Michael O’Hanlon barely pauses to think.
“In this hypothetical situation,” he asks, “am I armed or unarmed?”
Senior fellow at the august Brookings Institution, O’Hanlon has just been asked what he would do if he were to find himself seated across a table from one Julian Assange, founder and guiding spirit of the Internet whistle-blowing website WikiLeaks.
His rejoinder — “BLAM!”
The Australian-born Assange, it may safely be said, has a gift for exciting powerful reactions.
This has never been truer than now, as 200,000 classified U.S. diplomatic cables make their less than stately way into public view, courtesy of Assange and a small network of like-minded political activists and technophiles, not to mention a worldwide welter of obliging news outlets.
It’s the largest, the latest, and the most sensational in an ongoing string of electronically orchestrated disclosures that have now made WikiLeaks famous or infamous, while transforming Assange into a new kind of media star, celebrated by some and reviled by many, at once ubiquitous and all but invisible.
He may be enjoying his alloted 15 minutes of fame or he may prove to be a more enduring phenomenon.
But the Internet, which provides Assange with his stage, has proved to be a fickle sort of place, where no one seems to last for long.
For now, Assange constitutes a formidable presence — and leaves almost no one indifferent. He retains the loyalty of many supporters and devotees, to be sure, but he also seems to be making enemies almost as quickly as he jettisons friends.
Take Birgitta Jonsdottir.
The one-time anarchist turned professional politician — she’s a member of the Icelandic parliament — used to be a WikiLeaks volunteer and collaborated with Assange on previous disclosures.
Now Jonsdottir won’t talk about him at all.
“Birgitta Jonsdottir will not be granting ANY interviews or comments in relation to Julian Assange or WikiLeaks,” says a message on her personal website.
Others are less reticent, including Herbert Snorrason, a young Dutch activist who has worked closely with Assange in the past but is among an apparently growing number of estranged former colleagues. He spoke recently with The New York Times.
“He is not in his right mind,” Snorrason said of the 39-year-old computer hacker who has somehow managed to transform himself into the first fully-fledged enfant terrible of the digital world.
Assange has been accused of feasting on the attention he receives, while giving insufficient credit to others, particularly Pfc. Bradley Manning, a 22-year-old U.S. soldier, now in detention on suspicion of being the source for WikiLeaks’ main disclosures.
At once cunning and absent-minded, imperious and vulnerable, Assange leads a fugitive life, with no fixed address or even a country to call his own. He travels incognito, uses false names, and pays with cash rather than credit cards. He lives in hotels or crashes on the couches of what would seem to be dwindling coterie of friends. He communicates mainly via email, using encrypted links.
He may be elusive, but that has not prevented the man from becoming embroiled in at least two lurid encounters of the closest kind.
Interpol recently put Assange on the list of its most wanted individuals, owing to allegations by two Swedish women who accuse him of rape, sexual molestation and unlawful confinement.
The case, which is under investigation by Swedish authorities, apparently revolves around charges by the two women that consensual trysts with Assange quickly descended into something very different, after condoms either broke or were dispensed with.
Assange dismisses the allegations as a “smear campaign,” but he has yet to make himself available to Swedish prosecutors for questioning.
This is not the first time Assange has found himself in trouble with the law.
At age 20, and already an accomplished computer hacker, Assange wormed his way into the central computer terminal in Melbourne belonging to Nortel, the Canadian telecommunications company.
Australian federal police moved in.
Facing 31 criminal charges and a possible prison term of 10 years, Assange pleaded guilty to 25 of the counts against him.
He got off lightly — merely obliged to pay a fine of $2,000 in Australian currency — because prosecutors could detect no hostile intent.
“He had some altruistic motive,” Ken Day, the lead investigator in the case, told The New Yorker. “I think he acted on the belief that everyone should have access to everything.”
Everyone should have access to everything — the phrase might well serve as Assange’s personal motto.
It sure isn’t everybody’s.
“Diplomacy cannot operate without discretion and the protection of sources,” wrote a retired British diplomat in an on-line chat with Assange moderated Friday by The Guardian in London. “In publishing this massive volume of correspondence, WikiLeaks is not highlighting specific cases of wrongdoing but undermining the entire process of diplomacy.”
Writing from somewhere in British cyberspace, Assange replied in typically high-handed fashion, declaring the diplomat’s comment to be unworthy of his attention.
He may adopt a less dismissive tone if the Pentagon and the U.S. Justice Department follow through on rumblings that they mean to bring charges against Assange under the 1917 Espionage Act. Or maybe Australia’s most notorious prodigal son won’t change his tone at all.
As for Canadian threats against him, Assange seems particularly unimpressed.
This week, Tom Flanagan, a former adviser to Prime Minister Stephen Harper, remarked on CBC television that Assange ought to be “assassinated.” Flanagan later apologized for the comment, but Assange says he “should be charged with incitement to commit murder.”
Tall, sharp-tongued, and fiercely intelligent, the man at the centre of the world’s latest media maelstrom is the product of an unstable and itinerant childhood in Australia.
By the time he was 14, Assange and his mother, Claire, had changed their address no fewer than 37 times, according to The New Yorker.
Just as he would as a man, Assange learned as a child what it was to live under a pervasive threat.
When he was eight, Assange’s mother left her then husband and took up with an Australian musician, with whom she bore another child, a boy. But, after they broke up, the musician would become a sinister force in her life and in the lives of her sons
Described by Assange as a member of a shadowy cult called The Family, whose rallying cry was “Unseen, Unknown, and Unheard,” the musician supposedly continued to keep watch on Claire and her boys for roughly five years, a time they lived largely on the run.
A self-proclaimed outsider, the youthful Assange quickly gravitated towards computers and computer programming — and, inevitably, computer hacking.
Meanwhile, his personal life was proving to be nearly as complicated as the most vexing programming code.
At age 18, he fathered a son with a teenaged girlfriend, an arrangement that would degenerate into a colossal custody battle that lasted several years.
Eventually resolved, the dispute was not so much a conflict among individuals as it was a struggle pitting individuals against the vast and anonymous might of the state. When it was over, everyone was wounded.
Before long, Assange’s hair — once dark brown in colour — had turned absolutely white.
That was in 1999.
Seven years later, Assange launched WikiLeaks — a grand experiment in what he calls “scientific journalism.”
Unlike the mainstream media, Assange’s website would do what scientists do when they publish their findings. It would make available the raw material on which those findings are based.
One controversial disclosure followed another. But Assange’s early coups were dwarfed by the subsequent release of huge troves of secret field reports from the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.
Assange was most bitterly criticized for his decision not to expunge the names of Afghan agents collaborating with NATO forces in their country, a decision he made unilaterally and that he continues to defend.
Nathalie Des Rosiers, general counsel to the Canadian Civil Liberties Association, tends to side with Assange on this question.
“All governments will say, ‘This puts people’s lives in danger,’” she says. “But it’s difficult to say whether this is the case or not. There may be a little bit of hysteria around this.”
Whether he has endangered individual lives or not, Assange may soon find himself in new legal jeopardy, in addition to the Swedish sex investigation.
“The whistle-blower only has the protection that is given by the law,” says Des Rosiers. “That protection is actually quite restricted. WikiLeaks goes beyond the protection of the law, but they don’t care. They are taking a chance.”
O’Hanlon at the Brookings Institution goes further.
“I would like to see Assange behind bars, which is where he belongs.”
That may well be where Julian Assange ends up. Right now, he doesn’t seem to have anywhere else to go.
He is living in Britain, apparently on a six-month visa that will expire early in the new year.
After that, who knows?
Many observers believe that much of the global attention paid to WikiLeaks’ activity has more to do with the public’s fixation on Assange — “the Robin Hood of journalism” — than with the inherent newsworthiness of the material being released.
A WikiLeaks deprived of its founder and guiding light would, they say, be a greatly diminished thing.
“In normal circumstances, who could care less?” says Des Rosiers at the Canadian Civil Liberties Association. “It’s only with the creation of this persona around Assange that we get interested.”