As his car pushed through the throng of cameras outside Westminster magistrates’ court on Tuesday, Julian Assange may have speculated on the dark forces he believes are conspiring against him.
The WikiLeaks founder had moved often between countries since the launch of his website in 2006, worried that the authorities would catch up. Now they had, jailing him for a week prior to extradition hearings relating to rape charges brought by two women he had met on an August trip to Sweden. Tall, thin and dressed in a white shirt, Mr Assange was described as looking calm in court as the details were read out. But having only been able to provide an address in his native Australia, he was refused bail – despite several celebrities and anonymous donors offering a combined surety of £180,000.
Coming soon after the release of hundreds of secret US diplomatic cables, the arrest added yet more drama to an already combustible story of spying, secrecy and sexual politics that had sharply divided world opinion. To his supporters Mr Assange is a hero of radical transparency, fearlessly exposing double standards at the heart of power. Detractors see him differently: as a dangerous anti-American gadfly, indiscriminately revealing information regardless of the consequences.
Those who know him describe a clever, argumentative, driven man. Ethan Zuckerman, an American technology expert, says he is “a crusader, who feels strongly he is on the side of right, and against the forces of evil”. But for all his seriousness he is also “a romantic” who “clearly enjoys the way his life now resembles a Bond film”.
Mr Assange had spent the previous month masterminding his most daring leak yet from the bar of the Frontline Club, a journalists’ haunt near Paddington station in London. Holger Stark, a Der Spiegel writer who worked closely with him, was impressed by his professionalism and unrelenting focus.
Recalling preparations for a previous leak in October, Mr Stark says: “Julian stayed up until 5am to check the files were ready, slept for maybe an hour or so, then headed off for a press conference and dozens of interviews.” It was an intensity that blocked out other distractions. He sometimes slept on the floor, often barely at all. He seemed to forget to change clothes, or even to eat. “We went out for dinner in the middle of all this,” Mr Stark says, “and he had only a single ice cream.”
The storm over the diplomatic cables capped a remarkable year for WikiLeaks that also saw the release of thousands of documents relating to the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. But for Mr Assange it also represented something of a comeback. He had published more than 1m documents in four years, revealing everything from Kenyan corruption to Sarah Palin’s private e-mails. Yet in spite of growing notoriety, at the end of 2009 he was downhearted – especially at how few leaks turned into major news events.
Struggling for money and facing internal mutterings about his autocratic leadership, he closed the site down – only to return after a few months armed with the US diplomatic cables. Bradley Manning, the military intelligence official charged with leaking the files, is alleged to have downloaded the documents on to blank CDs disguised as Lady Gaga albums.
Mr Assange’s impulsive, nomadic temperament was forged during his youth. Born in 1971, he never met his father but moved often with his free-spirited mother, claiming to have attended more than 30 schools. His facility with technology developed early. His mother moved to a cheaper home to pay for his first computer, and he became a skilled, self-taught cryptographer.