The secret life of Wikileaks founder Julian Assange  

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Wikileaks founder Julian Assange continues to get a high profile in the local press, with the SMH having another look at the organisation this weekend - The secret life of Wikileaks founder Julian Assange.

He has spent the best part of the past six months in Iceland, he says. And the next six months? ''It depends on which area of the world I'm needed most. We're an international organisation. We deal with international problems,'' he replies.

Assange mentions four bases, but names only two. The one in Iceland and another in Kenya, where he has spent a lot of time, on and off, in the past couple of years.

The Kroll report, released on Wikileaks, reportedly swung the Kenyan presidential election in 2007.

When he's in the country, Assange lives in a compound in Nairobi with other foreigners, mainly members of NGOs such as Medecins Sans Frontieres. He originally went to Kenya in 2007 to give a lecture on Wikileaks, when it was up and running. ''And ended up staying there,'' I suggest encouragingly.

''Mmmm.''

As a result of liking the place or …

''Well, it has got extraordinary opportunities for reforms. It had a revolution in the 1970s. It has only been a democracy since 2004 … I was introduced to senior people in journalism, in human rights very quickly.''

He has travelled to Siberia. Is there a third base there?

''No comment. I wish. The bear steak is good.''

Why did he go to Georgia?

''How do you know about that?''

I read it somewhere, I reply. It was a rumour. ''Ah, a rumour,'' he says.

But he did go there? ''It's better that I don't comment on that, because Georgia is not such a big place.''

Living permanently in a state of exile, which can become addictive, means that you always have the sharp eye of the outsider, I suggest.

''The sense of perspective that interaction with multiple cultures gives you I find to be extremely valuable, because it allows you to see the structure of a country with greater clarity, and gives you a sense of mental independence,'' Assange replies.

"You're not swept up in the trivialities of a nation. You can concentrate on the serious matters. Australia is a bit of a political wasteland. That's OK, as long as people recognise that. As long as people recognise that Australia is a suburb of a country called Anglo-Saxon.''

Could he ever live in one place again? A brief silence. ''I don't think so,'' he says finally.

''I don't see myself as a computer guru,'' he remarks at one point. ''I live a broad intellectual life. I'm good at a lot of things, except for spelling.''

At one point, thinking about some of the material leaked on Wikileaks, I ask Assange how he defines national security. ''We don't,'' he says crisply. "We're not interested in that. We're interested in justice. We are a supranational organisation. So we're not interested in national security.''

How does he justify keeping his own life as private as possible, considering that he believes in extreme transparency?

''I don't justify it,'' he says, with just a hint of mischievousness. ''No one has sent us any official documents that were not published previously on me. Should they do so, and they meet our editorial criteria, we will publish them.''

Assange isn't paid a salary by Wikileaks. He has investments, which he won't discuss. But during the 1990s he worked in computer security in Australia and overseas, devised software programmes - in 1997 he co-invented ''Rubberhose deniable encryption'', which he describes as a cryptographic system made for human rights workers wanting to protect sensitive data in the field - and also became a key figure in the free software movement.

The whole point of free software, he comments, is to ''liberate it in all senses''. He adds: ''It' s part of the intellectual heritage of man. True intellectual heritage can't be bound up in intellectual property.''

Did being arrested, and later on finding himself in a courtroom, push him into a completely different reality that he had never thought about - and eventually in a direction that eventually saw him start thinking along the lines of a website like Wikileaks, that would take on the world?

''That [experience] showed me how the justice system and bureaucracy worked, and did not work; what its abilities were and what its limitations were,'' he replies. ''And justice wasn't something that came out of the justice system. Justice was something that you bring to the justice system. And if you're lucky, or skilled, and you're in a country that isn't too corrupt, you can do that.''

In another life, Assange might have been a mathematician. He spent four years studying maths, mostly at Melbourne University - with stints at the Australian National University in Canberra - but never graduated, disenchanted, he says, with how many of his fellow students were conducting research for the US defence system.

''There are key cases which are just really f---ing obnoxious,'' he says.

According to Assange, the US Defence Advance Research Project Agency was funding research which involved optimising the efficiency of a military bulldozer called the Grizzly Plough, which was used in the Iraqi desert during Operation Desert Storm during the 1991 Gulf War.

''It has a problem in that it gets damaged [from] the sand rolling up in front. The application of this bulldozer is to move at 60 kilometres an hour, sweeping barbed wire and so on before it, and get the sand and put it in the trenches where the [Iraqi] troops are, and bury them all alive and then roll over the top. So that's what Melbourne University's applied maths department was doing - studying how to improve the efficiency of the Grizzly Plough.''

Assange says he did a lot of soul-searching before he finally quit his studies in 2007. He had already started working with other people on a model of Wikileaks by early 2006.

There were people at the physics conference, he goes on, who were career physicists, ''and there was just something about their attire, and the way they moved their bodies, and of course the bags on their backs didn't help much either. I couldn't respect them as men''.

His university experience didn't define his cynicism, though. Assange says that he's extremely cynical anyway. ''I painted every corner, floor, wall and ceiling in the 'room' I was in, black, until there was only one corner left. I mean intellectually,'' he adds. ''To me, it was the forced move [in chess], when you have to do something or you'll lose the game.''

So Wikileaks was his forced move?

''That's the way it feels to me, yes. There were no other options left to me on the table.''

Wikileaks, he says, has released more classified documents than the rest of the world press combined.

''That's not something I say as a way of saying how successful we are - rather, that shows you the parlous state of the rest of the media. How is it that a team of five people has managed to release to the public more suppressed information, at that level, than the rest of the world press combined? It's disgraceful.''

Where does Assange see Wikileaks in 10 years? "It's not what I want the world to be. It's what I want the rest of the world to be," he replies.

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