Image: Julian Assange
Dan Kitwood  /  Getty Images
Julian Assange hid from public view at the Frontline Club in London, a gathering place for journalists.
By
msnbc.com
updated 12/10/2010 4:05:12 PM ET 2010-12-10T21:05:12

The Frontline Club in London is the kind of place where war correspondents and investigative reporters mingle with admirers and wannabes, fired by a shared passion for exposing government spin, revealing the truth — and fine dining.

So when WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange found himself at the center of an international firestorm over the website's publication of leaked U.S. diplomatic cables, he knew where he would be well-fed and, more importantly, safe.

Amid calls for Assange's assassination or prosecution under espionage laws and condemnation from U.S. commentators like Sarah Palin — who dubbed him "an anti-American operative with blood on his hands" — the Frontline Club closed ranks and kept his whereabouts to themselves.

Vaughan Smith, a former television cameraman who founded Frontline, said Assange had previously held talks and other events at the club and they "quite liked having him here because he's made us a more interesting venue."

Assange lived in rented rooms at the club for about three weeks until he surrendered to British police on Tuesday in connection with allegations of sexual misconduct in Sweden. Until then, no one at the club, members or employees, spilled the news of his presence.

"It's very curious. While all this was happening, the media has been presenting him as on the run and all these things. I've always been rather amused by that," Smith told msnbc.com.

"He's always worried some nut will come and hurt him, so he's quite discreet. I haven't felt it was my job to announce where he's been. I feel if journalists or the security services want to find him, they can do the work," he added.

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Smith, who was an officer in the prestigious Grenadier Guards regiment and was shot twice during his journalistic career, believes Assange is "a hero."

"The guy has incredible courage. He is one of the few people prepared to do what they believe in ... He's not some kind of evil plotter in a bunker," Smith said.

Despite his personal admiration, Smith said he is still making up his mind about what Assange has done: "You can have heroes on winning and losing sides of conflict and you can have heroes fighting for the wrong cause."

Smith said Assange believes the Swedish prosecution of him is "really an attempt to get hold" of him so he can eventually be sent to the U.S. He said Assange seems "terrified" of this prospect.

"He thinks he will be strung up and bullied" in America.

Assange is accused of sexual misconduct with two Swedish women and is being jailed in the U.K. while he awaits an extradition hearing next week. At this point, there are no charges in the U.S., and there is no effort to bring him there.

"I love America. I think America is a fantastic place. I'm very, very concerned about the way the authorities are reacting against this," Smith said. "The odd thing is it's liberal democracies that seem to be reacting so badly to all this."

People should consider whether they want to live in "a world with less secrecy" and recognize that "some of what we (Western countries) say isn't entirely true."

Among U.K. journalists, Smith is hardly alone in sharing some sympathies with Assange.

Freedom at stake
Jeremy Dear, general-secretary of the U.K.'s National Union of Journalists, said in an email to msnbc.com that WikiLeaks had been the target of "unwarranted attacks" and described it as "a vital source of information for journalists."

"The issue is bigger than one individual," he said. "Many will be inspired by the way in which WikiLeaks has been able to lift the veil of secrecy under which too many governments and corporations seek to operate."

"Their strong defense of sources and the impact their work has had will also encourage more whistleblowers to come forward," Dear said.

He had little doubt that the conflict would lead to "a further crackdown on freedom of expression" but said that the censors wouldn't win.

"Governments spend a great deal of time, money and technology in seeking to control the message," Dear said. "This will give those authoritarian tendencies the excuse to further seek to exert their control. What WikiLeaks and many other people all over the world prove though is that there are many ways to beat the censors."

Heather Blake, the U.K. representative of Reporters Without Borders, stressed WikiLeaks was a journalistic enterprise.

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"Julian Assange founded WikiLeaks, which as an organization is no different than the other press organizations (The New York Times and other newspapers) who also were given the information and printed it," she told msnbc.com.

"We support WikiLeaks and what they are doing. It's about press freedom and transparency," she added.

However, Blake said, Reporters Without Borders had criticized WikiLeaks over the release of information that may have put people working for coalition forces in Afghanistan at risk.

"We want a strong, free press, but we want a responsible press as well, we don't want to endanger anybody's' lives," she said.

'Less flattering' reality
Despite the strong support these organizations show for Assange, Will Heaven, of the Telegraph newspaper, believes the WikiLeaks founder is less a champion for transparency than he is an anti-American activist.

"Julian Assange likes to portray himself as a champion of truth," Heaven wrote in an email to msnbc.com. "But the reality is much less flattering. Look at the Afghanistan 'war logs,' for example: WikiLeaks plainly wanted to cause maximum damage to the coalition's war effort, but nothing was done to hide the identities of Afghan informants so the Taliban duly promisedto 'punish them.'"

"Mr. Assange claims to have pure motives, but he hasn't shown a shred of remorse about this," Heaven added. 

"It seems that as long as the United States and the West is embarrassed on the world stage, the founder of WikiLeaks is a happy man," he said.

"If he's really opposed to corruption and human rights abuses, why hasn't he turned his special talents to countries like Iran, China or Russia? The answer is simple — there is anti-American agenda behind much of Julian Assange's work."

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Video: WikiLeaks ‘hactivists’ launch attack on Palin

  1. Transcript of: WikiLeaks ‘hactivists’ launch attack on Palin

    MEREDITH VIEIRA, co-host: Meanwhile, hackers operating under the label "Operation Payback" are allegedly going after Web sites that have acted against WikiLeaks and its jailed founder. So far MasterCard , Visa and even Sarah Palin 's political action committee have been hit. NBC 's Peter Alexander is in London with more details. Peter , good morning to you.

    PETER ALEXANDER reporting: Meredith , good morning to you. You can think of this as a declaration of cyberwar, and this morning there are no signs that those computer hackers are letting up. The latest apparent victim is the Swedish government 's Web site , reportedly hit overnight. There's where WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange , of course, is wanted for questioning. This is all part of a new offensive on what's become a virtual battlefield.

    Ms. SARAH PALIN: Pull!

    ALEXANDER: She's the self-described mama grizzly.

    Ms. PALIN: Dang it!

    ALEXANDER: But now it's Sarah Palin in the sights of WikiLeaks loyalists. Palin says Internet "hacktivists," as they're called, attacked her political action committee Web site Wednesday and Palin 's personal credit card information, retaliating for her recent Facebook post, calling WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange "an anti-American operative with blood on his hands." Palin e-mailed NBC News last night. "No wonder others are keeping silent about Assange 's antics. This is what happens when you experience your First Amendment rights and speak up against Assange 's sick, un-American espionage efforts." Other targets include Web sites of some of the most familiar corporate names in the world. MasterCard and Visa , as well as PayPal and this Swiss Bank that have all recently pulled the plug on WikiLeaks .

    BOB SULLIVAN reporting: This clearly is a David vs. Goliath battle and they could amass enough strength to knock over a big Web site for a big company, at least temporarily.

    ALEXANDER: One hacker group calling itself "Anonymous" shut down Visa 's Web site Wednesday, tweeting " fire fire fire!!! Weapons." They call it Operation Payback . The Web site for the Swedish prosecutor's office that issued Assange 's arrest warrant was apparently hit, as was the lawyer for the two women accusing Assange of sexual misconduct.

    SULLIVAN: If these hackers are clever they can't be found.

    ALEXANDER: Assange 's lawyer insists the WikiLeaks founder, locked behind bars, did not orchestrate the attack.

    Ms. JENNIFER ROBINSON (Julian Assange's Attorney): Mr. Assange doesn't have contact with WikiLeaks employees at all, let alone the outside world.

    ALEXANDER: WikiLeaks tweeted, "we will not be gagged," and their release of sensitive diplomatic cables continues. Among the latest embarrassing documents published in a British newspaper revealing details of what a US diplomat described as wild sex and drug parties, hosted by members of the Saudi royal family . Still, despite international efforts to choke off funds to WikiLeaks , the controversial site is mushrooming with hundreds of identical mirror sites keeping them viable online. And both MasterCard and Visa 's Web sites are back on line this morning. The companies insist that people's ability to use their cards securely was never affected. But hackers are now warning that Twitter , the very social media outlet they often use to post their threats, is now itself a target, Meredith , because they claim Twitter is censoring their community of supporters.

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