Julian Paul Assange (born 3 July 1971) is an Australian publisher, journalist, computer programmer and Internet activist. He is the editor in chief of WikiLeaks, a whistleblower website and conduit for worldwide news leaks, with the stated purpose of creating open governments. Assange was a hacker in his youth, before becoming a computer programmer. He has lived in several countries and has made public appearances in many parts of the world to speak about freedom of the press, censorship and investigative journalism.
Assange serves on the Wikileaks advisory board. He has published material about extrajudicial killings in Kenya, toxic waste dumping in Côte d'Ivoire, Church of Scientology manuals, Guantanamo Bay procedures, and banks such as Kaupthing and Julius Baer. In 2010, he published Iraq War documents and Afghan War documents about American involvement in the wars, some of which was classified material. On 28 November 2010, WikiLeaks and its five international print media partners (Der Spiegel, The New York Times, Le Monde, The Guardian and El País) began publishing U.S. diplomatic cables.
Assange has received a number of awards and nominations, including the 2009 Amnesty International Media Award for publishing material about extrajudicial killings in Kenya and Readers' Choice for Time magazine's 2010 Person of the Year.
Assange has appealed a February 2011 decision by English courts to extradite him to Sweden for questioning in relation to a sexual assault investigation. He has said the allegations of wrongdoing are "without basis". A two-day High Court hearing is scheduled to start on 12 July; he remains on bail.
Assange was born in Townsville, Queensland, and spent much of his youth living on Magnetic Island.
His biological father was John Shipton. When he was one year old his mother Christine married theatre director Brett Assange, who gave him his surname. Brett and Christine Assange ran a touring theatre company. His stepfather, Julian's first "real dad", described Julian as "a very sharp kid" with "a keen sense of right and wrong". "He always stood up for the underdog... he was always very angry about people ganging up on other people."
Assange has asserted that: "Capable, generous men do not create victims; they nurture victims." He says he is a combative person and that perhaps he is not so good at nurturing, but that "there is another way of nurturing victims, which is to police perpetrators."
In 1979, his mother remarried; her new husband was a musician whom Julian Assange believed belonged to a New Age group called Santiniketan Park Association led by Yoga teacher 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 divorced mother fled her boyfriend across Australia, taking both children into hiding for the next five years. Assange moved 30 times before he turned 14, attending many schools, sometimes being home-schooled.
Hacking and conviction
In 1987, after turning 16, Assange began hacking under the name "Mendax" (derived from a phrase of Horace: "splendide mendax", or "nobly untruthful"). He and two other hackers joined to form a group they named the International Subversives. Assange wrote down the early rules of the subculture: "Don't damage computer systems you break into (including crashing them); don't change the information in those systems (except for altering logs to cover your tracks); and share information". The Personal Democracy Forum said he was "Australia's most famous ethical computer hacker."
The Australian Federal Police became aware of this group and set up "Operation Weather" to investigate their hacking. In September 1991 Mendax was discovered in the act of hacking into the Melbourne master terminal of Nortel, the Canadian telecommunications company. In response the Australian Federal Police tapped Assanges' phoneline and subsequently raided his Melbourne home in 1991. He was also reported to have accessed computers belonging to an Australian university, the USAF 7th Command Group in the Pentagon and other organisations, via modem. It took three years to bring the case to court, where he was charged with 31 counts of hacking and related crimes. Nortel said his incursions cost them more than $100,000. Despite representing hacking as a victimless crime, he nonetheless pleaded guilty to 25 charges of hacking. Six charges were dropped. He was released on bond for good conduct after being fined A$2,100. The judge 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" and stated that Assange would have gone to jail for up to 10 years if he had not had such a disrupted childhood.
Assange later commented, "It's a bit annoying, actually. Because I co-wrote 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 2011, court records revealed that in 1993, Assange helped the Victoria Police Child Exploitation Unit by providing technical advice and assisted in prosecuting persons
Child custody issues
In 1989, Assange started living with his girlfriend and they had a son, Daniel Assange. They split up during the period of Assange's arrest and conviction. They subsequently engaged in a lengthy custody struggle and did not agree on a custody arrangement until 1999.
The entire process prompted Assange and his mother to form Parent Inquiry Into Child Protection, an activist group centered on creating a "central databank" for otherwise inaccessible legal records related to child custody issues in Australia. In an interview with ABC Radio, his mother explained their "most important" issue was demanding "that there be direct access to the children's court by any member of the public for an application for protection for any child that they believe is at serious risk from abuse, where the child protection agency has rejected that notification."
Computer programming and university studies
In 1993, Assange was involved in starting one of the first public internet service providers in Australia, Suburbia Public Access Network. Starting in 1994, he lived in Melbourne as a programmer and a developer of free software. In 1995, he 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 book Underground: Tales of Hacking, Madness and Obsession on the Electronic Frontier (1997), 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; he originally intended the system to be used "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, he registered the domain leaks.org; "But", he says, "then I didn't do anything with it."
From 2003 to 2006, Assange attended the University of Melbourne, mainly studying physics and mathematics and briefly studying philosophy and neuroscience. In most of his maths courses, he received the minimum "pass" grade. He did not graduate; the fact that his fellow students were doing research for Pentagon's DARPA was reportedly a factor in motivating him to drop out and start WikiLeaks
WikiLeaks was founded in 2006. That year, Assange wrote two essays setting out the philosophy behind WikiLeaks: "To radically shift regime behavior we must think clearly and boldly for if we have learned anything, it is that regimes do not want to be changed. We must think beyond those who have gone before us and discover technological changes that embolden us with ways to act in which our forebears could not." In his blog he wrote, "the more secretive or unjust an organisation is, the more leaks induce fear and paranoia in its leadership and planning coterie.... Since unjust systems, by their nature, induce opponents, and in many places barely have the upper hand, mass leaking leaves them exquisitely vulnerable to those who seek to replace them with more open forms of governance."
Assange is a prominent media spokesman on WikiLeaks' behalf. While newspapers have described him as a "director" or "founder" of Wikileaks, Assange has said, "I don't call myself a founder"; 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. 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." He 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". He has been described as being largely self-taught and widely read on science and mathematics, and as thriving on intellectual battle.
WikiLeaks has been involved in the publication of material documenting extrajudicial killings in Kenya, a report of toxic waste dumping on the coast of Côte d'Ivoire, Church of Scientology manuals, Guantanamo Bay procedures, the 12 July 2007 Baghdad airstrike video, and material involving large banks such as Kaupthing and Julius Baer among other documents. In 2008, Assange published an article entitled "The Hidden Curse of Thomas Paine", in which he wrote "What does it mean when only those facts about the world with economic powers behind them can be heard, when the truth lays naked before the world and no one will be the first to speak without payment or subsidy?"
In late 2010, Assange was in the process of completing his memoirs for publication in 2011.
In addition to exercising great authority and editorial control within WikiLeaks, Assange acts as its public face. 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 Baghdad airstrike video by Wikileaks. On 3 June he appeared via videoconferencing at the Personal Democracy Forum conference with Daniel Ellsberg.
Ellsberg told MSNBC "the explanation he [Assange] used" for not appearing in person in the U.S. 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 were trying to determine his whereabouts. Based on this, there were reports that U.S. officials wanted 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, he took part at 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, he appeared at the Frontline Club for a press conference. On 15 March 2011, Assange gave a speech at the Cambridge Union Society.
Release of U.S. diplomatic cables
On 28 November 2010, WikiLeaks began releasing some of the 251,000 American diplomatic cables in their possession, of which over 53 percent are listed as unclassified, 40 percent are "Confidential" and just over six percent are classified "Secret". The following day, the Attorney-General of Australia, Robert McClelland, told the press that Australia would inquire into Assange's activities and WikiLeaks. 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. The Federal Police inquiry found that Assange had not committed any crime.
The United States Department of Justice launched a criminal investigation related to the leak. U.S. prosecutors are reportedly considering charges against Assange under several laws, but any prosecution would be difficult. In relation to its ongoing investigations of WikiLeaks, on 14 December 2010 the U.S. Department of Justice issued a subpoena ordering Twitter to release information relating to Assange's account, amongst others.
Pentagon Papers whistleblower Daniel Ellsberg said that Assange "is serving our 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, "He's obviously a very competent guy in many ways. I think his instincts are that most of this material deserves to be out. We are arguing over a very small fragment that doesn't. He has not yet put out anything that hurt anybody's national security." Assange told London reporters that the leaked cables showed U.S. ambassadors around the world were ordered "to engage in espionage behavior", which he said seemed to be "representative of a gradual shift to a lack of rule of law in U.S. institutions that needs to be exposed and that we have been exposing."
The WikiLeaks diplomatic cable revelations have been credited with sparking the Tunisian Revolution.
Recognition as a journalist
Assange received the 2009 Media award from Amnesty International for Kenya: The Cry of Blood – Extra Judicial Killings and Disappearances, and he has been recognized as a journalist by the Centre for Investigative Journalism. Assange has been a member of the Australian journalist union, the Media, Entertainment and Arts Alliance, for several years, and in 2011 was made an honorary member. Alex Massie wrote an article in The Spectator called "Yes, Julian Assange is a journalist", but acknowledged that "newsman" might be a better description of Assange. Alan Dershowitz said "Without a doubt. He is a journalist, a new kind of journalist". Assange has said that he has been publishing factual material since age 25, and that it is not necessary to debate whether or not he is a journalist. He has stated that his role is "primarily that of a publisher and editor-in-chief who organises and directs other journalists".
On 6 December, the Swiss bank, PostFinance, announced that it had frozen assets of Assange's totalling 31,000 euros, because he had "provided false information regarding his place of residence" when opening the account. MasterCard, Visa Inc., and Bank of America also halted dealings with Wikileaks. Assange described these actions as "business McCarthyism". The English-language Swedish newspaper web-site "Local" quoted Assange on 27 December 2010 as saying that legal costs for the whistleblowing website and his own defence had reached £500,000. The decisions to halt donations to WikiLeaks by Visa, MasterCard and PayPal had cost it £425,000, the same amount it costs the website to publish for six months. Assange said WikiLeaks had been receiving as much as £85,000 a day at its peak.
In December 2010 Assange sold the publishing rights to his autobiography for over £1 million. He told The Sunday Times that he was forced to enter the deals for an autobiography due to the financial difficulties he and the site encountered, he told them "I don't want to write this book, but I have to. I have already spent £200,000 for legal costs and I need to defend myself and to keep WikiLeaks afloat". On 14 February 2011 Assange filed for the trademark JULIAN ASSANGE in Europe. The trademark is to be used for "public speaking services; news reporter services; journalism; publication of texts other than publicity texts; education services; entertainment services".
A number of political and media commentators, as well as current and former U.S. government officials, have accused Assange of terrorism. U.S. Vice President Joe Biden argued that Assange was "closer to being a high-tech terrorist than the Pentagon papers." In May 2010 Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell had used the phrase, calling Assange "a high-tech terrorist", and saying "he has done enormous damage to our country. I think he needs to be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law". Also in May 2010, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich said: "Information terrorism, which leads to people getting killed, is terrorism, and Julian Assange is engaged in terrorism. He should be treated as an enemy combatant."
In July 2010, after WikiLeaks released classified documents related to the war in Afghanistan, Chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, Mike Mullen, said at a Pentagon news conference, "Disagree with the war all you want, take issue with the policy, challenge me or our ground commanders on the decisions we make to accomplish the mission we've been given, but don't put those who willingly go into harm's way even further in harm's way just to satisfy your need to make a point. Mr. Assange can say whatever he likes about the greater good he thinks he and his source are doing, but the truth is, they might already have on their hands the blood of some young soldier or that of an Afghan family." Assange responded later in an interview by saying, "There is, as far as we can tell, no incident of that. So it is a speculative charge. Of course, we are treating any possible revelation of the names of innocents seriously. That is why we held back 15,000 of these documents, to review that".
Retractions of, or apologies for, criticism
The Australian government considered charging Assange for treason. It has retracted its previous comments that the actions of Julian Assange constituted a crime. They also found no grounds to withdraw his Australian passport after an investigation by the Australian Federal Police. Since then, government representatives and the major opposition, including Craig Emerson the Minister for Trade and Helen Coonan the former minister for Communications, have made statements supportive of Wikileaks and deprecated some threats. Emerson stated on ABC's Q&A program; "We condemn absolutely the threats that have been made by some people in the United States against Julian Assange and he deserves all of the rights of being an Australian citizen."
Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, then president of Brazil, expressed his "solidarity" with Assange following his 2010 arrest in the United Kingdom. He further criticised the arrest of Assange as "an attack on freedom of expression".
Prime Minister of Russia, Vladimir Putin condemned Assange's detention as "undemocratic". A source within the office of Russian President Dmitry Medvedev suggested that Assange be nominated for a Nobel Prize, and said that "Public and non-governmental organisations should think of how to help him."
In December 2010, the United Nations' Special Rapporteur for Freedom of Opinion and Expression, Frank LaRue, said Assange or other WikiLeaks staff should not face criminal charges for any information they disseminated, noting that "if there is a responsibility by leaking information it is of, exclusively of the person that made the leak and not of the media that publish it. And this is the way that transparency works and that corruption has been confronted in many cases."
Daniel Ellsberg, who was working in the U.S. Department of Defense when he leaked the Pentagon Papers in 1971, was a signatory to a statement by an international group of former intelligence officers and ex-government officials in support of Assange's work, which was released in late December 2010. Other signatories included David MacMichael, Ray McGovern, and five recipients of annual Sam Adams Award: Frank Grevil, Katharine Gun, Craig Murray, Coleen Rowley and Larry Wilkerson. Ellsberg has said, "If I released the Pentagon Papers today, the same rhetoric and the same calls would be made about me ... I would be called not only a traitor – which I was [called] then, which was false and slanderous – but I would be called a terrorist... Assange and Bradley Manning are no more terrorists than I am."
Prime Minister Julia Gillard has come under widespread condemnation and a backlash within her own party for failing to support Assange after calling the leaks "an illegal act" and suggesting that his Australian passport should be cancelled. Hundreds of lawyers, academics and journalists came forward in his support with Attorney-General Robert McClelland, unable to explain how Assange had broken Australian law. Opposition Legal Affairs spokesman, Senator George Brandis, a Queen's Counsel, accused Gillard of being "clumsy" with her language, stating, "As far as I can see, he (Assange) hasn't broken any Australian law, nor does it appear he has broken any American laws." Foreign Minister Kevin Rudd, who supports Assange, stated that any decision to cancel the passport would be his, not Gillard's. Queen's Counsel Peter Faris, who acted for Assange in a hacking case 15 years ago, said that the motives of Swedish authorities in seeking Assange's extradition for alleged sex offences are suspect: "You have to say: why are they [Sweden] pursuing it? It's pretty obvious that if it was Bill Bloggs, they wouldn't be going to the trouble." Following the Swedish Embassy issuing of a "prepared and unconvincing reply" in response to letters of protest, Gillard was called on to send a message to Sweden "querying the way charges were laid, investigated and dropped, only to be picked up again by a different prosecutor."
On 10 December 2010 over five hundred people rallied outside Sydney Town Hall and about three hundred and fifty people gathered in Brisbane where Assange's lawyer, Rob Stary, criticised Julia Gillard's position, telling the rally that the Australian government was a "sycophant" of the U.S. A petition circulated by GetUp!, who have placed full page ads in support of Assange in The New York Times and The Washington Times, received more than 50,000 signatures.
He won the 2009 Amnesty International UK Media Award (New Media), for exposing extrajudicial assassinations in Kenya by distributing and publicizing the Kenya National Commission on Human Rights (KNCHR)'s investigation The Cry of Blood – Extra Judicial Killings and Disappearances Accepting the award, Assange said, "It is a reflection of the courage and strength of Kenyan civil society that this injustice was documented."
In 2010 Assange was awarded the Sam Adams Award, Readers' Choice in Time magazine's Person of the Year poll, and runner-up for Person of the Year. An informal poll of editors at Postmedia Network named him the top newsmaker for the year after six out of 10 felt Assange had "affected profoundly how information is seen and delivered".
Le Monde, one of the five publications to cooperate with Wikileaks' publication of the recent document leaks, named him person of the year with fifty six percent of the votes in their online poll.
In February 2011, it was announced that Assange had been awarded the Sydney Peace Medal by the Sydney Peace Foundation of the University of Sydney for his "exceptional courage and initiative in pursuit of human rights."
Allegations of sexual misconduct
On 20 August 2010, Swedish police began an investigation into several sexual encounters involving Assange. Assange has said allegations of wrongdoing are "without basis", describing all the sexual encounters as consensual. In December 2010, Assange, then in Britain, learned that the Swedish authorities had issued a European Arrest Warrant (EAW) to extradite him to Sweden for questioning. Assange appealed the EAW, and a District Judge (Magistrate's Court) in England ruled that Assange should be extradited. Assange has appealed the extradition decision. In February 2011, Australian ambassador Paul Stevens wrote to the Swedish justice minister and asked her to ensure that the "case would proceed in accordance with due process and the provisions prescribed under Swedish law"
Though an Australian citizen, Assange has not had a permanent address for several years. 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.
For much of 2010, he was visiting the United Kingdom, Iceland, Sweden and other European countries. On 4 November 2010, Assange told Swiss public television TSR that he was seriously considering seeking political asylum in neutral Switzerland and moving the operation of the WikiLeaks foundation there. In December 2010 it was reported that U.S. Ambassador to Switzerland Donald S. Beyer had warned the Swiss government against offering asylum to Assange.
In late November 2010, Deputy Foreign Minister Kintto Lucas of Ecuador spoke about giving Assange residency 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". Lucas believed that Ecuador may benefit from initiating a dialogue with Assange. Foreign Minister Ricardo Patino stated on 30 November that the residency application would "have to be studied from the legal and diplomatic perspective". A few hours later, President Rafael Correa stated that WikiLeaks "committed an error by breaking the laws of the United States and leaking this type of information... no official offer was [ever] made." Correa noted that Lucas was speaking "on his own behalf"; additionally, he will launch an investigation into possible ramifications Ecuador would suffer from the release of the cables.
In a hearing at the City of Westminster Magistrates' Court on 7 December 2010, Assange identified a post office box as his address. When told by the judge that this information was not acceptable, he submitted "Parkville, Victoria, Australia" on a sheet of paper. His lack of permanent address and nomadic lifestyle were cited by the judge as factors in denying bail. He was ultimately released, in part because journalist Vaughan Smith offered to provide Assange with an address for bail during the extradition proceedings, Smith's Norfolk mansion, Ellingham Hall.