The shaky video clips of Julian Assange’s arrest flashed around the world Thursday, the white-bearded prophet of the age of leaks being hauled by unsmiling security officers to a grey van marked Police.
“We must resist!” he cried. “You can resist!” It was a scene that the very image-conscious Mr. Assange might appreciate: One man literally fighting the all-powerful state.
It was also the latest – and surely not the last – dramatic turn in a career marked by both brilliant achievement and dubious judgment. Mr. Assange has long had a knack for celebrity, and as a tech-savvy, global, almost stateless figure, he captured the new influence the internet could give to individual citizens.
His creation of WikiLeaks helped empower a generation of whistleblowers and disgruntled insiders who could operate on an industrial scale, providing disclosures by the terabyte and enraging the powerful in many countries. WikiLeaks collaborated closely with major world publications, including The New York Times, in the release of secret records on the American-led wars in Afghanistan and Iraq and a quarter-million confidential State Department cables.
But Mr. Assange has always elicited fervent reactions: He has been hailed as a hero of free information, or despised as a treacherous criminal worthy of death by drone – often depending on what WikiLeaks had recently been up to. Although he has always described himself as a journalist, he has been far too much of an activist to be satisfied with the role of neutral and fair-minded provider of information.
He has proved a highly problematic, even embarrassing champion for the principles of press freedom and the public’s right to information, especially in recent years. For the past seven, he was hiding out at Ecuador’s tiny red brick embassy in London, not just from American prosecutors, but also from Swedish sex-crime investigators, who eventually closed their case.
Mr. Assange, the world’s most famous self-proclaimed political refugee, lived there with his cat in a small corner room. He continued to run WikiLeaks, conducted news conferences before hundreds of fawning admirers from a balcony, rode his skateboard in the halls and played host to a parade of visitors, including Lady Gaga and Pamela Anderson, rumoured to be a lover who brought with her vegan sandwiches.
The arrest came at the end of a meandering legal path that began in 2010, when the Justice Department announced it was investigating WikiLeaks. Obama administration officials eventually dropped the idea, persuaded by press advocates that prosecuting WikiLeaks would set a dangerous precedent because many mainstream news organizations regularly publish classified information.
In 2016, some of Mr. Assange’s former American sympathizers turned sharply against him after he made WikiLeaks into an enthusiastic instrument of Russia’s intervention in the American presidential election, doling out hacked Democratic emails to maximize their political effect, campaigning against Hillary Clinton on Twitter and promoting a false cover story about the source of the leaks.
That performance drew voluble praise from her opponent, Donald Trump, who regularly read from leaked Clinton campaign emails in his 2016 stump speeches and declared, “I love WikiLeaks.” But months later, while he was President, WikiLeaks posted a collection of classified documents on the CIA’s hacking tools, and Mr. Trump’s first CIA chief, Mike Pompeo, called Mr. Assange “a narcissist” and labelled the organization “a nonstate hostile intelligence service.”
His words were a harbinger of the single charge of conspiracy to commit computer intrusion against Mr. Assange that the Justice Department unsealed on Thursday.
In some ways, Mr. Assange, 47, has never fully shed the rebellious, secretive ways of the precocious Australian teenager with a complicated family background who, with two pals, formed a hacking collective called the International Subversives.
In the 1997 book Underground, a lengthy account of the hackers written by Suelette Dreyfus and crediting Mr. Assange as “researcher,” a hacker with the nickname Mendax clearly resembles the young Julian.
Mendax found the small Australian town where Mr. Assange lived with his mother, Emerald, “dead boring,” the book says. “Sometimes Mendax went to school. Often he didn’t. The school system didn’t hold much interest for him.” A vulnerable computer network in Sydney, the book says, “was a far more interesting place to muck around in than the rural high school.”
In 1991, at age 20, Mr. Assange was charged with a long list of hacking offences, to which he pleaded guilty and got off with a fine and a warning. “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,” the judge said at his sentencing, according to an account in The New Yorker.
“Underground” hints at a kind of qualified idealism, suggesting that Mendax and his comrades mostly shunned theft and vandalism in favour of disclosure. The book describes “the early Australian underground’s golden rules of hacking: 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.”
By 2006, when he founded WikiLeaks, Mr. Assange had adopted a nomadic lifestyle, roaming the world and pronouncing sometimes cryptic principles about secrecy and information. By 2008, he was living in East Africa and exposing corruption in Kenya on the new site, which had published more than one million documents, including some from the Iraq War and the Guantanamo prison, as well as a potpourri covering less momentous topics: an early script for an Indiana Jones movie, Wesley Snipes’ tax bill and documents from the Church of Scientology and the Mormon church.
But it was Chelsea Manning, then a low-level intelligence analyst stationed at a base in Iraq, who really put WikiLeaks, and hence Mr. Assange, on the map. Bored and harbouring doubts about the war and American foreign policy, she began copying thousands of documents from a classified network onto CDs that she marked as Lady Gaga songs to avoid detection.
Back in the United States, she called both The New York Times and The Washington Post before connecting with WikiLeaks, where Mr. Assange and his fractious band of activist volunteers eagerly took up the cause in 2010.
They first posted a devastating video of two American helicopter gunships in Iraq shooting at suspected enemies on the ground – two of whom were among those killed and turned out to be war correspondents for Reuters.
The news organization had struggled to learn the details of the strike; now the world saw not just the view from the helicopters, but it heard the pilots’ casual exchanges as they opened fire three times.
Military officials accused WikiLeaks of leaving out crucial context, including the presence on the ground of several rocket-propelled grenades and other weapons in the group that was targeted. WikiLeaks called the video Collateral Murder, an illustration of Mr. Assange’s skill at spin.
That was followed by publication, in co-ordination with the Times and other mainstream news organizations, of 77,000 military documents from the war in Afghanistan and then 392,000 from the war in Iraq.
The War Logs, as they were called, were published in co-ordination with Le Monde, The Guardian and Der Spiegel, and they shed new light on civilian casualties, soldiers’ morale, the treatment of detainees and the use of contractors. An editor’s note explained that they provided “a real-time history of the war,” but also struck an ambivalent chord about their source, WikiLeaks, which the note said “was not involved in the news organizations’ research, reporting, analysis and writing.”
Human rights groups complained that WikiLeaks’ own publication of unredacted documents might put in danger Afghans who were named as working with the U.S. military, and the Iraq documents were stripped of names. When the diplomatic cables were published, the Times and other news organizations worked closely with WikiLeaks to redact names to protect vulnerable people – but later, in a dispute with a British editor, Mr. Assange decided simply to publish the massive cable collection without any edits.
Meanwhile, WikiLeaks was plagued with infighting, often touched off by Mr. Assange’s astringent style and ego. Two women complained to Swedish authorities about Mr. Assange’s sexual conduct with them, setting off a year-long quest of investigators to question him. Angry American politicians denounced Mr. Assange, whose distinctive face had become recognizable worldwide, and called for his arrest or even his execution.
In 2012, Ecuador’s foreign minister announced that Mr. Assange was at the embassy in London and had asked for political asylum. Small as they were, Mr. Assange’s quarters there did not cramp his desire to remain in the limelight. He pronounced his opinions on Twitter, briefly hosted a talk show on Russian television channel RT and continued to oversee the publication of leaked material. He sent an associate to assist Edward Snowden, a former National Security Agency contractor, when he flew to Russia from Hong Kong – even though WikiLeaks had not played a role in Mr. Snowden’s leak of agency documents.
Eventually, Mr. Assange’s isolation began to wear on him, a friend said Thursday, especially the long, lonely weekends in an essentially empty embassy that he could not leave.
He was becoming deeply depressed and wondered about simply walking out, the friend said, speaking on the condition of anonymity. And relations with his hosts were becoming deeply strained, even adversarial, as diplomats grew tired of his behaviour. Even Mr. Assange’s friends called him difficult, a narcissist with an outsize view of his importance and little interest in mundane matters such as hygiene.
A copy of a 2014 letter from Juan Falconi Puig, then Ecuador’s ambassador to Britain, to the Foreign Ministry, seen by the Times, complained of Mr. Assange’s penchant for riding a skateboard and playing soccer with visitors. His skateboarding, Mr. Falconi said, had “damaged floors, walls and doors.” When a security guard tried to take his soccer ball, Mr. Assange “began to shake, insult and push the agent,” reclaimed the ball and then “launched the ball at his body,” the letter said.
Mr. Assange’s presence in the embassy long after the Ecuadorean president who granted him political asylum had been replaced finally became too much for the government in Quito. Last year, it severed his internet access and limited his visitors.
On Thursday, President Lenin Moreno, elected in 2017, explained on Twitter and in a video the decision to evict him.
Appearing in the Westminster Magistrates’ Court, his silver hair tied in a bun, Mr. Assange looked composed in a navy suit. The scene underscored the obvious: That Mr. Assange will use his legal predicament as a new platform for his defiance of authority and his crusade for WikiLeaks.
Outside the courthouse, a flock of cameras were pointing toward the guarded entrance, and a group of protesters chanted feebly: “Free, free, free Assange.”
After Mr. Assange took his seat in court, a supporter wearing a scruffy fluorescent jacket gave him a thumbs-up from the public gallery. Mr. Assange returned the gesture.
Waiting for the lawyers to enter, Mr. Assange read from a book, which he raised for the media to see: History of the National Security State, by Gore Vidal.