In this article, we take a look at some of the main details of the case of WikiLeaks and Julian Assange, and what can be learned from this ongoing battle between Assange and the US government, whose secrets his website shared.
Who Is Julian Assange?
Julian Assange is 50-year-old Australian editor, publisher and activist who founded WikiLeaks in 2006.
He was born Julian Hawkins in 1971 in Townsville, Queensland, to Christine Hawkins a visual artist, and John Shipton, described as an anti-war activist and builder. The couple separated before his birth, his mum married actor Brett Assange, with whom she ran a small theatre company and who Julian regards as his father. After their divorce in 1979, and his mum’s involvement with a man Assange described as “a member of an Australian cult” (‘The Family’) Assange’s young life was nomadic, living in more than 30 Australian towns and cities by the time he reached his mid-teens and attending many different schools.
Despite what appears to be quite an unsettled childhood, Assange attended Central Queensland University (1994) where he studied programming, mathematics and physics, at the University of Melbourne. He is also reported to have used his computing skills to help the Victoria Police Child Exploitation Unit to catch and prosecute those involved in publishing and distributing child pornography.
There are reports of Assange also using his computing skills as part of various hacking groups before he was charged in 1994 with 31 counts of hacking and related crimes, 24 of which he pleaded guilty to. He was only given a light penalty due to the absence of malicious or mercenary intent and his disrupted childhood.
What Is WikiLeaks?
WikiLeaks is an international non-profit organisation that publishes news leaks and classified media provided by anonymous sources on its whistleblower website wikileaks.org. Founded by Assange, WikiLeaks lists a large number of co-publishers, research partners and funders on its website, including The Guardian, The Telegraph, The New York Times, and the Wall Street Journal.
What Happened With Julian Assange and WikiLeaks?
In 2010 WikiLeaks published a series of leaks provided by U.S. Army intelligence analyst Chelsea Manning. A former US soldier, Chelsea Manning disclosed to WikiLeaks nearly 750,000 classified (or unclassified but sensitive) military, and diplomatic documents. Consequently, Manning was convicted by court-martial in July 2013 of violations of the Espionage Act and other offenses.
The ‘leaks’ given by Manning and published by Julian Assange via WikiLeaks included:
- The Baghdad airstrike Collateral Murder video (April 2010). This is 39 minutes of classified gunsight footage from air-to-ground attacks conducted by a team of two U.S. Apache helicopters in New Baghdad, just after the Iraq war.
- The Afghanistan war logs (July 2010) is a collection of over 91,000 classified Afghan War documents, covering the period between January 2004 and December 2009. 75,000 of these documents were made available to newspapers first and then released to the public via WikiLeaks.
- The Iraq war logs (October 2010) is the biggest leak in the military history of the United States. It consists of 391,832 United States Army field reports relating to the Iraq war from 2004 to 2009 and shows 66,081 civilian deaths out of 109,000 recorded deaths. These logs were published on Wikileaks.
- Details of Cablegate (November 2010). Cablegate refers to WikiLeaks releasing classified cables that had been sent to the U.S. State Department by 274 of its consulates, embassies, and diplomatic missions around the world. Chelsea Manning was convicted for theft of these cables and violations of the Espionage Act and given a thirty-five-year prison sentence although was released in 2017, after serving seven years confinement.
What Was Julian Assange Initially Charged With?
In 2010, Julian Assange was issued an international arrest warrant over allegations of sexual misconduct. The allegations were that he had raped one woman and sexually molested and coerced another while on a visit to Stockholm to give a lecture. Assange denied the accusations and argued that the encounters were consensual. In 2019, Prosecutors in Sweden dropped the investigation.
Julian Assange claimed that the sexual misconduct allegation was a pretext that would enable the US to extradite him because of his role in the publication of secret American documents. After initially losing his battle with Sweden to avoid extradition, and while in London in 2012, Assange breached bail and took refuge in the Embassy of Ecuador in London where he was granted asylum on the grounds of political persecution.
After Ecuador’s President Correa, who was a known advocate of Wikileaks, was succeeded in office by Lenín Moreno, in April 2019, Ecuador withdrew Assange’s asylum status, and he was arrested at the embassy. It later emerged that Assange had fathered two children to a South African-born lawyer (and now his fiancée), Stella Morris, while he was still living in the Ecuadorean embassy. Stella Morris is reported to have been in a relationship with the Wikileaks founder since 2015.
Following his arrest at the Embassy, in May 29019, Julian Assange was found guilty of breaching the Bail Act and sentenced to 50 weeks in prison. He was sent to Belmarsh maximum-security prison in London where he still resides.
In May 2019, the US justice department filed 17 new charges against him for violating the Espionage Act, relating to the publication of classified documents in 2010.
During his time spent in the Ecuadorian Embassy (which he could not leave) and his incarceration since, Assange’s health has suffered considerably. In January this year, District Judge Vanessa Baraitser ruled against the United States’ request to extradite him, saying it would be “oppressive” given his mental health, but on 10 December 2021, Britain’s Court of Appeal ruled that Assange can be extradited to the US to face charges.
It has also just been reported by Assange’s fiancée and mother of his two young children Stella Morris, that he suffered a mini-stroke on the first day of his High Court appeal hearing on October 27th, due to stress in his battle to avoid extradition from Britain to the United States.
What Does This Mean For Your Business?
The long-running (and often complicated) legal story of Julian Assange and WikiLeaks has many aspects to it. Although he has faced various accusations and smear campaigns that may have influenced how he is viewed by some people, this is essentially a story of whistleblowing online and its consequences. However, because the leaks related to classified US government military secrets, and Mr Assange has publicly evaded attempts by the US government to more directly punish him and bring him to face charges in the US, the saga has proved damaging to both the US government and Assange. Another important, less dramatic example of tech-related whistleblowing in the news recently is Frances Hauge’s allegations against Facebook (Meta). Although Assange’s and Hauge’s stories are very different, one common thread is the power of the Internet as a public publishing platform and an influencer in global matters. Businesses and organisations now have to know how to operate offline and online in ways that are ethical and compliant to give the right messages to their stakeholders.
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