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WikiLeaks founder sees himself as 'information activist'

The man behind WikiLeaks, the website that published more than 91,000 secret U.S. military documents on the Afghanistan war, doesn't much care whether government agencies are enraged by his actions
Image: Wikikleaks founder Julian Assange
Australian founder of whistleblowing website, 'WikiLeaks', Julian Assange, speaks to media after giving a press conference in London on July 26, 2010. Leon Neal / Leon Neal / AFP - Getty Images

The man behind WikiLeaks, the website that published more than 91,000 secret U.S. military documents on the Afghanistan war as well as previously secret video of a deadly American helicopter attack in Baghdad in 2007, doesn't much care whether government agencies are enraged by his actions.

Julian Assange has described himself as an "information activist" — get the information out there and let what happens happen, the Australian-born founder of WikiLeaks has said publicly. But it's also been said that Assange rarely sleeps in the same place two nights in a row because of concerns about his own safety.

Assange, 39, started in 2007, describing the site's mission as an "uncensorable system for untraceable mass document leaking." The site now reportedly hosts more than 1 million documents, and there are thousands more to come related to Afghanistan, Assange said Monday in a press conference.

And it's not just Afghanistan; it's foreign and domestic secrets from all over the world. "We have built up an enormous backlog of whistleblower disclosures," he said.

Past WikiLeaks posts include the U.S. Army's protocol at the (2007), (2008) and content from (2008).

The release of the Afghanistan war documents has been condemned by U.S. and Pakistani officials as both potentially harmful and irrelevant. White House national security adviser Gen. Jim Jones said the information "put the lives of Americans and our partners at risk."

Assange's background is more computer programmer than journalist, although he wears the mantle of both. He did not adopt the journalist handle until he became "editor in chief" of WikiLeaks, which is funded by more than $1 million in private donations so far.

While careful with his personal security, he does enjoy the attention WikiLeaks' disclosures bring. Some of that may be because of his background. His parents, he has said, ran a theater touring company, and he went to 37 schools and six universities in Australia.

Assange was a serious computer student in his teens, becoming a "skilled hacker," according to a recent profile of him in The Guardian. Assange "formed a group called International Subversives, which broke into US defense department computers. He married at 18, and he and his wife soon had a son, but the marriage broke down and he fought a long custody battle, which, it is said, entrenched his dislike of authority."

For awhile, he refused to disclose his age, telling a reporter that he only liked to say he was born in the 1970s, and preferred "to keep the bastards guessing."

WikiLeaks has five full-time staff and about 40 others who, Assange says, "very frequently do things" backed by 800 occasional helpers and 10,000 supporters and donors, he told The Guardian.

"We have all the problems that a growing startup organization has, combined with an extreme adversarial environment and state spying," he was quoted as saying, referring to those who are trying to penetrate his own organization.

"It makes it hard to get new talent quickly, because everyone has to be checked out, and it makes internal communication very difficult because everything has to be encrypted and security procedures put in place."

Seen as a hero by some, others — even in the world of whistleblowing and disclosure — are not so sure.

"WikiLeaks is basically a dumping ground for anyone to place documents that they want to see made public," wrote Bill Thompson, a BBC commentator on technology. He told of WikiLeaks asking John Young, founder of his own public disclosure site, Cryptome, for help. At first, he said, Young was interested, but that changed.

"Unfortunately he began to be suspicious of the (WikiLeaks) motives and capabilities of the organizers, and after they failed to reassure them, he pulled out," wrote Thompson. "John Young has, over the years, proved his credibility and his commitment to freedom of speech, and if he is worried about the WikiLeaks project then we should all be."

In the United States, government agencies are expecting, according to the Associated Press, deluge of classified documents since the leak of helicopter cockpit video of a 2007 firefight in Baghdad.

U.S. Army intelligence analyst, Pfc. Bradley Manning, 22, of Potomac, Md., is charged with releasing classified information to WikiLeaks. Manning had bragged online that he downloaded 260,000 classified U.S. cables and transmitted them to the website.