July 2013

The Nation Reviewed

Inside Julian Assange’s high-tech lair

By Guy Rundle
An interview with the WikiLeaks Party Senate candidate

Behind Harrods, in the early evening, black cabs come and go outside the handsome red-brick Edwardian block that houses the Ecuadorian embassy. The WikiLeaks Party’s number-one candidate for the Victorian Senate ticket, Julian Assange, can see them from the windows that have given him his only view of the outside world for the past year. Twelve months sealed within a small building has left him looking pale and a little puffy, and multiple legal and political tasks have left him tired, but the WikiLeaks hub in London’s “Little Quito” is buzzing.

“This is our TV studio,” Assange says, ushering me into a room jumbled with cameras, microphones and cable-festooned laptops. “We built it from scratch.”

Both the organisation and its leader are fighting on various fronts: from battling an Interpol red notice and potential US indictments, and supporting the growing number of cyber dissidents, to getting back to its core business of leaking. Then there’s the Australian election. A vague hope that Assange might be able to campaign in person has recently been dashed. One of the two Swedish women accusing him of sex crimes appears to have redoubled her determination to pursue the case, hiring lawyer Elisabeth Massi Fritz, a specialist in “honour” killings and the Swedish prime minister’s family lawyer.

Nonetheless, Assange maintains that his run for the Senate is about more than drawing the next Australian government into a three-way extradition tussle.

“No, we announced this [political push] in early 2012 before I came into the embassy,” he says, settling into a Chesterfield armchair, in a corner of the studio. “At that time we were concerned that the battle between the two major parties in the Australian election would suck out all the oxygen for all the issues that we hold dear, such as freedom on the internet, protection of journalists and whistleblowers, and of course the protection of WikiLeaks as an Australian organisation itself.”

Assange has long thought that a shift into the mainstream political sphere would be necessary for the dissident movement that has arisen globally via the internet, though not that he would be the one making it. “But, in 2010, as a result of the conflicts WikiLeaks was involved in, people said that whether I liked it or not, I had become a political figure, and I should make proper use of that position. I considered approaching the Greens, because I agree with some of what they say, and [WA Senator] Scott Ludlam in particular has been an extraordinarily solid supporter, but the Greens, because of their size, have become a bureaucratic party, and we’d fight to get all our issues prioritised. We also didn’t want to be involved in the possibility of a vicious preselection.”

With polling indicating significant “potential” public support, Assange is gearing up for a full campaign to be waged from the eight rooms of the embassy. The TV studio is part of that effort, a fully functioning global media base that he and a couple of WikiLeaks staffers have put together. With its mix of off-the-shelf and homebrew tech, and a viridian-coloured cloth on the back wall used as a screen, it has everything anyone from CNN to community television stations needs to patch in for an interview, at a fraction of standard costs. By solving harried news editors’ problems for them – no crew to be dispatched, no last-minute lost links – Assange has gained an inside track in terms of coverage by mainstream media.

It’s nine at night, and there are still a couple of vaguely punky, Occupy-ish types around, contrasting with the embassy’s boardroom tables and chairs, and whitewashed hacienda-style interior. Tapping away on laptops, they’re communicating with the further reaches of the organisation via encrypted software. The whole outfit runs on hacker-tech savvy – the very least that is needed, Assange believes, to go up against a monolith of state and tech-corporate power. In a recent article for the New York Times, titled ‘The Banality of “Don’t Be Evil”’, he’d assailed the self-satisfied delusions of tech tycoons now thoroughly enmeshed with hard power. Assange picks up the thread.

“So, Eric Schmidt, the CEO of Google, has stated that as Lockheed Martin was to the 20th century, so high-tech companies will be to the 21st century. And on the back cover of Schmidt’s new book, The New Digital Age, there are endorsements from Henry Kissinger, Madeleine Albright, Tony Blair and Bill Clinton. Politically, it is an attempt by Google to align itself with Washington power.

“Google evolved out of California grad-student culture, a quite humane, harmless if somewhat privileged culture, so how did this come to be? My take on it is that as Google encountered the world and tried to get into India and China, it needed an organisation that understood that, and that was the [US] state department,” he says. “There’s been a general blurring of everything so where you would once have ... the state sector versus the market ... that’s gone now.”

The “global democracy” movement that emerged in part out of 1990s hacker networks has focused on this convergence for some time. Now, with the revelation of the National Security Agency’s PRISM global mega-surveillance program, the world has become suddenly concentrated on it. But given these and other convergences of power, why has resistance been so partial and fragmentary?

“Broadly, as a result of the internet merging with society and society merging with the internet … a new body politic is being constructed, and it’s just working out what its values are,” Assange tells me, adding that the Occupy protests were part of the process, a sort of collective cry of “What’s going on?”

“I think [the Occupy movement] is basically a conservative movement but, well, we’re all conservatives now. We’re just trying to hang on to the rights we’ve got. That said, let’s not be naive about the efforts that were used to destroy the Occupy movement, to prevent it transforming into an effective political force.”

There’s a lot of that about. From the start of Bradley Manning’s trial, currently in its second month, it became clear that the US government’s main target was Assange, whom they hope to prosecute under the catch-all US Espionage Act of 1917. So how is he bearing up?

“I’m used to it; that’s my life. As for Bradley Manning, he faces a very serious situation but … he’s a bright guy. It appears he’s not the type to fall apart. If you’re involved in any serious dramatic event, the time to worry about it is after, not during.”

A young woman in a headscarf, laptop under her arm, comes in to remind Assange that he has a call from New York in two minutes’ time. Outside, with my passport and phone returned by the inscrutable Ecuadorian door staff, I look at the cafe across the street, bustling with Harrods kids, Arabs and assorted Eurotrash, drinking £5 espressos. The whole area is being rebuilt with Qatari money, glass towers going up among the Victoriana. The place feels like a giant circuit board, components being pulled up and resoldered, but the whole world feels that way at the moment. On the other side of it, in a Hong Kong hotel room, Edward Snowden is leaking the workings of the NSA’s all-enveloping surveillance of our daily lives. These are strange times, strange enough to accommodate Senator Assange with ease.

Read the full-length interview with Julian Assange here.

Guy Rundle
Guy Rundle is the global correspondent-at-large for Crikey. He is the author of Down to the Crossroads: On the Trail of the 2008 US Presidential Election and two Quarterly Essays, ‘The Opportunist’ and ‘Bipolar Nation’.

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