WikiLeaks' Assange: A Man Of Mystery On The Run
LIANE HANSEN, host:
This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. Im Liane Hansen.
WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange has been characterized as everything from a righteous crusader against government and corporate oppression, to a traitor deserving nothing less than execution. His most recent data dump of a quarter-million diplomatic cables has brought him more praise and more derision.
Mr. Assange leads a life on the run, both from governments that want to prosecute him and from police agencies that want to extradite him to Sweden, for questioning on allegations of rape. He lives simultaneously in the shadows and in the spotlight.
John Burns, the London bureau chief of The New York Times, sat down with Mr. Assange for a revealing interview in October, and has continued to follow the WikiLeaks stories. He joins us from the BBC in Cambridge. Good morning to you.
Mr. JOHN BURNS (Bureau Chief, New York Times, London): Yes, good morning.
HANSEN: Before we get to his current troubles, can you give us just a little bit of biographical information on Mr. Assange, specifically, what was his childhood like in Australia?
Mr. BURNS: He was brought up by his mother. It was a nomadic life. I think he had some troubles in school. In fact, he very often wasn't in school. And by his mid-teens he had devolved - which is, you know, 20, 25 years ago now - he'd evolved into one of the early computer hackers, eventuating four years ago in his founding WikiLeaks.
HANSEN: He disdains being characterized as a hacker now. How does he define himself?
Mr. BURNS: Well, now he has that kind of millennial mission in his own a mind. When listening to him, one has the impression that he intends to remake the world. He talks about sweeping away the poison of secrecy, of creating a world of information without borders.
But he goes well beyond that now. He's talking about - and he talks insistently and sometimes virulently - about the corruption of democracy. He regards the United States as an enemy of democracy. And so to his original agenda of drawing back the veil, he's now added another agenda which is more explicitly political.
HANSEN: People who know him have described him as imperious, a control freak, an ideologue, an egomaniac, a genius, and unique. How would you describe him?
Mr. BURNS: He's certainly not the easiest person to deal with, especially when you write about him. All of those descriptions, many of them, could be applied to many of the people who have changed the world by one degree or more. There's no doubt that what Julian Assange is doing - he's a pioneer of a kind and that he's having a very big impact.
And he struck me as being, yes, brilliant, capricious, arrogant, but not terribly self-knowing and not gifted, I have to say, with much of a sense of irony.
HANSEN: His detractors say he's reckless; he puts lives at risk. How does he react to that kind of criticism?
Mr. BURNS: His answer to that is to say the Pentagon refused to help us. Improbable as it may seem, he actually requested the Pentagon to help him edit the documents that he had received. He said they're to blame because they didn't help us.
And his second response, which is troubling, I must say, is to say that if you're going to do good in the world, then sometimes it has ill-effects and you have to judge whether the good outweighs the ill-effects.
HANSEN: He will be living in the shadows. His British visa expires early next year.
Mr. BURNS: Yes, I think he's already living in the shadows. He has done for quite a long time. I think those nomadic years in Australia prepared him for this. His entire life he carries in a rucksack on his back. He rarely spends more than a night or two in the same place.
He strange because, as you said in your introduction, he lives in the spotlight, occasionally popping up bad news conferences and bathing in the celebrity. And then he disappears again.
As of right now, as best we know it, he is somewhere in southeast England staying with friends. He doesnt answer mobile telephone calls himself. He entrusts his mobile phones, which she switches, as I said in my profile of him, like other men switch shirts. He entrusts his mobile phones to associates of his.
There's an elaborate clearance procedure before you meet him. He's very concerned about his security. And, who knows, maybe he has reason to. But he's in a very vexed situation now, because these two warrants for his arrests are valid in something like 188 countries. And whilst they're in a sense passive, that's to say at least in the U.K., Scotland Yard has said they won't go out looking for him, they will arrest him if he comes onto their radar screen. Which means if he goes to an airport, or a port, or he holds a press conference, he's likely to be arrested. So it's really no wonder that he has become once again the fugitive.
HANSEN: John Burns is the London bureau chief of The New York Times. His profile of WikiLeaks founder Julianne Assange appeared in the paper in October. He joined us from the BBC in Cambridge. Thank you very much.
Mr. BURNS: It's a pleasure. Thank you.
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