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In Conversation with Julian Assange | Wikileaks Archive - 2011-05-23

Hans Ulrich Obrist talks extensively with Julian Assange about his life and work

Hans Ulrich Obrist: How did it all begin?

Julian Assange: I grew up in Australia in the 1970s. My parents were in the theatre, so I lived everywhere—in over fifty different towns, attending thirty-seven different schools. Many of these towns were in rural environments, so I lived like Tom Sawyer—riding horses, exploring caves, fishing, diving and riding on my motorcycle. I lived a classical boyhood in this regard. But there were other events, such as in Adelaide, where my mother was involved in helping to smuggle information out of Maralinga, the British atomic bomb test site in the outback. She and I and a courier were detained one night by the Australian Federal Police, who told her that it could be said that she was an unfit mother to be keeping such company at 2:00 a.m., and that she had better stay out of politics if she didn’t want to hear such things. I was very curious as a child, always asking why, and always wanting to overcome barriers to knowing, which meant that by the time I was around fifteen I was breaking encryption systems that were used to stop people sharing software, and then, later on, breaking systems that were used to hide information in government computers. Australia was a very provincial place before the internet, and it was a great delight to be able to get out, intellectually, into the wider world, to tunnel through it and understand it. For someone who was young and relatively removed from the rest of the world, to be able to enter the depths of the Pentagon’s Eighth Command at the age of seventeen was a liberating experience. But our group, which centered on the underground magazine I founded was raided by the Federal Police. It was a big operation. But I thought that I needed to share this wealth that I had discovered about the world with people, to give knowledge to people, and so following that I set up the first part of the internet industry in Australia. I spent a number of years bringing the internet to the people through my free speech ISP and then began to look for something with a new intellectual challenge.

HUO: So something was missing.

JA: Something was missing. This led me to using cryptography to protect human rights, in novel ways, and eventually as a result of what I was doing in mathematics and in physics and political activism, things seemed to come together and show that there was a limit to what I was doing—and what the rest of the world was doing. There was not enough information available in our common intellectual record to explain how the world really works. These were more the feelings and process, but they suggested a bigger question, with a stronger philosophical answer for explaining what is missing. We are missing one of the pillars of history. There are three types of history. Type one is knowledge. Its creation is subsidized, and its maintenance is subsidized by an industry or lobby: things like how to build a pump that pumps water, how to create steel and build other forms of alloys, how to cook, how to remove poisons from food, etc. But because this knowledge is part of everyday industrial processes, there is an economy that keeps such information around and makes use of it. So the work of preserving it is already done.

HUO: It’s kind of implicit.

JA: There is a system that maintains it. And there’s another type of information in our intellectual record. (This is a term I interchange freely with “historical record”. When I say “historical record”, I don’t mean what happened a hundred years ago, but all that we know, including what happened last week.) This second type of information no longer has an economy behind it. It has already found its way into the historical record through a state of affairs which no longer exists. So it’s just sitting there. It can be slowly rotting away, slowly vanishing. Books go out of print, and the number of copies available decreases. But it is a slow process, because no one is actively trying to destroy this type of information. And then there is the type-three information that is the focus of my attention now. This is the information that people are actively working to prevent from entering into the record. Type three information is suppressed before publication or after publication. If type-three information is spread around, there are active attempts to take it out of circulation. Because these first two pillars of our intellectual record either have an economy behind them, or there are no active attempts to destroy them, they do not call to me as loudly. But, this third pillar of information has been denied to all of us throughout the history of the word. So, if you understand that civilized life is built around understanding the world, understanding each other, understanding human institutions and so forth, then our understanding has a great hole in it, which is type-three history. And we want a just and civilized world—and by civilized I don’t mean industrialized, but one where people don’t do dumb things, where they engage in more intelligent behavior.

HUO: More complex behavior.

JA: Right, more complex and layered behavior. There are many analogies for what I mean by that, but I’ll just give a simple one, which is the water ritual. If you sit down with a friend, and there’s a pitcher of water on the table, and there are two glasses, then you pour the other person’s water before your own. This is a very simple ritual. But, this is better than the obvious step, which is to pour your own water before the other person’s. If we can see a few steps ahead, the water ritual is a more intelligent way to distribute water at a table. That’s what I mean by civilization—we gradually build up all these processes and understandings so we don’t need to make bad moves with each other or the natural world. So with regard to all this suppressed information, we’ve never had a proper understanding of it because it has never entered our intellectual record, and if we can find out about how complex human institutions actually behave, then we have a chance to build civilized behavior on top of it. This is why I say that all existing political theories are bankrupt, because you cannot build a meaningful theory without knowledge of the world that you’re building the theory about. Until we have an understanding of how the world actually works, no political theory can actually be complete enough to demand a course of action.

HUO: So that clearly maps out how you came to where you are today. Since many people now mention you as one of their heroes, I was wondering who inspired you at the beginning. For example, people often refer to you as a new John Wilkes, this eighteenth-century journalist and Member of Parliament who was an early pioneer of free speech.

JA: There have been heroic acts that I have appreciated, or some systems of thought, but I think it’s better to say that there are some people I had an intellectual rapport with, such as Heisenberg and Bohr. That comes when you’re doing mathematics. The mathematics of Heisenberg and Bohr is a branch of natural philosophy. They developed a system or epistemology for understanding quantum mechanics, but encoded within this intellecutual tradition are methods to think clearly about cause and effect. When reading mathematics you must take your mind through each intellectual step. In this case, the steps of Heisenberg or Bohr. Because good proofs are very creative, it takes the full energies of your mind to reach through one step to another. Your whole mind must be engaged in a particular state of thought, and you realizes that this mental arrangement is the same as the author’s at the moment of writing, so the feeling of mental similarity and rapport become strong. Quantum mechanics and its modern evolution left me with a theory of change and how to properly understand how one thing causes another. My interest was then in reversing this thought process and adapting it to another realm. We have an end state that we want, and I looked at all the changes that are needed to get to this end state from where we are now. I developed this analogy to explain how information flows around the world to cause particular actions. If the desired end state is a world that is more just, then the question is: What type of actions produce a world that is more just? And what sort of information flows lead to those actions? And then, where do these information flows originate? Once you understand this, you can see it is not just starting somewhere and ending elsewhere, but rather that cause and effect is a loop; here we are today, and we want to create an end state as a result of action. We act and by doing so bring the world into a new state of affairs, which we can consider our new starting point, and so this process of observe, think, act continues.

HUO: It’s fascinating, because science, mathematics, quantum theory—all of these come together in your work. If one reads about your beginnings before WikiLeaks, one finds that you were not only instrumental in bringing the internet to Australia, but that you were also one of the great, early hackers. Geert Lovink used to always speak to me about this book called Underground: Tales of Hacking, Madness and Obsession on the Electronic Frontier, a very important book that you also worked on. I’m curious about your hacker background, and this book as well, since it seems to be a sort of a fundament on which a lot of things were based afterwards.

JA: In my late teenage years, up until the age of twenty, I was a computer hacker and a student in Melbourne. And I had an underground magazine called International Subversive. We were part of an international community of underground computer hackers. This was before the internet connected continents, but we had other ways of making international connections. So each country had its own internet, of a sort, but the world as a whole was intellectually balkanized into distinct systems and networks.

HUO: Like The WELL in the States.

JA: Right, that kind of thing, or ARPANET which connected universities in the States. And something called x.25, run by the telecommunications companies, that banks and major companies used to link systems together. We, the underground community, sometimes bumped into each other deep inside these computer networks. Or we would meet at underground watering holes like QSD in France or ALTOS in Germany. But it was a very small community, with perhaps only twenty people at the elite level that could move across the globe freely and with regularity. The community was small and involved and active just before the internet, but then crossed into the embryonic internet, which was still not available to people outside of university research departments, US military contractors and the pentagon. It was a delightful international playground of scientists, hackers and power. For someone who wanted to learn about the world, for someone who was developing their own philosophy of power, it was a very interesting time. Eventually our phones were tapped and there were multiple, simultaneous raids that resulted in close to six years of legal proceedings. The book covers my case, but I deliberately minimized my role so we could pull in the whole community, in the United States, in Europe, in England, and in Australia.

HUO: I think that’s why it was so important, because it also created a kind of connection between all these different local scenes for the first time, no? At that time, you were also known as an ethical hacker.

JA: Right, though I actually think most computer hackers back then were ethical, since that was the standard of the best people involved. Remember, this was an intellectual frontier, and it had very young people in it. It needed young people for the degree of mental adaptation necessary. Because it was an intellectual frontier, we had a range of people who were very bright, though not necessarily formally educated.

HUO: Was there a connection to America, to the beginnings of The WELL, to Stewart Brand, Bruce Sterling, Kevin Kelly, to people like this?

JA: There was almost no connection. The WELL had influenced some parts of the computer hacking community, in the United States, but we were deep underground, so most of our connections didn’t rise above the light and we were proud of that discipline. Those who knew did not speak. Those who spoke did not know. The result was a distorted US-centric perception of the underground. In the United States, in particular, you had quite marginal computer hackers engaging in conferences but the people engaged in the really serious business, because of the risks involved, were almost completely invisible until they were arrested. The entry points into it were the bulletin boards—these were the central places, places like P-80 in the United States, and Pacific Island in Australia, which had public cover for a private side. But then, once reaching a certain level, people only used completely underground bulletin boards. There were on x.25 networks places like ALTOS in Hamburg where we would go to talk. ALTOS was one of the first, if not the first, multi-party chat system, but in order to get into it, you had to have x.25 credentials. While some bank workers and telecommunications workers would have access to these, teenagers would only have them if they were decent computer hackers, or if their fathers worked for the telecommunications company.

HUO: Was there a link to anarchists? In a previous issue of e-flux journal I interviewed Hakim Bey, and we discussed a lot of the history of anarchists and piracy. When you worked as a hacker, were you inspired by these kinds of anarchistic ideas?

JA: I wasn’t personally. The anarchists’ tradition revolving around figures like Proudhon and Kroptkin was not something on my horizon. My personal political inspirations were people like Solzhenitsyn, anti-Stalinists in “The God that Failed” and US radical traditions all the way up to the Black Panthers.

HUO: Liberation movements.

JA: Yes, the various liberation movements—in their emotional tone and force of will, not in intellectual content. That tradition really spread into some other things I did later, like the Cypherpunks, in 1993 and ‘94. 1994 was probably the peak of the “Cypherpunk” micro movement. Cypherpunk is a wordplay on Cyberpunk, the latter was always viewed as nonsense by real computer hackers—we were the living cyberpunks while others were just talking about it, making artistic pastiche on our reality. We viewed the better books as a nice showing of the flag to the general public, but like most causes that are elitist and small, we had contempt for bowdlerized popularizations. The Cypherpunks were a combination of people from California, Europe and Australia. We saw that we could change the nature of the relationship between the individual and the state using cryptography. I wouldn’t say that we came from a libertarian political tradition as much as from a libertarian temperament, with particular individuals who were capable of thinking in abstractions, but wanting to make them real. We had many who were comfortable with higher mathematics, cryptography, engineering or physics who were interested in politics and felt that the relationship between the individual and the state should be changed and that the abuse of power by states needed to be checked, in some manner, by individuals.

HUO: It’s the sort of fundament of WikiLeaks in some way, no?

JA: Yes and no. There are many different intellectual strands that ended up in WikiLeaks that are unrelated to ideas swirling around the Cypherpunk community. But the use of mathematics and programming to create a check on the power of government, this was really the common value in the Cypherpunks movement.

HUO: And you were one of the protagonists, one could say.

JA: I was. There wasn’t really a founding member or a founding philosophy but there were some initial principles, people like John Young, Eric Huges and Timothy C. May from California. We were a discussion group like the Vienna school of logical positivism. From our interactions certain ideas and values took form. The fascination for us was simple. It was not just the intellectual challenge of making and breaking these cryptographic codes and connecting people together in novel ways. Rather our will came from a quite extraordinary notion of power, which was that with some clever mathematics you can, very simply—and this seems complex in abstraction but simple in terms of what computers are capable of—enable any individual to say no to the most powerful state. So if you and I agree on a particular encryption code, and it is mathematically strong, then the forces of every superpower brought to bear on that code still cannot crack it. So a state can desire to do something to an individual, yet it is simply not possible for the state to do it—and in this sense, mathematics and individuals are stronger than superpowers.

HUO: Could this have been an epiphany that then led to WikiLeaks?

JA: Well, there is no singular epiphany. WikiLeaks is many different ideas pulled together, and certain economies permit it to be cheap enough to realize. There are some epiphanies, such as my theory of change, an understanding of what is important to do in life, an understanding of what information is important and what is not, ideas having to do with how to protect such an endeavor, and many small technical breakthroughs that go along the way. They’re building blocks for my final view about what form things should take. It is a complex construction, like a truck, which has wheels, cranks and gears, all contributing to the efficiency of the whole truck, and all of which need to be assembled in order for the truck to get to the destination that I want it to get to by a certain time. So to some degree the epiphany is not in the construction of this vehicle, because there are many little epiphanies in each part, but rather it is that there is a destination that this truck should go to and a way to get out of there.

HUO: There’s a path.

JA: Yes, there’s a path, and therefore there needs to be a truck that will go down this path. Then, it becomes a matter of assembling all the pieces necessary for this truck, which is a complex machine, technically and logistically, in terms of political presentation and cause and effect, and as an organization, and how I interact, personally, with all this. It’s not a simple thing. I actually think that anyone who has built an institution around an idea will tell you this—that there are some ideas about where you want to go, but in order to get there you need to build an institution. In my case, I built—and got other people to help me build—both the machine and the institution.

HUO: So obviously then, because it’s such a complex thing, I suppose it’s not possible for you to just sketch it on a piece of paper.

JA: No, this would be like sketching democracy—not something that’s possible to draw. There are all these different parts, and each has their own drawing. It’s the ensemble of all these parts that makes WikiLeaks work like it does. But perhaps there are some economic epiphanies. There’s a universe of information, and we can imagine a sort of Platonic ideal in which we have an infinite horizon of information. It’s similar to the concept of the Tower of Babel. Imagine a field before us composed of all the information that exists in the world—inside government computers, people’s letters, things that have already been published, the stream of information coming out of televisions, this total knowledge of all the world, both accessible and inaccessible to the public. We can as a thought experiment observe this field and ask: If we want to use information to produce actions that affect the world to make it more just, which information will do that? So what we ask for is a way to color the field of information before us, to take a yellow highlighter and mark the interesting bits—all the information that is most likely to have that effect on the world, which leads it toward the state we desire. But what is the signal that permits us to do that? What can we recognize when we look at the world’s from a distance? Can we somehow recognize those things that we should mark as worthy candidates to achieve change? Some of the information in this tremendous field, if you look at it carefully, is faintly glowing. And what it’s glowing with is the amount of work that’s being put in to suppressing it. So, when someone wants to take information and literally stick it in a vault and surround it with guards, I say that they are doing economic work to suppress information from the world. And why is so much economic work being done to suppress that information? Probably—not definitely, but probably—because the organization predicts that it’s going to reduce the power of the institution that contains it. It’s going to produce a change in the world, and the organization doesn’t like that vision. Therefore, the containing institution engages in constant economic work to prevent that change. So, if you then search for that signal of suppression, then you can find all this information that you should mark as information that should be released. So, it was an epiphany to see the signal of censorship to always be an opportunity, to see that when organizations or governments of various kinds attempt to contain knowledge and suppress it, they are giving you the most important information you need to know: that there something worth looking at to see if it should be exposed and that censorship expresses weakness not strength.

HUO: So within that complex field of information this signal is actually a very clear epiphany.

JA: Yes, within that complexity. Censorship is not only a helpful economic signal; it is always an opportunity, because it reveals a fear of reform. And if an organization is expressing a fear of reform, it is also expressing the fact that it can be reformed. So, when you see the Chinese government engaging in all sorts of economic work to suppress information passing in and out of China on the internet, the Chinese government is also expressing a belief that it can be reformed by information flows, which is hopeful but easily understandable because China is still a political society. It is not yet a fiscalized society in the way that the United States is for example. The basic power relationships of the United States and other Western countries are described by formal fiscal relationships, for example one organization has a contract with another organization, or it has a bank account, or is engaged in a hedge. Those relationships cannot be changed by moderate political shifts. The shift needs to be large enough to turn contracts into paper, or change money flows.

HUO: Now I see. And that’s why you mentioned when we last spoke that you’re optimistic about China.

JA: Correct, and optimistic about any organization, or any country, that engages in censorship. We see now that the US State Department is trying to censor us. We can also look at it in the following way. The birds and the bees, and other things that can’t actually change human power relationships, are free. They’re left unmolested by human beings because they don’t matter. In places where speech is free, and where censorship does not exist or is not obvious, the society is so sewn up—so depoliticized, so fiscalized in its basic power relationships—that it doesn’t matter what you say. And it doesn’t matter what information is published. It’s not going to change who owns what or who controls what. And the power structure of a society is by definition its control structure. So in the United States, because of the extraordinary fiscalization of relationships in that country, it matters little who wins office. You’re not going to suddenly empty a powerful individual’s bank account. Their money will stay there. Their stockholdings are going to stay there, bar a revolution strong enough to void contracts.

HUO: It was around 2007 that WikiLeaks began developing contacts with newspapers, and I think it was 2008 that you posted documents alleging that a Swiss bank was laundering money. When was the first major coup?

JA: We had published a number of significant reports in July 2007. One was a detailed 2,000-page list of all the military equipment in Iraq and Afghanistan, including unit assignments and the entire force structure. That was actually important but, interestingly, too complex to be picked up by the press, and so it had no direct impact. The first to be “recognized by the international press” was a private intelligence report by Kroll, an international private intelligence agency. This was produced by their London office, at great expense to the new Kenyan government, who were trying to find out where Daniel arap Moi and his cronies had smuggled the Kenyan Treasury to. They managed to trace some $3 billion worth of money, looted from Kenya, to London Banks, Swiss Banks, a 10,000 hectare ranch in Australia, properties in the US, companies in London and so on.

HUO: And that changed the Kenyan elections.

JA: It swung the electoral vote by 10 percent, changing the predicted result of the election and leading to a rather extraordinary series of events, which ended with an overhaul of the structure of the government and the Kenyan constitution.

HUO: So one could say that, for the first time, WikiLeaks produced a new reality.

JA: Yes. Remember that in the theory of change I outlined, we have a starting point. We have some observations about reality, like Kroll observing where Daniel arap Moi stashed all his money. Then that information came to us, and then we spread it around in a way designed to maximize impact. And it entered the minds of many people, and caused them to act.The result was a change in the Kenyan election, which then went on to produce many other changes.

HUO: And what would you say was the next big change in reality after that?

JA: Some of them are harder to track. An election is fairly easy, because either the government or the opposition is elected. In Kenya, we saw a situation somewhere in the middle, where the opposition was elected, but the government wouldn’t give up power, resulting in a power struggle. The next big disclosure was the two sets of the main manuals for Guantanamo Bay. We got one from 2003, which is the year after Guantanamo Bay started taking detainees, it revealed a new banality of evil. The Pentagon tried to say that, “Oh, well, that was 2003. That was under General Miller.” And the next year there was a different commander, so supposedly everything changed for the better. But courage is contagious, so someone stepped up to smuggle us the 2004 manual. I wrote a computer program to compare every single letter change between the 2003 Guantanamo Bay manual and the 2004 manual. We pulled out every goddamn difference and showed that the manual had gotten significantly worse; more despotic as time had advanced.

HUO: There is a question Julia Peyton-Jones wanted to ask you: To what extent do you think WikiLeaks prompted the current wave of protests in the Middle East?

JA: Well, we tried. We don’t know precisely what the cause and effect was, but we added a lot of oil to the fire. It’s interesting to consider what the possible interactions are, and it’s a story that hasn’t really been told before. There’s a great Lebanese newspaper called Al Akhbar who in early December of last year started publishing analysis of our cables from a number of countries in Northern Africa, including Tunisia, and also our cables about Saudi Arabia. As a result, Al Akhbar’s domain name was immediately attacked—redirected to a Saudi sex site. I didn’t think there was such a thing, but apparently there is. Then, after Al Akhbar recovered they received a massive denial of service attack, and then much more sophisticated computer hackers came in and wiped them out entirely—their entire cable publishing operation, news stories, analysis, completely wiped out. The Tunisian government concurrently banned Al Akhbar, and WikiLeaks. Then, computer hackers who were sympathetic to us came and redirected the Tunisian government’s own websites to us. There’s one particular cable about Ben Ali’s regime that covers his sort of internal, personal opulence and abuse, the abuse of proceeds. The New Yorker had an article describing that this was actually reported by an American Ambassador.

HUO: Right, that he had seen a cage with a tiger and abuses of power.

JA: Right, so some people have reported that the people in Tunisia were very upset to hear about these abuses in this cable, and that inspired them to revolt. Some parts of that may be true, though two weeks later there was also a man who set himself on fire, the 26-year-old computer technician, reportedly because of a dispute over a license in the market. And this took the rage to the streets. But my suspicion is that one of the real differences in the cables about Tunisia came in showing that the United States, if push came to shove, would support the army over Ben Ali. That was a signal, not just to the army, but to the other actors inside Tunisia, as well as to the surrounding states who might have been considering intervening with their intelligence services or military on behalf of Ben Ali (many of these dictators in the Middle East prop each other up). Similarly, some of the revelations about the Saudis caused Saudi Arabia to turn inward to deal with the fallout of those relations. And it is clear that Tunisia, as an example, then set off all the protests in the rest of the Middle East. So when we saw what was happening in Tunisia, we knew that Egypt was on the borderline, and we saw these initial protests in Egypt as a result of Tunisia. We really tried very hard to get out lots and lots of cables, hundreds of cables, to show the abuses of Mubarak and so on, to give the protestors some additional fuel, but also to remove Western support for Mubarak. Now we also have Libya bordering Egypt. Working with the Telegraph in the UK, we pushed out 480 cables about Libya, revealing many abuses, but also intelligence about how the Libyan regime operated—we removed some of that Western support for the Libyan regime, and perhaps some of the support from the neighboring countries. The approach we took, and continue to take, with the demonstrations in the Middle East, has been to look at them as a pan-Arab phenomenon with different neighboring countries supporting each other in different ways. The elites—in most cases the dictatorial elite—of these countries prop each other up, and this becomes more difficult if we can get them to focus on their own domestic issues. Information produced by the revolutionaries in Egypt on how to conduct a revolution is now spreading into Bahrain. So this is being pushed out. We have pan-Arab activists spreading, and there exists Western support for these opposition groups, or for the traditional dictatorial leadership. And that support can be affected by exposing not just the internal abuses of power on the part of the regime, but also by exposing the nature of the relationship between the United States and these dictatorships. When the nature of this is exposed, we have a situation much like what actually happened with Joseph Biden, the Vice President of the United States, who last year called me a “hi-tech terrorist.” This year, he said that Mubarak was not a dictator, but presumably a democrat, and that he should not stand down. Look at how the behavior of Washington changed with regard to Mubarak just before he fell. After we released these cables about the relationship between the United States and Mubarak in foreign military subsidies and the FBI’s training of torturers in Egypt, it was no longer possible for Biden to make these kinds of statements. It became completely impossible, because their own ambassadors were saying, just the year before, that Suleiman and Mubarak had been extremely abusive to the Egyptian people in so many ways—and that the United States had been involved in that abuse, in some way. So, if you’re able to pull out regional support and Western support, and the underground activists are good, and are sharing and spreading information with each other, then I think we can actually get rid of quite a few of these regimes. Already we’re seeing that Yemen and Libya might be the next to go.

HUO: And you’ve got cables there as well.

JA: Yes, there was a big one we did for Yemen, which revealed that the president had conspired with United States to have the US bomb Yemen and say that the Yemeni Air Force did it. So that was a big revelation that we released in December of last year. Although the President is still there, he has been handing out tremendous concessions as a result. That’s been happening throughout the Arab world now—some of them are literally handing out cash, and land, and offering cabinet posts to some of the more liberal forces in the country. They’ve been pulling election timetables forward, saying they’ll resign at the next election—many interesting and important types of concessions. So, although I think we will see a few more go down, in the end it actually doesn’t really matter whether the leader is removed or not. What matters is that the power structure of the government change. If you make the concessions that the people want, you’re actually nearly all of the way when you want to be a just and responsible elite.

HUO: They can even become constitutional monarchies.  

Reposted fromwikileaks wikileaks

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