Sunday, March 10, 2013

The Most Dangerous Man In The World

Back in the nineties, when the Internet was young, I came across a magazine called 2600, a quarterly publication for hackers. The whole idea of it was foreign to me and like everything Internet it made me curious. We've all heard stories of kids who by means of their net connections broke into places they shouldn't have been to produce unanticipated effects. On one occasion a satellite was re-directed which resulted in 90% of all U.S. pages becoming inoperable for a time.

According to Wikipedia the name of the zine "comes from the phreaker discovery in the 1960s that the transmission of a 2600 hertz tone (which could be produced perfectly with a plastic toy whistle given away free with Cap'n Crunch cereal—discovered by friends of John Draper) over a long-distance trunk connection gained access to 'operator mode' and allowed the user to explore aspects of the telephone system that were not otherwise accessible."

There's plenty about the modern world that is unusual. And considering how many varieties of experience and cultures we come from, it's not surprising how many varieties of people there are in the world. Julian Assange is one of these, labeled by some as The Most Dangerous Man In The World.

Earlier this years I finished Andrew Fowler's biography of Assange. Well-researched, well-told, the book gives you insights about the founder of WikiLeaks, his roots, his life lessons and who he really is. The book is available on Amazon.com and a Kindle version can be had for just 99 cents.

The story begins in 1971. His mother Christine was a hippie artist who escaped from a cult and for a time lived in a cottage on an island off the coast of Australia. She and inifant Julian bounced around in various places trying to avoid the son of a cult leader who may have been Julian's father. "The Family" was an isolated group that included LSD as a centerpiece of some of its rituals.

Julian was a smart kid who took an early interest in computers. His mother would paint and he would head to his room. At age eleven he was writing software for the Commodore 64 his mom bought him. As a teen he came involved with a group of non-conformist geeks who called themselves The International Subversives. Utilizing the early backbone of the Internet (pre-WWW) they became hackers, going so far as to interfere with a NASA rocket launch.

There are a number of rather critical reviews of Fowler's version of the Julian Assange story, one of many bios that have emerged since Assange became a high-profile newsmaker a couple years back. Even if The Most Dangerous Man is thin on details, as one reviewer wrote, I still found it an interesting read simply because I really knew nothing about this man other than he posted secret military documents that purportedly put lives in danger.

Remember, what the media says and what really happened is also fraught with a measure of unreliability.

There were many insights I gained from this volume, foremost being his relationship with Daniel Ellsberg, who to some extent served as a mentor with regard to Assange's activities. Ellsberg, you may recall, outraged President Nixon and the Pentagon by releasing what became known as "the Pentagon Papers" to the New York Times. At the time, Henry Kissinger called Ellsberg "the world's most dangerous man."

Ellsberg, a military analyst with the RAND Corporation, explained his behavior this way. "There were 7,000 pages of top secret documents that demonstrated unconstitutional behavior by a succession of presidents, the violation of their oath and the violation of the oath of every one of their subordinates..."* His aim was to create open public debate about the Viet Nam War to which he had become opposed.

According to the book Ellsberg both supported and chastized Assange for some of his WikiLeaks activity. Ellsberg was extremely critical of Assange after the latter dumped a large volume of U.S. State Department  communications into the public realm without first reading them. This would set a very bad precedent, as there really are some things that should not be revealed, like names of embedded servicemen and agents. According to the book there were no lives lost from this incident and Assange agreed that he could never do something like that again.

For what it's worth, I found the book to the a helpful read that gave insights I would not otherwise have had about the man. Ellsberg himself endorsed the book with these words: "A gripping thriller. By far the best account of Julian Assange's motives and the talents that make him so dangerous."

The Internet as an agent of creating transparency is also capable of toppling governments, as we have seen in Tunisia and Egypt. There's something to be said for people with courage enough to stand up to the State with a flashlight to shine on what power brokers prefer to keep hidden. When Ellsberg was labelled dangerous, one must ask, "To whom?" Same with Assange I suspect.

Something to think about.

* http://www.democracynow.org/2007/7/2/how_the_pentagon_papers_came_to

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