Who Is Behind WikiLeaks?

Apr 7, 2010 – 5:44 PM
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Sharon Weinberger

Sharon Weinberger Contributor

WASHINGTON (April 7) -- Little is known about the people behind WikiLeaks, the mysterious group that this week released a decrypted classified military video showing the 2007 death of two Iraqi Reuters employees during a U.S. military air strike in Baghdad. But its journalistic coup has drawn more attention -- including profiles in The New York Times and other media outlets -- than ever to the organization, which was launched in December 2006 promising anonymity to leakers.

WikiLeaks' most public face is that of its lanky, white-haired editor, Julian Assange, who seems to cultivate the image of a mysterious nomad. A 2008 article in the Sydney Morning Herald described Assange as an Australian currently living in East Africa. "His parents ran a touring theatre company and Assange claims he attended 37 schools and six universities in Australia alone," the paper reported, citing an e-mail interview with Assange.

But Assange was fuzzy on many details, including his age, saying he wanted to "keep the bastards guessing." (An Australian newspaper account about Assange published in 1995 identified him as 23, which would make him about 38 years old now.)
Julian Assange, WikiLeaks editor
biatch0, Flickr
Not much is known about Julian Assange, the editor of WikiLeaks, or the Web site's other editorial staff.

In a brief biographical description appended to an article Assange wrote in 2006 on political hacking, he is described as "president of a NGO and Australia's most infamous former computer hacker. He was convicted of attacks on the U.S. intelligence and publishing a magazine which inspired crimes against the Commonwealth."

Most profiles of WikiLeaks provide scant details, particularly ones that can be verified.

A New York Times piece on the organization published this week was based largely on an interview with WikiLeaks' spokesman Daniel Schmitt, who said the organization relies mainly on five key volunteers. Some Web sites claim Schmitt's name is actually a pseudonym, although he has done on-camera interviews.

A detailed Mother Jones profile, which portrays Assange as a sort of international man of mystery, also sheds little light on the inner workings of the organization.

So who, if anyone, runs WikiLeaks other than Assange and Schmitt? "Our advisory board, which is still forming, includes representatives from expatriate Russian and Tibetan refugee communities, reporters, a former U.S. intelligence analyst and cryptographers," Assange told Agence France-Presse. But an article published in the U.K. edition of Wired magazine states many of the people listed on the board of advisers professed to having little direct involvement with the group, though they supported its mandate.

Perhaps the best-documented accounts of Assange come from 1990s Australian press reports, when he was charged for hacking that he did as a teenager in 1990 and 1991.

Reminiscent of the hacking exploits fictionalized in the movie "WarGames," Assange allegedly used a modem to access other computers. Among the places targeted were an Australian university, a telecommunications company and the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology. He even taunted police investigators looking into the hacking, according to the government.

The prosecutor alleged that Assange and another hacker gathered passwords that allowed them unlimited access to other computers. "It was God Almighty walking around doing what you like," the prosecutor said, according to a local newspaper account.

Now, with WikiLeaks, Assange appears to have found a new way to taunt authorities, obtaining documents they would rather keep secret.

When it launched some three and a half years ago, WikiLeaks described its mandate as outing the exploits of corrupt corporations and authoritarian regimes. "Our primary interests are oppressive regimes in Asia, the former Soviet bloc, sub-Saharan Africa and the Middle East, but we also expect to be of assistance to those in the West who wish to reveal unethical behaviour in their own governments and corporations," its Web site said at the time.

Some question the extent to which WikiLeaks still pursues that original purpose. Though the Web site has published documents relating to corruption in Kenya and videos of protests in Tibet, some of its most most high-profile leaks have focused on the United States, including 9/11 text messages and the video depicting the death of two Reuters employees.

WikiLeaks has also claimed it is the target of a U.S. government campaign, citing leaked reports about the organization obtained from the Central Intelligence Agency and the Defense Department. The Army downplayed its report, while the CIA called allegations that it was following Assange "absurd."

One thing is certain: With its release of the Iraqi air strike video, which Reuters had been trying to obtain for two years, WikiLeaks has undoubtedly proved its methods can beat traditional news organizations.

And its profile could soon rise even higher; at a press conference this week, Assange promised more revelations, including the release of a video from a controversial May 2009 U.S. military air strike in Afghanistan.

Filed under: Nation, World, Tech
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