Michael Hastings writes: It’s a few days before Christmas, and Julian Assange has just finished moving to a new hide-out deep in the English countryside. The two-bedroom house, on loan from a WikiLeaks supporter, is comfortable enough, with a big stone fireplace and a porch out back, but it’s not as grand as the country estate where he spent the past 363 days under house arrest, waiting for a British court to decide whether he will be extradited to Sweden to face allegations that he sexually molested two women he was briefly involved with in August 2010.
Assange sits on a tattered couch, wearing a wool sweater, dark pants and an electronic manacle around his right ankle, visible only when he crosses his legs. At 40, the WikiLeaks founder comes across more like an embattled rebel commander than a hacker or journalist. He’s become better at handling the media – more willing to answer questions than he used to be, less likely to storm off during interviews – but the protracted legal battle has left him isolated, broke and vulnerable. Assange recently spoke to someone he calls a Western “intelligence source,” and he asked the official about his fate. Will he ever be a free man again, allowed to return to his native Australia, to come and go as he pleases? “He told me I was fucked,” Assange says.
“Are you fucked?” I ask.
Assange pauses and looks out the window. The house is surrounded by rolling fields and quiet woods, but they offer him little in the way of escape. The British Supreme Court will hear his extradition appeal on February 1st – but even if he wins, he will likely still remain a wanted man. Interpol has issued a so-called “red notice” for his arrest on behalf of Swedish authorities for questioning in “connection with a number of sexual offenses” – Qaddafi, accused of war crimes, earned only an “orange notice” – and the U.S. government has branded him a “high-tech terrorist,” unleashing a massive and unprecedented investigation designed to depict Assange’s journalism as a form of international espionage. Ever since November 2010, when WikiLeaks embarrassed and infuriated the world’s governments with the release of what became known as Cablegate, some 250,000 classified diplomatic cables from more than 150 countries, the group’s supporters have found themselves detained at airports, subpoenaed to testify before a grand jury, and ordered to turn over their Twitter accounts and e-mails to authorities.
Assange was always deeply engaged with the world – and always getting into trouble. Born in a small town in Queensland, he spent much of his youth traveling around Australia with his mother and stepfather, who ran a theater company. As a teenager, he discovered computers – his first was a Commodore 64 – and became one of the world’s foremost hackers, going by the name Mendax, Latin for “nobly untruthful.” After breaking into systems at NASA and the Pentagon when he was 16, he was busted on 25 counts of hacking, which prodded him to go straight. But as he traveled the world, working as a tech consultant through much of the 1990s, he continued putting his computer skills to use ensuring freedom of information – a necessary condition, he believes, for democratic self-rule.
“From the glory days of American radicalism, which was the American Revolution, I think that Madison’s view on government is still unequaled,” he tells me during the three days I spend with him as he settles into his new location in England. “That people determined to be in a democracy, to be their own governments, must have the power that knowledge will bring – because knowledge will always rule ignorance. You can either be informed and your own rulers, or you can be ignorant and have someone else, who is not ignorant, rule over you. The question is, where has the United States betrayed Madison and Jefferson, betrayed these basic values on how you keep a democracy? I think that the U.S. military-industrial complex and the majority of politicians in Congress have betrayed those values.” [Continue reading…]