History of the Internet: Part 21 – WikiLeaks and Julian Assange

Welcome back to the history of the internet. In the last few episodes, beginning with “Part 17 – Surveillance, Cryptography, and Free Speech,” we have been telling a number of stories regarding the battles between a variety of establishment and anti-establishment figures.

In “Part 18 – Free as in Freedom,” we learned about the beginning of the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), which played a significant role in pressuring the U.S. government to soften its rules on the export of encryption.

In “Part 20 – Global Surveillance: The Hayden Years,” we covered the years that NSA Director Lt. Gen. Michael Hayden served and the growing disputes over the right to online privacy following the 9/11 attacks.

Perhaps the most divisive anti-establishment figure in the 21st century is Julian Assange, creator of WikiLeaks. Recently, he has been indicted by the U.S. government, and special counsel Robert Mueller agreed with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s likening of WikiLeaks to a “hostile foreign intelligence service.” However, the site also has many fans all around the world, and no less than the current president of the United States has praised the organization (while he was the Republican nominee).

So is Assange a traitor or a hero? 

We will not be presenting a one-sided argument here. Instead, we give an overview of his life and work on the internet so that you can decide for yourself.

Childhood of Julian Assange

Julian Assange was born in Queensland, Australia, in 1971 after his parents, Christine Hawkins and John Shiption, met at an anti-Vietnam War demonstration the previous year. His parents split soon after, and his biological father had no contact with him until he was 25.

Julian’s surname came from his stepfather, actor and theater director Brett Assange. 

Christine and Brett married after Julian’s first birthday. Julian’s stepfather staged and directed his own plays while Christine worked on costumes, set design, and puppetry. Together, the Assange family regularly traveled from place to place. “Most of this period of my childhood was pretty Tom Sawyer,” Assange told The New Yorker.

The marriage between Brett and Christine did not last, and Brett left the family when Julian was 7 or 8 years old. Christine’s next relationship was with musician Keith Hamilton, and together they had a baby named Jamie. But Hamilton was part of the fraudulent new age group Santiniketan Park Association, also known as the Family. This group was led by Anne Hamilton-Byrne, who conned her followers into believing she was the reincarnation of Jesus Christ.

Assange’s account was his “mother had become involved with a person who seems to be the son of Anne Hamilton-Byrne, of the Anne Hamilton-Byrne cult in Australia, and we kept getting tracked down, possibly because of leaks in the Social Security system, and having to leave very quickly to a new city, and lived under assumed names.”

Assange was given a Commodore 64 as a present when he was 13 or 14 and taught himself how to write code. He found computers to be easier to work with than humans; where humans had complex emotions, computers were always predictable.

The Commodore 64. Photo by Evan-Amos, Public Domain 

In 1987, he got his first modem, used a bulletin board system to make connections with Melbourne’s underground hacking scene, and adopted the pseudonym “Mendax.” Around this time, Assange was arrested at his girlfriend’s house on suspicion of computer-hacking offences. His computer was seized, but police did not find any criminal evidence, and he was let free.

Despite this scare, he became more deeply immersed in hacker culture. Assange and two other hackers, “Prime Suspect” and “Trax,” dubbed themselves as “International Subversives” and produced a magazine that was shared between just the three of them.

Together with his hacker friends, Assange committed many computer crimes, breaking into networks belonging to the U.S. Department of Defense and into the Los Alamos National Laboratory. During this period, they honored their own code of ethics “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.”

The Australian Federal Police responded by setting up Operation Weather to investigate and apprehend the mysterious subversives. The lead investigator told The New Yorker “Julian was the most knowledgeable and the most secretive of the lot. He had some altruistic motive. I think he acted on the belief that everyone should have access to everything.”

Assange married his girlfriend, and they had a baby named Daniel, but she left him when he turned 20, shortly before he was caught by the Federal Police. While awaiting trial, he was hospitalized with depression.

1996 Trial of Julian Assange

County Court Victoria. Photo by Canley, CC BY-SA 4.0

The trial was held in Melbourne’s Victoria County Court. Assange pleaded guilty to 24 counts of illegal hacking; however, he never acknowledged the seriousness of his misconduct, instead thinking of himself as more of a victim than a perpetrator.

Despite facing a potential sentence of 10 years in prison, during the trial he was so distracted by prosecution lawyer Andrea Pavleka, whom he described as “tall, slender and long legged,” that he turned up at court with flowers for her. Assange’s defense lawyer, Paul Galbally, felt obliged to point out “She doesn’t want to date you, Julian. She wants to put you in jail!”

Judge Leslie Ross told Assange: “I accept what your counsel said about the unstable personal background that you have had to endure during your formative years and the rather nomadic existence that your mother and yourself were forced to follow.” Assange was spared jail but warned any further hacking offenses would result in incarceration. He was fined $2,100.

Believing that his “look/see” hacking was a victimless crime, he told the Judge “Your honour, I believe the prosecution has made several misleading claims in terms of the charges and therefore I elect to continue this defence if Your Honour would so let me.” Judge Ross replied “No, you have plead guilty, the proceedings are over.”

Assange subsequently worked on his website, Best of Security, and started writing open source software. In the years 1997-2000 Assange worked with Ralf P. Weinmann and Suelette Dreyfus to create a deniable encryption system known as Rubberhose. The website explained “if a hard drive is seized, neither mathematical analysis nor physical disk testing can reveal how many aspects actually exist.” 

In 2006, Assange began regular short posts on his blog iq.org and began working on the much bigger project that he would become synonymous with.


In 2006, Julian Assange launched WikiLeaks as a nonprofit organization publishing exposés. The idea was inspired by the whistleblowing actions of Daniel Ellsberg that we covered in Part 17. Assange even tried to recruit Ellsberg as an adviser, but Ellsberg declined because he doubted WikiLeaks’ ability to protect its sources.

With online encyclopedia Wikipedia being the world’s most popular nonprofit website, WikiLeaks was given its similar name to capitalize on the inevitable confusion between itself and Wikipedia.

WikiLeaks began by describing itself as an uncensorable Wikipedia, but later in 2007, it removed mention of Wikipedia and stated its intended aim to be an “uncensorable system for safe mass document leaking and public analysis.”

The user-editable element of the site was soon abandoned, as Assange discovered this level of openness made it too easy for dangerous and incriminating information to get posted on WikiLeaks. However, the concept of allowing anonymous submissions has remained throughout its history.

The rationale given for publishing secret information was “transparency in government activities leads to reduced corruption, better government and stronger democracies.”

Another early associate of WikiLeaks was John Young, creator of the cryptome.org site that “welcomes documents for publication that are prohibited by governments worldwide.” In 2007, Assange contacted him to celebrate his haul of secret information:

“We have all of pre-2005 Afghanistan. Almost all of India fed. Half a dozen foreign ministries. Dozens of political parties and consulates, worldbank, opec, UN sections, trade groups, tibet and falun dafa associations and … russian phishing mafia who pull data everywhere. We’re drowning.”

The first publication to prompt a significant political change was Kenya: The Cry of Blood – Report on Extra-Judicial Killings and Disappearances, a 110-page report by the international risk consultancy Kroll, on corruption in Kenya. This report was originally commissioned by the Kenyan government and submitted in 2004, but the government failed to make it available to the public, and the investigator John Githongo fled to Britain in fear of his life. 

Reporters at the The Guardian were shown the report and first published the allegations in August 2007. Then WikiLeaks published the full report in November 2008. Julian Assange won an award for this report from Amnesty International

WikiLeaks’ battles with the Church of Scientology, following its publication of a secret Scientology manual, were widely reported at the time. But for every story that attracted global attention, there were many that gained very little interest. 

For example, Assange hoped to bring in big money by auctioning exclusive time-limited access to thousands of emails of a speechwriter for Hugo Chavez and was dismayed when he didn’t receive a single bid. Part of the problem was that such a large amount of information takes a long time to assess before anyone knows whether it contains an interesting story.

Bringing Down the Banks

The next big story was the tax dodging activities of some of the clients of Swiss bank Julius Baer. A court in California heard from Julius Baer that WikiLeaks was guilty of “unlawful dissemination of stolen bank records and personal account information of its customers.” However, organizations such as the American Civil Liberties Union, the Electronic Frontier Foundation, and many publishing companies claimed it was legitimate free speech. For his trouble, Assange won another award, this time from Index on Censorship.

What most differentiated WikiLeaks from newspapers and other media organizations was its ability to evade or ignore the numerous attempts to censor it. While mainstream media was subjected to gag orders preventing them from publishing big stories, WikiLeaks dismissed all threats and published full details. As an online only organization with servers in many countries around the world, it could not be shut down no matter how many powerful enemies it made.

In Iceland, Kaupthing Bank was taken over by the government due to the financial crisis. In July 2009, WikiLeaks published a confidential 210-page document listing their exposure to loans of up to 1.25 billion euros. Icelandic television was barred from publishing these details due to the first and only gag order in Icelandic history but gave out the link to WikiLeaks instead.

Soon Assange and his colleague Daniel DomScheit-Berg found themselves on TV, and they urged Iceland to become much more open. Member of Parliament Birgitta Jónsdóttir

was a strong proponent of this view and argued for Iceland to become a “Haven of Freedom of Information.”

Julian Assange and Daniel DomScheit-Berg share a joke at the Chaos Communication Congress,
Berlin, December 2009. Photo by andy mcgee, CC BY 2.0

WikiLeaks endorsed the International Modern Media Institute and a parliamentary resolution that was unanimously adopted by the Icelandic Parliament aiming to make Iceland a journalistic safe haven.

Birgitta Jónsdóttir. Photo by Pirátská strana 

Pfc. Manning: Source of Military Secrets

Private Manning in 2002. Photo by United States Army, Public Domain

Up to the start of 2010, WikiLeaks proudly touted “we have an unbroken record in protecting sources.” For the purposes of legally protecting both the source and itself, WikiLeaks is designed such that it usually does not know the identity of its sources.

The most famous (or infamous, depending on point of view) source in the history of WikiLeaks is Chelsea Manning, then private first class (Pfc.) Bradley Manning.

After the 9/11 attacks, the mindset in the U.S. Army and intelligence services changed from a need to know to a need to share. Manning was stationed at Camp Hammer, 40 miles east of Baghdad, Iraq, and finding life very difficult. Some of the officers considered Manning to be mentally unstable. His (now, “her”) supervisor described Manning as someone who suffered from a lack of sleep, was addicted to soda, and kept jumping up and down.

For safety reasons, Manning was barred from owning live ammunition and recommended for an immediate discharge, but due to a shortage of computer intelligence analysts, she was kept on and had access to hundreds of thousands of classified documents.

Manning first contacted Assange online in November 2009 and told him that she had huge amounts of classified information to send to him but was unsure whether to proceed, not knowing for sure whether it was really him or whether he could be fully trusted. It took four months before Manning was confident that the words printed on her computer screen were really coming from Assange. She talked to her boyfriend, Tyler Watkins, about her dilemma in January 2010, but the couple broke up soon after.

On Jan. 8, 2010, WikiLeaks tweeted that they were in possession of an encrypted video of “US bomb strikes on civilians” and requested access to supercomputer time in order to decrypt it. It is unknown how the video was decrypted, but on March 21, 2010, Assange showed the video to Guardian investigations editor David Leigh, who described it as one of the most shocking things he had ever seen. Assange told him he was going to edit the video before releasing it.

Knowing the huge risks involved, WikiLeaks ceased all contact with Manning after receiving the classified files. But ironically, this ended up creating bigger problems for them all.

Apache Gunship Video

AH-64D Apache Longbow. The type of helicopter used in the attack.
Photo by Tech. Sgt. Andy Dunaway – www.army.mil (via internet archive) Public Domain

On April 5, 2010, at the National Press Club, Assange premiered the first of the materials that were gained from Manning: A video of airstrikes from an Apache helicopter on Iraqis in Baghdad on July 12, 2007. These attacks resulted in the deaths of two innocent journalists from Reuters, and when told via radio that children had also been hit, the pilot replied “It’s their fault for bringing kids into a battle.”

The original name of the video was going to be “Permission to engage,” but Assange later decided on the much more provocative title “Collateral murder.” Assange told the assembled press: “The rules of engagement are wrong. Deeply wrong.”

Victims Namir Noor-Eldeen, war photographer (left), and Saeed Chmagh, driver (right).
Photos courtesy of Committee to Protect Journalists 

Amy Goodman from Democracy Now! called the video “absolutely chilling.” The New York Times (NYT) criticized WikiLeaks for producing anti-war propaganda that failed to point out the existence of an Iraqi with a rocket-propelled grenade. Stephen Colbert called the editing “emotional manipulation,” and U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates concurred “These people can put out anything they want, and they’re never held accountable for it.”

Overall, WikiLeaks probably failed to get the mainstream media response it hoped for, but it was successful in gaining massive publicity, debate, new supporters, and around $100,000 in donations over the next three days. Assange became famous overnight and told everyone there would be much more to come.

Investigative reporter Mark Davies realized that WikiLeaks could be the story of the year and tracked down Assange at the Oslo Freedom Forum later that month, where Assange gave a talk on censorship in the West. Davies proposed that WikiLeaks join up with The Guardian and The New York Times. The benefits to WikiLeaks would be much more exposure and also a degree of legal protection. Assange agreed, telling Davies he would create a website hosting the files, and gave him a password to use in order to access the material.

Webchat With Adrian Lamo

The late Adrian Lamo. Photo from 2001, public domain

Manning’s mental health problems continued, and on May 7, 2010, there was an incident where Pfc. Manning punched her female supervisor in the face. Manning was demoted to working in the mailroom pending discharge for “adjustment disorder.”

With all contact to WikiLeaks ceased and nobody to talk to about what she had done and why, Manning saw a sympathetic Wired article about Adrian Lamo, who was convicted of cracking The New York Times network and causing criminal damage in 2004, and decided to take a big risk. On May 21, 2010, she contacted him, using the handle “Bradass87” instead of her real name, and soon began confessing her actions to him.

Concerned about the release of this information that could possibly constitute a big threat to national security, Lamo deliberated on whether to report this to the Army’s Criminal Investigation Command. He later described it as a “Kobayashi Maru” moment—a test with no winning outcome, and argued:

“There was no option to interdict just the documents and put him merely in touch with counseling. There was no way to be both kind to [Chelsea] and mindful of the potential for harm to people I had never known and would never know which the situation posed. The reader might think there was some more moderate choice that I overlooked but I looked closely, and no such choice existed.”

After reporting to the authorities, Lamo contacted Manning again and gradually solicited more information about her until the authorities were able to identify her. On May 26, Manning was seized by Army authorities and put into pre-trial detention in Kuwait. Lamo also asked Manning several questions about how to get hold of Assange.

Although Assange was able to remain elusive to the U.S. authorities, news of Manning’s arrest was a massive problem for WikiLeaks. It did not know whether Manning was their source, how the authorities had caught her, or whether they would somehow be caught and arrested next. Despite all the precautions they had taken to protect their sources, their reputation for being able to protect them was severely damaged. And although WikiLeaks had a gigantic collection of information, publishing them could mean Manning’s sentence would be increased.

Selected parts of the chat logs between Lamo and Manning were revealed by Wired in June 2010.

The following year, Wired released the logs in full in July 2011.


Manning’s difficult childhood was reported widely in the media while she was on suicide watch at Quantico Marine Base in Virginia.

Private Manning’s older sister Casey told the court that both their parents, Brian and Susan, were alcoholics. Their mother Susan drank heavily while pregnant, and Navy psychiatrist David Moulton told the court that Manning's facial features showed signs of fetal alcohol syndrome.

Brian’s job as an IT Manager involved being away from home for weeks at a time, and in 2001, he announced that he was leaving for good. Chelsea moved with her mother back to her hometown of Haverfordwest in Wales. At the age of 17, Chelsea moved back to Oklahoma to live with her father and his second wife.

Chelsea had a job at a photo-sharing software company, but her boss Kord Campbell found that her personal issues were affecting her work, and fired her. Chelsea’s problems were compounded when her father threw her out of his house. Brian did a PBS interview saying Manning didn’t get along with her stepmother; there were arguments about money and following his house rules.

Chelsea was against the Iraq War, according to her school friend Tom Dyer, who said that her opinion in 2003 was “George Bush had no right to send troops there,” but according to her friend Jordan Davis, she is very patriotic and “talked about joining the Army in third, fourth, fifth, sixth, seventh, eighth grade.”

After moving between several temporary accommodations and odd jobs, she wanted to create a better life for herself. Brian told her “If you get into a place at Army, you know you’re going to have three square meals a day; you’re going to have a place to sleep and a roof over your head. And as long as you follow the path, you know, it’s all you have to do.”

The Post 9/11 GI Bill gave Chelsea a route to get into college. She also knew that it would make her father, who had served in the Navy, proud of her. So regardless of whether she supported the war, she agreed to talk with the Army recruiters.

While Manning was certainly in the worse situation at Quantico Marine Base, her friend Julian Assange was busy getting into his own trouble. 

Sexual Assault Allegations

In August 2010, Assange was in Stockholm, Sweden, and had sex with two women, Anna Ardin and Sofia Wilen. They met up with each other a few days later and shared their experiences with Assange. They visited their local police station to ask if they could compel Assange to take a test for sexually transmitted diseases if he did not agree to do so voluntarily. According to Assange’s defense lawyer, Per Samuelson, neither woman filed charges, but a police officer interpreted this inquiry as a sex crime having occurred.

Swedish journalist Donald Boström spent time with Assange and also knew the two women involved. Ardin called him to tell him what had happened and to request that Assange take an HIV test. Boström viewed Ardin as “very, very credible” and confronted Assange with the allegations, which he denied. 

Assange initially refused to take an HIV test, and Ardin and Wilen went to the police again. At some point during the police interview, an officer told them that Assange was to be arrested and questioned about possible rape and molestation. Wilen then became distraught and refused to give additional testimony. Within hours this story was leaked to the Expressen tabloid, which ran the front page headline “Assange hunted for rape in Sweden.”

Assange was outraged by this and responded through the WikiLeaks Twitter account insinuating, without evidence, that the allegations were part of a plot by the U.S. Government:

On Aug. 21: “We were warned to expect ‘dirty tricks.’ Now we have the first one.” 

The following morning: “Reminder: US intelligence planned to destroy WikiLeaks as far back as 2008.”

Assange also gave an interview to Swedish tabloid Aftonbladet on Aug. 22, claiming to have “no idea” who his accusers were. Ardin responded “The charges are of course not orchestrated either by the Pentagon or anyone else. The responsibility for what happened to me and the other girl lies with a man who has a warped attitude to women, and a problem with taking ‘no’ for an answer.”

According to Boström, Assange was “the new rock star” who had been “picking the fruit.” He rubbished the notion that the women were in any way connected with the CIA.

The Guardian writers Leigh and Harding wrote “Assange did often seem to have a restlessly predatory attitude towards women. It contrasted with his otherwise cool demeanor.”

Assange was questioned by detective Mats Gehlin at the Klara police station family violence unit on Aug. 30, 2010, and on Sept. 1, 2010, the director of prosecution reopened the rape investigation.

The case was initially closed on the grounds of insufficient evidence, and he was allowed to leave the country, flying to England on Sept. 27, 2010, but was denied residency in Sweden.

However, the lawyer and politician Claes Borgström believed there was ample evidence in the case and stated he would appeal to a higher-ranking prosecutor.

The story is detailed further in the Australian Broadcasting Channel’s 2012 documentary “Sex, Lies and Julian Assange.

In this episode we have covered the early life of Julian Assange and the early days of WikiLeaks. We’ve seen that Assange had some problems with the law, but this was only the beginning. Join us in Part 22 for Cablegate.