WikiLeaks’ crypto wakes up as Assange awaits extradition verdict

Back in 2011, Julian Assange and WikiLeaks turned to Bitcoin after they were debanked due to Cablegate

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Julian Assange campaign poster | Karl Nesh/Shutterstock modified by Blockworks

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Julian Assange was dragged out of the Ecuadorian embassy in London almost five years ago, when the UK arrested the WikiLeaks founder on espionage charges levied by the US.

He’d spent six and a half years holed up in the embassy, restricted to only 330 square feet. Since then, Assange has been held in a maximum security prison in southeast London, awaiting potential trial in the US.

In 2012, Assange requested asylum after a British district court ruled he should be extradited to Sweden due to a spurious rape investigation. Swedish prosecutors later dropped the case after Assange’s arrest in 2019.

Assange must now wait until at least next month to find out whether he can fight extradition to the US over separate espionage charges. Altogether the charges carry a combined maximum sentence of 175 years’ imprisonment.

A UK judge had initially blocked US extradition citing concerns for Assange’s deteriorating mental health, but the request was eventually approved in 2022. 

WikiLeaks is considered by many to be a journalistic operation, responsible for some of the biggest information disclosures in history. But the US Department of Justice alleges Assange’s work with whistleblower Chelsea Manning — which culminated in the 2010 publishing of a cache of confidential government files — went beyond journalism and into spycraft.

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WikiLeaks X timeline is documenting wide ranging support for Assange’s release

Authorities say the files WikiLeaks released contained sensitive information that put lives at risk. Among the “Cablegate” files was a 39-minute video of Apache helicopters during the Iraq war firing and killing a number of civilians, as well as two journalists working for Reuters.

In the days following the video’s release, in December 2010, WikiLeaks suffered what it described as a “banking blockade.” PayPal, Mastercard, Visa, Western Union and Bank of America suddenly cut off all access to WikiLeaks bank accounts, “destroying 95% of [its] revenue.” 

“This decision is based upon our reasonable belief that WikiLeaks may be engaged in activities that are, among other things, inconsistent with our internal policies for processing payments,” Bank of America said at the time. Companies and other organizations keeping WikiLeaks online faced political pressure to cease working with the group.

WikiLeaks said the blockade forced it to run on cash reserves alone, and about six months later, the group announced it would accept donations in bitcoin for the first time ever. 

Bitcoin creator Satoshi Nakamoto, who was still active at the time, responded to a PCWorld article detailing the potential for Bitcoin as a solution to WikiLeaks’ banking woes with a post on BitcoinTalk: 

“It would have been nice to get this attention in any other context. WikiLeaks has kicked the hornet’s nest, and the swarm is headed towards us.”

Nakamoto left their last-ever message on the following day and has not been heard from since.

WikiLeaks’ adoption of Bitcoin represented one of the most concrete justifications for the currency’s value proposition to date. Bitcoin had been around for less than two years at that point and traded for less than $10. 

About 3,050 BTC flowed into WikiLeaks’ wallet over the next 13 months leading up to Assange’s arrival at the Ecuadorian embassy. Those donations were worth about $18,000 at the time they were sent. Today they’d fetch upwards of $157 million, thanks to bitcoin’s exponential price growth.

Another 990 BTC flowed into WikiLeaks in the years Assange spent in asylum, valued at $478,000 at their individual times of donation. Those bitcoins would be worth $51 million right now.

The largest individual inflows so far are a 16.99 BTC transaction sent in May 2021 (worth $850,00 then and about the same today) and a 12.23 BTC transfer in February 2022 ($543,00 then, $630,000 now).

Another $162,000 in ether has flowed into WikiLeaks since opening ETH donations in 2018

WikiLeaks eventually regained access to more traditional finance rails, including PayPal and credit cards, through the Wau Holland foundation, which still manages the group’s finances.

But Bitcoiners clearly haven’t forgotten the formative relationship between WikiLeaks and Bitcoin. 

More than 35 BTC has been deposited into WikiLeaks’ donation wallet since Assange was ripped from the Ecuadorian embassy in April 2019, cumulatively worth $1.13 million ($1.8 million today). 

About 2.45 BTC ($66,100 then, $126,300 now) was sent over the past year, including two individual deposits last June of almost a full bitcoin each. Smaller donations are received every few days, as recently as Wednesday.

WikiLeaks wallets now contain only 3.265 BTC ($168,000) compared to 4,079 BTC total inflows. Overall, it appears Bitcoin users have donated $1.62 million in BTC to WikiLeaks since it opened donations 13 years ago. If held until today, that BTC would be worth $210 million.

As for what WikiLeaks does with its crypto donations, the group previously said the funds would pay for “WikiLeaks projects, staff, servers and protective infrastructure.” Last week, WikiLeaks made its first transaction in two years when it shifted 10.459 ETH ($31,200) to another address.

WikiLeaks has however been quiet since it dropped the “Intolerance Network” in 2021, a trove of documents spanning 16 years detailing the formation of influential right-wing campaigning organizations out of Spain. 

Assange later said it was not possible for WikiLeaks to continue publishing while he was imprisoned, partly due to the potential for government retaliation felt by whistleblowers

In any case, Bitcoiners seem ready to continue paying tribute to WikiLeaks as Assange awaits his next legal verdict.


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