At the conference, he met up with like-minded hacktivist Daniel Domscheit-Berg, a German programmer who received his first computer at age eight. Domscheit-Berg, according to a blurb for a WikiLeaks book he is writing - which Reuters has reviewed - once worked 420 hours over four weeks trying to rescue a computer project in Moscow which had become fouled up.
At the time he met Assange, Domscheit-Berg was working as a troubleshooter for the international data services firm EDS. For him, WikiLeaks was initially a hobby. But in early 2009, Domscheit-Berg left his job to join WikiLeaks full-time, and for the next 18 months, he and Assange were partners and soulmates.
FROM PRANKSTERS TO PARIAHS In its early stages, WikiLeaks was hardly an international sensation.
The eclectic selection of other people's secrets that the website initially published included some of Sarah Palin's private emails and the confidential membership list of a British neo-fascist party. A year ago, the website stirred up an international furor by publishing emails exchanged among global warming experts. Conservative critics suggested that the messages showed academics tampering with scientific evidence. But investigations later found the accusations wildly overblown.
WikiLeaks first major media breakthrough came last April. Assange journeyed to Washington, where he unveiled a 2007 combat video. Filmed from the flight deck of an American Apache helicopter in Baghdad, it showed the chopper crew repeatedly opening fire on a group of people on the ground, including some people in a van which approached and began helping the wounded.
Two of the men killed in the incident were a Reuters photographer and his driver. WikiLeaks took the official video, which the Pentagon had tried to keep secret, and inserted it in its own presentation of the material, which it captioned "Collateral Murder." Assange introduced the material by accusing the helicopter crew of treating its work like a video game. "Their desire was simply to kill," he claimed. "Their desire was to get high scores on that video game."
Pentagon officials shot back that WikiLeaks had taken the video out of context and some independent commentators agreed, accusing Assange and his website of distorting the evidence to make a political point.
The contretemps put WikiLeaks and its founder on the mainstream media map.
FROM TRIUMPH TO TRIBULATION
As his and WikiLeaks' fame and notoriety grew, influential members of the media reached out in what they described as an effort to help. A few weeks after the release of the Iraq video, Nick Davies, a veteran British investigative journalist and author affiliated with London's Guardian, cornered Assange at the European Parliament with an intriguing proposal.
In a long conversation on a train and then in a Brussels cafe, Davies told Reuters, he argued to Assange that the material in WikiLeaks possession might have more impact if it was carefully researched and turned into stories by respected mainstream media outlets.
Davies said he proposed to Assange that the Guardian and The New York Times should work on the material together. He pointed out that while under British law it might be easy for authorities to get a court order stopping the Guardian from making secret documents public, U.S. law would make it virtually impossible for any authority to shut down The New York Times. At Assange's insistence, the German weekly Der Spiegel was also added to the team.
Davies says that he and Assange worked out a secret password and wrote it down on a napkin. The password included the logo of the cafe where they were meeting. Two days later, Davies says, the Guardian team downloaded its first tranche of U.S. government secrets - over 90,000 field reports generated by U.S. military units fighting in Afghanistan - from a secret WikiLeaks website, which Davies says existed only for a few hours before it disappeared from cyberspace.
As Davies had predicted, the stories had a huge impact.
But even as Assange and his media collaborators congratulated themselves on the attention they had brought to the leaked Afghan War papers, trouble was brewing behind the scenes. In particular, there were allegations that Assange had exaggerated how carefully he had vetted the Afghan War material before posting the documents on the WikiLeaks website.