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Julian Assange and Wikileaks

Robert Manne
Email: r.manne@latrobe.edu.au

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Matt Smith:

Julian Assange has been referred to as many things: as a visionary, an activist, and as a criminal. No matter what you think of his actions in releasing classified information, there is no doubt that he has been influential in world events.

I'm Matt Smith, and you're listening to a La Trobe University podcast. Here to discuss Julian Assange with me today is Robert Manne, Professor of La Trobe University's Politics and International Program, and Convenor of the Ideas and Society Program. Thank you for joining me Robert.

Robert Manne:

My pleasure.

Matt Smith:

Tell me about the early days of Julian Assange. Where did he get his start and what motivates him?

Robert Manne:

He, as a very young man, became a hacker in the early days of hacking into computers. His mother bought him a computer. He'd had a very disrupted childhood, running from one part of the continent to the other. He obviously had incredible affinity with computers and began hacking into all sorts of things including a large part of the American defence establishment. Eventually he formed a group with two others called The International Subversives (nice name) and he got caught. He was into a Canadian telecommunications company and someone discovered him and it was a Federal Police investigation. He was eventually, along with the others in his group, charged with crimes under whatever laws applied to hacking in those early days. At that stage, he hadn't finished high school and he didn't go to university until much later, so he's very much a kind of brilliant, self-educated computer person who comes from the movement which eventually got to be called hacktivitism.

Matt Smith:

Now back in those days you said he was very paranoid about being caught and he was very much worried about that sort of thing, but he seems to have been doing this almost just for the thrill of it.

Robert Manne:

It was like an intellectual challenge and a thrill to see how far you could go. There was absolutely no monetary advantage to be taken from it and no-one has ever suggested that he did it for anything other than adventure.

Matt Smith:

He's never done it for monetary advantage, has he?

Robert Manne:

No, and he's recently been offered a large amount of money for his book, which he says he needs for his legal costs, because he's now embroiled in an incredibly complicated legal world, but he's absolutely uninterested in money as far as I can see, and he doesn't buy clothes and doesn't possess almost anything – he doesn't have any fixed address. He moves from place to place. He lives a kind of mixture of a globalised nomadic existence. He's very un-materialistic.

Matt Smith:

What is Assange's connection to the cypherpunk movement?

Robert Manne:

No-one knows about the cypherpunk connection. That's the research really I've done. I've discovered it on the internet. Cypherpunks were a movement of mainly American computer people, often whiz kid businessmen, also professors of engineering and mathematics, who had a philosophy which was in the age of the internet, either the state was going to control individuals or individuals would be able to communicate with each other in a way that would suborn and destroy the power of the state, it was based on a breakthrough in cryptography which happened in the mid-70s, and software, which was called public key cryptography software, which made it possible for people to communicate with each other without any possibility of authority or the state knowing what they were doing. And from that, a whole movement called the cypherpunks developed, led by a very strange individual called Timothy May, which was essentially anti-state in favour of complete individual autonomy and it connected, for most of them, with a belief in laissez-faire capitalism, in which the state would be, as it were, irrelevant to economic activity.

Julian Assange, even before he was sentenced, he joined the list and began to write from time to time on that list. And that's where he, for seven years, was part of the cypherpunk movement.

Matt Smith:

From that, was he developing a sense of activism?

Robert Manne:

It's a good question. The cypherpunks were in fact activists. Some of them were just interested in technical questions of private communications and remailers and digital cash and things, but many of them wanted to transform the world and the best description was the one that Tim May made up, which was crypto-anarchists. But they had the idea that through privacy of communication via cryptography, the world could be transformed, and one of the famous interventions of one of the cypherpunks was what was called assassination politics, where you could use cryptography and other forms of communication to bump off people you didn't like. and by that means you would cripple the state, because state officials would become petrified that they would become part of the assassination politics.

Well, Julian Assange had a very different view eventually. By communicating across cypherpunks he was in a movement, many of whose members wanted to change the world for the better, and wanted to build a world around private communications. He just happens to have been the one cypherpunk who had a really good idea. His idea was that all governments and all major corporations had an element that he called conspiracy, that they communicated with each other, and, as it were, against the best interests of individuals and peoples. He thought of government as a conspiracy. And then he tried to think, how can that conspiracy be broken? How can better government, more open corporations come into being? His answer was, leaks. That if you could set up a system through cryptography and perfect communication, if he could set up a system where individuals within authoritarian institutions could leak material from either governments or corporations, those governments and corporations that were most corrupt would be, as it were, paralysed by fear, by fear of the insider leak. So he developed a revolutionary tactic based upon the leak, based upon crippling authoritarian institutions via their fear that inside their organisations there was someone who was a whistle-blower, and that would stop them communicating electronically with each other in the fear that eventually their bad behaviour would be exposed.

So, he's not really interested so much in openness for its own sake, but openness as a means by which corrupt and authoritarian forms of politics or business will be exposed. That was his one incredibly original interesting idea, which I think is the most important of the cypherpunks' ideas.

Matt Smith:

Is that the philosophy of WikiLeaks then?

Robert Manne:

Yes. The cypherpunks mailing list broke down in the early 2000s. He then went for a while to Melbourne University and studied mathematics, but while he was there, he began to think about how you could use cryptography and remailers in order to bring about a better world, and WikiLeaks, I think most people don't understand it actually, but WikiLeaks' philosophy was the one I just articulated – the crippling of authoritarian institutions via the fear of whistle-blowing and creating an institution which would protect whistle-blowers from being discovered. That's the essence of the philosophy. There are few original ideas in politics, but this was one of them.

Matt Smith:

What do you think has been the biggest effect of WikiLeaks?

Robert Manne:

WikiLeaks was really established end of 2006, early 2007, it's not that old. They've had an incredible number of leaks, for example, corrupt behaviour of the President of Kenya. They got the operational manual for Guantanamo Bay, and many other things of that sort. They also had this incredible leak in Iceland after the global financial crisis where the bank book of the loans that had been given by Iceland, which was as irrational as Ireland and Greece, was leaked to them and they were able to give the names of the insiders who'd been given loans virtually without security or without proper assurance of repayment. You know, insider jobs of loans, which for a moment completely galvanised Icelandic democratic politics.

But, the really big thing happened when a young American intelligence officer, a private in Iraq, got really interested in WikiLeaks it seems, it hasn't been tried in court yet, but this is Bradley Manning of course. And he had access, astonishingly enough, to all the Afghan war logs, all the Iraq war logs and 250,000 US state department cables. That was the big breakthrough for WikiLeaks and that's going to be one of the biggest legal cases in American history, and of course, Assange is tied up in that.

Manning was discovered because he talked over the internet in a chat room with another hacker, a fellow called Adrian Lamo. He would never have been discovered except he made the mistake of telling someone and for that reason, Lamo, for whatever motive, went to the FBI and military authorities and told them. So that's what WikiLeaks has done and how the world is a changed place.

Matt Smith:

Do you think it's a game changer in politics?

Robert Manne:

I think politics is now going to be changed. I think extraordinary numbers of people are going to begin to replicate WikiLeaks-like organisations. I would think for example, that many NGOs, non-government organisations, will establish means by which people can leak material to them, but targeted to their cause, at say, Greenpeace, might establish a system like WikiLeaks for people in institutions and organisations to send them material which can blow the whistle on the behaviour, let's say, of Exon Mobil or maybe someone within the Japanese Ministry of Agriculture or Food will leak about whaling practices. That's what I think will happen. And that's why I said … it's a big thing to say that there's an original idea in politics. Julian Assange had an astonishingly revolutionary idea which I think is almost certain to change the nature of institutions and politics.

Matt Smith:

Do you think that WikiLeaks will survive and continue in its current form? Do you think it can function without Assange.

Robert Manne:

Your guess is as good as mine. At the moment it's surviving. It's slightly lost its focus because the focus has to be on his legal battle with Sweden and with the United States, and he's writing a book in order to raise money, he's become a celebrity, whereas three years ago he didn't even disclose his name to anyone. He's moved from one extreme of secrecy within an organisation, to one of the most famous human beings on earth.

WikiLeaks then is in total kind of transformative mode at present. I think it will probably survive in some form. I don't think it will collapse without him, although I think it would be much diminished without him. I think many similar kinds of organisations will now be created. And one recently, WikiLeaks had an internal implosion towards the end of 2010, and the second most important figure within it, a man called Domscheit-Berg quit and had a falling out and was expelled from WikiLeaks by Julian Assange. Well, he already has created this thing called OpenLeaks which is trying to reflect upon what he thought to be the weaknesses of WikiLeaks. And they're basically going to collect information via the same channels, but not make decisions about publishing it, make the material available to newspapers that they think have a better way of assessing how to publish. Because there was for example, a lot of criticism, and I think justified criticism, that when Assange allowed to be published the Afghan war logs, the names of a large number of people who'd spoken to NATO forces had not been redacted, to use the technical term, were allowed to remain in, and their lives were therefore put at risk. And so Domscheit-Berg and his supporters think that you have to create an organisation which is the recipient of leaks but which doesn't make decisions about publication, which are better made by professional journalists. So WikiLeaks is going to be kind of changing in nature with the other organisations formed.

Matt Smith:

Do you think Australia has an obligation to Assange?

Robert Manne:

Yes. That's an obvious legal question. He is an Australian citizen. He has certainly not committed any crime against Australia. I mean, no-one could argue that. It's preposterous to think that whatever he might have done is in breach of Australian law, with the possible exception of the few cables in the State Department involving Australia. I think you'd have to have a very twisted legal mind to think that's a breach in Australian law. So, as he's an Australian citizen, as he's clearly not in breach of Australian law, Australia has the normal responsibilities to defend its citizens. That doesn't mean of course that they interfere in the cases of Sweden, what's happening now as everyone knows is that he's facing extradition to Sweden on charges of sexual misconduct or rape. Now Australia clearly doesn't have any role in doing anything much, because Sweden has every right to try and have him extradited and every right to try him. Australia just has to make sure that Sweden does no more than what they would do with regard to anyone else.

Matt Smith:

You referred to Julian Assange as one of the influential Australians of the era, along with Rupert Murdoch in that claim. That's a big call to make, and can it be justified?

Robert Manne:

Well, there are little things that show how famous he is, and one is that he was the overwhelming winner for the popular vote for Time person of the year. The overwhelming winner of Le Monde's Man of the Year. So, in terms of the ordinary reading public in France and the United States, he is regarded as the most important figure of last year. The claim about his importance is the possible revolutionising of politics that we've already spoken about. I don't know whether he individually will last as being significant. History will find that out. But I think the institutional challenge he's mounted will be permanent and therefore I think he will be seen in the long term as the pioneer of a new kind of politics. No-one can see into the future but I'd be astonished if he wasn't seen as important.

Matt Smith:

Do you think of Assange as a hero or a villain? Is there a way for him to be both, do you think?

Robert Manne:

If he's a hero, he's a flawed hero. I think he has astonishingly fine qualities. I think he's a remarkably intelligent and creative person, and also I think, unworldly and not materialistic and not driven by bad motives. He genuinely wants the world to be a better place, something that people don't realise about him, but I think they will when his book comes out. He's a very, very fine writer. I only discovered because I read on the internet all sorts of things he's written. On the other hand, he has problems. I think his biggest problem has been his arrogance. He doesn't treat people he regards as fools well and makes it clear he feels superior to them. So he alienates those he works with and those he's close to, to a fair degree. I have to say I think there is something very dubious about his attitude to women, and I don't say that because of what I know he's done, because I don't know what he's done in Sweden, but I do know that stuff he's written on in his blog and so on seems to me a phrase quite sexist. If he's a hero, he's a flawed hero. You know, there aren't that many really creative people and I think he's a genuinely creative person.

Matt Smith:

There were calls to nominate him for a Nobel Peace Prize. Do you think his actions warrant that?

Robert Manne:

I don't know. I mean, I don't take Nobel Peace Prizes seriously – Henry Kissinger won one. If you ask a more practical question, whether he has any chance of winning it, there are two hundred and something nominations, I think he's got no chance whatsoever, because of the criminal charges hanging over him in Sweden. Nought per cent chance. Or to put it another way – I think he's as likely to win the Nobel Prize this year as Kristina Keneally is likely to win the New South Wales state election.

Matt Smith:

That's all the time we've got for the La Trobe University podcast today. Professor Robert Manne's article Julian Assange The Cypherpunk Revolutionary, is in the March edition of The Monthly which is available now from their website and all good newsagencies and shops and if you have any questions, comments or feedback about this podcast or any other, you can send us an email at podcast@latrobe.edu.au. Professor Robert Manne, thank you for your time today.

Robert Manne:

My pleasure.

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