Long before Julian Assange launched WikiLeaks and became a crusader — both celebrated and vilified — against government secrecy worldwide, he was no ordinary hacker.
Calling himself “Mendax,” he prided himself on his uncanny ability to hack into secure computer networks — including those belonging to the Department of Defense and the national nuclear laboratory in Los Alamos, N.M. That was back in 1987, before most households had personal computers, when Assange was 16 years old.
Since then, Assange has turned networked computers worldwide into a giant farm, of sorts, from which he harvests the secrets that have made him and his website notorious. For his efforts, Assange has won a medal from Amnesty International for publishing material about extrajudicial killings in Kenya. Politicians in the United States, meanwhile, have called for Assange — an Australian citizen — to be tried for treason; others have called for his assassination.
Though Assange has never claimed to be a journalist, many see him as a 21st-century, wired-world version of one, albeit with some ethical caveats. Daniel Ellsberg, the one-time defense analyst who leaked the Pentagon Papers during the Vietnam War, called Assange a hero in December, shortly before chaining himself to a fence at the White House in protest of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Ellsberg sees “fundamental similarities” between the Pentagon Papers and the WikiLeaks document dumps related to the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. Indeed, some credit Assange with “one of the greatest journalistic scoops of the last 30 years.”
Assange launched WikiLeaks in 2006 specifically to end government secrecy through the leaking and publication of information. “The more secretive or unjust an organization is, the more leaks induce fear and paranoia in its leadership,” Assange wrote. He said that, faced with sufficient threats to its ability to keep secrets, sclerotic organizations are forced to either adapt and improve or face collapse. Keeping secrets inside an organization, he added, results in a “secrecy tax” as a result of inefficiency.
Since WikiLeaks went online three years ago, it has published military manuals on detainee treatment at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba; the so-called “climate-gate” e-mails from scientists at the University of East Anglia; the contents of Sarah Palin's personal e-mail account; and thousands of stolen and formerly classified military and diplomatic reports from the U.S. government. In the past few months, Assange has claimed to have other, equally explosive troves of documents, including Swiss banking records, the contents of a U.S. bank executive's hard drive and documentation of corruption in Russia.
But Assange's personal behavior has been as controversial as his projects. Bill Keller, executive editor of The New York Times, which published redacted versions of military documents and State Department cables provided by WikiLeaks, called him “elusive, manipulative and volatile.” Last year, when a disgruntled WikiLeaks employee provided journalists with copies of some unpublished WikiLeaks material, Assange threatened to sue, claiming that he had a financial interest in keeping his stolen secrets secret.
And last year, Assange turned himself in to authorities in England in connection with sex-crime allegations against him in Sweden at the same time that WikiLeaks began releasing the stolen State Department cables. In what many commentators called a delicious irony, the police report on the incident in question was leaked to a British newspaper, which one of Assange's close supporters called “a selective smear through the disclosure of material.”
A full hearing on Sweden's request for Assange's extradition began Feb. 7.
— Alex Kingsbury