Julian Assange, Famous and Controversial Wikileaks Founder, is a Free Man

(Alisdare Hickson/CC 4.0)

Welcome to this week’s Intelligence Brief… this week, after more than a decade spent collectively in exile and imprisonment amid ongoing legal battles, Julian Assange, the famous founder of Wikileaks, returned to Australia a free man. In our analysis, we’ll be looking at 1) the deal that brought Assange back to his home in Australia after possibly facing extradition and imprisonment in the U.S., 2) why Assange remains such a polarizing figure in the digital age, 3) the beleaguered Wikileaks founder’s exile and 4) the precedents, and concerns, that arise from his ordeal and the new deal he reached with the U.S. State Department.

Quote of the Week

“Reality is an aspect of property. It must be seized. And investigative journalism is the noble art of seizing reality back from the powerful.”

– Julian Assange

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With that all behind us, it’s time to examine what transpired this week between the U.S. State Department and Wikileaks founder Julian Assange and what it means for transparency advocacy and journalism in the modern era.

Julian Assange Achieves Freedom in Plea Deal With the U.S.

This week, Julian Assange, one of the most controversial figures of the Internet Age, returned to Australia a free man following a five-year stint in a British prison amid an attempt to have him extradited to the United States for acquiring and publishing sensitive classified U.S. government information.

Assange in 2014 (Credit: David G Silvers/CC 2.0)

His imprisonment followed seven years the Wikileaks founder famously spent in the Ecuadorian embassy in London. Assange, now 52 years old, was released following a deal with U.S. Justice Department prosecutors that ended the possibility that he could spend the rest of his life in a U.S. prison. In accordance with the deal, Assange pleaded guilty to a single felony charge for publishing U.S. military secrets and hopes to eventually be pardoned by the current or an incoming future U.S. president.

Assange’s disclosures, which include the release of confidential diplomatic cables to information about civilian casualties in Afghanistan and Iraq—as well as the names of U.S. operatives that remained unredacted—resulted in divided opinions and fierce debate over the ethics of Assange’s brand of radical transparency. Assange’s efforts, as well as his recent plea deal with the U.S., also push the boundaries on what 21st-century journalism is and what its limits should be.

A Polarizing Advocate for Transparency

Depending on who one asks, Assange may be seen as a hero in the battle for government transparency, or a reckless activist who is a huge problem for the national security of not only the U.S., but also other nations around the world.

Since establishing WikiLeaks, Assange has used the Internet to solicit and publish sensitive government information, drawing on his skills as a hacker dating back to his teenage years. WikiLeaks and its controversial revelations helped earn Assange both fervent supporters, as well as myriad harsh critics.

Still, few would question whether WikiLeaks helped expose several significant issues through the organization’s efforts, collaborating at times with traditional media outlets to expose abuses, excesses, and human rights violations that otherwise would likely have gone unnoticed. However, Wikileaks also stoked the fires of controversy with the unredacted release of names of U.S. military operatives, an issue that remains a sore spot for American officials.

“The actions for which [Assange] was indicted and for which he has now plead guilty are actions that put the lives of our partners, our allies, and our diplomats at risk,” said U.S. State Department official Matthew Miller in a statement following Assange’s release earlier this week.

“Especially those who work in dangerous places like Afghanistan and Iraq. This was some years ago now—almost fifteen years ago—so I think the world has forgotten much of it, but if you recall, when Wikileaks first disseminated and published State Department documents [and] State Department cables, they did so without redacting names,” Miller said. “They just threw them out there for the world to see.”

“The documents they published gave identifying information of individuals who were in contact with the State Department. That included opposition leaders [and] human rights activists around the world whose positions were put in some danger because of their public disclosure.”

Miller added that Wikileaks disclosures also impeded the U.S.’s ability to communicate and coordinate with the leadership of other nations, also citing Wikileaks’ release of emails associated with the presidential campaign of Hillary Clinton in 2016, which he said “essentially served as a conduit for Russian intelligence interfering in a U.S. presidential election.”

Assange in Exile

Assange’s many years spent in exile saw him undergo a public transformation from a crusader for truth and transparency to an activist hiding in plain sight after a violation of bail terms and charges of sexual assault in Sweden fueled the controversies surrounding him.

Seeking asylum in the Ecuadorian embassy in London for seven years, Assange maintained a secret relationship with Stella Moris, a lawyer who later became his wife, prior to his eventual eviction from the embassy in April 2019 following a shift in Ecuador’s governance.

Assange was arrested following his eviction by British authorities, and imprisoned in HM Prison Belmarsh, a high-security prison in south London famous for its harsh conditions. Assange’s health, already in decline from his years confined mostly to a single room and occasional public appearances on its balcony, only worsened. Upon his release this week, Assange refrained from making any public statement himself, instead appearing briefly during an emotional reunion embrace with his wife, who spoke on his behalf at a press conference on Thursday.

Stella Assange, seen in 2022 (Credit: Alisdare Hickson CC 4.0).

“Julian plans to swim in the ocean every day,” Stella Assange said. “He plans to sleep in a real bed. He plans to taste real food, and he plans to enjoy his freedom.”

Concerning Precedents

Although Assange’s plea deal may signal the end of his years of legal battles, many have expressed that it also raises questions about issues concerning press freedom and the treatment of whistle-blowers.

As of Thursday morning, the Wikileaks website had not posted any updates or official statements following Assange’s release, and it remains unclear what may become of the organization and its efforts, which have largely remained inactive since 2023. In accordance with Assange’s plea deal, the organization is required to destroy any unpublished documents it currently possesses.

For now, the current chapter in Julian Assange’s ordeal appears to have reached a conclusion, having brought him from being a once-revolutionary figure in the fight for government transparency, to a contentious public figure and symbol of free speech and press freedoms. Ultimately, Assange’s story only showcases the increasingly complex interplay between transparency, security, and the people’s right to know in a time in history where the rapid spread of information through technology—and the ease of access to it—are constantly redefining how we manage and report information.

That concludes this week’s installment of The Intelligence Brief. You can read past editions of The Intelligence Brief at our website, or if you found this installment online, don’t forget to subscribe and get future email editions from us here. Also, if you have a tip or other information you’d like to send along directly to me, you can email me at micah [@] thedebrief [dot] org, or Tweet at me @MicahHanks.

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