From Hacker to Hunted Figure, the Polarizing Legacy of Julian Assange


In his two-decade odyssey from Australian hacker to new-age media celebrity, hunted figure, perennial prisoner and finally, a free man, Julian Assange has always been easier to caricature than characterize.

The lack of an agreed-upon label for Mr. Assange — is he a heroic crusader for truth or a reckless leaker who endangered lives? — makes any assessment of his legacy ambiguous at best.

Whatever history’s judgment of Mr. Assange, his appearance Wednesday in a courtroom on a remote Pacific island, where he pleaded guilty to a single count of violating the U.S. Espionage Act, was an appropriate coda to a story that has always seemed stranger than fiction.

From the time he established WikiLeaks in 2006, Mr. Assange, 52, was a polarizing figure, using the internet to solicit and publish government secrets. His disclosures, from confidential diplomatic cables to civilian deaths in the American wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, made him courageous to those who believed in his gospel of radical transparency. To others who feared the information he revealed could get people killed, he was destructive, even if there was never proof that it did so.

After his sensational leaks incurred the wrath of the White House, Mr. Assange spent 12 years in London fighting extradition, first to Sweden and then to the United States. Holed up in a South American embassy and later languishing in a British prison, he resurfaced in the headlines whenever a court ruled on his latest appeal. He became less a cutting-edge insurgent than a ghostly throwback to another time.

“Julian Assange has for so many years sacrificed for the freedom of speech, freedom of the press,” said Barry Pollack, a lawyer who represented Mr. Assange in his plea negotiations with the American authorities, on Wednesday in Canberra, Australia. “He’s sacrificed his own freedom.”

At its best, WikiLeaks shone a light into dark corners, often working with traditional media organizations to expose abuses like extrajudicial killings in Kenya. Documents posted by WikiLeaks about the excesses of Tunisia’s ruling family presaged the upheaval that swept the region.

Alan Rusbridger, a former editor in chief of The Guardian who worked extensively with Mr. Assange, said WikiLeaks deserved credit for accelerating the political changes of the Arab Spring.

While Mr. Assange indisputably changed history, it is not clear he did so in the way that he and his apostles may have hoped when they first came to global prominence in 2010 by posting video on WikiLeaks of a U.S. helicopter strike in Baghdad that had resulted in the death of a Reuters photographer.

“Think about Julian Assange’s motivation regarding Iraq and Afghanistan,” said P.J. Crowley, who was the State Department’s spokesman when WikiLeaks published 250,000 confidential diplomatic cables in 2010, a project in which the site initially collaborated with The New York Times and others.

“We left Iraq, went back, and are still there,” Mr. Crowley said. “We stayed in Afghanistan for a decade after WikiLeaks. His legacy is collaborating with Russian intelligence, whether wittingly or unwittingly, to help Russia elect Donald Trump.”

Mr. Crowley’s experience with Mr. Assange is acutely personal: He was forced to resign his post after he criticized the Pentagon’s treatment of Chelsea Manning, the U.S. Army intelligence analyst who downloaded thousands of documents, including those cables, from a classified government network and uploaded them to WikiLeaks.

Views of Mr. Assange soured after WikiLeaks, in the heat of the 2016 presidential campaign, published Democratic emails that had been hacked by a Russian intelligence agency. Allies of Hillary Clinton cited it as one of multiple factors that contributed to her defeat by Mr. Trump.

As secretary of state, Mrs. Clinton had to apologize to foreign leaders for embarrassing details in cables sent by American diplomats to the State Department. In one case, the foreign minister of a Persian Gulf nation refused to allow note takers into a meeting with her, for fear that his comments would be leaked.

“Some of this damage to American foreign policy was irreparable,” said Vali R. Nasr, a senior State Department official at the time, who now teaches at Johns Hopkins University. “You can apologize for it, but you can’t undo it.”

But Mr. Nasr said the furor caused by WikiLeaks also revealed something that the United States was later able to use to its advantage: the public relations value of intelligence. Before Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, American and British intelligence agencies selectively declassified material about Russia’s activities to warn President Vladimir V. Putin and mobilize Western support.

American officials justified their prosecution of Mr. Assange on espionage charges by saying it would deter other would-be whistle-blowers from leaking classified material. But it also reflected a collective sense of shock that the nation’s most tightly held secrets could be so easily compromised.

“Some of this going after Assange,” Mr. Nasr said, “had to do with compensating for your weakness by shooting the messenger.”

The messenger proved elusive. Mr. Assange’s prolonged exile in Britain, during which he spent seven years in the Ecuadorean embassy and five years in London’s Belmarsh prison, turned him from a swashbuckling media impresario into a haunted, if hardheaded, resistance figure.

Supporters camped outside the embassy, where he had been granted asylum, holding placards and chanting, “Free Assange!” Detractors saw him as an erratic publicity seeker. Claiming to be a victim of political persecution, he violated his bail terms after losing his appeal of a Swedish arrest warrant on charges of sexual assault — charges he described as a “smear campaign” ginned up by the United States.

From his cramped living quarters in a converted embassy office, Mr. Assange gave defiant press interviews. Activists and celebrities came and went: the actress Pamela Anderson became something of a regular.

Mr. Assange began a secret relationship with Stella Moris, a lawyer who represented him and later became his wife. They had two children while he was hiding out in the embassy.

For British authorities, caught in the middle, it was a costly and time-consuming distraction. They had to station police in front of the embassy, while the courts dealt with extradition requests.

Sweden later dropped its case against Mr. Assange, but the United States, under President Donald J. Trump, charged him with espionage. After a change in government in Ecuador, he became an unwelcome guest and was evicted from the embassy in April 2019. As police dragged out a bedraggled, bearded Mr. Assange, he shouted, “U.K. resist — resist this attempt by the Trump administration.”

By that point, Mr. Assange’s saga had become little more than a sideshow. “Journalists didn’t pay enough attention to Assange’s plight,” Mr. Rusbridger said. “People either think he’s the messiah or the devil, and there’s no in between.”

Sentenced to 50 weeks for violating his bail, Mr. Assange would spend five years in Belmarsh, a high-security prison that once housed the convicted terrorist, Abu Hamza al-Masri, and is known as “Hellmarsh” because of its harsh conditions.

As Mr. Assange challenged his removal from Britain, his legal case sometimes felt interminable, lumbering from one court to the next as his lawyers filed appeals to unfavorable rulings.

“Our procedural rules don’t really lend themselves to speedy resolution,” said Nick Vamos, a partner at the British law firm, Peters & Peters, and a former head of extradition for Britain’s Crown Prosecution Service. “If you want to take every point — as was entirely his right to do — then you can buy yourself a lot of time.”

Mr. Assange had his share of victories. Last month, he won a bid to have a full appeal of the extradition order heard after a judge decided that American assurances did not go far enough in addressing concerns about the protection of his rights.

While a plea agreement with the United States may have begun to take shape earlier, Mr. Vamos believes it was this decision “that really brought people to the to the table to discuss a concrete deal.”

As the legal maneuvering came to a head, a few people were able to see Mr. Assange in jail. Among them was Rebecca Vincent, director of campaigns for Reporters Without Borders, a press freedom group that has campaigned for Mr. Assange’s release since 2019. She visited him six times between August 2023 and last month, and said she was often concerned about his health.

“It’s not an easy situation to be in. And of course, we had concerns for his mental health too,” Ms. Vincent said. “But he was still Julian; he was still fighting.”

Based on her discussions with Mr. Assange and his family, Ms. Vincent said she expected his priority now will be spending time with them. His two sons have only known their father through prison visits. She sees his release as a win but said it should have ended with all charges dropped.

Champions of press freedom agree that even with Mr. Assange’s release, the plea deal set a troubling precedent.

Jameel Jaffer, the executive director of the Knight First Amendment Institute at Columbia University, said that while the agreement averted the “worst-case scenario for press freedom,” it also means that Mr. Assange “will have served five years in prison for activities that journalists engage in every day.”

Speaking in Canberra, where an emotional Mr. Assange kissed his wife after arriving home, Mr. Pollack, his lawyer, said, “Hopefully, this is the end, not just of the case against Julian Assange, but the end of the case against journalism.”



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