For some he is an egoist, an irresponsible villain who has “blood on his hands”. For others, he is a hero, an “uncompromising rebel”. Julian Assange, the editor-in-chief of WikiLeaks, has become quite a phenomenon. “I enjoy helping people who are vulnerable. And I enjoy crushing the bastards,” he says. His elusiveness makes him more enigmatic. Assange has no home. He is a nomad who stays with friends, frequently changing locations, carrying just his computer and a backpack. In the 1980s, he was a member of a teenage hackers’ club in Melbourne called the International Subversives, which had launched a cyber attack on the United States of America’s space mission in 1989. The idea of Assange’s WikiLeaks was born out of this club.
Assange draws inspiration from Daniel Ellsberg, who had leaked the Pentagon Papers in 1969. Till date, WikiLeaks has exposed thousands of documents containing secret, highly sensitive material that governments are fiercely protective of. Its latest leak is being called the biggest intelligence leak of all time — over 75,000 files amounting to an entire history of the Afghanistan war. This has made Assange an instant enemy of the US government; he has been branded “one of the most dangerous men in the world”.
Nobody seems to know how to define the antics of this media insurgent. Is this investigative journalism? Or is it irresponsible activism? Questions linger. But if one were to look at not the motive but the method of Assange’s work, what he does is most akin to spying. It is hard to tell the whereabouts and identities of Assange’s sources. Experts call the method he uses to gather information “crowdsourcing”. His network consists of 800 part-time volunteers and 10,000 “supporters”. One of them, Bradley Manning, who had assisted the leak of the Afghanistan war documents, is a Pentagon insider. This fact displays the strength and viability of Assange’s network. When the WikiLeaks page on Twitter lists its location as “everywhere”, it isn’t just using a figure of speech. Like an efficient espionage mechanism, WikiLeaks is well guarded. The secret documents are anonymously sent to digital drop-boxes and stored on servers across the world.
The irony of Assange’s spy machinery lies in the fact that it closely resembles espionage systems so far adopted by rulers and governments — from Chandragupta Maurya, Queen Elizabeth I to Adolf Hitler; from the World Wars, the Cold War to the “war on terror”. What Assange is doing has been done earlier by a Francis Walsingham or a Fritz Joubert Duquesne. Even today, the US government uses elaborate systems to track the whereabouts of the American people, both officially and unofficially: apart from the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the US has well-wishers like the Project Vigilant, an alliance of 600 volunteers who scrutinize internet traffic and pass information on to the federal authorities.
But Assange, a self-confessed anarchist, has dramatically subverted State-sponsored espionage. He has become the people’s spy, and robbed governments of their monopoly over information. There are many debates surrounding WikiLeaks. While there are concerns about national security, there is also the reality of Assange’s standpoint: as the British journalist, David Leigh, says, “...if it can be leaked, it will be leaked.” Assange may be good, bad or ugly, but his subversion stems from the fact that he is ‘rootless’, global and accountable to no one.