EDITORS' NOTE: This is an updated version of a story that was first published in April 2010, just as WikiLeaks and Julian Assange became international phenomena. Assange's response to the original article is here. Read follow-up posts on WikiLeaks' media blitz, the MoJo-WikiLeaks feud, WikiLeaks' relaunch, and WikiLeaks' origins.
The clock struck 3 a.m. Julian Assange slept soundly inside a private compound in Nairobi, Kenya. Suddenly, six men with guns emerged from the darkness. A day earlier, as Assange tells it, they had disabled the alarm on the electric fence and buried weapons by the pool. Catching a guard by surprise, they commanded him to hit the ground. He obliged, momentarily, then jumped up and began shouting. As the rest of the compound's security team rushed outside, the intruders fled into the night.
Assange, a thirtysomething Australian with a shock of snow-white hair, is sure the armed men were after him. "There was not anyone else worth visiting in the compound," he told me last year, speaking on the phone from an undisclosed location in Africa.
Was Assange's paranoia justified? Perhaps: A few weeks before the raid, in August 2007, his website, WikiLeaks, had posted a document exposing corruption in the highest levels of the Kenyan government. Still, this is one of many plausible-yet-unverified tales of persecution told by Assange, who has established himself as the world's most famous source of secret information and the elusive public face of WikiLeaks, the "uncensorable Wikipedia for untraceable mass document leaking and analysis."
Designed as a digital drop box, the site is a place where anyone can anonymously submit sensitive or secret materials to be disseminated and downloaded around the globe. In April, it posted its most explosive leak yet, a video shot by an American attack helicopter in July 2007 as it fired on a group of men on a Baghdad street, killing 12, including two unarmed Reuters employees. (Two children were seriously wounded.) WikiLeaks said it had obtained the classified footage from whistleblowers inside the US military. It also said it would soon release similar footage from an American strike in Afghanistan.
Since its launch in December 2006, WikiLeaks has published everything from the operating manuals of the Guantanamo Bay detention camp to NATO's secret plan for the Afghanistan war and inventories of US military matériel in Afghanistan and Iraq, plus plenty of dishier stuff—Sarah Palin's hacked emails and Wesley Snipes' tax returns, as well as fraternity initiation books and a trove of secret Scientology manuals. (See "Leaking Truth to Power," below.) Assange claims that the site gets as many as 10,000 new pages daily.
WikiLeaks' commitment to what might be called extreme transparency means that it hasn't turned away documents of questionable news value or origin. According to WikiLeaks' credo, to refuse a leak is tantamount to helping the bad guys. "We never censor," Assange declares.
POWERFUL FORCES have come after WikiLeaks, but without much luck. After it posted documents alleging money laundering at the Swiss bank Julius Baer, the firm unsuccessfully tried to shut down its California servers. When the site posted a secret list of websites blacklisted by the Australian government, including several child pornography sites, the 22-year-old who owned WikiLeaks' German domain had his laptop seized by police searching for kiddie porn—but nothing came of it. Even the hyperlitigious Church of Scientology has failed to get its materials removed from the site.
This March, WikiLeaks published an internal report written by an analyst at the Army Counterintelligence Center titled "WikiLeaks.org—An Online Reference to Foreign Intelligence Services, Insurgents, or Terrorist Groups?" Sensitive information posted by WikiLeaks, it said, could endanger American soldiers, and the site could be used "to post misinformation, disinformation, and propaganda." It concluded that identifying and prosecuting whistleblowers who leak to the site "would damage and potentially destroy this center of gravity and deter others from taking similar actions."
Such reactions to WikiLeaks' brazenness only seem to further energize Assange (pronounced ah-SANJ), a former white-hat hacker whose biography suggests he has the skills to wreak digital havoc on his antagonists, if he wanted to. WikiLeaks' reply to the German raid sounded like the opening shot of an Internet flame war: "Go after our source and we will go after you." In response to Scientology's "attempted suppression," it has posted even more church documents. It said the Army report was proof that "U.S. Intelligence planned to destroy" the site. Soon afterward, Assange asserted that he'd been tailed by two State Department employees on a flight out of Iceland, where he had been lobbying for new press freedom laws. He tweeted that "WikiLeaks is currently under an aggressive US and Icelandic surveillance operation."
Assange can be as prickly about unwanted scrutiny as any of his targets. After MotherJones.com published a version of this story, he left a comment saying it was filled with "extremely irritating tabloid insinuations of the type that might be expected from a poor quality magazine." That comment then inexplicably accumulated tens of thousands of "recommends" from just a few thousand page views.
WikiLeaks can get away with its aggressive M.O. because its primary server is in Sweden (Assange says it's the same one used by the giant file-sharing site the Pirate Bay), where divulging an anonymous source, whether one's own or someone else's, is illegal. Several mirror sites across the globe provide backup in case one goes down. So far, the only group to shut down WikiLeaks has been the organization itself, which took its main site offline indefinitely earlier this year to convince its supporters to help it meet its $600,000 budget.
Amid the swirl of wanted and unwanted attention, Assange lives like a man on the lam. When I spoke with him, he never seemed to use the same phone number twice. His voice was often hushed, and gaps filled the conversation, as if he was constantly checking over his shoulder. He wouldn't even reveal his age—"Why make it easy for the bastards?"
Like him, the organization behind his next-generation whistleblowing machine can also be maddeningly opaque. It's been accused of being conspiratorial, reckless, and even duplicitous in its pursuit of exposing the powerful. "It's a good thing that there's a channel for getting information out that's reliable and can't be compromised," says Harvard law professor and online transparency pioneer Lawrence Lessig. But, he adds, "There's a difference between what you can legally do, what you can technically do, and what you ought to do."
Illustration: Stuart Bradford / Photo: Esther Dyson via Flickr