In April 2010, a little-known group called WikiLeaks released footage taken by a U.S. Army helicopter as it overflew a Baghdad suburb three years earlier, near the height of the Iraq War. At the end of the video — after the viewer had watched cannonfire slam into a crowd and listened to American soldiers calmly target and mow down survivors, including two Reuters employees — the credits rolled.
The first name on the screen was Julian Assange, “producer, creative director” — not to mention self-taught hacker and the man who founded WikiLeaks to take secrets from the powerful and give them to the public. That’s how Assange was introduced to the world, though it may be hard to remember after he was captured in London on Thursday — a haggard, white-bearded man in his late 40s, whose popular reputation as a First Amendment hero had atrophied since 2010 to the point of unrecognizability.
The gunship video was viewed millions of time on YouTube, and WikiLeaks followed it up by releasing huge caches of classified U.S. documents: embarrassing diplomatic cables and disturbing revelations about the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. By the end of 2010, Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell had called Assange a “a high-tech terrorist,” Secretary of State Hillary Clinton had accused him of launching an “attack” on the world, and future president Donald Trump had suggested those involved in the leaks be executed.
What so many politicians condemned, so much of the public celebrated.
Assange was instantly praised by First Amendment and press freedom groups. The readers of Time magazine and Le Monde overwhelmingly voted for him in celebrity-of-the-year contests. He gave a TED talk. International newspapers worked behind the scenes with Assange to publish tens of thousands of leaked documents. And even after Assange went into hiding from the growing number of governments investigating him for alleged crimes ranging from sexual assault to espionage, reporters and TV hosts managed to track him down for sometimes fawning interviews.
WikiLeaks “tries to make the world more civil and act against abusive organizations that are pushing it in the opposite direction,” Assange told Time in a Skype call from a secret location for a December 2010 cover story. The magazine illustrated it with a picture of the silver-haired, not-quite-40-year-old Australian gagged with an American flag.
The flag might bind his wrists if the illustration were made today, after British police finally captured Assange and frogmarched him through London to await possible extradition to the United States on hacking charges. But would anyone bother to make one?
“He was an unstable figure who was an unfortunate avatar for press freedom,” said Alex Gibney, who wrote and directed the 2013 documentary “We Steal Secrets: The Story of WikiLeaks.” “I think instinctively, he was always kind of a renegade and also a narcissist, and self-serving and mendacious.”
Until his arrest on Thursday morning, Assange was last seen in public when he took refuge inside Ecuador’s embassy in London in the summer of 2012 — by then a pariah, suspect or fugitive to most of the governments in Europe and North America.
“A courageous Latin American nation took a stand for justice,” Assange told a crowd of supporters from the embassy balcony that August. “And to the people of the United States, United Kingdom, Sweden and Australia who have supported me in strength, even when their governments have not, and to those wiser heads in government who are still fighting for justice, your day will come.”
Assange remained inside the embassy building for the next seven years. London police officers kept a nearly constant guard outside, with orders to arrest him the moment he set foot on British soil, and so he did not. Assange continued to give occasional balcony speeches, release occasional videos and entertain occasional celebrity guests — they included Noam Chomsky to Lady Gaga in the early 2010s. He adopted a kitten and made a Twitter account for it that drew modest attention.
But as the U.S. wars faded from public discussion and memories of that old helicopter footage faded from memory, Assange’s celebrity dwindled, too.
He might have been simply forgotten by his fans — maybe even by his enemies — had WikiLeaks not scored another big scoop in the middle of a U.S. presidential election.
In the summer of 2016, as Assange managed WikiLeaks from his small bedroom in the Ecuadoran Embassy, the group published tens of thousands of emails recently stolen from the Democratic National Committee — dramatically disrupting the party’s national convention.
This did nothing to endear Assange to Clinton, who was chosen at the convention as the Democratic presidential nominee, nor to the intelligence community, which later concluded that hackers working for the Russian government had given the emails to WikiLeaks in an attempt to manipulate the U.S. election.
But WikiLeaks did finally win the admiration of Trump, who was then in the process of taking over the national Republican Party. As Aaron Blake wrote this week in The Washington Post: “Trump mentioned WikiLeaks more than 100 times in just the final month of the 2016 campaign, according to Factba.se. Many of those times, he expressed admiration for its work. ‘This WikiLeaks stuff is unbelievable,’ he said once. ‘Boy, I love reading those WikiLeaks,’ he said another time. Yet another time: ‘Oh, we love WikiLeaks. Boy, they have really — WikiLeaks! They have revealed a lot.’ ”
Assange, who once spoke of uniting the world’s majority against its elite, began to sound and act like a simple partisan. He gave an interview to Trump-friendly Fox News host Sean Hannity, who had him promise viewers that he was not working with the Russian government. Assange appeared to suggest that a Democratic National Committee employee who had recently died in a botched robbery — Seth Rich — had been his source for the 2016 leaks, fueling right-wing conspiracy theories that Democrats had Rich murdered in retaliation.
Assange remained the subject of media fascination, but now the profiles were tempered with doubts about his motivations and questions about his alleged links to the Russian government. “WikiLeaks, an organization purportedly devoted to transparency, is at a minimum okay with helping out the world’s most aggressively authoritarian leader,” Vox wrote in 2017.
“Over time, people have seen that Julian’s behavior and motivations have become increasingly more unprincipled. That’s given a lot of people pause,” said Gibney, the documentarian. “When Donald Trump invokes his name during the campaign — ‘I love WikiLeaks’ — it seems like he [Assange] is motivated by pique against Hillary Clinton and personal animus.”
Assange has denied that. He has consistency denied any strategy other than exposing what the most powerful people in the world do not want exposed to the least. But if the public might once have widely believed that, many greeted Assange’s capture in London on Thursday with something less than sympathy.
“THAT’LL WIPE THE SMILE OFF HIS FACE,” gloated a headline in the Daily Mail, which in 2012 had sent a reporter to profile Assange’s lonely existence inside the embassy.
And in the United States, where Assange first earned his celebrity and where he might soon be brought for a federal trial:
“I know nothing about WikiLeaks,” President Trump told reporters. “I know there is something having to do with Julian Assange. . . . I know nothing really about him.”
Still, the American Civil Liberties Union and other civil rights groups have stood by WikiLeaks since the beginning, and they condemned Assange’s arrest as an attack on press freedom dressed up as justice. “How could you Ecuador? . . . How could you UK?” Pamela Anderson, the former “Baywatch” star who befriended Assange during his long stay at the embassy, tweeted rhetorically.
So Julian Assange has been a globally beloved hero and a globally hunted villain, and now he will be known as a prisoner for the immediate future. Gibney, who has studied him in all these manifestations, won’t be surprised if Assange finds a way to transform himself once again.
“He’s certainly positioning himself as a free-speech martyr,” Gibney said. “We’ll have to see whether that’s properly earned.”