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WikiLeaks' purveyor of secrets is guarded about himself

The Australian founder of whistleblowing website WikiLeaks, Julian Assange, speaks to media during a news conference in London on July 26, 2010.

LEON NEAL/Leon Neal/AFP/Getty Images

Julian Assange, the man behind WikiLeaks, was a self-taught computer geek in his teens and an accomplished hacker by his early 20s. Now, thanks to his disclosure of reams of internal U.S. military documents about the war in Afghanistan, he and his website have become world-famous purveyors of secrets.

"We are the most trusted organization to give material to," Mr. Assange told an interviewer for Britain's Channel 4 this week. WikiLeaks, he added, is "the vanguard of a particular ideal - that justice comes about because of the disclosure of abuse."

People have leaked juicy secrets, raw information and potentially damning secret documents to journalists for as long as newspapers have existed. Many countries have laws that protect whistle-blowers who put their jobs at risk by leaking information that their bosses and governments want to keep hidden. In some, such as Sweden, where WikiLeaks has its main server, journalists cannot be forced to reveal an anonymous source.

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Mr. Assange's innovation is that he solicits and dispenses those secrets using the global reach of the Internet. The WikiLeaks website is a borderless platform for dispensing the unfiltered information it receives, without the need to find an intermediary in the non-digital media to get it out to the public. Its main sources, he has said, are "whistle-blowers or journalists who can't get their material published in the press."

For a crusader for transparency and openness, Mr. Assange has been circumspect about his own background. He has refused to tell interviewers his age, for example, though he is said to have been born in 1971 in Australia.

Most of what is known about him, or at least what is thought to be known about him, comes from magazine profiles published in the last two months in advance of the publication of the Afghanistan reports.

Mr. Assange, with his distinctive longish white hair and boyish face, has described his childhood in those articles as peripatetic, moving with his mother and younger brother 38 times by the time he was 14. He has said he had little formal schooling. He also has said he studied physics at the University of Melbourne, although in a blog post in 2006 he described the physicists he had met as "snivelling fearful conformists."

Before trying his hand at physics, Mr. Assange was one of three members of a group of hackers who called themselves the International Subversives that broke into the Australia-based computer system of the Canadian telecommunications company Northern Telecom in 1991. The group's exploits became legendary in the hacker subculture, and the subject of a book that Mr. Assange reportedly co-authored in 1997.

It described how Mendax, Mr. Assange's hacker moniker, realized one night that a Nortel supervisor had discovered that he had broken into the system. Mendax sent an anonymous message that presumably startled but did not amuse the supervisor. "I have finally become sentient," the message supposedly said. "I have taken control."

Mr. Assange was arrested and tried for the intrusion, but was released after paying a fine.

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These days, he has an uncanny knack for seeming to be everywhere and nowhere, regularly appearing at conferences on Internet freedom and at the same time appearing to have no fixed address. He is described as a nomad who camps out in friends' apartments and holes up in hotel rooms and out-of-the-way locales, like Iceland, for weeks at a time while decrypting and vetting material.

In a brief press conference in London on Monday, he compared the importance of the Afghanistan war reports to the release of the East German secret police files following the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989.

In the earlier interview with Channel 4, he likened them to the Pentagon Papers, the U.S. Defense Department documents leaked to The New York Times and published in 1971 that contradicted the American administration's positive public spin on the Vietnam War.

Critics have complained that WikiLeaks' raw information can be taken out of context, like the e-mail exchanges between scientists studying climate change that were posted by WikiLeaks in 2009, or considered plain silly, such as the hacked screen shots of the e-mail account of former U.S. vice-presidential candidate Sarah Palin that WikiLeaks published online in 2008.

But Mr. Assange has had tough words for the mainstream press, which he said should be publishing all the source materials that journalists use so that people can judge the significance of a story for themselves.

WikiLeaks operates with volunteers and also solicits donations. In April, it released a leaked video recording that showed a U.S. military helicopter crew mowing down a group of Iraqis, including a Reuters journalist, in Baghdad in 2007. Donations flowed in. Mr. Assange followed up with a Twitter message that said, "New funding model for journalism: try doing it for a change."

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