Julian Assange, the elusive anti-secrecy champion

Posted at 06/20/12 9:51 PM

LONDON, England - His secret-spilling website has made him a hero to anti-secrecy campaigners -- but critics say the ever-unconventional Julian Assange has put lives in danger with his radical agenda.

And with WikiLeaks struggling under a financial blockade, it is 40-year-old Assange, rather than his website, who has made the headlines in recent months.

In the latest instalment of a life straight out of a spy novel, the Australian ex-hacker is now holed up in the Ecuadorian embassy in London, seeking political asylum.

He is wanted in Sweden for questioning over allegations of sexual assault, and reached the end of his marathon British legal battle against extradition last week.

Assange is no stranger to being on the run.

From the launch of WikiLeaks in 2006 he was constantly on the move, bouncing between cities, staying with supporters and friends of friends, and frequently changing his phone number.

Many called him paranoid, but it was clear that WikiLeaks -- with its slogan, "We open governments" -- would attract some powerful enemies before long.

The website was built on a simple concept: through a secure online "drop box", it would allow whistleblowers to leak sensitive or classified information without fearing exposure.

The website soon made headlines with the release of footage showing a US helicopter shooting civilians and two Reuters staff in Iraq.

Eccentric and lanky with a shock of bleached hair, Assange eagerly took up the role of WikiLeaks frontman, telling AFP in an interview in August 2010: "We are creating a new standard for free press".

WikiLeaks captured worldwide attention in 2010 with a series of mass document leaks -- some 77,000 secret US files on Afghanistan went online in July, followed by 400,000 so-called "Iraq war logs" in October.

In November that year, the website caused its biggest shockwaves yet by beginning to publish a steady trickle of more than 250,000 diplomatic cables from 274 US embassies.

WikiLeaks won a huge left-of-centre following for its exposure of the secrets of the powerful -- but enraged governments, particularly the United States, which has mulled legal action against him.

And Assange was falling out out spectacularly with a string of "partner" media organisations involved in the releases, including The New York Times in the United States and The Guardian in Britain.

In particular, concerns were growing over Assange's hardline attitude towards secrecy.

In their book on WikiLeaks, Guardian journalists David Leigh and Luke Harding recalled how Assange responded to the risk that the US government's Afghan informants could be killed if their names were published online.

"Well, they're informants," Assange allegedly replied. "So, if they get killed, they've got it coming to them. They deserve it."

The Afghanistan files included the names of dozens of Afghans credited with providing intelligence to US forces, it emerged in July 2010.

In November that year, Swedish authorities issued a warrant for his arrest over claims of rape and sexual assault stemming from encounters with two female WikiLeaks volunteers.

He was arrested a month later in London. He denies the claims and insists that the allegations are politically motivated.

He has been fighting extradition ever since in a lengthy round of court dates.

Born on July 3, 1971 in Townsville in Queensland, northeastern Australia, Assange has described his childhood as nomadic, saying in all he attended 37 different schools.

Living in Melbourne in the 1990s, the teenage Assange discovered a new talent: computer hacking.

But his hobby did not go undetected and he 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.

When he was 18, his son Daniel was born. The identity of his mother is not known but Assange once joked that the ensuing custody battle turned his hair white.

After his brush with the law, Assange says he worked in a number of different fields, as a security consultant, a researcher in journalism and starting his own IT company.

For an anti-secrecy champion he is notoriously secretive about his own private life, and tried to block the publication of a memoir in September despite having sat for more than 50 hours of interviews with a ghost writer.

He was even elusive in his last public appearance, when he attended a screening in London on May 23, wearing a full face mask.

"This may be my last time in public, so I thought I should start with a situation where you won't be able to see me anymore," he explained.