There are not many journalists who, when you ask them if they are being followed by the CIA, say "We have surveillance events from time to time." Actually it's not a question I've ever asked before, and Julian Assange does not call himself a journalist.
But the answer is typical of this 41-year-old former computer-hacker: cryptic, dispassionate, and faintly self-important.
As the founder of Wikileaks – a website that publishes millions of documents, from military intelligence to internal company memos and has, in four years, exposed more secrets than many newspapers have in a century – Assange has become the pin-up of web-age investigative journalists. The US has wanted him for questioning since March, after he posed a video showing an American helicopter attack that left several Iraqi civilians and two Reuters journalists dead.
Understandably, he now avoids the US, and keeps his movements secret, though it's thought he operates out of Sweden and is spending time in Iceland, where a change in the law is creating a libel-free haven for journalists. But if the CIA spooks wanted him that badly, couldn't they have turned up, as a hundred adoring student journalists did, to hear him talk at the Centre for Investigative Journalism 10 days ago?
Perhaps it's just as well they didn't, as Assange is not a natural public speaker. He is more at home trawling data or decrypting the codes that mask it. His philosophy is that the more a government wants to keep something secret, the more reason to expose it. No journalist could argue with his essential belief in shining a light on malpractice, but shouldn't governments be entitled to keep some secrets? "Sure," he says when we speak after his talk, "That doesn't mean we and other press organisations should suffer under coercion."
What if publishing a document would threaten national security? "This phrase is so abused. Dick Cheney justified torture with it. Give me an example." What about the movement of US troops? Would he publish a document that jeopardised their safety? "We'd have to think about it." So that's a yes? "It's not a yes. If that fit into our editorial criteria – which it might, if it was an extremely good movement – then we'd have to look at whether that needed a harm minimisation procedure. We'd be totally happy to consider jeopardising the initiation of a war, or the action of war. Absolutely."
He may speak like a robot, and have a politician's knack at ducking straight answers, but in the flesh he could be a forgotten member of Crowded House, all ripped jeans and crumpled jacket, his distinguished white hair framing a youthful face. His grungy look ties in with his outsider status: he has a deep-rooted mistrust of authority. It has been speculated this comes from a youthful brush with the family courts after he divorced the mother of his son, though little is really known about his early life.
His obsession with secrecy, both in others and maintaining his own, lends him the air of a conspiracy theorist. Is he one? "I believe in facts about conspiracies," he says, choosing his words slowly. "Any time people with power plan in secret, they are conducting a conspiracy. So there are conspiracies everywhere. There are also crazed conspiracy theories. It's important not to confuse these two. Generally, when there's enough facts about a conspiracy we simply call this news." What about 9/11? "I'm constantly annoyed that people are distracted by false conspiracies such as 9/11, when all around we provide evidence of real conspiracies, for war or mass financial fraud." What about the Bilderberg conference? "That is vaguely conspiratorial, in a networking sense. We have published their meeting notes."
Assange likes to see Wikileaks as a neutral platform for distributing information, and fends off criticism by saying it always follows its openly stated policies. But no news organisation is free from personal input, as he reveals when talking of Bilderberg, a shadowy annual conference of the influential. "I understand the philosophical rationale for having Chatham House rules among people in power, but the corrupting nature, in the case of Bilderberg, probably outweighs the benefits. When powerful people meet together in secret, it tends to corrupt."
Spending time with Assange, it's hard not to start believing that dark forces are at work. According to him, everyone's emails are being read. For that reason, he encourages anyone planning to leak a document to post it the old fashioned way, to his PO Box. It's ironic that an organisation bent on blowing secrets is itself so secretive, but Wikileaks couldn't operate without reliable sources. Except that, amazingly, Wikileaks does not verify them. "We don't verify our sources, we verify the documents. As long as they are bona fide it doesn't matter where they come from. We would rather not know."
After we talk, he is off to a safe house for the night and after that, who knows? He never stays in one place more than two nights. Is that because the CIA wants to kill him? "Is it in the CIA's interest to assassinate me? Maybe. But who would do it?" Isn't he brave to appear in public? "Courage is an intellectual mastery of fear," he says. "It's not that you don't have fear, you just manage your risks intelligently."Reuse content