Julian Assange is used to media attention, but his recent arrest at the Ecuadorian embassy in London brought a fresh spotlight onto the publisher of WikiLeaks. Despite all of the stories circulating about him, however, there’s a lot that’s likely escaped the notice of casual news readers. Here are some things you might not know about the life of the famous founder of the world’s best-known leak organization.
Assange was born in 1971 in Townsville, Australia. Townsville is on Australia’s northeastern coast, near the Great Barrier Reef. Because of its proximity to this natural wonder, it’s a popular base for snorkeling and diving. Assange’s family didn’t stay there long, though. The New Yorker reported that his mother moved the family dozens of times during his childhood.
He Had ‘A Tom Sawyer Boyhood’
As a child and teen living a nomadic life in Australia, Assange had quite a few adventures and misadventures.
“I lived a Tom Sawyer boyhood, which I think is a good childhood,” he told Rolling Stone in 2012. “Very physically adventurous on different islands and in the Outback and tropical regions, having small gangs of other boys, riding my horse, going into bat caves, exploring drainage systems and forests, hunting tropical fish.”
His Family Was Involved In Theater
One of the reasons his family moved so much during his childhood is that his mother and step-father were involved with a touring theater troupe. Not long after Assange turned 1 year old, his mother, separated from his biological father, married a man who was the theater director. One of the houses they lived in burned down, and his mother didn’t believe in formal education, so it was a chaotic time for the young boy.
Before The Embassy, He Had A Nomadic Adulthood, Too
In the years before Assange sought asylum at the embassy in London, journalists tracked him down all over the world for interviews — in Siberia, Iceland, America, Kenya and back in his native Australia. When a reporter at the Sydney Morning Herald asked him if he has a home base, he replied, “I have four bases where I would go if I was sick, which is how I think about where home is.”
He Had A Commodore 64
Like so many kids who grew up in the ’80s, Assange got his start in computers on a Commodore 64. It wasn’t long before he was cracking code.
“The austerity of one’s interaction with a computer is something that appealed to me,” he told The New Yorker. “It is like chess — chess is very austere, in that you don’t have many rules, there is no randomness, and the problem is very hard.”
He Had A Classical Handle
When he was 16, Assange got a modem (though the internet didn’t exist yet) and formed his first hackers’ group; they dubbed themselves the International Subversives. Assange himself started going by Mendax. It was a reference to the Roman poet Horace’s “Odes” 3.11, in which the poet calls a character “splendide mendax,” or nobly untruthful.
He wrote in the Independent, “I liked the idea that in hiding behind a false name, lying about who or where I was, a teenager in Melbourne, I could somehow speak more truthfully about my real identity.”
He Didn’t Finish College
Assange attended the University of Melbourne, where he studied math and physics. But his university experience seems to have been unsatisfying to him. In a 2006 blog post, he wrote about the attendees at a physics conference and called the scientists “sniveling fearful conformists.” His reading, and quotes he has given the media about historical ideas about governance, paint him as more of a philosopher.
He Was Caught Hacking At A Young Age
As a teen hacker, he’d gotten himself into some legal trouble at a young age. At the age of 20, he hacked his way into the networks of the Pentagon and Canadian communication giant Nortel, which had headquarters in Melbourne. Writing for the Independent, Assange recalled the night he was in Nortel’s network and realized an administrator was on to him — and the night the Australian Federal Police arrived at his door to arrest him.
“At 11.30 that night there was a knock at the door and a play of shadows outside,” he wrote. “The police announced themselves and I thought of all the times I had expected them, all the times I dreamt they were coming.”
He Married Young
This arrest came not long after his wife had left him with their child. Assange married in Australia at 18 after his girlfriend became pregnant, but the marriage didn’t last nearly as long as the custody battles Assange waged over his son Daniel. Daniel now lives in Australia, works as a software designer and stays mostly out of the limelight.
The Custody Fight Paved The Way For More Activism
In the custody battle for his son, Assange started taking an approach that was more than that of a parent fighting for a child. Assange, his mother and another parent started an organization called Parent Inquiry Into Child Protection and used the Australian Freedom of Information Act to obtain documents and information from Australia’s Health and Community Services.
“We used full-on activist methods,” his mother told The New Yorker.
He Escaped His First Hacking Charges
Meanwhile, in the Nortel case, Assange pled guilty to 25 charges. He thought his poking around in the Nortel network was harmless and couldn’t see how he had committed a crime. In the end, the judge felt the same way.
“There is just no evidence that there was anything other than sort of intelligent inquisitiveness and the pleasure of being able to — what’s the expression — surf through these various computers,” the judge said in the final ruling, according to The New Yorker.
He’s Concerned With Citizens’ Privacy
Despite his work toward more transparency, Assange has long been concerned about governments spying on their own citizens.
“On September 11th, I was on the phone with a friend, discussing encryption algorithms,” he told Rolling Stone in an interview in 2012. “Very quickly, within an hour, I saw what the counter-reaction would be, and that all the proposals that the military-industrial complex had to spy on everyone, to remove probable cause, to increase its funding, would be rushed forward again. That’s precisely what happened.”
He Formed A ‘Stateless News Organization’
Assange registered leaks.org in 1999.
“But then I didn’t do anything with it,” he told the Sydney Morning Herald.
He finally founded WikiLeaks in 2006. He called the group of hackers and activists a “stateless news organization,” and their opening salvos of hacked information crossed continents. Assange claims the organization’s leak of a corruption report changed the outcome of Kenya’s 2007 presidential election. WikiLeaks also published a manual from the U.S. Army of standard operating procedures for soldiers overseeing al-Qaeda suspects in Guantanamo Bay not long after the organization started, in 2007.
WikiLeaks Hacked Sarah Palin’s Emails
Though WikiLeaks’ most recent involvement in a U.S. presidential election is still top-of-mind for many, the 2016 election wasn’t the first from which the organization leaked information. In 2008, WikiLeaks also published emails from then-veep contender Sarah Palin’s Yahoo account. Forgot about that? Maybe that’s because, as the Los Angeles Times noted, “The emails were banal and clerical.”
Messages From One Leak Could Bring Him To The U.S.
WikiLeaks published another notorious leak in April 2010 when it posted a classified video of a U.S. Apache helicopter firing on what the military claims were armed fighters in New Baghdad, Iraq. Pfc. Chelsea Manning, who was known by Bradley at the time, was charged the next month with leaking the video to the organization. The conversations between Manning and Assange over this and other leaks are now at the heart of the U.S.’s case against Assange.
Sweden Charged Him After Two Women Came Forward
In 2010, two women in Sweden accused Assange of rape and molestation, and Swedish officials issued an arrest warrant for him. Assange was living in England at the time; British police arrested him on a European warrant that December, and he turned himself in and was released on bail. This was the start of a two-year legal battle that ended in 2012, when Britain’s Supreme Court issued a ruling that he should be deported to Sweden to face the charges.
He Wasn’t Immediately Granted Asylum
In June of 2012, disguised as a motorcycle courier, Assange arrived at the Ecuadorian embassy in London and requested political asylum. Ecuador’s president at the time, Rafael Correa, was one of WikiLeaks’ supporters. He spent his first two months in the embassy in legal limbo but, by that August, Ecuador had granted him asylum.
He’s Said He Is Bankrupt
In 2011, Assange told a reporter that he’s “now completely bankrupt” as a result of the Swedish lawsuits. The reporter, incredulous, asked him to elaborate, to which Assange replied, “There have been all sorts of strange complications, such as that the previous lawyers managed to get hold of all my book advances and keep them. So I have not received a cent from any publicity that I’ve done.” He continued to say that rumors that he has money in foreign bank accounts and lived in a mansion are “absolute nonsense.”
He Worked On A Talk Show
WikiLeaks was cut off from accessing donations from PayPal, Western Union and most credit card companies in 2011, so Assange became desperate to secure funding for the organization and put publishing leaks on hold to raise money. In 2012, he entered into talks with Russia Today, which observers believe is a network that serves as a propaganda tool for the Kremlin, to start a talk television program, which ended after 12 episodes. Though he needed the cash, Assange later said, “I was using it to interview heads of state, and so on, to approach a variety of embassies.”
He Claimed Credit For Starting The Arab Spring
Once the Arab Spring uprisings, which began in 2011, were coming to a boil, WikiLeaks released an ad that suggested they’d started the political turmoil in North Africa. WikiLeaks had published cables from U.S. diplomats about the political situation in Tunisia and Egypt, but activists and writers who were part of the uprising countered that people living in these countries were already all too familiar with the corruption the cables exposed, especially in Egypt.
The U.N. Said He Was ‘Arbitrarily Detained’
In 2016, a United Nations working group on arbitrary detention determined that Assange had been arbitrarily detained by the U.K. and Sweden in the Ecuadorian embassy, and that he should be released and given compensation for his years spent in the embassy.
“Having concluded that there was a continuous deprivation of liberty, the working group also found that the detention was arbitrary because he was held in isolation during the first stage of detention and because of the lack of diligence by the Swedish prosecutor in its investigations, which resulted in the lengthy detention of Mr [sic] Assange,” the report read, according to The Guardian.
A spokesperson for the U.K. government told The Guardian of the report, “This changes nothing.”
Another Famous Leaker Disagrees With His Tactics
Though the organization helped him escape into exile in Russia, Edward Snowden hasn’t shied away from criticizing Assange’s methods at WikiLeaks.
“Democratizing information has never been more vital, and @Wikileaks has helped,” Snowden tweeted in 2016. “But their hostility to even modest curation is a mistake.”
Journalists who once collaborated with WikiLeaks have had the same complaint; the New York Times’ The Daily podcast explained that Times journalists pored through documents and spoke with government officials about how to protect people who could be harmed by information leaks, but WikiLeaks often dumps everything with no consideration for the dangers exposed individuals could face.
Sweden Dropped The Charges
In 2017, Swedish prosecutors dropped their charges against Assange, but they seem to have done it for practical purposes — and not because they believe he’s innocent.
“I can conclude, based on the evidence, that probable cause for this crime still exists,” the lead prosecutor said of the charges being dropped, according to Vox.
They said they’d reopen the charges if Assange appears in Sweden before 2020, which is when the statute of limitations runs out on the case, but that in the meantime, Assange’s embassy protection made it too difficult to continue with the case. Assange has always maintained his innocence.
He’s Had Famous Visitors At The Embassy
While confining himself to the embassy, Assange had plenty of visitors, including Pamela Anderson, who has visited him multiple times, and Lady Gaga. The pop superstar visited him at the embassy in October 2012, prompting questions across media organizations about just why Gaga would spend five hours visiting with him. (They apparently dined together.) Anderson said of her own visits, “I think WikiLeaks is very heroic and very important and it’s true news.”
He’s Had Journalists Come To The Embassy
Gaga wasn’t the only famous visitor Assange had at the embassy. In fact, in 2016, in the weeks before WikiLeaks’ dump of Democratic emails ahead of the U.S. election, Assange had visits from an international cadre of 80 journalists and politicos (not including the photojournalists who often gather outside of the embassy for a shot of Assange). The list of visitors included American documentary filmmaker Michael Moore, the London bureau chief of Russia Today, Australian journalist and documentary filmmaker John Pilger and a Russian-born journalist living and working in the U.S.
Russia Today issued a statement about their meeting with Assange, saying, “RT learned about those emails at the same time as everyone else — when WikiLeaks began publishing them.”
We Don’t Know How Many Children He Has
It’s unclear how many children Assange has beyond his oldest, Daniel. Former WikiLeaks spokesman Daniel Domscheit-Berg claims in his book, “Inside WikiLeaks,” that he has more children around the world.
“Often I sat in large groups and listened to Julian boast about how many children he had fathered in various parts of the world,” Domscheit-Berg wrote in the book.
MSN reported that police documents say a witness has claimed Assange has at least four children, but any children beyond Daniel have not been confirmed. This could be for safety reasons, because Assange has said his children “have received death threats and are in hiding.”
An ‘Immense Desire For Justice’
Assange’s biological father, John Shipton, was out of the picture by the time of his first birthday, The Guardian reported. Shipton told Spanish newspaper El País in 2011 that he and Assange didn’t get to know each other until Assange was 25.
“He seems to have an immense desire for justice in the world,” he told the paper at the time.
Shipton became involved in some of his son’s legal proceedings because Assange had registered WikiLeaks in his name.
His Father Asked Australia For Help
After Assange was arrested at the Ecuadorian Embassy in London, Shipton asked the Australian government to intervene on his son’s behalf.
“DFAT and the prime minister should in a nuanced way do something. It can be resolved simply to the satisfaction of all,” he said, referring to Australia’s Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade. “There has been some talk in a meeting between a senator and a senior DFAT official to extradite Julian to Australia.”
He Just Made A Book A Bestseller
When he was arrested at the embassy, Assange was clutching a copy of Gore Vidal’s “History of the National Security State,” cover out. The message was clear: Assange was offering his commentary on the military-industrial complex and U.S. security enforcement. The statement had the secondary effect of bumping Vidal’s book onto Amazon’s bestsellers list in the days after it appeared in Assange’s hand.
He Has A Famous Cat
Amid the flurry of coverage over Assange’s arrest at the embassy, some observers’ biggest question was, what will happen to Assange’s cat? The gray-and-white tabby has his own Twitter and Instagram accounts under the handle Embassy Cat, though there are conflicting reports about the cat’s real name. The Week noted that the cat is often used for PR for his owner and that after Assange’s arrest, WikiLeaks posted a message that the kitty is “safe” with a picture of him watching news coverage of the arrest on television.