In Conversation with Julian Assange – Part II

by Hans Ulrich Obrist

Hans Ulrich Obrist: Before we begin with the questions from the artists, I wanted to ask you about the Bourbaki, an anonymous group of mathematicians that you have often referred to. I am very curious to know more about your interest in them, and whether they were related to your own decision to appear in public rather than remain anonymous.

Julian Assange:  The Bourbaki were an anonymous group of French mathematicians who published a series of mathematics books over a period of about 20 years under the collective allonym Nicolas Bourbaki. They kept their individual identities anonymous, and their books are still regarded as some of the finest math books ever published in French. In 2006, I saw that WikiLeaks needed to be, if not completely anonymous, then pseudo-anonymous—ideally publishing under a collective allonym such as Bourbaki. First of all, as a young organization publishing very controversial material, we didn’t want to be more of a target than we needed to be. While I was publicly a member of the advisory board, that is different than being the editor in chief or one of the principal writers. I also wanted to remove ego as much as possible from what we were doing, to make sure people were writing and conducting their work for reasons other than ego. Also, as an organization that did not yet have a reputation, we needed a personalized voice to quickly get a reputation. If we pulled our collective efforts into a name like Jack Bourbaki, or another collective allonym, our personality would quickly gain a reputation because of the relatively high level of our output.

But within a month of our coming to the public stage there was a leak of one of our internal mailing lists by a New York architect named John Young, who had been involved in his own primitive, but aggressive publishing project. John saw from the press publicity that WikiLeaks would become significant in the field and might threaten his own project. But it was quite a revelation to have our own leak very early on. And I thought to myself, well, this is very interesting—now we get to taste our own medicine. And actually, this medicine tasted quite nice, in that what I saw was a group of very committed, idealistic people whose internal dialogue was even stronger than their external dialogue. So, there was no hypocrisy in what we were doing, precisely the opposite—we were even more principled and idealistic internally than we were externally.

Early on, I already had an existing reputation, and I spent that reputational capital to get volunteer labor from good people. But when the press started sniffing around, very curious as to who some of the principle people in this project were, some of my friends, rather unfortunately, said, well, it’s Julian, and he deserves all the credit. I could’ve shot them! And then I saw that, by trying to engineer a position in which I was not seen as an authority figure for the organization, we ended up with people who were not involved in the organization at all claiming to represent it. And so we started suffering from reputational opportunism, which we had to stamp out. We also grew more politically powerful with many supporters all over the world. So we no longer needed anonymity for ourselves in quite the same way—I still needed locational anonymity for security reasons, but my name being known was not so important anyhow, given that the information was already floating around for anyone who really cared to look.

HUO: This locational anonymity has caused you to move through many different places, and in interviews with you, there is a great deal of discussion about your nomadism going back much earlier. You seemed to be traveling the world with literally just your backpack and two notebooks, just living in people’s houses.

JA: Well, I’ve been traveling all over the world on my own since I was twenty-five, as soon as I had enough money to do it. But for WikiLeaks, I have been consistently on the move since the beginning of 2007. Up until the latest problem with the Pentagon, which started around June/July of last year, it wasn’t a matter of being on the run. It was more about following opportunity and ensuring that I wasn’t in one place long enough to allow for a proper surveillance operation, which involves getting inside and installing video cameras, monitoring all outgoing electronic signals, and so forth. Such operations take time and planning, so if you’re a resource-constrained activist organization facing the prospect of surveillance by some of the most advanced surveillance agencies, such as the National Security Agency and GCHQ, you only have two methods to resist it: one, changing the location of your headquarters with some frequency, and two, complete geographic isolation.


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