In case you haven't noticed, a pasty fugitive hacker has been at war with the U.S. government for the past few weeks while his minions use the net to attack global corporations. So what's all the fuss about?

Herewith, in honor of Wikileaks founder Julian Assange's impending release from a London jail, a field guide to the ongoing saga and its major players:

What is Wikileaks?

Wikileaks is a web site that launched in 2006. Its original aim was to provide a secure, anonymous platform for whistleblowers to upload documents about oppressive governments, corporations, and institutions, and to serve as a repository for distributing those documents to the public. While the site always had (anonymous) editors and subject matter experts who would verify submissions before posting them, it was supposed to be largely user-generated, publishing whatever its readers happened to leak—hence the "wiki" in the name. More recently, it has evolved into something closer to a traditional news site, with planned data dumps in place of stories, many of which are filtered through and published in collaboration with mainstream outlets.

Who runs it?

Julian Assange, a 39-year-old Australian, founded and controls Wikileaks. Assange has white hair, grew up on a place called Magnetic Island, never attended school regularly, spent ages 11 to 16 in hiding from his mother's abusive cult-member ex-boyfriend, and adopted the online moniker "Mendax" as a teen when he began hacking into servers at the Department of Defense, Los Alamos National Laboratory, and other sensitive targets. He was arrested by the Australian National Police in 1991 and charged with 31 counts related to his hacking; he pleaded guilty to 24 of them and avoided jail time. Prior to founding Wikileaks, he spent time as a programmer, blogger, security consultant, and physics student at the University of Queensland. He is essentially homeless, spending the vast majority of his time couch-surfing around the U.S., Iceland, and Europe. In his OKCupid profile, he described himself circa 2006 as engaged in changing the world through "passion, inspiration, and trickery," and his profile promises that he will regale hosts with tales of "attempted assassinations in Africa, telephone taps in Australia...election rigging, the Russian mafia...and politicians' wives." He has a 20-year-old son, Daniel Assange, in Melbourne.

Who else works with him?

Assange relies on a global network of volunteers to manage Wikileaks. Few of them have been named, but others publicly associated with the site include Kristinn Hrafnsson, a former investigative reporter for Iceland's National Broadcasting Service and current spokesman for Wikileaks, and Birgitta Jónsdóttir, a member of Iceland's parliament and information activist. According to Der Spiegel, it has recently begun paying staffers, and has spent $500,000 over the past five months.

What's the Iceland connection?

Assange has spent a lot of time there networking with activists working on something called the Icelandic Modern Media Initiative, a movement to make Iceland an international safe haven for journalists. It involves changing Iceland's laws to make reporter-source communications inviolate, protect whistle-blowers, and allow the creation of "virtual LLCs" in Iceland so publishers around the world can take advantage of its protections. Assange and Wikileaks became very popular in Iceland when the site published documents showing that the country's largest bank, which had to be bailed out in the financial crisis, issued enormous high-risk loans to its own shareholders.

So what's all the fuss about, exactly?

On November 28, 2010, Wikileaks, the Guardian, Der Spiegel, El Pais, and the New York Times all began publishing classified State Department cables obtained by Wikileaks. Assange claims to have a database of more than 250,000 cables containing confidential communications between State Department headquarters in Washington, D.C., and U.S. embassies around the globe. About half of those are classified Secret or Confidential; so far it has released just 1,269 cables. Wikileaks collaborated with the Guardian, Der Spiegel, and El Pais on the release by giving them the cables months in advance and agreeing to synchronize publication; the Guardian slipped them to the New York Times without Wikileaks' knowledge.

If and when the full 250,000-cable database is made public, it will be the largest such leak in history, and the U.S. government is apoplectic. The cables detail secret military strikes in Yemen; Saudi Arabia's sotto voce requests that the U.S. strike Iran's nuclear facilities; and the U.S.'s attempted use of diplomats to spy on other countries and the U.N., including instructions for foreign service officers to obtain credit card information and DNA samples from foreign diplomats. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said the release "endangers innocent people," "sabotages the peaceful relations between nations," and "tears at the fabric of responsible functioning of good government." Attorney General Eric Holder called the leak "arrogant, misguided and ultimately not helpful" and announced that an aggressive criminal investigation is underway.

But Wikileaks has done this before, right?

Indeed. Prior to 2010, most of Wikileaks' disclosures were relatively small-bore: The aforementioned Icelandic loan book, various CIA memos, secret documents about Scientology and the Mormon Church, an Army operations manual for Guantanamo Bay, and the like. Since mid-2010, the site has been on a tear of increasingly high-profile disclosures, starting in April with classified video of a U.S. helicopter gunship killing two Reuters journalists in Baghdad in July, 2007. Three months later, in July, Wikileaks released a cache of 92,000 classified military logs from Afghanistan in what it described as the "largest intelligence leak in history." Another three months after that, it dumped 391,832 classified action reports from Iraq. In each of the last two releases, as with the State Department cables, Wikileaks partnered with various mainstream news organizations, including the Times, to report out and give context to the data. And with each of the releases it encountered a growing chorus of official voices condemning the site in increasingly threatening terms.

So where does Wikileaks get this stuff?

Probably from a transsexual Army intelligence analyst and Lady Gaga fan in Iraq. Pfc. Bradley Manning, a 22-year-old soldier stationed in Iraq, was arrested by military investigators in June and charged with illegally accessing videos and hundreds of thousands of classified documents from U.S. intelligence databases. Though Manning has not been identified by Wikileaks as the source of any documents, the circumstances of his arrest make it pretty indisputable that Manning provided the video, the Afghan and Iraq war documents, and the cables: Manning reportedly contacted an American hacker named Adrian Lamo via instant message in May and confessed, unbidden, to having provided the gunship video and hundreds of thousands of diplomatic cables to Assange. Manning told Lamo that he procured the data by inserting a Lady Gaga CD-R into his classified laptop, erasing it, and copying hundreds of thousands of files while pretending to listen to the music. Lamo, a hacker of some note who had previously pleaded guilty to a federal charge stemming from hacking into the New York Times' web site, promptly alerted the FBI and the Army's Criminal Investigative Division, which arrested Manning on the strength of IM chats Lamo provided. According to the New York Times, Manning is gay and dated a "self-described drag queen"; Boing Boing's Xeni Jardin reads between the lines of his IM chats and concludes that Manning could be a pre-op transsexual.

So is this Assange fellow really a rapist?

Swedish prosecutors seem to think so. In August, after two women complained to the police in Stockholm that Assange had engaged in sex with them in a manner that was at least partially nonconsensual, Swedish prosecutors issued a warrant for his arrest on rape and sexual molestation charges. Assange denied the charges, and within days Sweden's chief prosecutor canceled the warrant, saying, "I don't think there is reason to suspect that he has committed rape." But within days after that, Sweden re-opened an investigation and re-issued the warrant.

According to the Daily Mail, the issue comes down to broken condoms: The paper says that Assange slept with one of the women, a local activist named Anna Ardin, while staying at her apartment in August. During their assignation, a condom broke. Separately, during the same trip, the paper says, Assange slept with another woman twice—the first time with a condom, and the second time without. The second women reportedly asked him to wear a condom during their second encounter, but Assange refused. While his refusal reportedly upset the second woman, she wasn't angry enough to immediately accuse him of rape—she went to breakfast with him and paid for his train ticket from her home back to Stockholm, the paper says. Likewise, the first woman reportedly continued to have cordial relations with Assange after their night together. It was only when Ardin and Woman #2 met and compared notes that they went to the police: Woman #2 wanted not to accuse him of rape, but to ask if it would be possible to force him to take an HIV test. Ardin went along for moral support, and not to make any complaint. But after talking to police officers, the paper says, their concerns were spun into rape allegations.

Swedish prosecutors' formal charges against Assange don't square with the Daily Mail's account: They accuse him of "pinning [one of the woman] down and refusing to use a condom" and later molesting her in a manner "designed to violate her sexual integrity." And they say he slept with the other woman without a condom while she was asleep. Ardin has, curiously, left Sweden in the aftermath of the charges, and has, according to her blog, moved to Israel.

Where is he now?

In jail near London. On December 1, Interpol issued a "red notice" to law enforcement authorities around the globe alerting them to the fact that Sweden wanted to prosecute Assange, who was in England at the time. Six days later, Assange turned himself into the British police. A judge initially refused to grant him bail, citing his globe-trotting nature and lack of residency in England. But at a hearing earlier today the judge reversed himself, agreeing to release Assange in exchange for a $315,000 bond and electronic monitoring. Sweden has appealed that decision, though, so he will remain in jail—in a cell once occupied by Oscar Wilde—for another 48 hours at least.

What happens next in the case?

Assange faces extradition to Sweden, which his lawyers intend to fight. His next hearing is on December 14. If extradited, he will likely face jail in Sweden and prosecution on the charges, which carry jail time.

Is this rape stuff a CIA plot?

No, it is not a CIA plot. Assange called the accusations a "smear campaign" against him, and some outlets have ludicrously tried to connect one of the women to the CIA. But if the CIA was on the ball enough to have two left-wing activists on hold in Sweden ready to seduce and frame a peripatetic target just in case he happens to come through, then it wouldn't have also videotaped its torture sessions?

This Assange fellow seems rather concerned with himself, no?

That's what a lot of people who work with him seem to think. Daniel Domschelt-Berg, the site's former spokesman (who went by the pseudonym Daniel Schmitt), broke with the site several months ago over what he described as Assange's tyrannical behavior. "You are not anyone's king or god," Domschelt-Berg told Assange via IM in August, according to Wired. "You behave like some kind of emperor or slave trader." Assange responded to the insolence by suspending him without pay for a month. When another employee protested on Domschelt-Berg's behalf, Assange replied, "I am the heart and soul of this organisation, its founder, philosopher, spokesperson, original coder, organiser, financier and all the rest. If you have a problem with me, piss off." In the aforementioned OKCupid profile, he boasts of his "nordic appearance," "unusual presence," and "Asian teengirl stalkers."

Other anonymous disaffected Wikileaks insiders have written periodic missives to the anti-secrecy site Cryptome complaining of Assange's exorbitant travel expenses and inadequate financial controls.

Assange's megalomania has led to at least a half-dozen defections since August, according to Wired. The Wikileaks refugees are launching their own competitor, called Openleaks.

Is Wikileaks being censored?

Absolutely. Aside from the chilling threat of criminal prosecution from Attorney General Eric Holder, who broke with Justice Department policy to confirm the existence of an investigation into Wikileaks, public and private entities have gone to extraordinary lengths to shut down the site. After a series of denial-of-service attacks shut down the site on the day Wikileaks released the cables, Assange moved his data onto Amazon's cloud servers. But Amazon kicked the site off after Sen. Joe Lieberman complained. Likewise, EveryDNS, the domain name server for, booted the site, forcing it to move to the Swiss domain Paypal, Mastercard, and Visa all stopped processing donations to Wikileaks, cutting off its primary source of funding, and the group's Swiss bank shut down its account, claiming that Assange lied about his address on his application. The federal government has effectively threatened all 2.15 million federal employees with reprimands, firing, or worse if they read the cables. All of this happened within days of Wikileaks publishing the cables.

Also, the following people have either directly called for Assange's assassination or offered veiled threats that he be treated "like a terrorist": Sarah Palin, Joe Lieberman, Rep. Peter King, Sen. Mitch McConnell, Newt Gingrich, and Jonah Goldberg.

So is anyone standing up for Wikileaks?

Yes! Anonymous, the leaderless distributed hacktivist internet collective affiliated with 4Chan, has launched one of the most vigorous online harassment campaigns in history, striking back at Mastercard, Visa, PayPal, and Amazon with denial of service attacks in what they call "Operation Payback." The group successfully shut down the sites for Mastercard, Visa, and Sarah Palin's PAC, and tried to shut down Amazon without success. Who are they? Who knows—anecdotal evidence suggests that there are a lot of teens, as you would expect of movements launched from the depths of 4Chan. And the one person who's been arrested so far for the Mastercard assault—a Dutch 16-year-old—matches that profile. But Anonymous is a lot more than a bunch of pissed off adolescents lashing out at corporations they don't like—their methods are much more sophisticated. As one member explained to the Christian Science Monitor: "The only reason these [denial of service attacks] actually work so well is because the press comes running every time they do it and ask for tons of articles."

What does Assange want?

Basically, he wants the U.S. government—as well as other regimes he regards as unjust—to function less efficiently. The big idea behind Wikileaks isn't just that secrets should be easy to leak, it's that governments shouldn't be able to count on keeping things secret. Assange regards the U.S. government as currently constituted as a conspiracy between and among rich and powerful people to keep themselves rich and powerful. He'd like to see that government/conspiracy fail and be supplanted by one that it is open and fair. Conspiracies don't work without secrecy, and the more work a conspiracy has to do to maintain its secrets, the more likely it will eventually fail. So the more work the U.S. government has to do to prevent the next Bradley Manning or Wikileaks data dump, the less responsive and nimble it will be. The plan is already working: The spectre of another spillage has caused the State Department and Pentagon to dramatically restrict access to the databases that Manning had access to. Eventually, Assange hopes, the accreted inefficiencies of warding off the next leak will cause the conspiracy to collapse under its own weight.

Is Assange really blackmailing the U.S. government by threatening to release more secrets if anything happens to him?

Yes. Wikileaks has released two huge encrypted files to the internet at large: In July, it posted a 1.4 gigabyte file called "insurance.aes256." More recently, it posted a link on its Twitter feed to a BitTorrent for an encrypted file called "history insurance." In both instances, the implicit threat is clear: Tens of thousands of people have downloaded both files around the globe, and all it takes as a password to reveal their contents. As Assange explained, "We have over a long period of time distributed encrypted backups of material we have yet to release. All we have to do is release the password to that material, and it is instantly available." The encrypted files are rumored to include the personal files of every Guantanamo Bay detainee. Assange has also claimed in the past to have the personal hard drive of a Bank of America executive.

How will this end?

Assange's lawyer has claimed that a grand jury is currently investigating Assange for violating the Espionage Act of 1917 and that he expects his client to be indicted at any moment. If that happens, it's unclear what's next. England is likely to grant Sweden's extradition request ahead of any filed by the U.S. And once he's in Sweden, it's not a slam-dunk that the U.S. could get its hands on him. Extradition treaties often require that the crime being allege have occurred in the jurisdiction of the country requesting extradition. In this instance, there's no evidence that Assange or any Wikileaks personnel or servers (which are in Sweden) were in U.S. territory or subject to its laws when they released the records. Extradition treaties also often bar extradition for political crimes, and Assange could make a fairly convincing case to a Swedish judge that any charges coming down the pike are political in nature.

If the U.S. does lay hands on Assange and prosecutes him under the Espionage Act or any other statutes restricting the distribution of classified information, it would constitute the most aggressive government attack on the press since the Nixon Administration's attempt to bar publication of the Pentagon Papers.

As for what's next for Wikileaks itself, that's even less clear. While it has established a backlog of submissions that it has yet to release—including, Assange has suggested, material relating to Russia and China—it remains to be seen whether it can continue to attract the leaks that it needs. The site is completely dependent on the willingness of whistleblowers to come forward. It doesn't conduct enterprise reporting of its own. The publicity of the last few months has clearly been a boon in terms of generating those submissions, but the concomitant turmoil means that it's submissions page has been down "due to re-engineering improvements" for several months, so no new data has been coming into the system. Once it cycles through its current backlog, who knows if there will be any fresh revelations to make governments quake?

And that is the story of Mendax, the rapey pasty hacker who, with the help of a transsexual soldier and an anonymous army of teenagers, launched the first global infowar. The story ends when he becomes data and disappears into the internet.

[All images via Getty]