I F PROOF was ever needed that the pen is, indeed, mightier than the sword it comes in the shape of a slim, bearded, silver-haired Australian who set up a whistleblowing operation in Iceland 10 years ago that has since gone on to cause fear, loathing and consternation on two continents.
WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange is wanted in the US for espionage, in Sweden to face rape charges and in the UK for bail violation after taking refuge in Ecuador’s London embassy where he has been holed up for the past four years.
Not bad for the turbulent self-declared superhero hacker who was born in the city of Townsville in Queensland and endured a nomadic childhood, living in 30 different Australian towns by the time he became a teenager as his parents ran a touring theatre.
It has been a busy 10 years for Assange and his supporters. WikiLeaks has published more than 10m leaked emails, including sensitive information about prisoners being mistreated at Guantanamo Bay, US military operations and a cache of diplomatic cables from US embassies around the world.
The domain name wikileaks.org was registered in 2006 and launched in January 2007, with Assange saying it would use a censorship-proof website to protect sources and make public secret information.
Just like his childhood years, he adopted a nomadic lifestyle, running Wikileaks from temporary locations.
“To keep our sources safe, we have had to spread assets, encrypt everything, and move telecommunications and people around the world to activate protective laws in different national jurisdictions,” Assange said in a BBC interview in 2011.
He was always driven, could go long stretches without eating, and focus on work with very little sleep, according to Raffi Khatchadourian, a reporter for the New Yorker magazine who spent several weeks travelling with him.
“He creates this atmosphere around him where the people who are close to him want to care for him to help keep him going. I would say that probably has something to do with his charisma,” he told the BBC.
The site first caught the world’s attention when it released manuals for US prison guards at Guantanamo. Its revelations became a global phenomenon in 2010 when it disclosed logs of US military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan and a horrifying video showing a US helicopter crew mowing down a group of unarmed civilians — including two journalists — in Baghdad.
It also published a truckload of highly secretive diplomatic cables from US embassies, enraging the then secretary of state Hilary Clinton and deeply embarrassing the Obama administration.
But there was more personal trouble ahead for Assange.
That same year, he was detained in the UK after Sweden issued an international arrest warrant over allegations of sexual assault.
Swedish authorities said they wanted to question him over claims that he raped one woman and sexually molested another in August of 2010 while on a visit to Stockholm for a conference. Assange was accused of having sex with one of the women while she was asleep but he has always insisted that both encounters were consensual.
He spent the following months fighting extradition while under house arrest in a small town in Norfolk. Westminster magistrates’ court approved the extradition in February 2011 and this was later upheld by the High Court in London and on June 14, 2012, the UK Supreme Court dismissed his application to re-open the appeal. A few days later, exhausting his legal options in Britain against extradition to Sweden, Assange sought refuge in the Ecuadorean embassy in London, where he was granted political asylum. He has been there ever since.
Hopes that he might finally be able to leave were dashed last month when Assange had another setback in his legal stand-off with Sweden after a request to lift the arrest warrant over the 2010 rape accusation was rejected.
In advance of that ruling, WikiLeaks released medical records claiming Assange’s mental health was at risk if he remained in the Ecuadorian embassy but they failed to sway the Swedish court.
He has refused to travel to Stockholm, saying he fears further extradition to the US over WikiLeaks’ release of 500,000 secret military files on the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.
But it is his intervention in the US presidential election that has gained him the most approbrium.
After WikiLeaks published some 20,000 internal emails on the eve of the US Democratic Party convention that forced high-ranking party officials to resign he faced growing calls for his extradition. The leaked emails showed Democratic Party officials favouring Hillary Clinton over left-winger Bernie Sanders in presidential primary elections, prompting accusations that he was serving the interests of Republican candidate Donald Trump.
He has also had his fair share of death threats, both as a result of these leaks and those concerning US military operations.
A decade on from the founding of WikiLeaks, the hunter has become the hunted.
According to Assange, WikiLeaks is the target of a witch hunt orchestrated in particular by Democrat candidate Hilary Clinton, comparing it to the repression of American communists in the 1950s driven by then senator Joseph McCarthy.
But he remains defiant and has vowed not to back down but, instead, scale up operations to “amplify our publications and to defend us against what is really a quite remarkable McCarthyist push in the United States at the moment, principally by Hillary Clinton and her allies because she happens to be the person being exposed at the moment.”
To his critics, Assange is a dangerous, unhinged publicity-seeker who has endangered lives by making public of sensitive information. But to his supporters, Assange is a courageous campaigner for truth.
On the anniversary of WikiLeaks yesterday, millions of his followers were anticipating an “October Surprise” but they were bitterly disappointed when there were no bombshells to celebrate the last 10 years.
Assange, who was originally planning to make an announcement from the balcony of the Ecuadorean Embassy in London, instead appeared via videolink at a Berlin conference. There was widespread speculation he would disclose more revelations about Hilary Clinton.
Although promising to publish information on the presidential election “every week for the next 10 weeks,” there were no revelations yesterday.
For once, the world’s whistle-blower-in-chief failed to whistle.
WikiLeaks: Six major contributions (and controversies)
1. The Iraq War Logs
In October 2010, WikiLeaks made its most fundamental and arguably most devastating revelations about the Iraq War publicly available, in the form of 391,832 classified US military documents.
The act represented the largest such leak in US military history, and revealed instances of detainee abuse being ignored by Iraqi allies, and a heavily-revised civilian casualty count of 15,000.
2. Reykjavik 13
Thought to be the first of a series of diplomatic cables and classified documents to be leaked by US Army Private Chelsea Manning (then known as Bradley), the Reykjavik 13 cable exposed a series of failings associated with the management of online savings account brand IceSave.
Systemic collapse of the Icelandic banking system led to foreign account holders in the Netherlands and UK losing millions of euro worth of deposits, despite a series of interventions and orders from regulatory bodies such as the British Financial Services Authority.
3. Baghdad airstrike footage
In April 2010, WikiLeaks distributed a classified video of an airstrike in Baghdad, which killed two journalists after troops mistakenly thought they were carrying weapons, which later turned out to be cameras.
The video goes on to show US forces firing on a van that stopped to pick up the bodies, leading to widespread condemnation and some branding the act a war crime.
4. The Afghanistan War Logs
In July 2010, the group released 92,000 documents relating to the 2004-2009 war in Afghanistan to The Guardian, The New York Times, and Der Spiegel newspapers.
Among the documents’ revelations included detailed figures on friendly fire incidents between allied forces and civilian casualty rates. Around 15,000 of the 92,000 documents have not been made publicly available by the group, which is seeking to protect the identity of their source.
5. The Clinton Email Leaks
Timed to coincide with the publication of John Chilcot’s inquiry into the Iraq War, the July tweet from WikiLeaks exposed 1,258 classified emails sent by former secretary of state Hillary Clinton, using private email servers.
The emails were selected with respect to their relevance concerning the Iraq War and exposed poor security practices from the presidential nominee, leading to panic in her campaign.
6. Edward Snowden
Although WikiLeaks was not responsible for the release of former CIA and National Security Agency employee Edward Snowden’s 2013 dissemination of around 10,000 classified documents exposing widespread domestic surveillance by government bodies, it did assist in his escape from Hong Kong once the story broke.