Julian Assange: Wikileaks' secretive founder

The elusive man behind Wikileaks, the world's biggest whistleblowing website, has made many enemies since setting up the site.

Last week, whistleblowing site WikiLeaks published its most explosive leak yet: a secret video, shot from the cockpit of an American attack helicopter, of Iraqi citizens and two Reuters journalists being mown down on a Baghdad street in 2007. The footage has embarrassed the Pentagon, outraged Iraqis and, says The Sunday Times, "enhanced the aura of mystery" surrounding the site's founder, Julian Assange a figure so elusive he even refuses to confirm his age. "I prefer to keep the bastards guessing."

His caution is understandable. He's made many enemies since launching WikiLeaks three years ago. He claims the Pentagon is out to destroy the site a "digital drop box" where anyone can post sensitive data anonymously. More than a million confidential documents have been posted: from classified military secrets, to the membership list of the British National Party and the 'Climategate' emails. When the Ministry of Defence (MoD) first came upon the site, staff were stunned, says The Independent. "Everything I clicked on to do with the MoD was restricted it is huge," read one internal email.

WikiLeaks has never divulged the true identity of Assange, an Australian with a "commanding presence", says the Sydney Morning Herald. He has boltholes in Iceland and Sweden, but home is said to be in East Africa. He never talks of his early life, but there are parallels with a teenage computer hacker named "Mendax", whose antics were documented in a book called Underground.

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The most notorious was a coup against Nasa in 1989, when the word "WANK" (an acronym for Worms Against Nuclear Killers) appeared on all the agency's monitors. The perpetrator was never found, but shortly after, Assange admitted 30 counts of computer crime. His restless lifestyle certainly echoes Mendax's childhood. A super-bright child who never knew his father, he was dragged from state to state by his mother as she pursued a series of turbulent relationships.

After his arrest, he worked in computer security in Melbourne, before launching WikiLeaks in 2006, inspired by Daniel Ellsberg, the US military analyst who leaked the Pentagon Papers about the Vietnam war. With an annual budget of just £175,000, the site has only five full-time editors and 800 occasional volunteers, says The Sunday Times. Its primary server is in Sweden, where whistleblowers and internet anonymity are upheld by law.

Assange often conducts interviews in Belgium, where monitoring calls is illegal. Many governments have gone after WikiLeaks; none have succeeded, says The Australian. Assange claims to be under intensifying surveillance ahead of the release of a video showing a US attack in Afghanistan in which 97 civilians were killed. As a recent WikiLeaks post on Twitter runs: "If anything happens to us, you know why [and] who is responsible."

The growing hegemony of WikiLeaks

What drives Julian Assange? The author of Underground, Suelette Dreyfus, says his motives are entirely noble, notes The International Herald Tribune. "He is a very brave person convinced that it is worth taking high personal risks in exchange for getting truth out to the community," she says. The secrecy surrounding WikiLeaks is vital to that process. Assange likes to quote Oscar Wilde: "Man is least himself when he talks in his own person. Give him a mask and he will tell you the truth."

But as the website's power and influence grow, there are concerns about its own accountability, says The Guardian. The "infuriatingly self-righteous" Assange has promised to change the world by abolishing official secrecy. But some fear WikiLeaks is more like an intelligence service than it admits "a shadowy, unaccountable organisation" that tramples on individual privacy and other rights. "Like so many others who have claimed to be acting in the name of the people, there are those who fear it risks oppressing them." Assange claims all submissions are vetted and that only bona fide whistleblowers are investigated, says The Sunday Times. But he exerts tight personal control. Asked who gets the final call, he replies: "Me... I'm the final decision if the document is legit."

WikiLeaks' apparent hegemony is all the more worrying given its growing political clout in nations like Iceland, where Assange has helped frame new anti-secrecy laws. The aim is to make Iceland a global "investigative sanctuary", says Henry Porter in The Observer. Other governments are deeply hostile to what they see as the "irresponsible behaviour" of Icelanders. But given the restrictions on free expression that have been smuggled into legislation such as Britain's new Digital Economy Bill, the move is surely welcome. When US aircrews are "killing people as though they were playing a video game", we need to know.