversives, Assange broke into the computer systems of top-secret US military installations.
As Suelette Dreyfus recounts in her updated 1997 book (to which Assange contributed), Assange's group believed in damage-free, “ethical hacking” — as did most of the young digital voyeurs in the computer underground which generally frowned on the malicious or profit-motivated hacker.
The hackers, say David Leigh and Luke Harding in their book, were “geeky and socially awkward young men” who would “reinvent themselves as swaggering heroes with names like Phoenix, Gandalf or Eric Bloodaxe” (Assange’s nom-de-plume was Mendax).
They combined some measure of anti-establishment views with an attraction towards the technical challenge of breaking into the world of forbidden knowledge, especially the dangerous knowledge held by nuclear warmongers.
Young Australian hackers may have created WANK (Worms Against Nuclear Killers), the world's first computer worm with a political message (protesting the nuclearisation of space in the late 1980s).
It invaded hundreds of NASA computers in the US in 1989, leaving protest messages on space scientists' computer screens whilst pretending to erase files.
In an example of poacher turned gamekeeper, however, many of the highly talented young hackers balked at the political implications of their raids on secret government business.
Some were scared off by being “Those Who Knew Too Much”.
Others went on to put their information technology skills in the service of giant corporations or working for state intelligence, designing aggressive worms and cyber weapons.
Dreyfus reports that Australian hackers would suddenly disappear to the Defence Signals Directorate, Canberra’s electronic spy agency.
However, Assange was different, say Leigh and Harding, supporting an “idealistic information insurgency”.
Although hiding his hacking secrets in a police-proof, backyard beehive, Assange was arrested in 1991. He finally got off in 1996 with just a $2100 fine and a caution because his hacking was, said the judge, undertaken out of “intellectual inquisitiveness” and not for personal gain.
If the judicial authorities thought this would cure the young subversive, however, they were mistaken.
In 2007, Assange launched the WikiLeaks project of secure, anonymous online publishing of leaked documents, and war logs and videos. These spotlighted corruption, oppression, lies and crimes of warring governments.
The biggest leak was of what will ultimately be 251,287 classified internal US State Department communiques from 280 embassies and consulates in 180 countries.
This treasure-trove of state secrets has made Assange some very powerful enemies in the political and military establishments of the US and its allies.
These include Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard, who joined the condemnation of Assange, proposed blocking WikiLeaks by a mandatory website filter, and set the Australian Federal Police, and ASIO and ASIS, Australia's domestic and overseas intelligence agencies, on Assange’s tail as part of a CIA and FBI investigation.
It is ironic, says Fowler, that Assange faces potential prosecution in the US for doing what the White House claims it wants for the democratically-challenged rest of the world — free speech and free flow of information.
Daniel Ellsberg, the leaker of the Pentagon Papers (which showed the truth about the Vietnam War), warned that the US government would try to find ways to discredit Assange.
Ellsberg predicted it would divert attention from the real issue of government crimes to personal attacks on Assange, utilising what Fowler calls the media's "bottomless appetite for sensation and celebrity".
At the time of Assange’s arrest in December 2010 for alleged sexual misconduct against two women in Sweden, US Defence Secretary Robert Gates said, with what Leigh and Harding said was “a big smirk on his face”, that “that sounds like good news to me”.
This good news for war criminals does not necessarily imply a “CIA honeytrap”, however. The truth will out only in a fair trial.
But as Assange’s lawyers argue, this will be highly problematic in what is a politically-motivated prosecution in Sweden (to where Assange’s extradition from Britain is being sought) or in the US (which would love any passing excuse to join the extradition queue).
Fowler sensibly cautions that Assange’s supporters should be wary of automatically taking sides with Assange over the sexual molestation case simply because they support WikiLeaks.
However, Leigh and Harding are rather quicker to dismiss the political motivation of Assange’s Swedish prosecutors as detailed by what they loftily scorn as Assange’s “glamorous left-wing Assangistas” — such as John Pilger and Michael Moore.
His enemies have other character assassination tools. Fowler says Assange is reported to be not easy to work with and is readily frustrated when his colleagues don't match his level of conceptual thinking.
Fowler also claims a somewhat fragile ego and difficulty dealing with criticism.
Until Assange’s own forthcoming book, WikiLeaks Versus the World: My Story, is released, all this personality profiling is (often hostile) speculation.
So are musings on Assange's politics, which Fowler locates somewhere on the libertarian spectrum, primarily grounded in anti-authoritarianism and influenced, add Leigh and Harding, by anti-capitalist radicals.
Assange’s political philosophy has gone beyond those of his young hacker peers who were engaged in individualist acts, at most tweaking the nose of the powerful.
Assange, by contrast, has not only put their nose out of joint, but has systematically weakened a pillar of state and corporate power — secrecy, misinformation and lies.
In all three books, the authors acknowledge, and, to varying extents, applaud Assange’s political achievement.
Fowler celebrates Assange’s raising the bar on the public right to know about the behaviour of their rulers.
Dreyfus concurs about the value of Assange’s quest to get “governments and corporations to tell the truth”.
Leigh and Harding endorse Assange’s “lifting the lid on two immensely controversial wars” in Afghanistan and Iraq.
None of these books, however, give an ideal account of Assange and Wikileaks.
Fowler displays a warm, but not uncritical, regard for Assange. But as an ABC journalist, he is mindful of being dutifully “balanced”.
Dreyfus is strongly positive towards Assange and Wikileaks, but her book is a “docu-novel”. It focuses on the computer exploits of a socially restricted group of teenagers and can sometimes swamp broader politics in a sea of technical issues.
Leigh and Harding’s recount, in often grueling detail, the mechanics of the “biggest leak in history” from their perspective as journalists with the liberal Guardian, one of five newspapers to work with WikiLeaks on the State Department files.
Assange, who has called the mainstream media a “cartel of timidity”, had a fraught relationship with such media.
Leigh and Harding are fond of deriding their WikiLeaks critics as irresponsible and in need of the mature guidance of the “world’s most reputable papers”.
It is to Assange’s credit, however, that the establishment limits of political “responsibility” have been breached. Assange remains an International Subversive.