The enigma, the ego, the cult and the noble idealism of Julian Assange

julian assangeI finished reading “The Most Dangerous Man in the World” just as the trial of US soldier Bradley Manning began in Maryland.

The Most Dangerous Man in the World” is a biography of Wikileaks founder Julian Assange written by ABC journalist Andrew Fowler.

It tells the story of how Assange went from being a teenage hacker in Melbourne to one the most influential and controversial figures in the world.

You could certainly not get too more different characters than Manning and Assange and yet both are now inextricably linked together by their idealism and bravery.

Bradley Manning is by all accounts, a shy, introverted, ultimately decent gay man, who somehow found himself thrust into the intelligence operations of the war in Iraq, and who is responsible for the biggest leak of classified military and diplomatic documents in history.

Assange, portrayed in Fowler’s book as an almost Robin Hood like character – stealing the secrets from the richest most powerful nation on earth to give to the world – but also with the touch of Keyser Soyze about him, able to manipulate politicians and journalists, a seducer of women and at times as secretive as the secret organisations he seeks to expose.

While Fowler clearly admires Assange for what he has achieved, he is no sycophant and leaves the reader to make up their own minds about the enigma and cult of Julian Assange.

How you view Assange and Manning depends on whether you believe governments have the right to keep secrets or whether you believe in the idea of a more transparent and open society.

I am one of those people who believe Julian Assange and Bradley Manning are heroes for revealing the many thousands of innocent civilian deaths at the hands of the US government and its allies, most graphically and famously revealed in the “Collateral Murder” leaked Apache helicopter video showing innocent Iraqis, including children, being killed by 30mm gunfire.

Fowler reveals how the actions of WikiLeaks have shifted events on the world stage. For example, tweets of a WikiLeaks story about the corrupt dictatorship of Tunisian leader Zine el Abidine Ben Ali lead to his overthrow and political exile.

“WikiLeaks was a brilliant example of what has been known for some time: the power of information from a legitimate source, disseminated via social networking systems, to threaten the power of a state and its institutions,” Fowler writes.

Similarly the overthrow of Egyptian dictator Hosni Mubarak as part of the Arab Spring after 30 years of an abusive reign (and with the support of the US government), was also spurred on by WikiLeaks documents showing his brutal methods of silencing opposition.

Still, there are those who call Julian Assange and Bradley Manning traitors and guilty of the highest form of treason for revealing highly classified military documents.

Indeed if Manning is found guilty of high treason (aiding the enemy) he faces spending the rest of life in jail while Assange – now under the protection of the Equadorian embassy in London – faces an uncertain future depending on what steps the US government and its intelligence agencies, supported by other countries including Australia, take to prosecute and silence him.

While the US Constitution’s first amendment enshrines free speech and freedom of the press, the US government has argued that 260,000 or so leaked documents WikiLeaks has on its servers, compromises its national security, puts its operatives at personal risk as well as endangers its relationships with other countries. In short they say it is high treason.

Equally, in the eyes of the current Labor Australian government, Assange is a criminal, despite having the support (according to Fowler’s book) of a large portion of the Australian public and which will be tested if Assange is able to run for a seat in the Australian Senate in September.

Assange is now firmly back in the spotlight with the Manning trial underway.

In a post on WikiLeaks, he says Manning is simply on trial for “telling the truth” and that the US has violated its own laws in its treatment of Manning, including that he has been locked up in a “cage” for 23 out of 24 hours, “deprived of his glasses, sleep, blankets and clothes, and prevented from exercising” and held since May 2010 while awaiting trial.

Assange appears to have won favour again with the New York Times, a newspaper that according to Fowler’s book both supported the work of WikiLeaks and Assange, but also despised him for his manner, his ego and his ability to play one media organisation against another to achieve his own aims and outcomes.

Assange has penned for the New York Times a savage review of a book called “The New Digital Age” written by Google executive chairman and former CEO Eric Schmidt and head of Google Ideas, Jared Cohen in which he accuses Google of going from “an expression of independent Californian graduate student culture” to having “thrown its lot in with traditional Washington power elements, from the State Department to the National Security Agency”.

The article reveals Assange to be a gifted writer, highly articulate and persuasive. He would make an excellent analytical journalist.

Assange accuses Google of acting like an imperialist power, enforcing its digital views on life and business on the world, whether they want it or not. Google, according to Assange, has become a political animal with sinister overtones.

Google’s world vision, he says “heralds the death of privacy for most people and shifts the world toward authoritarianism” – the antithesis of the goals of WikiLeaks, which are a more transparent government but with the privacy of its citizens safeguarded.

It is hard to distinguish between WikiLeaks and Julian Assange.

Though there is a team of people behind WikiLeaks from donors to programmers to activists, Assange is its driving force, its voice and spokesperson.

Fowler’s book reveals Assange to be a difficult person to work with; starting out as a charmer and drawing like-minded people to his noble pursuit of truth like German technology activist Daniel Domscheit Berg and Icelandic politician and activist Birgitta Jónsdóttir and then putting them offsides by unpredictable and secretive behaviour, a hidden agenda and making decisions without consulting with them.

WikiLeaks is the Julian Assange show.

Holed up in the Ecuadorian embassy in London , Assange recently gave an interview to Sydney University politics professor John Keane for The Conversation academic website.

Keane’s interview is more sycophantic then Fowler’s book, but we do get a glimpse of a man who while complaining of the boredom of his “cell” clearly revels in his role as spokesperson for “truth” and appears likeable, still idealistic, but also in the end a realist when it comes to his present situation.

“True democracy is the resistance of people armed with truth against lies,” Assange tells Keane.

In an editorial ahead of the Bradley Manning trial on WikiLeaks, Assange asserts that the dice are already loaded against the soldier, describing it as a “show trial” where “24 prosecution witnesses will give secret testimony in closed session”.

“This is not justice; never could this be justice.” Assange writes.

“Bradley Manning is accused of being a whistleblower, a good man, who cared for others and who followed higher orders. Bradley Manning is effectively accused of conspiracy to commit journalism.”

In the end its does not matter whether you like Julian Assange or not – Fowler’s book lets readers make up their own mind.

What is important are his ideals, which are decidedly noble and good.

“In the end it is not Bradley Manning who is on trial. His trial ended long ago. The defendant now, and for the next 12 weeks, is the United States. A runaway military, whose misdeeds have been laid bare, and a secretive government at war with the public. They sit in the docks. We are called to serve as jurists. We must not turn away,” writes Assange with masterful elegance.

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