The United States Justice Department indicted Julian Assange for the 2010 conspiracy to hack military computers
Julian Assange does not like to play by the rules. And, it’s catching up to him.
The notorious WikiLeaks founder once heralded as a “digital Che Guevara,” is now in custody following arrest from his home at the Ecuadorean Embassy in London.
Hours after his arrest, the United States Justice Department indicted him for the 2010 conspiracy to hack military computers, revealing one of the largest disclosures of classified documents ever seen in modern US history.
Freedom Fighter or Dark Money Hacker?
Assange’s credentials were cemented when WikiLeaks published sensitive military and diplomatic documents, some of which detailed a bleak picture of the US involvement in war in Afghanistan and the Guantanamo Bay Detention Centers. The United States government launched a criminal investigation into WikiLeaks and asked allied nations for assistance.
Assange’s reputation, on the other hand, is more controversial. Initially, Assange earned high profile accolades such as the New Media Award from The Economist, the Amnesty International UK Media Awards, and the Yoko Ono Lennon Courage Award for the Arts. Assange, viewed as a hero of transparency, even won the Reader’s Choice for Time Magazine’s Person of the Year. Some heralded him as a truth-seeking whistleblower, exposing detrimental and oppressive spying, beyond any Orwellian fiction. Others viewed Assange as a deranged, fame-hungry maniac, operating as the online arm of dark money and power.
Who is Julian Assange?
Born in Melbourne, Australia, Assange began hacking computers under the code name Mendax (or “liar” in Latin) when he was merely 16 years old. In 1991, he was caught after a hack into Nortel, a multinational telecommunication corporation. By 1996, he plead guilty to twenty-five charges of hacking and related crimes. He studied at the University of Melbourne, but never obtained a degree.
Assange soon began work on behalf of the Victoria Police Child Exploitation Unit, but in his spare time, he intensified his focus on informational hacking and began formulating a program later known as WikiLeaks. Founded in 2006, under the premise of radical governmental transparency, WikiLeaks began publishing classified documents of high profile targets. Self-described as “a multi-national media organization and associated library…(WikiLeaks) specializes in the analysis and publication of large datasets of censored or otherwise restricted official materials involving war, spying and corruption.” More than 10 million documents have been analyzed and stored in its online library.
2,488 Day Exile After Publishing Sensitive Material
After publishing the sensitive material, Assange hid in a self-imposed exile for 2,488 days. He was wanted by Sweden for a charge unrelated to his work with WikiLeaks, but which garnered outcries from his supporters. They stood firm that Assange was a political refugee and should not be extradited.
In April 2019, he was ousted from his safe haven when the United States government released a six-page indictment detailing charges stemming from a specific exchange of messages. These messages produced stolen documents between Assange and a United States soldier (Chelsea Manning).
The Fine Line of Disclosing Sensitive Information Crossed by Assange
Many of Assange’s supporters say the charges send a chilling message to reporters around the world and across the nation. They say that Assange contacted a willing source (Manning) and encouraged that source to provide sensitive information. WikiLeaks disclosed a surveillance program which impacted nearly every U.S. citizen, the size and scope of which was unprecedented.
Members of the most elite intelligence community in the world initially denied the NSA surveillance program, but the hacked information made it clear: the government was using digital engineering and algorithms to monitor the lives of an entire population. Worse yet, after officials denied it, they then had to backpedal. Assange was able to blow the doors off the most secretive surveillance program conducted by the US government.
However, others say Assange’s behavior transcended the boundaries established in the journalism community. Instead of merely receiving sensitive information from a confidential informant, Assange conspired with his leaker to break the law and is distinguished because of his proactive approach. He is a whistleblower, exposing the rich and powerful, but his reputation is soured with many. The legal landscape of what he could possibly be punished for is unclear.
The United States government may proceed with additional charges at a future date, which some believe could include charges of espionage. The current indictment only includes one count of conspiracy to commit computer intrusion, meaning that Assange engaged in a conspiracy with Manning to access information illegally. This can be demonstrated through emails or shared communication and can result in a conviction by merely entering into the agreement together.
For now, Assange is hoping that the public benefit of his work will outweigh whatever unscrupulous behavior it took to get it. He is currently being held in a maximum security jail in England.