In what is called the "researcher's introduction", Assange begins with a cryptic quote from Oscar Wilde: "Man is least himself when he talks in his own person. Give him a mask, and he will tell you the truth."
Nothing about Assange has ever been straightforward. One of the main characters in Underground is the Melbourne hacker Mendax. Although there is no way readers at that time could have known it, Mendax is Julian Assange.
IN the late 1980s, Assange joined the underground subculture of hacking that was forming in Melbourne. By October 1989 an attack was mounted from Australia on America's NASA computer system via the introduction of what was called the WANK worm, in an attempt to sabotage the Jupiter launch of the Galileo rocket as part of an action of anti-nuclear activists.
In an article he later published in the left-wing magazine CounterPunch, Assange would claim the WANK worm attack was "the origin of hacktivism".
Mendax formed a closed group with two other hackers - Trax and Prime Suspect. They called themselves the International Subversives. Mendax wrote a program called Sycophant. It allowed the International Subversives to conduct "massive attacks on the US military". The list of the computers they could recall finding their way into "read like a who's who of the American military-industrial complex".
Eventually Mendax penetrated the computer system of the Canadian telecommunications corporation Nortel. It was here that his hacking was first discovered. The Australian Federal Police conducted a long investigation into the International Subversives, Operation Weather.
Eventually Trax lost his nerve and began to talk. He told the police that the International Subversives had been hacking on a scale never achieved before.
In October 1991 the AFP raided Prime Suspect's and Mendax's homes. They found Assange in a state of near mental collapse. His young wife had recently left him, taking their son Daniel. Assange told Dreyfus that he had been dreaming incessantly of "police raids . . . of shadows in the pre-dawn darkness, of a gun-toting police squad bursting through his back door at 5am". When the police arrived, the incriminating disks, which he usually hid inside a beehive, were scattered beside his computer.
Assange descended into a personal hell. He entered a psychiatric ward briefly. He told Dreyfus that 1992 was "the worst year in his life". His case was not finally settled until December 1996.
Although Assange had been speaking in secretive tones about the technical possibility of a massive prison sentence, in the end he received a $5000 good behaviour bond and a $2100 reparations fine.
The experience of arrest and trial nonetheless scarred his soul and helped shape his politics.