WikiLeaks founder keeps low profile
Stockholm - WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange has with his whistleblower website helped uncover some of the world's best hidden scandals, but he himself keeps much of his life shrouded in mystery.
Emblematic of the website specialised in leaking confidential documents, the 39-year-old Australian had numerous shocking revelations from places ranging from Iraq to Iceland under his belt even before his master stroke on Afghanistan in July catapulted him into the global spotlight.
WikiLeaks published nearly 77 000 classified US military documents on the war in Afghanistan on July 23 and says it is preparing to publish another 15 000 secret files.
Despite a wave of criticism, Assange insists the publication was an important part of WikiLeaks goal to revolutionise journalism.
"We are creating a new standard for free press," he said during a recent visit to Stockholm, adding that "by doing so, we are hoping to liberalise the press across the world".
The lanky former hacker may have transformed into a champion of transparency, but he divulges little about himself and will not even give his date of birth.
Assange, who is constantly on the move, bouncing from capital to capital and staying with supporters and friends of friends, says secrecy comes with the territory.
"We deal with organisations that do not follow the rules. We deal with intelligence agencies," he said.
What is known is that Assange was born sometime in 1971 on Magnetic Island in north-eastern Australia and spent his early years living there on and off with his mother. In interviews with Australian media, Assange has described his childhood as nomadic, saying he in all attended 37 different schools.
Living in Melbourne in the 1990s, Assange said he as a teenager discovered a new talent: hacking. But his new interest did not go undetected and was charged with 30 counts of computer crime, including allegedly hacking police and US military computers.
He admitted most of the charges and walked away with a fine.
Police were never able to determine however whether Assange was involved in a 1989 incident in which Nasa computer monitors flashed the word "WANK", standing for the hacker group called Worms Against Nuclear Killers, as the Atlantis space shuttle was about to be launched.
After his brush with crime, Assange said he worked in a number of different fields, as a security consultant, a researcher in journalism and started his own IT company.
He also co-authored a book about Melbourne's hacker culture and contains a details about the Nasa attack. Then, in 2006, WikiLeaks was born.
"It started as a collaboration between a dozen people from human rights, journalism and technology" backgrounds, he said.
"We have three goals: Free the press, establish rights and wrongs through exposing abuses and create and preserve the historical record."
Since the Afghanistan documents were published, Assange has kept a low profile, chopping off his flowing silver locks that had earned him comparison to an angel.
He now refuses to provide a mobile phone number and said he suspects Australian authorities have frozen his bank account. According to his entourage he felt threatened last time he passed through London at the beginning of August.
Iceland and Sweden, where he feels safest due to favourable legislation, are among his regular stopovers. In Reykjavik at the beginning of March, Assange said he had lived in Kenya for a long time.
At the time of that meeting, he was deeply involved in a leak that would resound around the world: WikiLeaks' so-called "project B".
Locked up for weeks at a time in a house in Reykjavik with the curtains drawn, he and a handful of other WikiLeaks supporters were about to unveil their first global scoop: a graphic video of a US military Apache helicopter strike in Baghdad in 2007 that killed two Reuters employees and a number of other people.
According to The New Yorker, Assange himself decrypted the military video, something he told the magazine had been only "moderately difficult".
The Iraq leak and later the massive Afghanistan leak are part of WikiLeaks' aim to create a new form of journalism based on free access to documents rather than depending on often unreliable sources.
"People often ask us: do you check your sources? But we check documents. We call organisations, and we ask them: Are these documents yours?... And I think (we have) a much higher standard," he said.
The Pentagon has charged that by publishing the Afghanistan documents WikiLeaks is recklessly endangering the lives of soldiers and informants, while several rights groups have also called the publication irresponsible.
Assange meanwhile has called on critics to help check through the piles of documents for content that could put lives at risk so it can be removed.
"We take our publishing responsibility seriously," he insisted.
"We also take our impartiality and integrity as an institution that provides a public service seriously," he added.