Julian Paul Assange is an Australian journalist, publisher and internet activist, best known as the spokesperson and editor-in-chief for WikiLeaks, a whistleblower website. Before working with the website, he was a physics and mathematics student, hacker, and computer programmer.
Assange founded WikiLeaks in 2006 and sits on the website’s advisory board. In this capacity, he has come to widespread public attention for his role in the release of classified material documenting the involvement of the United States in the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. This involvement has garnered him largely negative criticism from government bodies, as well as encouragement from activist individuals and groups. Assange has lived in several countries and has told reporters he is constantly on the move. He makes irregular public appearances to give talks on freedom of the press, censorship, and investigative reporting, and has won a number of journalism awards.
Assange’s parents ran a touring theatre company. In 1979, his mother remarried; her new husband was a musician who belonged to a controversial New Age group led by Anne Hamilton-Byrne. The couple had a son, but broke up in 1982 and engaged in a custody struggle for Assange’s half-brother. His mother then took both children into hiding for the next five years. Assange left home in 1987. He moved several dozen times in his childhood, frequently switching between formal and home schooling and later attending two universities at various times in Australia. He has been described as being largely self-taught and widely read on science and mathematics. From 2003 to 2006, he studied physics and mathematics at the University of Melbourne but does not claim a degree. On his personal web page, he described how he represented his university at the Australian National Physics Competition around 2005. He has also studied philosophy and neuroscience.
Hacking and Charges
In the late 1980s, he was a member of a hacker group named “International Subversives,” going by the pen-name “Mendax” (derived from a phrase of Horace: “splendide mendax,” or “nobly untruthful”). He was the subject of a 1991 raid of his Melbourne home by the Australian Federal Police. He was reported to have accessed computers belonging to an Australian university, the Canadian telecommunications company Nortel, and other organisations, via modem. In 1992, he pleaded guilty to 24 charges of hacking and was released on bond for good conduct after being fined AU$2100. The prosecutor said “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”. Assange later commented, “It’s a bit annoying, actually. Because I cowrote a book about [being a hacker], there are documentaries about that, people talk about that a lot. They can cut and paste. But that was 20 years ago. It’s very annoying to see modern day articles calling me a computer hacker. I’m not ashamed of it, I’m quite proud of it. But I understand the reason they suggest I’m a computer hacker now. There’s a very specific reason.”
In 1989, Assange started living with his girlfriend and soon they had a son. She separated from him after the 1991 police raid and took their son. They engaged in a lengthy custody struggle.
Career As A Computer Programmer
In 1993, Assange started one of the first ISPs in Australia, known as “Suburbia”. Starting in 1994, Assange lived in Melbourne as a programmer and a developer of free software. In 1995, Assange wrote Strobe, the first free and open source port scanner. He contributed several patches to the PostgreSQL project in 1996. He helped to write the 1997 book Underground: Tales of Hacking, Madness and Obsession on the Electronic Frontier which credits him as a researcher and reports his history with International Subversives. Starting around 1997 he co-invented the Rubberhose deniable encryption system, a cryptographic concept made into a software package for Linux designed to provide plausible deniability against rubber-hose cryptanalysis, which he originally intended “as a tool for human rights workers who needed to protect sensitive data in the field.” Other free software that he has authored or co-authored includes the Usenet caching software NNTPCache and Surfraw, a command-line interface for web-based search engines. In 1999, Assange registered the domain leaks.org; “But,” he says, “then I didn’t do anything with it.”
WikiLeaks was founded in 2006. Assange sits on its nine-member advisory board, and is a prominent media spokesman on its behalf. While newspapers have described him as a “director” or “founder” of Wikileaks, Assange has said, “I don’t call myself a founder,” but he does describe himself as the editor-in-chief of WikiLeaks, and has stated that he has the final decision in the process of vetting documents submitted to the site.
Like all others working for the site, Assange is an unpaid volunteer. Assange says that Wikileaks has released more classified documents than the rest of the world press combined: “That’s not something I say as a way of saying how successful we are – rather, that shows you the parlous state of the rest of the media. How is it that a team of five people has managed to release to the public more suppressed information, at that level, than the rest of the world press combined? It’s disgraceful.”
Assange was the winner of the 2009 Amnesty International Media Award (New Media), awarded for exposing extrajudicial assassinations in Kenya with the investigation The Cry of Blood – Extra Judicial Killings and Disappearances. In accepting the award, he said: “It is a reflection of the courage and strength of Kenyan civil society that this injustice was documented. Through the tremendous work of organisations such as the Oscar foundation, the KNHCR, Mars Group Kenya and others we had the primary support we needed to expose these murders to the world.” He also won the 2008 Economist Index on Censorship Award.
Assange was awarded the 2010 Sam Adams Award by the Sam Adams Associates for Integrity in Intelligence. In September 2010, Julian Assange was voted as number 23 among the “The World’s 50 Most Influential Figures 2010” by the British magazine New Statesman. In their November/December issue, Utne Reader magazine named Assange as one of the “25 Visionaries Who Are Changing Your World.”
On 12 November he was leading in the poll for Time magazine’s “person of the year, 2010”.
Assange has said he is constantly on the move, living in airports. He has lived for periods in Australia, Kenya and Tanzania, and began renting a house in Iceland on 30 March 2010, from which he and other activists, including Birgitta Jónsdóttir, worked on the ‘Collateral Murder’ video. He has appeared at media conferences such as New Media Days ’09 in Copenhagen, the 2010 Logan Symposium in Investigative Reporting at the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism, and at hacker conferences, notably the 25th and 26th Chaos Communication Congress. In the first half of 2010, he appeared on Al Jazeera English, MSNBC, Democracy Now!, RT, and The Colbert Report to discuss the release of the 12 July 2007 Baghdad airstrike video by Wikileaks.
On 3 June he appeared via video conferencing at the Personal Democracy Forum conference with Daniel Ellsberg. Daniel Ellsberg told MSNBC “the explanation he [Assange] used” for not appearing in person in the USA was that “it was not safe for him to come to this country.” On 11 June he was to appear on a Showcase Panel at the Investigative Reporters and Editors conference in Las Vegas, but there are reports that he cancelled several days prior. On 10 June 2010, it was reported that Pentagon officials are trying to determine his whereabouts. Based on this, there have been reports that U.S. officials want to apprehend Assange. Ellsberg said that the arrest of Bradley Manning and subsequent speculation by U.S. officials about what Assange may be about to publish “puts his well-being, his physical life, in some danger now.” In The Atlantic, Marc Ambinder called Ellsberg’s concerns “ridiculous,” and said that “Assange’s tendency to believe that he is one step away from being thrown into a black hole hinders, and to some extent discredits, his work.” In Salon.com, Glenn Greenwald questioned “screeching media reports” that there was a “manhunt” on Assange underway, arguing that they were only based on comments by “anonymous government officials” and might even serve a campaign by the U.S. government, by intimidating possible whistleblowers.
On 21 June 2010 Assange took part in a hearing in Brussels, Belgium, appearing in public for the first time in nearly a month. He was a member on a panel that discussed Internet censorship and expressed his worries over the recent filtering in countries such as Australia. He also talked about secret gag orders preventing newspapers from publishing information about specific subjects and even divulging the fact that they are being gagged. Using an example involving The Guardian, he also explained how newspapers are altering their online archives sometimes by removing entire articles. He told The Guardian that he does not fear for his safety but is on permanent alert and will avoid travel to America, saying “[U.S.] public statements have all been reasonable. But some statements made in private are a bit more questionable.” He said “politically it would be a great error for them to act. I feel perfectly safe but I have been advised by my lawyers not to travel to the U.S. during this period.”
On 17 July, Jacob Appelbaum spoke on behalf of WikiLeaks at the 2010 Hackers on Planet Earth (HOPE) conference in New York City, replacing Assange due to the presence of federal agents at the conference. He announced that the WikiLeaks submission system was again up and running, after it had been temporarily suspended. Assange was a surprise speaker at a TED conference on 19 July 2010 in Oxford, and confirmed that WikiLeaks was now accepting submissions again. On 26 July, after the release of the Afghan War Diary Assange appeared at the Frontline Club for a press conference.
Description of Assange
Assange advocates a “transparent” and “scientific” approach to journalism, saying that “you can’t publish a paper on physics without the full experimental data and results; that should be the standard in journalism.” In 2006, CounterPunch called him Australia’s most infamous former computer hacker.” The Age has called him “one of the most intriguing people in the world” and “internet’s freedom fighter.” Assange has called himself “extremely cynical.” The Personal Democracy Forum said that as a teenager he was “Australia’s most famous ethical computer hacker.” He has been described as thriving on intellectual battle.
Pentagon Papers whistle-blower Daniel Ellsberg said that Assange “is serving our [American] democracy and serving our rule of law precisely by challenging the secrecy regulations, which are not laws in most cases, in this country.” On the issue of national security considerations for the U.S., Ellsberg added that “any serious risk to that national security is extremely low. There may be 260,000 diplomatic cables. It’s very hard to think of any of that which could be plausibly described as a national security risk. Will it embarrass diplomatic relationships? Sure, very likely–all to the good of our democratic functioning.”
Against this, Daniel Yates, a former British military intelligence officer, believes Assange has jeopardized the lives of Afghan civilians: “The logs contain detailed personal information regarding Afghan civilians who have approached NATO soldiers with information. It is inevitable that the Taliban will now seek violent retribution on those who have co-operated with NATO. Their families and tribes will also be in danger.”
Responding to the criticism, Assange said in August 2010 that 15,000 documents are still being reviewed “line by line,” and that the names of “innocent parties who are under reasonable threat” will be removed. This was in response to a letter from a White House spokesman. Assange replied to the request through Eric Schmitt, a New York Times editor. This reply was Assange’s offer to the White House to vet any harmful documents; Schmitt responded that “I certainly didn’t consider this a serious and realistic offer to the White House to vet any of the documents before they were to be posted, and I think it’s ridiculous that Assange is portraying it that way now.”
Glenn Greenwald and others have criticized the media’s profiles of Assange. Greenwald calls one New York Times article (written by John Burns) on Assange a “sleazy hit piece”. Burns defended his article saying it was an “absolutely standard journalistic endeavour”, Greenwald disputed this, saying “What Burns did to Julian Assange is most certainly not a “standard journalistic endeavor” for The New York Times … please show me any article that paper has published which trashed the mental health, psyche and personality of a high-ranking American political or military official — a Senator or a General or a President or a cabinet secretary or even a prominent lobbyist — based on quotes from disgruntled associates of theirs. That is not done, and it never would be. This kind of character smear … is reserved for … people without power or standing in Washington and, especially, those whom American Government authorities scorn. … the Pentagon hates Assange and wants him destroyed, and therefore the “reporters” who rely on, admire and identify with Pentagon officials immediately adopt that perspective — and that’s why he was the target of this type of attack.
2010 Legal Difficulties
Swedish investigation and arrest warrant
On 20 August 2010, an investigation was opened against Assange in Sweden in connection with an allegation that he had raped a woman in Enköping on the weekend of 14 August after a seminar, and two days later had sexually harassed a second woman he had been staying with in Stockholm. Within 24 hours of the investigation opening prosecutors withdrew the warrant to arrest him saying the accusations against him lacked substance. The chief prosecutor Eva Finné said “I don’t think there is reason to suspect that he has committed rape”. He was still being investigated for harassment, which covers reckless conduct or inappropriate physical contact, a charge not serious enough to trigger an arrest warrant. The second woman belonged to the Swedish Association of Christian Social Democrats, a Christian affiliate of the Swedish Social Democratic Party, who organized a seminar and news conference in Sweden for Assange. She was acting as Assange’s spokeswoman and hosting him as a guest in her home during his stay in Sweden. Assange said “the charges are without basis and their issue at this moment is deeply disturbing”; his supporters claim he is the victim of a smear campaign. He acknowledged having had sex with the women, but said it was consensual. He was questioned by police for an hour on 31 August, and on 1 September a senior Swedish prosecutor re-opened the rape investigation saying new information had come in. The women’s lawyer, Claes Borgström, a Swedish politician, had earlier appealed against the decision not to proceed. Assange has said that the accusation against him is a “set-up” arranged by the enemies of WikiLeaks.
In late October Sweden denied Assange’s application for a Swedish residency and work permit. Subsequently, on 4 November, Assange said that he is considering as “a real possibility” a formal request for political asylum in Switzerland. He would also move the WikiLeaks servers to Switzerland in order to “operate in safety.” However, according to the Swiss Refugee Council (Schweizerische Flüchtlingshilfe), his chances of obtaining asylum there are small. Assange would first need to claim protection from his native Australia, and then make a credible argument that the country was unable to protect him. This would be extremely difficult, according to the organisation.
On 18 November, Stockholm District Court approved a request to detain Assange for questioning on suspicion of rape, sexual molestation and unlawful coercion. Director of Public Prosecutions Marianne Ny, who had reopened the investigation in September, said she had requested the warrant because, “so far, we have not been able to meet with him to accomplish the interrogation.” Assange’s British legal counsel Mark Stephens disputed this saying “we were willing to meet at the Swedish embassy or Scotland Yard or via video link” and that “all of these offers have been flatly refused by a prosecutor who is abusing her powers by insisting that he return to Sweden at his own expense to be subjected to another media circus that she will orchestrate”. On 20 November an international arrest warrant was issued via Interpol by Sweden’s National Criminal Police force. In addition an EU arrest warrant was issued through the Schengen Information System. “We made sure that all the police forces in the world would see it”, a spokesman for the National Criminal Police said.
Stephens dismissed the charges, issuing a statement in which he called the allegations “false and without basis” and said “even the substance of the allegations, as revealed to the press through unauthorized disclosures do not constitute what any advanced legal system considers to be rape”. Assange’s Swedish lawyer, Björn Hurtig, claimed that the evidence against Assange was “very meager. It’s not enough to get him convicted for crime.”
On 24 November 2010, Assange lost an appeal against his detention, and thus remains under arrest in absentia and under an arrest warrant. The Svea Court of Appeal rejected his appeal and upheld the decision to remand him by the Stockholm district court. Assange’s lawyer Björn Hurtig said that he would appeal to the Supreme Court of Sweden. Assange filed an appeal to the Supreme Court in late November.
On December 6, 2010, Julian Assange was arrested in England on the Swedish warrant for non-consensual sex charges. WikiLeaks had released a statement addressing speculations that the site might be brought down by government authorities:
- The Cable Gate archive has been spread, along with significant material from the US and other countries to over 100,000 people in encrypted form. If something happens to us, the key parts will be released automatically. Further, the Cable Gate archives is in the hands of multiple news organisations. History will win. The world will be elevated to a better place. Will we survive? That depends on you.
On December 7, 2010, Assange has been denied bail at his extradition hearing in the UK. His next court appearance is planned for December 14.
Since his arrest supporters and opponents of WikiLeaks have been waging a cyber war.
The Swiss bank Switzerland Post Finance (a bank associated with the Swiss post office) had frozen Julian Assange’s bank account for his defense fund after he was arrested. Later that day, the bank’s site was taken offline, and a group calling itself Operation Payback on Twitter claims credit for the DDOS.
On December 8, 2010, Mastercard.com was down, and @Anon_operation just tweeted that it’s due to a DDOS attack. Mastercard is one of the payment services that cut off the ability to donate to Wikileaks.
Wikileaks release of US diplomatic cables
On November 29, the Attorney-General of Australia, Robert McClelland, told the press that Australia would launch an inquiry into WikiLeaks and Assange’s activities, following the release of classified US government information. He said that “from Australia’s point of view, we think there are potentially a number of criminal laws that could have been breached by the release of this information. The Australian Federal Police are looking at that”. McClelland would not rule out the possibility that Australian authorities will cancel Assange’s passport, and warned him that he might face charges should he return to Australia. He also vowed to support any US legal action against Wikileaks and Assange. The United States launched a criminal investigation related to the leak of US government information by Assange and WikiLeaks.
On the same day, Ecuador offered Assange residency via Deputy Foreign Minister Kintto Lucas with “no conditions … so he can freely present the information he possesses and all the documentation, not just over the Internet but in a variety of public forums”.
This page has been adapted from the Wikipedia entry of November 30, 2010.