Who is Julian Assange?

GLENDA KWEK
Last updated 05:00 10/12/2010
Julian Assange
Reuters
SUPER-GEEK: WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange.

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The super-geek who is now staking a claim to being the world's most notorious leaker of secrets grew up on a small idyllic Queensland island with just 500 residents - a "Tom Sawyer" who fished and built rafts while his mother "lived in a bikini" and shot a taipan on his bed.

Born in July 1971 in Townsville on the Queensland coast, Julian Assange says he's never been a stranger to the nomadic way of life, moving 37 times by the time he was 14. His parents worked in theatre and were often on the road.

He and his half-brother did not receive formal education, with his mother Christine telling The New Yorker magazine in June: "I didn't want their spirits broken."

"Assange's mother believed that formal education would inculcate an unhealthy respect for authority in her children and dampen their will to learn," the magazine reported, adding that Mr Assange's parents were "tough-minded nonconformists".

Assange said he "spent a lot of time in libraries going from one thing to another, looking closely at the books I found in citations, and followed that trail", took correspondence classes, had informal lessons with university professors and was occasionally home-schooled.

Two of the locations he and his family frequented included Magnetic Island - a small heritage-listed island eight kilometres off Townsville - and Byron Bay.

"Most of this period of my childhood was pretty Tom Sawyer," he told the New Yorker.

"I had my own horse. I built my own raft. I went fishing. I was going down mine shafts and tunnels."

Assange wrote warmly about his childhood on Australia's east coast in an opinion article for The Australian newspaper, citing Queenslanders' willingness to "[speak] their minds bluntly" as influencing his desire to create WikiLeaks, whose motto is "we open governments".

"I grew up in a Queensland country town where people spoke their minds bluntly. They distrusted big government as something that could be corrupted if not watched carefully. The dark days of corruption in the Queensland government before the Fitzgerald inquiry are testimony to what happens when the politicians gag the media from reporting the truth," he wrote in the hours before his arrest yesterday.

"These things have stayed with me. WikiLeaks was created around these core values. The idea, conceived in Australia, was to use internet technologies in new ways to report the truth."

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In September 2009, Mrs Assange wrote about her time on Magnetic Island in its History and Craft Centre visitor's book.

"My name is Assange. I have lived on the Island three times. 1971 as a single mum with a young baby (Julian). I rented an island cottage for $12 per week in Picnic Bay," the Magnetic Times community paper reported, quoting from the book.

"I lived in a bikini, 'going native' with my baby and other mums on the island. ...

"Back again in 1976 with new husband. Lived in Horseshoe Bay on an old abandoned pineapple farm. Slashed way to front door with machete. Shot a taipan in the water tank and on son's bed. Had to suspend fruit from ceiling to protect from possums.

"Back again in 1982 with another little child. Lived in a flat on esplanade in Picnic Bay. Back again as a grandmother with long-term boyfriend - still in love with island - only staying 2 weeks."

Magnetic Times editor George Hirst said the island in the 1970s would have had 500 residents, with most of them "highly transient". It now has more than 2000 residents.

"For a kid growing up, it's one of the best places you can imagine. People are much more laid back and casual," he said today.

"There's not much crime and you see kids running around and having fun. They can do things without the safety paranoia of the modern age."

When Assange was eight, his parents split up and his mother started dating a musician who she said was abusive towards her.

She left him, but, fearful that she would lose custody of her second son, who was fathered by the musician, the trio went on the run.

She said "we now we need to disappear", Mr Assange told the New Yorker.

At 13, Mrs Assange bought Julian his first computer for $600.

"Being a very bright boy in a country town he really needed something extra than what the country town could give him," Mrs Assange told The Sunshine Coast Daily this week.

"Julian had been drooling over these things [computers] for about a year and I just thought that he really needed to have it for his intellectual growth.

"I was just indulging his childhood passion."

By the time Assange moved to Melbourne with his family in his teens, he had built up a reputation as a sophisticated computer programmer.

He also fell in love with a 16-year-old girl and left home to live with her. At 18, they married and had a son, Daniel.

Assange's experiments with computer hacking soon attracted the ire of the police. In 1991, he was tracked down by authorities after he and other hackers broke into Canadian telecommunications company Nortel's main terminal, and eventually charged with 31 counts of hacking. At the same time, his wife left, taking their baby son with her.

Assange struggled to cope with fighting to regain custody of Daniel and waiting for his criminal trial to take place. When it finally concluded in 1995, he pleaded guilty to 25 of the hacking charges, avoiding prison on condition he did not reoffend.

The judge said then: "There is just no evidence that there was anything other than sort of intelligent inquisitiveness and the pleasure of being able to - what's the expression - surf through these various computers."

But it was the custody battle that eventually drained all the colour out of his brown hair, Mrs Assange told the New Yorker. Although Mr Assange obtained an agreement with his wife over Daniel in 1999, both he and his mother "experienced very high levels of adrenaline".

"And I think that after it all finished I ended up with PTSD [post traumatic stress disorder]. It was like coming back from a war. You just can't interact with normal people to the same degree, and I am sure that Jules has some PTSD that is untreated."

Assange travelled in Asia and worked in a number of different fields, including as a security consultant, a researcher in journalism, and started his own IT company, scraping together money to help support Daniel. In his late 20s he went to Melbourne University to study mathematics and physics.

He founded WikiLeaks in 2006, creating a web-based "dead letter drop" for would-be leakers.

In 2007, he told smh.com.au: "Imagine a world where companies and government make plans the public likes, open up rather than covering up and treat employees well.

"Sounds pretty good, doesn't it?"

But he added in another interview with the website this year that he did not see himself as a computer guru.

"I live a broad intellectual life. I'm good at a lot of things, except for spelling."

- Sydney Morning Herald

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