Meet the mysterious Australian behind the WikiLeaks website and read his answers to viewers' questions fromourLIVE ONLINE CHAT.
Airdate: 
Sunday, May 16, 2010 - 20:32
Channel: 
SBS One

The WikiLeaks website is fast gaining credibility as a whistleblowing site for political secrets, but one of the people behind it, Australian Julian Assange, remains an international man of mystery.

His biggest coup so far has been obtaining classified video of Iraqi civilians and Reuters staff being gunned down by a US military helicopter, dubbed Collateral Murder, which has been watched over six million times.

The site also released what it claimed was the list of websites to be banned under the Australian Government's proposed internet filter, before parts of WikiLeaks itself were blacklisted by the Australian Communications and Media Authority.

But Julian Assange does all this with no home or office, constantly travelling the world, so Mark Davis tracked him down to Norway, followed him to Sweden, where many of WikiLeaks servers are based, then to Iceland, where he was advising politicians on turning the country into a safe haven for whistleblowers, and finally to Australia, where he was told his passport would be cancelled amid WikiLeaks being investigated by the Australian Federal Police.

So what did he manage to find out about this shy former-computer-hacker-turned-investigative-journalist? Click here to watch Mark's report.

Julian Assange took part in a live online chat after the program, along with video journalist Mark Davis. Click here to replay it.

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Photos: WikiLeaks

Live Chat

The Australian founder of WikiLeaks, Julian Assange, was online after the program on Sunday 16th May to answer your questions in our live chat, along with video journalist Mark Davis.

The chat ran from 9.30pm-10.30pm AEST, so apologies to viewers of later showings, but Julian and Mark were only available online for a limited time. Anyone who missed the chat can replay it below or leave comments on the story here. You can also watch Mark's profile of Julian Assange here.



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Transcript

In Australia you have probably picked up that pretty heated debate is developing over the Federal Government's proposed internet restrictions. Meanwhile a small country in northern Europe is heading in exactly the opposite direction. Of all places, Iceland is about to become a world leader when it comes to freedom of information. As a result it's attracted a mysterious Australian to its shores. Julian Assange is the founder of an investigate web site. WikiLeaks - well you might ask - Wiki what? Literally millions of people around the globe logged on when WikiLeaks posted to recent video showing Iraqis being gunned down by a US military helicopter. Till now - Assange - the scourge of governments and beaucrates who want to keep their dealings secret has himself, been adept at keeping out of the public eye. That is until Mark Davis tracked him down.

REPORTER: Mark Davis

SPEAKER: It is only in open and free society that people can have an event like this where people can protest, where people can;.

The Oslo freedom forum has pulled a diverse but very powerful crowd. Former Polish president Lech Walesa, Malaysian Opposition leader, Anwar Ibrahim, founder of Papal and human rights supporter Peter Thiel.... and a mercurial Australian who seems to be just now emerging from the shadows. Julian Assange.

SPEAKER: He risks his life to promote transparency. Please welcome Julian Assange..

For the past three years, Assange has been one of the key, mostly anonymous figures behind a controversial web site WikiLeaks.

JULIAN ASSANGE, WIKILEAKS FOUNDER: So I'm not sure how many people here are familiar with the basics of my work.

The web site is designed to encourage employees within Government, the military and the private sector to anonymously leak key internal documents on to the WikiLeaks servers.

JULIAN ASSANGE: Expose them where they can be opposed.

WikiLeaks most recent bomb shell was a video leaked from the US military. It showed the killing of 12 people including two Reuters journalists and the shelling of civilians including children who went to their aid. If there was anyone who hadn't heard of WikiLeaks before, they certainly had after this video hit the air waves around the world.

JULIAN ASSANGE: That worked. It really, really worked. We went to the Dragons cave while it was asleep, pissed in the corner and left.

In the past couple of years, WikiLeaks has revealed a remarkable range of documents. NATO's military strategy for the war in Afghanistan, the Australian Government's secret black list of internet sites, even the operating manuals from Guantanamo Bay.

MAN: ...he was afraid that American authorities are going to chase you down and go after you.

JULIAN ASSANGE: They've been trying to do it for a while.

But the more prominent the stories have become, attention has shifted to who WikiLeaks is. And in particular its most prominent organiser.

MAN 2: You're the only one which is sounding like a pure Angel.

JULIAN ASSANGE: Me? A pure Angel. Its just the hair

To date Assange has been totally media shy or just impossible to contact. A moving target difficult for either Governments or journalists to pin down. Until now he has refused to do any interviews about his life or work and been labelled difficult or more often paranoid by a number of publications. The Sunday times referred to him as 'elusive as a modern day pimpernel' and an 'international man of mystery' according to the 'Sydney Morning Herald'.

REPORTER: To date WikiLeaks has been certainly viewed as a shadowy type of organisation, very hard -

JULIAN ASSANGE: Just because we don't have time to answer journalist's questions.

REPORTER: Makes you very shadowy.

JULIAN ASSANGE: It doesn't mean we're shadowy. This is just like a Hollywood movie.

REPORTER: But you are shadowy. You have no office, no location, no spokespeople, you have nothing.

JULIAN ASSANGE: We're sensible. I mean, we understand some of the forces against us, some of the legal forces and some of the intelligence force so we take sensible precautions.

REPORTER: I guess one of the advantages of being so fluid is that there's no office to raid, there's no, you know, computer to seize.

JULIAN ASSANGE: That's right.

REPORTER: It's hard to pin WikiLeaks down.

JULIAN ASSANGE: Yeah, that's right. And there's not merely me being fluid but rather everyone being a bit fluid.

To call Assange fluid is an understatement. WikiLeaks has no headquarters and Assange has no permanent home. He mostly roams around the world on his own schedule with whatever he can cram into his backpack. And for a few days he lets me tag along.

REPORTER: It is quite remarkable. You're running your part of this organisation from buses and train stations.

JULIAN ASSANGE: Yes.

REPORTER: On a 300 dollar laptop. It's hardly the image of some super computer system and bunkers.

JULIAN ASSANGE: We have those. Yeah. But we don't carry them in our pocket.

Assange named Kenya and Iceland as places he would go if he was sick or in trouble, but he's rarely in either place

REPORTER: You are constantly on the move. Is that a security issue for you or is it a personal choice?

JULIAN ASSANGE: I don't know. It's not running from anything. It's just that there are opportunities. And I like travelling. Maybe not quite so much as I'm doing in the past few weeks. But I like travelling every six weeks. After six weeks I start to get itchy feet.

Assange agrees to talk for the first time about his background in Australia, his previous hacking activities there and the charges he faced and his current role in WikiLeaks.

REPORTER: Let's start with who you are, what is your background? What is your childhood and your youth?

JULIAN ASSANGE: My - I don't know. How do I sum up?

REPORTER: Is it true, 30 schools?

JULIAN ASSANGE: 37.

REPORTER: 37 schools.?

JULIAN ASSANGE: One of them was correspondence. I was in a theatre family and we were touring around. Some people would be horrified and say, you poor thing, you went to all these schools but actually during this period I really liked this. There was a second period from the age of about 10. My mother had become involved with a person who seems to be the son of Ann Hamilton Burn of the Ann Hamilton Burn cult in Australia and we kept getting tracked down. Possibly because of leaks within the social security system, and having to leave very quickly to a new city and go through assumed names.

Assange first came to notice in Australia in 1995 when he was charged with 30 hacking offences.

ARCHIVE REPORTER: Julian Assange and James Carter allegedly accessed computer systems around the world through weak links in the internet system. Jeff Chittell said Assange had developed a program to collect pass words meaning the whole computer opened up to him and he could walk around like God all mighty.

JULIAN ASSANGE: We were young, hadn't done anything for criminal gain. We had done this for - out of curiosity, challenge and some activism. Some anti nuclear activism. And we hadn't destroyed anything.

ARCHIVE REPORTER: The court was told the men even tampered with the police investigation into hacking at the ANU.

JULIAN ASSANGE: So if you're a teenager in the suburb of Melbourne, this was an incredibly liberating thing.

It was an activity he began in the early 90s and involved breaking into police, telcos and US military computers.

REPORTER: You're a kid and you're getting into American military installations of some sort. This is extraordinary.

JULIAN ASSANGE: Yeah. I mean, we had a back door in the US military security co-ordination centre. This is the peak security body - controlling Milnet the US military internet. We had total control over this for two years.

But that wasn't all that hackers from Melbourne were involved in at the time.

ARCHIVE REPORTER: The US space agency NASA is one of the victims of the Melbourne computer hacking syndicate. American investigators including the FBI contacted Australian authorities with their suspicions.

The case of a computer worm that stalled a NASA space launch was never solved.

REPORTER: At one point this led to NASA being penetrated by this group we'll call them. By Melbourne hackers.

JULIAN ASSANGE: Melbourne hackers. Its still not known who they are. A subset of the Melbourne hacker community was interested in NASA at that time because it was launching a satellite which included a significant amount of plutonium- 50 kilos of plutonium.

The potential that hacking had to disrupt other computer systems wasn't what most excited Assange. It was the revelation of peering at secret documents and the hidden world they unveiled.

JULIAN ASSANGE: The true nature of this world is being revealed. It's not being interpreted for you. There it is, face to face from the inside. And these emails are not directed to you or constructed for you so they're truer. Like a photograph.

An insight that clearly spawned WikiLeaks.

REPORTER: But it's the same idea now really isn't it, peering inside something you're not meant to peer at and you're still doing it.

JULIAN ASSANGE: Well, the method is different but, yeah.

He was also charged in the 1990s with printing a seditious publication, a magazine entitled International Subversive. In the boy can be found the man - it seems he has actually become what he dreamt of being as a teenager in the suburbs of Melbourne albeit at a cost to his treasured anonymity.

JULIAN ASSANGE: It does take it out of you, yes

REPORTER: Why are you doing it now when you weren't doing it before?

JULIAN ASSANGE: Because people started writing about us, even though we weren't speaking to the media. And as a result, as a result they were just inventing things. The public demands that it has a face and actually we'd much sort of prefer - I prefer if it didn't have to have a face and we tried to do that for a while. Until the demand was so great people started inventing faces.

REPORTER: You look very pretty anyway.

JULIAN ASSANGE: Thank you Mark.

Assange is stepping forward to promote the Iraq video. Publicity is one way of rewarding the risks taken by the leakers and perhaps more importantly it's encouraging others to like to his site.

JULIAN ASSANGE: People who have very sensitive material have trust in us.

Sweden is friendly legal ground and home to many of WikiLeaks's servers. Accordingly, Assange makes himself more readily available to Swedish media in all of its forms.

JULIAN ASSANGE: We have support here, and the reason there are good laws in Sweden is because of the culture supports that.

REPORTER: So far the political will is behind you.

JULIAN ASSANGE: In Sweden, definitely.

Assange is becoming well-known here but his influence has become much more pronounced in a seemingly unlikely corner of the world.

Iceland was hit first and hit hardest by the global financial crisis. The nation was being dragged into virtual bankruptcy by its high flying banks when WikiLeaks flew into the maelstrom. Last year, the national broadcaster was tipped off by WikiLeaks to some explosive banking documents. The WikiLeaks documents revealed the loan book of Iceland's biggest bank. A frenetic trail of funds was shown being shifted to friends and associates was the bank was on the verge of collapse.

NEWSREADER: The banks owners were effectively lending themselves money.

The bank responded with an injunction, the first in the history of Icelandic media, and it landed on the desk of news reader Bogi Augustsson

NEWSREADER: It was incredible because I first learned about what had happened when we were literally going on air, and - so we didn't have any time to prepare any response or anything like that. So whatever I said was add lib. In this case it simply escaped me, that I left my feelings show.

In place of the pulled story, Bogi referred his audience to the source to see the damaging documents for themselves. And WikiLeaks was launched into the main stream of Icelandic politics.

NEWSREADER: That is why a project like this one, like WikiLeaks, is popular among the Icelandic people because there has to be a forum for openness, for exchanging information, for leaking in a safe manner. It's sort of struck a chord with the Icelandic people at the moment, I think.

Riding that wave of popularity, Assange began lobbying Icelandic politicians to create an international safe haven for journalists and the media. Government member and former journalist Robert Marshall is one of the proponents of the Bill which has the support of members of every party in the Parliament.

MAN: Of course it's something that international media could use as a haven for a branch of their office.

In essence, the legislation would provide a shelter for media organisations that incorporate here. Servers free from international injunctions or search orders, whistle blower protection and all sheltering under Iceland's very narrow libel laws.

MAN: Even though a court in London comes to the conclusion that it it's libel or something you should have to be fined for, that won't hold-up against the Icelandic courts.

REPORTER: It's quite a radical idea, though.

MAN: Yes, it is, but it's necessary because big corporations have been increasingly using their legal teams to try to gag media.

Iceland's ambition to create an international media haven looks likely to pass into legislation and its polls apart from what's unfolding in Australia. Communications minister senator Steven Conroy, is preparing a growing list of internet sites that Australians will not be able to access and it's a list that cannot be seen or published. It's illegal to do so but of course WikiLeaks did and in turn earnt itself a place on the list.

JULIAN ASSANGE: You know, it's a black list. How can we get off the black list? There is no procedure to get off the black list. I mean, it's a Soviet style system.

REPORTER: The threat of you being served with legal papers, indeed the threat of you being arrested as you enter a jurisdiction has escalated dramatically.

JULIAN ASSANGE: There are places, Dubai, who is trying to have us arrested, Switzerland under the bank secrecy laws, Cayman Islands. Australia had the Federal police in relation to its censorship list so there are some jurisdictions that from time to time it wouldn't be sensible to go there.

Sensible or not, Assange entered Australia several days ago. He says immigration officials at the airport advised him that his passport was being cancelled on the premise that it was looking worn. Then at his mailing address he was greeted by this letter from senator Conroy's office, stating that the disclosure of the black list 'has been referred to the Australian Federal Police'. And that the media authority 'continues to liaise with the AFP on the matter'. As we go to air, the department of foreign affairs claim that his passport status is normal, but no one has yet advised Assange of that and no word yet whether the AFP have been able to contact him to help with their enquiries.

Reporter/Camera

MARK DAVIS

Producers

ASHLEY SMITH

Second Camera

Asgeir Hjaltalin

Researcher

Melanie Morrison

Editors

WAYNE LOVE

DAVID POTTS

Original Music composed by

VICKI HANSEN

16th May 2010