Julian Assange is an Australian journalist, computer hacker and activist, best known for his involvement with Wikileaks, a whistleblower website. He has been the public face of Wikileaks throughout many controversies started by leaks of classified government and corporate information.
- 1 Founding of Wikileaks
- 2 Tenure as Wikileaks Editor-in-Chief
- 3 Political Views
- 4 Criminal Allegations and Charges
- 5 Grant of Asylum from Ecuador
- 6 Australian Senate Bid
- 7 Early Life
- 8 References
- 9 External Resources
Founding of Wikileaks
Assange registered the domain name wikileaks.org in 1999 but did not actively use it until 2006. In early 2007, it was believed that Wikileaks was created by Chinese dissidents living abroad. Assange initially identified himself as a cryptographer and member of the board in statements to the press. The “About” page from the wikileaks.org website claimed in September 2007 that the site was created to expose “oppressive regimes in Asia, the former Soviet bloc, Sub-Saharan Africa and the Middle East, but we also expect to be of assistance to those in the west who wish to reveal unethical behavior in their own governments and corporations.” Assange called the site a “dead-letterbox” for those who wished to release classified information. From the beginning, Assange knew he had to move around the world to seek out nations which afforded the strongest freedom of speech and freedom of the press laws.
Tenure as Wikileaks Editor-in-Chief
Assange oversaw the rise in fame and influence of Wikileaks. The site gained significant international attention for the first time with the release of Vice Presidential candidate Sarah Palin’s private emails, which had been hacked by the secretive group Anonymous. A 16 June, 2010 archived page of the Wikileaks website lists Assange as one of nine members of the organization’s advisory board. But also in 2010, Assange began to start calling himself the “editor-in-chief.” Assange continued to assert that he alone is not the founder of Wikileaks and does not like the title of “founder.”
Assange says that Wikileaks has released more classified documents than the rest of the world press combined, but is not proud of this achievement, stating that it reflects poorly on the state of the modern press, "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."
His management style has been criticized by many former employees and colleagues who have left Wikileaks over personal and professional disputes. David Leigh and Luke Harding of The Guardian established a close relationship with Assange and helped him release the diplomatic cables in the Cablegate affair. However their relationship soured a few months after the release. Assange became a target in Leigh and Harding’s book "Wikileaks: Inside Julian Assange’s War on Secrecy." They accused him of being reckless with the sensitive information he possessed. David Leigh called Assange hypocritical for “palling up” with dictators who are condemned in the same material Wikileaks released.
Assange had a widely publicized fallout with former Wikileaks spokesman Daniel Domscheit-Berg (aka Daniel Schmitt). The nature of the dispute between Assange was both personal and professional and was detailed in Domscheit-Berg’s book "Inside WikiLeaks: My Time with Julian Assange and the World's Most Dangerous Website." Before he left Wikileaks to found his own leaked information site Openleaks, Domscheit-Berg allegedly deleted 350,000 files containing information about American banks, counter-terrorism efforts and other subjects because he did not trust Assange to protect the anonymity of the sources.
In 2010, it was announced that Assange had signed an $800,000 deal with Alfred A. Knopf, an imprint of Random House, in the United States, and a $500,000 deal with Canongate Books in Britain for his autobiography. The result was Julian Assange: The Unauthorized Autobiography, released on 22 September 2011. Despite the title, the book was actually written by ghostwriter Andrew O’Hagan, according to The Guardian. Assange was quick to denounce the book, claiming he was “screwed over to make a buck” by his publishers and his lawyers at the London media firm of Finers, Stephens, and Innocent (FSI) which failed to give him his proper share of the money.
After the Cablegate files were released, Assange described himself as a proponent of “liberal democracy” by stating “Organisations such as WikiLeaks, which are philosophically opposed to state secrecy and which operate as much as is possible outside the global nation-state system, may be the best we can hope for in the way of promoting the climate of transparency and accountability necessary for authentically liberal democracy.”
Urizenus Sklar summarized Assange’s political philosophy and the role he sees for Wikileaks in geopolitical affairs by examining Assange’s political writings, primary his 2006 essay “Conspiracy as Governance.” Sklar writes that Assange views the world as composed of various conspiracies which are networks of actors which share information in secret from the general public. The conspiracies benefit their own members and not necessarily the greater public good. Because “plans which assist authoritarian rule, once discovered, induce resistance,” the more evil and authoritarian conspiracies are more vulnerable to leaks. Leaks interrupt information flows of conspiracies, force actors out of conspiracies and make their operations less efficient. Thus, Wikileaks and its quest for total transparency will have a greater impact on the authoritarian and malicious conspiracy networks.
Assange has described his own views on economics by stating, “it’s not correct to put me in any one philosophical or economic camp, because I’ve learned from many. But one is American libertarianism, market libertarianism. So as far as markets are concerned I’m a libertarian, but I have enough expertise in politics and history to understand that a free market ends up as monopoly unless you force them to be free. WikiLeaks is designed to make capitalism more free and ethical.”
Criminal Allegations and Charges
Sexual Assault Charges
On August 20, 2010, the Swedish Prosecutors Office issued an arrest warrant for Julian Assange on charges of rape and molestation. Assange immediately asserted that the allegations were “without basis.” The chief prosecutor soon dropped the warrant, only for it to be reopened 11 days later by Swedish Director of Prosecution Marianne Ny. Ms. Ny demanded Assange’s presence in Sweden for questioning and issued a European Arrest Warrant. Assange was arrested by British police on December 8, 2010 but was granted bail on the 14th. On February 24, 2011 a district judge in London ordered Assange extradited to Sweden. From February 2011 until June 2012 fighting extradition until his last appeal was denied, at which time he sought refuge in the Ecuadorian Embassy in London.
Possibility of Espionage Charges from the US Government
After Cablegate, the US government looked into the possibility of charging Julian Assange under the Espionage Act. In August 2012, it was reported that a secret federal grand jury in Virginia had been investigating charges against Assange for 18 months. Assange fears that if he is extradited to the United States he will face indefinite detention or execution if charged with espionage. An anonymous source in the Washington Post stated that charges under the Espionage Act were very possible. Also in August, 2012, State Department Spokeswoman Victoria Nuland stated that the US was unconcerned with Assange and that he was making "wild assertions about us, when, in fact, his issue with the government of the United Kingdom has to do with whether he's going to go ... face justice in Sweden for something that has nothing to do with WikiLeaks." Former State Department Spokesperson P.J. Crowley dismissed these allegations. He stated that the investigation into Assange’s activities will only be used to prosecute Bradley Manning.
However, several statements by US officials have given support to Assange’s fears that he will be extradited to the US to face espionage charges. Attorney General Eric Holder stated that there is “an active ongoing criminal investigation” regarding Assange. Senator Diane Feinstein of California called for Assange to be prosecuted under the Espionage Act. She currently serves as chairwoman of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence and believes Assange should be punished because he “knowingly obtained and disseminated classified information which could cause injury to the United States.”
In order to take advantage of First Amendment protection which could save Assange in the event of a trial for espionage or other charges, some have argued that Wikileaks purposefully positioned itself more as a news agency and less as a secretive organization which actively participates in seeking out classified information to disclose. The New York Times observed that Wikileaks’ “old submissions page made few references to journalism, it now uses “journalist” and forms of the word “news” about 20 times.” In addition, “another new sentence portrays its primary work as filtering and analyzing documents, not just posting them raw. It says its ‘journalists write news stories based on the material, and then provide a link to the supporting documentation to prove our stories are true.’”
Government officials seem to be aware of this possibility and have made several public statements in an effort to distinguish Wikileaks from a traditional news agency. Defense Department General Counsel Jeh Johnson stated that “my personal opinion is that WikiLeaks is not media…I think WikiLeaks is on a different level from conventional journalism.” Senate Armed Services Chairman Carl Levin added that Wikileaks’ activities are “not journalism. This is a threat to our security.” Attorney General Eric Holder added, “I think one can compare the way in which the various news organizations that have been involved in this have acted as opposed to the way in which WikiLeaks has. And I'll let other people decide whether it should be or not…One of the distinctions that I draw between ... some of the people, organizations involved in this and others are that some have acted, I think, in a responsible way.”
Another issue is whether the extradition treaty between Sweden and the US would allow for extradition based on a crime of espionage. The treaty prohibits Sweden from extraditing criminals based on “political offenses.” In 1992, Swedish courts rejected an American extradition request for Edward Lee Howard, a CIA agent who had defected to the Soviet Union because the only charges were espionage. Therefore, charges based only on espionage are unlikely to result in Assange’s extradition.
Possibility of Conspiracy Charges from the US Government
In December 2010, Charlie Savage of the New York Times reported that the Justice Department was looking into charging Assange with conspiracy to espionage rather than as a principle. To this end, the government is looking for evidence that Assange encouraged and facilitated Bradley Manning’s disclosure to such an extent that he could be considered a conspirator or an accomplice. Pentagon Spokesman Geoff Morrell stated "I would remind you that now clearly Julian Assange is somebody who is being looked at here as well, because of the — you know, this is a website that clearly solicits people, induces people to break the law." The government appears to have some evidence of the link between Assange and Manning. Wired Magazine reported that “a government digital forensic expert examine the computer of accused WikiLeaks source Bradley Manning retrieved communications between Manning and an online chat user identified on Manning’s computer as “Julian Assange.” However, according to Columbia Law School professor and former federal prosecutor Daniel Richman, prosecutors in this case “would most likely need more than a chat transcript laying out such claims to implicate Mr. Assange.” A conspiracy charge is significant because it could potentially circumvent the First Amendment defense Assange could raise if tried as a principle for violations of the Espionage Act.
Enemy of the State Designation
In September 2012, Assange was discovered to have been designated an Enemy of the United States by the US Air Force. Assange’s American lawyer Michael Ratner suspects that this designation is an attempt to bring Assange’s case under the laws of war rather than civilian criminal law. The result could be could include killing, capturing, detaining without trial, etc." if Assange is extradited to the United States. The designation equates Assange with Al-Qaeda in terms of the threat posed to the United States. This designation helps support Assange’s stated fears of being extradited to the United States and discredits those such as P.J. Crowley who argued that the US is only interested in Bradley Manning and original sources of classified information.
Grant of Asylum from Ecuador
Since June 19, 2012, Assange has been confined to the Ecuadorian Embassy in London. He came seeking “protective asylum” from Swedish and American officials. On August 15, 2012, Britain threatened to invade the Ecuadorian Embassy to capture Assange. A letter from British officials to the Ecuadorian embassy read “ "We need to reiterate that we consider the continued use of the diplomatic premises in this way incompatible with the Vienna Convention and unsustainable and we have made clear the serious implications that this has for our diplomatic relations." Assange was formally granted asylum by Ecuador on August 16, 2012. The decision of the Ecuadorian government cited the fear that Assange would be executed if he were extradited to Sweden and eventually the United States. The decision was in defiance of British authorities who continue to position policemen outside the embassy. The British Foreign Office released a statement after Ecuador formally granted asylum, which read “we are determined to carry out our legal obligation to see Julian Assange extradited to Sweden. We will not allow Mr. Assange safe passage out of the UK, nor is there any legal basis for us to do so. The UK does not accept the principle of diplomatic asylum. It is far from a universally accepted concept: the United Kingdom is not a party to any legal instruments, which require us to recognize the grant of diplomatic asylum by a foreign embassy in this country.” Ecuador responded by citing many international conventions and treaties, such as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the Geneva Convention, which they believe requires the United Kingdom to respect their extension of asylum.
Australian Senate Bid
In December 2012, Assange announced that he will run for a Senate seat in Australia, running as a member of the newly formed Wikileaks party. He later announced he will run for a seat in the state of Victoria. A poll by UMR research identified that 23% of Victoria voters were “likely” to vote for Assange’s Wikileaks Party. Assange would only need to secure one sixth of the votes cast under Australia’s compulsory preferential voting system. Victoria elects six senators. Assange believes that if he wins a seat, he will be safe from extradition to the US because America will not want a diplomatic dispute with Australia. He also claims that the Australian people will not accept his dismissal from the Senate for failing to take up his seat within the required two months in the event of his election.
The Wikileaks Political Party of Australia “will practise in politics what WikiLeaks has done in the field of information by standing up to the powerful and shining a light on injustice and corruption.” The primary objectives of the party, according to its constitution, are “the protection of human rights and freedoms; transparency of governmental and corporate action, policy and information; recognition of the need for equality between generations; and support of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander self-determination.”
Assange was born on 3 July 1971 in Townsville, Australia. At age 16, Assange began hacking computers. At age 20, he was caught breaking into the master terminal of Nortel, the Canadian telecom company. However the judge only ordered Assange to pay the Australian government a nominal sum of damages. He spent time studying mathematics at Melbourne University and Australian National University in Canberra but never graduated. He was reportedly disenchanted with his studies after observing many of his classmates perform research for the United States defense system. During the 1990s he had jobs in computer security in Australia and abroad. This led to his co-invention of “Rubberhose deniable encryption” which he said was a program designed to protect human rights workers in the field from having their sensitive data stolen. He also became an advocate for the free software movement and stated “True intellectual heritage can't be bound up in intellectual property.”
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- Ellen Nakashima and Jerry Markon, "WikiLeaks founder could be charged under Espionage Act," "The Washington Post", November 30, 2010.
- Mark Hosenball, "Julian Assange, WikiLeaks Founder, Faces No Criminal Charges In U.S., Sources Say," "The Huffington Post", August 22, 2012.
- P.J. Crowley, "Viewpoint: A risky Ecuador-Assange alliance, "BBC News", August 25, 2012.
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- Charlie Savage, "U.S. Tries to Build Case for Conspiracy by WikiLeaks," "The New York Times", December 15, 2010.
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- Kim Zetter, "Jolt in WikiLeaks Case: Feds Found Manning-Assange Chat Logs on Laptop," "Wired", December 19, 2011.
- Charlie Savage, "U.S. Tries to Build Case for Conspiracy by WikiLeaks," "The New York Times", December 15, 2010.
- "ASSANGE IS AN 'ENEMY' IN SAME CLASS AS AL-QAEDA, SAYS US AIR FORCE," "Yahoo!7 News", September 27, 2012.
- Philip Dorling, "US calls Assange 'enemy of state'," "Brisbane Times", September 27, 2012.
- Ravi Somaiya, "WikiLeaks Founder Turns to Ecuador for Asylum," "The New York Times", June 19, 2012.
- Damien Pearse, "UK threatened to arrest Assange inside embassy, says Ecuadorean minister," "The Guardian", August 15, 2012.
- William Neuman, "Ecuador Grants Asylum to Assange, Defying Britain," "The New York Times", August 16, 2012.
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- "Wikileaks Board of Directors"
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- "Interview on MSNBC's Dylan Rattigan Show with Daniel Ellsberg on Julian Assange"
- "Democracy Now! Interview on Assange with Daniel Ellsberg and Glen Greenwald"
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- Julian Assange, "‘I Was the Fall Guy’: Julian Assange in His Own Words", New Internationalist, April 11, 2012.