August 21, 2017 Issue
Julian Assange, a Man Without a Country
From his tiny sanctum in London, the founder of WikiLeaks has interfered with the world’s most powerful institutions.
By Raffi Khatchadourian
Assange at the Ecuadorian Embassy in London. He has not left the Embassy since he sought asylum there, in June, 2012.Photograph by Nadav Kander for The New Yorker
The Ecuadorian Embassy in London is situated at the end of a wide brick lane, next to the Harrods department store, in Knightsbridge. Sometimes plainclothes police officers, or vans with tinted windows, can be found outside the building. Sometimes there are throngs of people around it. Sometimes there is virtually no one, which was the case in June, 2012, when Julian Assange, the publisher of WikiLeaks, arrived, disguised as a motorcycle courier, to seek political asylum. In the five years since then, he has not set foot beyond the Embassy. Nonetheless, he has become a global influence, proving that with simple digital tools a single person can craft a new kind of power—a distributed, transnational power, which functions outside norms of state sovereignty that have held for centuries. Encouraged by millions of supporters, Assange has interfered with the world’s largest institutions. His releases have helped fuel democratic uprisings—notably in Tunisia, where a revolution sparked the Arab Spring—and they have been submitted as evidence in human-rights cases around the world. At the same time, Assange’s methodology and his motivations have increasingly come under suspicion. During the Presidential election last year, he published tens of thousands of hacked e-mails written by Democratic operatives, releasing them at pivotal moments in the campaign. They provoked strikingly disparate receptions. “I love WikiLeaks,” Donald Trump declared, in exultant gratitude. After the election, Hillary Clinton argued that the releases had been instrumental in keeping her from the Oval Office.
Shortly after Trump’s Inauguration, I flew to London, to visit Assange—the first of several trips, and many hours of interviews, to better understand how he runs WikiLeaks, how he has been living, how his political views have changed, and what role Russia has had in his operation. Even as a new inquiry opened into possible collusion between Trump-campaign operatives and Russia, “the WikiLeaks connection,” as James Clapper, the director of National Intelligence, put it last year, remained obscure.
Assange is not an easy man to get on the phone, let alone to see in person. He is protected by a group of loyal staffers and a shroud of organizational secrecy. One friend compared him to the central figure in Philip K. Dick’s “The Man in the High Castle”—a recluse trying to reset the course of history. In many ways, the Embassy has become a surreal redoubt: a place of extreme seclusion in the center of a bustling world capital; a protective stronghold that few can enter, even though it is the target of millions of dollars’ worth of covert surveillance.
The easiest route to the Embassy, if you are using the London Underground, is through the Knightsbridge station, next to Harrods. The building, at 3 Hans Crescent, is a block away. Although Assange has remained in his sanctum for years, he is attuned to his immediate surroundings: real-estate ownership, the Lamborghinis parked nearby, the habits of Arab sheikhs descending on local night spots. The lane between the station and the Embassy is packed with tourists. Assange knows the street artists and buskers there (for years, one has been playing the theme song to “Knots Landing” over and over). At the end of the block, the brick façade of the Embassy is visible—its tricolor flag hanging from the white Juliet balcony where, from time to time, Assange issues proclamations.
Arriving at the building’s front entrance, I rang the buzzer, and a heavyset doorman came out, wearing the look of a bouncer accustomed to turning people away.
“I’m here to see Mr. Assange.”
“Do you have an appointment?”
“Ah,” he said, brightening. “Then come in.” A guard inside the Embassy had me empty my pockets and my bag onto a coffee table, then scanned my body with a security wand. Assange rarely allows visitors to carry electronics, so I was instructed to turn over my phone. The guard then directed me into a small conference room, closing the door behind me without giving any indication how long I could expect to wait.
Most visitors—even celebrity friends, like PJ Harvey and Brian Eno—meet Assange only here. Like the rest of the Embassy, the room is small, and the windows are cloaked with drapes. There is a poster, published by the Ecuadorian ministry of foreign relations, of a tubby, grinning pre-Columbian figurine. There are cabinets filled with books, including dusty rows of a red-bound series, “Biblioteca Ecuatoriana Mínima” (1960). Near the ceiling, there is a surveillance camera. Hanging above the conference table from thin rods are two curious white orbs, each about the size of a volleyball.
When I first met Assange, seven years ago, he was living out of a backpack. Now he is a man with aides-de-camp. One of them—I will call him Mr. Picabia—entered the conference room. “I’ll rouse Julian,” he said, smiling. On the way out, he flipped some switches on a tiny black box, and the orbs above filled the room with white noise. “He’ll probably want them on,” he said.
After a few minutes, Assange walked in. “Mr. Khatchadourian,” he said, seriously, as he opened the door. I extended my right hand to shake his, and he responded by giving me his left hand, palm up, redefining the exchange on his terms. He was once rail thin, but, at forty-six, he is softening in the middle. He looked pale—one close friend described his skin as “translucent.” His hand trembled a little. His hair was short, white, messy.
Assange was wearing a red shirt, tucked into black trousers without a belt, and he seemed groggy. He was fighting battles around the world; he told me that he has had a hundred and fifty lawyers work on his behalf. Ecuador’s Presidential elections were just weeks away, and a key candidate was vowing to evict him from the Embassy. In Sweden, a criminal investigation into whether he had committed rape in Stockholm, in 2010, was dragging on. In the United States, the possibility loomed of a secret grand-jury indictment, related to documents that he had leaked years earlier. Although WikiLeaks has always been a magnet for criticism, the reaction to his election publications was unusually severe, with Assange gaining a reputation in Washington as a Russian intelligence asset. “Wonderful, isn’t it!” he told me. “These motherfuckers have taken on board a rhetorical device, and the rhetorical device is the ‘fallen man’ or the ‘fallen angel.’ It used to be great, and now it’s bad.”
Often, the lulls between major publications are difficult for him. With the 2016 campaign behind him, he was focussing on a new project—a mysterious archive that he called Vault 7. The work was invigorating, but his prolonged isolation was clearly taking a toll. Assange has a fractured tooth, and a shoulder injury that requires an MRI, but if he leaves the Embassy for treatment he will face certain arrest. “At one point, he was looking for an orthopedic doctor, and doctors were basically refusing to go in there,” Ben Griffin, a former British Special Forces soldier who volunteers as his personal trainer, told me. As a precaution, Ecuador tried to negotiate a “safe passage” by which Assange could be admitted to a hospital without compromising his diplomatic protections, but the negotiations fell through. In the Embassy, a whiteboard lists the complex procedures involved should he face a medical emergency.
Assange’s physical universe for the past five years has been roughly three hundred and thirty square feet, comprising his private quarters and a few rooms that he shares with Ecuadorian staff. “It’s like living in a space shuttle,” a friend of his told me. Out of concerns about security, and also perhaps because paparazzi occasionally wait for him on the street, he rarely parts the drapes in the daytime, or stands at the balcony. He lives in a continuous state of hypervigilance, believing that the Embassy could be stormed at any moment. Shortly after he arrived, British authorities threatened to strip the Embassy of its diplomatic protections and apprehend him by force. Ecuador’s foreign minister responded, “We want to be very clear, we’re not a British colony.” Assange told me that, preparing for imminent arrest, he readied a pair of handcuffs so that he could physically secure himself to the Ecuadorian consul. After that, British officers stationed outside taunted him by banging on the walls at four in the morning, and for a time Assange slept in a different room each night.
The uniformed men were removed in 2015. In their place, Scotland Yard initiated more intensive covert monitoring. Anyone familiar with Assange’s world view knows that this was far more psychologically stressful for him. He does not like to admit vulnerability, but in 2015 a specialist on isolation and trauma visited him and was struck by the way he was changing. Pointing out clutter accumulating in his bedroom, the doctor asked if Assange registered the mess. Never known for tidiness, Assange explained that his landscape was becoming a blur. “The walls of the Embassy are as familiar as the interior of my eyelids,” he said. “I see them, but I do not see them.” With reluctance, he admitted that he has suffered bouts of depression, and that his sleep was disrupted by anxiety. He often stays awake for eighteen, or twenty, or twenty-two hours, until he collapses from exhaustion. Increasingly, the passage of time is difficult for him to gauge. “Nothing is before or after,” he told the doctor. “There are diminishing reference points.” Yet Assange has developed an acute sensitivity to his environment. One evening, he told me, “I have a sixth sense of the dynamics of the Embassy.” He raised a hand in an operatic gesture, as if holding a wand. “Just based on environmental—the flow of the air, the little rumbles, people walking, typing.”
Before Assange gained notoriety, he lived a reclusive, rootless life. While he was growing up, in Australia, his mother moved the family dozens of times, and the habit of motion seems to have persisted; he once wrote software on the Trans-Siberian Express. When I first got to know him, in 2010, he was traversing Europe, in possession of what he claimed was a roster of modest international leaks: documents about the BBC, Canadian detainees, Hungarian finance, Romanian police, Israeli diplomacy, and “some Russian and Chinese stuff that I can’t read.” None of it compared, though, to the trove of classified documents that a young Army private, Chelsea Manning, had just provided him: half a million military records from Iraq and Afghanistan, and a quarter of a million diplomatic cables from the State Department, among other things. Suddenly, he was walking around with gigabytes of secrets belonging to a superpower, and his worry about being surveilled had grown extreme. “There’s all sorts of aggressive intelligence action happening,” he told me. “Lots of spying.” He was trying to fly to Iceland, to connect with activists there, and he suggested that I come immediately to meet him.
A few days later, I stepped off an airport shuttle bus at Reykjavík’s station a little after dawn, uncertain whether I would find him, but there he was, dressed in a silver full-body snowsuit. (He had been out all night with friends to see a volcano that had recently erupted.) “You didn’t call,” he chided me, in a way that mixed humor and irritation. We climbed a hill from the bus station into town, and on the way to his base, in a rented clapboard house, we got lost; Assange has a terrible sense of direction. That morning, he showed me an Army video that Manning had given him, and we went through it moment by moment. He had known me for only a few hours, but back then he trusted journalists readily. A few months later, I wrote about the footage, which he released as “Collateral Murder,” and about his personal history, in a piece for this magazine titled “No Secrets.” I did not imagine that there would be so many secrets to come.
Since then, in addition to Manning’s releases, he has published millions of documents, including hacked e-mails from corporations and public figures, international trade agreements, and foreign government records. Some of these publications have brought real harm to the documents’ owners, some have altered public perceptions about war and state power, and some have been damaging to individual privacy, with no public benefit. In his confinement, Assange has become a quixotic cultural icon, helping to give the solitary act of whistle-blowing the contours of a movement. Dr. Martens has issued boots in his name, sculptors have cast him in alloy, and lyricists have memorialized him in song. He has inspired a Bond villain, and the fiction of Jonathan Franzen; he has mixed with A-list musicians, like Lady Gaga, and A-list dissenters, like Noam Chomsky. At the same time, he has had to navigate myriad legal and managerial complications: multiple F.B.I. investigations, crippling staff mutinies, venomous fights with journalists.
Whether you see Assange as a “fallen man” depends on how you viewed him to begin with. He has detractors who believe that he is a criminal, or a maniac, or both, and supporters who consider him an immaculate revolutionary. There have been calls for his assassination, and for him to be given a Nobel Peace Prize. Assange often describes himself in simple terms—as a fearless activist—but his character is complicated, and hard to reconcile with his considerable power. He is not merely the kind of person who will wear socks with holes; he is the kind of person who will wear socks with holes and rain fury upon anyone who mentions the holes in public. He can be mistrustful to the point of paranoia, but he can be recklessly frank. He tends to view human behavior as self-interested, driven by a Nietzschean will to power, but he runs an organization founded on the idea that individuals can be selflessly courageous. He is a seeker of hard, objective truths who often appears to be unable to see past his own realities. He can be quick in the moment, an impressive tactician, and he is often fairly blind to the long arcs of strategy.
Assange is a difficult person, and he knows it. The people who care for him see a driven, obstinate man who has constructed around himself a maze of deflections, but they see this behavior as evidence of vulnerability, rather than of malice or narcissism. They recognize that his urge to resist conformity is often greater than his urge to be understood. Beyond the noise of his persona, they see the chief custodian of a technology that can be used for transformative good; whatever the hostility that he provokes, they maintain that there is no way his work could proceed without angering people.
Assange’s harshest critics know him personally, too. They see that, beneath his maze of deflections, there is a man with no core beliefs except in augmenting his own power. They see someone with a romantic view of himself in the world—he once wrote, “The surest escape from the mundane is to teleport into the tragic realm”—who is also titanically self-absorbed, and desperate never to appear reactive. Assange told me in 2010, “When you are much brighter than the people you are hanging around with, which I was as a teen-ager, two things happen. First of all, you develop an enormous ego. Secondly, you start to think that everything can be solved with just a bit of thinking—but ideology is too simple to address how things work.”
At the start of this year, as the allegations grew that Assange had facilitated an act of Russian information warfare, his closest friends strove to offer a protective circle of support. “This wholesale campaign to portray Julian as a supporter of Trump has done a great deal of damage,” Yanis Varoufakis, the former Greek finance minister, told me. His defenders have had to withstand blistering attacks from critics. “I don’t let them win,” another friend assured Assange.
One afternoon, while I was at the Embassy, Pamela Anderson, the former “Baywatch” star and a vegan activist, walked in, dressed in a demure tweed overcoat, and took a seat in the lobby. Since last October, Anderson has been stopping by the Embassy regularly. Assange led her to the conference room, and they spoke for about an hour—their conversation disguised by white noise, though Assange’s voice dominated, in long soliloquies. (“I’m being persecuted!” he declared at one point, loud enough to be audible through the walls.) After their meeting, the two emerged. Anderson held a notebook and a pen. “Hours go by, and I take a lot of notes,” she later told me.
Anderson and Assange have been dropping hints to fuel speculation of a romance; certainly, a juicy tabloid story would make for a convenient diversion from a run of withering press. But, as a close Assange supporter explained, “The Ecuadorians are trying to run their Embassy. They are quite a Catholic nation, and so the idea of him having his girlfriends come in is quite a difficult one. I don’t think it really happens.” In the conference room, Assange and Anderson had met under the unblinking gaze of the surveillance camera.
Anderson told me that she was a “bridge” between Assange’s cloistered world and life beyond it. But it was a bridge that primarily went one way. “I was in the rain forest in Brunei, and I was at home in Canada and it was snowing, and I made these videos and sent them to him, and it devastated him,” she said. “Seeing the great outdoors is very difficult for him. So that’s something that I did wrong.” She defended him as a visionary, a David casting stones at Goliaths. “He’s a political prisoner,” she said. “He is the hard line—and I always say that there has to be an extreme for there to be a middle ground.” She shared some adoring odes that she had been writing:
As for Romance
How impossible it is to
have feelings for
Not because of his heart
But his circumstances.
Constantly under threat
Threatened to be killed.
As Anderson left, Assange asked me, “Have you met my cat?” It darted past us.
“Is this the one with the Twitter account?” I said.
“It is,” he said. “It’s Michi, which is Ecuadorian for ‘cat.’ ” The animal’s name was in flux, he explained. “When Castro died, we started calling it Cat-stro.” Assange had told the tabloids that the cat was a gift from his children. (He has several, some of whom live in France, under assumed names.) But someone who knows him well told me a different story: “Julian stared at the cat for about half an hour, trying to figure out how it could be useful, and then came up with this: Yeah, let’s say it’s from my children. For a time, he said it didn’t have a name because there was a competition in Ecuador, with schoolchildren, on what to name him. Everything is P.R.—everything.”
“Who’s been nibbling at my kale house?”
An hour into my first visit, Mr. Picabia interrupted to tell Assange that guests had arrived: George Gittoes, an Australian artist, and his wife, Hellen Rose. The plan was for Assange to set aside his work and allow Gittoes, an old family friend, to paint his portrait. Gittoes has spent his life in war-torn countries—Rwanda, Somalia, Cambodia, Nicaragua—and currently lives in Afghanistan. “He is way more interesting than me—way more,” Assange said.
Gittoes was dressed in black. With a graying, neatly groomed beard and long hair draping over his shoulders, he looked like an elderly member of the Allman Brothers Band. Rose has dark hair and an easy smile. The two greeted Assange with hugs, and Gittoes handed him a book: “Debriefing the President: The Interrogation of Saddam Hussein,” by John Nixon, a former C.I.A. agent who interviewed the Iraqi leader and came to believe that he had been misunderstood. “I know you’ll love it,” Gittoes said. For the next three hours, he photographed Assange, making studies for an oversized diptych: two canvases, each seven feet tall and about as wide. They spent a good deal of time trying to figure out where his hands should go, to avoid any unwanted symbolism.
One half of the diptych was based on a conversation that Assange had with Gittoes and Rose, one evening in 2015. They sat around a toolbox that Assange was using for a table in his bedroom, and ate takeout sushi and drank sake, and after the sake was finished Assange produced an armful of half-consumed bottles of liquor—gifts from other visitors. Late in the evening, with everyone sprawled on a rug, he spoke about Edgewalkers. “It’s a Julian thing,” Gittoes explained to me. “He reckons that many people think they walk on the edge, living a risky life, but an Edgewalker really walks on the edge, and that he is a real Edgewalker.” Gittoes had worked out a painting that would depict this by having Assange gaze over a precipice that was crafted from smashed bits of mirror.
The other half of the diptych was intended to capture a curious existential quality of Assange’s confinement: on the one hand, he was estranged from the hundred and ninety-seven million square miles of the planet outside the Embassy; on the other, his likeness and his words were continuously circling the globe in digital form, refracted through the biases of supporters and detractors. Last October, just before the U.S. election, the degree to which the two realities were intertwined became evident when the Embassy cut off Assange’s access to the Internet. With Assange’s digital self gone, conspiracy theories spread that he had been kidnapped or killed. (The Daily Star reported, “shock claims: Julian Assange ‘murdered by CIA who have hijacked WikiLeaks.’ ”) Assange at first regarded the theories as silly, but then he became concerned that they were discouraging supporters from donating, or whistle-blowers from submitting material. He considered distributing a video of himself reading sports scores, but videos could be faked. Supporters requested that he stand at the balcony, but that didn’t really solve the problem, since the “proof” for most people would be a photo, and this could be doctored. His two selves could not be reconciled.
“I can see the painting,” Gittoes wrote in his diary. He imagined Assange surrounded by images of himself on television screens. “It will have a mystical quality with the screens seeming both like ghosts and a personal nightmare.” For several days, he lugged the canvases across London—to the Frontline Club, where he painted in a private dining salon until he was asked to pack up, and then to a studio on the city’s outskirts. Eventually, he lugged them to the Embassy, to paint Assange’s eyes from life.
“Wow,” Assange said, pointing to the half of the diptych featuring the many versions of himself. Each was painted to represent a different emotion. “The angry Julian looks a bit like terrified Julian. I don’t know if it could be made to look less frightened.”
“I was kind of in a state of shock when I saw you,” Gittoes said. “You’ve got a much deeper face right now. You’ve changed a bit because you are under so much pressure—the furrows.”
“I don’t mind looking old,” Assange said. “That’s not where my value is. My value is looking tough.”
“You want to look tough?” Gittoes asked. He set up tins of acrylic on newspapers, while Rose went to get takeout from a local chef who wanted to support Assange by making them all crab linguine. When she returned, she asked if she could film Gittoes painting Assange for a documentary about the project which was in development. “I’d like to have a moment where you say to George, ‘Oh, that’s a great painting,’ ” she said. “And George just says—”
“I would never aspire to have a great painting,” Assange said. “That’s vain.”
“O.K.,” Rose said, and suggested that the two men merely greet each other.
“It can’t be public,” Assange said, his tone sharpening. “There cannot be an image of Julian Assange looking at himself in a painting. That’s madness—absolute madness. That image is much worse for me than the painting is positive. Understand?” After much discussion, someone suggested that the two men be photographed together, with the canvas turned toward a wall, and Assange assented. “I think it’s not too bad,” he said. “And it’s O.K. that my character is broader a bit, as someone who appreciates art.”
“I’m going to get some forks for the linguine,” Rose said.
While everyone ate pasta from Styrofoam containers, Assange explained the mechanics of his diet. Usually, someone he trusts brings him food. “It has to be brought in discreetly,” he said. “If it is all from the same place, it is a security risk.” He rolled some linguine around his fork. “I don’t want to sound paranoid. The Embassy has security staff, and they have concluded that it is too dangerous.” The worry is not that he will be fatally poisoned, he said; it is that he will become ill enough to require a trip to the hospital and thus lose his asylum status. He ate his forkful, and added, “It’s the best linguine in Ecuador in London.”
For some time, Assange has adopted the media habits of the powerful, restricting his appearances to brief, high-profile television interviews, conversations with friendly interlocutors, managed press events, and Twitter. On November 5th, days before the election, in a TV interview with one of his fiercest defenders, he declared, “We can say that the Russian government is not the source” of the election e-mails—a denial that did nothing to quell a growing suspicion, even among close supporters, that he was not being honest. “He says they’re not Russians,” one of them told me. “Well, he can’t know that. It could be his source was a front for the Russians. I think the truth is important, however it’s acquired, but if he knew it was the Russians, and didn’t declare it, that would be a problem for me.”
The problem was obvious. WikiLeaks, like many journalistic organizations, has long insisted on keeping its sources secret. However, Assange was not merely maintaining silence; he was actively pushing a narrative about his sourcing, in which Russia was not involved. He once told me, “WikiLeaks is providing a reference set to undeniably true information about the world.” But what if, in the interest of source protection, he was advancing a falsehood that was more significant than the reference set itself? Arguably, his election publications only underscored what was known about the Democratic National Committee and Hillary Clinton. His denials, meanwhile, potentially obfuscated an act of information warfare between two nuclear-armed powers.
That the stakes were so high was a potent indication of the immense power that WikiLeaks has acquired since it was founded, in 2006. Assange projects an image of his organization as small and embattled—as if it had not changed much since the days when he and a few friends were the only people involved. But today, he told me, the WikiLeaks annual budget runs in the millions of dollars, supplied partly by donations that are funnelled through N.G.O.s. In 2016 alone, WikiLeaks raised hundreds of thousands of dollars from donors in the United States. “He has money in tax havens,” one colleague told me. “They have so much money in bitcoin it’s ridiculous—meanwhile, there are all these poor people who are chipping in money who feel like he is not getting enough support to eat.” In Assange’s view, the donations provide a level of editorial independence that few mainstream competitors have.
Assange has increasingly used the money to offer rewards for information: fifty thousand dollars for footage of a hospital bombed in Afghanistan; a hundred and twenty thousand for documents about international trade negotiations. When Trump implied that he had taped his White House meetings with James Comey, Assange tweeted, “WikiLeaks offers US $100K for the Trump-Comey tapes.” At one stroke, he appeared to endorse Trump’s bogus claim about the tapes and also implied that WikiLeaks was politically agnostic by seeking them. More significantly, he used the occasion to encourage supporters to donate, so that he could purchase the tapes—which, unsurprisingly, proved not to exist.
The idea that WikiLeaks has problems with accountability sends Assange into angry fits. “Look at all the accountability that is thrown at us!” he told me in the Embassy one evening, nodding at the walls to indicate hidden surveillance devices. “Every second of every day!” He cited the government scrutiny, and relentless journalists, always ready to pounce when he makes a misstep. Raising his voice, he said, “WikiLeaks is probably the most held-to-account organization on earth!”
When WikiLeaks was small, Assange was less angry. His general view of American power was one of suspicion rather than contempt. His wry sense of humor was more readily apparent, as was his optimism. During my visit to Iceland, in 2010, we were seated side by side when a submission came into the anonymous WikiLeaks in-box. He giggled and, in a mock-sober tone, announced its importance: someone had submitted the Declaration of Independence.
A few weeks earlier, just as Chelsea Manning was uploading the last of her disclosures to him, he had assured her that they were remaking the world for the better.
“I’ll slip into darkness for a few years,” she said. “Let the heat die down.”
“Won’t take a few years at the present rate of change,” he assured her.
“True,” she said.
“Almost feels like the Singularity is coming, there’s such acceleration,” he said. Assange was once a member of a transhumanist discussion group; given the right software, he believed, a revolutionary reordering of human affairs could be possible. His vision for WikiLeaks resembled a Silicon Valley startup—a technological creation intended to disrupt the normal way of doing business.
Conventional journalism is often an incremental, inefficient process, built on chains of personal trust: between sources and reporters, reporters and editors, editors and readers. Assange has difficulties with the messiness of trust, and in WikiLeaks he invented a system that made it largely unnecessary. By design, the WikiLeaks site prevents him from knowing where submissions come from, so there is no need to trust that he will keep a source’s identity a secret. (In practice, he readily accepts material in less than anonymous ways.) There is no need to trust his editorial judgment, either, because he has vowed to publish everything in full, in as pristine a form as possible. WikiLeaks, in Assange’s ideal, is a populist machine, delivering unmediated secret information directly to readers.
With the authority of his publications anchored in validating rather than in editing, Assange can do things that no newspaper editor can. He could say that the Smurfs built the pyramids, and the documents he posts would seem no less valid. This made it easy for him to take on the role of activist impresario, to frame his releases around his world view, even to use deception. Tellingly, he often calls the official reaction to his publications “counter-spin.”
The release of “Collateral Murder,” in 2010—and the knowledge that there were more consequential releases from Manning’s cache to come—sent Assange on an exhilarated high as he visited cable-news studios in Washington and New York. In a hired car taking him to “The Colbert Report,” he spoke to me about developing a public persona. “It’s going to take a lot of effort to maintain sensibly—so that it promotes the goals of the organization,” he said. Assange was a man accustomed to wearing a T-shirt until the people around him asked him to change it. Now he was suddenly attuned to fashion. Backstage, he asked a stylist about his shirt. “It looks good,” she said.
“I always look good in this shirt,” he told her. “It’s me! It’s not the shirt.”
“You look great,” she said.
But two months later his triumphant mood abruptly ended. In June, Wired reported that Manning had been arrested because of her work with WikiLeaks. She had confessed to a well-known former hacker that she had submitted records in bulk to Assange; the hacker, in turn, routed the information to military counter-intelligence, and then shared her confessions—written on an encrypted chat service—with the magazine. Assange was furious. “Wired needs a bullet,” he told me. Manning, he indicated, was likely able to take care of herself. “Anti-interrogation training probably kicked in immediately,” he said. What worried him was that the government now knew which documents he had. The magazine had reported that the cache contained at least two hundred and sixty thousand State Department cables. “If this crazy statement about 260K diplomatic cables is believed, we’ll be fucked,” he said.
“Is the 260K true, anyway?” I asked.
“I’ve already denied it,” he said.
“I know. I mean in its essence.”
“Not really,” he said. Before the end of the year, Assange himself proved this to be untrue: Manning had merely rounded up from 251,287.
“I’ll be in hiding now,” he told me. The Pentagon had indicated that it was trying to find him—“We’d like his coöperation in this,” an official said—and he thought he was being hunted. He backed out of an event in Las Vegas, where he was scheduled to speak. If he did not act, he feared, he would be an easy target for an illegal attack. He was ready to publish everything Manning had given him—hundreds of classified records that could have endangered people around the world. “They can see my only option is publish or perish,” he said. “Hence, we have our fingers on the go button.”
“Is there an in-between?” I asked. “Partially publishing to show that you are holding back bits that might endanger?”
“We’d like to,” he said. “There’s no time for harm minimization.” He indicated that he would not allow himself to be captured before releasing all that Manning had submitted—even if it meant causing the destruction of WikiLeaks.
“Is that good chess?” I asked, perplexed.
“Sure,” he said. “If you are good at leading with unpredictability, then create a board arrangement that suits your abilities better than your opponent.”
Assange left the United States. His anxieties relaxed a little, and he appeared at an event in Brussels. Journalists from the Guardian found him there, and, after arranging a meeting at his hotel, they pitched a collaboration to publish the rest of the Manning material. “We are going to put you on the moral high ground—so high that you’ll need an oxygen mask,” one of them told him. “You’ll be up there with Nelson Mandela and Mother Teresa. They won’t be able to arrest you. Nor can they shut down your Web site.”
Assange listened, sipping orange juice. Just before the meeting, he had told me that he had no interest in turning WikiLeaks into a journalistic operation—that the idea of journalism made him want to reach for a gun. “We come not to save journalism but to destroy it,” he said. “Doesn’t deserve to live. Too debased. Has to be ground down into ashes before a new structure can be formed. The basic asymmetric information between writer and reader just encourages lying.” But he believed that his affiliation with the Guardian—and, soon afterward, with the Times, among other publications—offered him a shield, that he was creating a patronage network.
The first of Manning’s databases, published as the Afghan War Diary, came out that summer, and were understandably controversial. Redactions were done hastily, in large part because Assange did not prioritize them. At the last moment, under pressure from his collaborators, he withheld fifteen thousand reports that were most likely to contain details about Afghan informants, until they could be carefully analyzed. But hundreds of Afghan people, many living in remote places, were still identifiable. The release prompted the Secretary of Defense to set up a task force of more than a hundred people, linked to agencies across the federal government, who worked around the clock, seven days a week. Assange portrayed the task force as a “war room” plotting offensive measures against him; in fact, its focus was to mitigate harmful repercussions of his publications. The unit searched the database for people who had been put at risk and forwarded the information to commanders in Afghanistan, who sent soldiers to find them, sometimes in hostile places. They located many people, but many could not be found, or were in environments too dangerous to reach. Their fate is unknown. “I think there was harm,” a key member of the task force told me. “There was tremendous cost and risk. We added additional risk because we had a moral obligation to notify people.”
At the same time, the records offered an unprecedented systemic view of the military’s operations in Afghanistan. Journalists used them to produce stories about the Taliban’s rising aggressiveness and the shifting American response, which relied increasingly on drone strikes and C.I.A. paramilitary operations. They found data on a Special Forces unit that hunted down seventy top militants—and on how such operations, along with everyday patrols, often went deadly wrong. From the documents, one could discern a portrait of the conflict that was bleaker than the official account.
After the release, Assange, again in a triumphant mood, travelled to Sweden, which has a strong tradition of media freedom. In Stockholm, he met with politicians, hoping to secure support for him to establish a base of operations for WikiLeaks there. But the trip proved to be fateful in a way that he had not anticipated. Assange slept with two women, who later reached out to each other and together went to the police to see if Assange could be compelled to take an H.I.V. test. Hearing the descriptions of their experiences, the police decided to draw up a criminal complaint—for rape in one instance and molestation in the other. A prosecutor reviewed the details and decided to downgrade the rape investigation, explaining, “I don’t believe there is reason to suspect that he has committed rape.” But the inquiry did not end there. In Sweden, about ten per cent of discontinued investigations that are appealed are reopened by another prosecutor. In Assange’s case, the women appealed, and the investigation was revived, on September 1, 2010. Speaking with a reporter, Assange said, “We have been warned that the Pentagon, for example, is thinking of deploying dirty tricks to ruin us.” His attorney spoke of “dark forces” that were behind the investigation, noting, “The honeytrap has been sprung.”
What happened in Sweden began a long argument, which has become central to Assange’s current legal uncertainty and to his public persona. Joseph Campbell, the scholar of mythology, once sketched the fundamental structure of the hero’s journey: departure, initiation, return. Assange takes a quasi-neo-Marxist view of religion, but he is attuned to master narratives. He has framed the events in Sweden as his initiation, a nearly supernatural ordeal, to be overcome on his path back to the everyday world.
In his telling, the “dark forces” emanate from Washington, which was attempting to take revenge for his publications, and to keep him from releasing the rest of the Manning archive. Assange left Sweden on September 27th. The Swedish prosecution authority had informed him that there were no legal obstacles to his leaving, but that the investigation was ongoing. Back in London, he focussed on the Manning submissions. In late November, he promised followers, “The coming months will see a new world, where global history is redefined.” A week later, he began to release the State Department cables.
The publication, which became known as Cablegate, was perhaps the most significant of the Manning releases. The contents of the documents had obvious news value—a secret bombing campaign in Yemen, or the massacre of a family by U.S. troops in Iraq—but, unlike with Manning’s other submissions, the richly detailed nature of the material made the trove an enduring resource for journalists, activists, and historians. Assange told me that among his favorite cables was one that documented how an independent Kurdish TV station in Denmark became a pawn among European countries vying for influence in nato. He saw in the cable a clear expression of Realpolitik at work.
For American officials around the world, the publication created immediate disturbances in delicate relationships. Ecuador’s leftist President, Rafael Correa, for instance, expelled the U.S. Ambassador over a cable that described high-level police corruption there. In the United States, political figures from the two major parties delivered a fusillade of criticism, with both Mitch McConnell and Joe Biden calling Assange a “high-tech terrorist.” Conservative commentators on Fox News and in the Washington Times called for his assassination. Hillary Clinton declared, “Let’s be clear. This disclosure is not just an attack on America’s foreign-policy interests. It is an attack on the international community.”
Meanwhile, the Justice Department launched a criminal investigation, seeking to prosecute Assange as a co-conspirator to Manning under the Espionage Act—a hundred-year-old law, designed to prosecute spying, that the Obama Administration had revived to deter government whistle-blowing. A grand jury was impanelled in Virginia, and subpoenas were filed to obtain private communications. Agents questioned people who were affiliated with Assange. Suddenly, the surveillance that he often imagined was becoming real.
The Espionage Act had never been applied to a publisher, and with good reason. Sources who leak classified secrets are breaking the law; they make a judgment that exposing the information is worth the risk of prosecution. But an investigation that targeted WikiLeaks would necessarily be based on a different idea: that the act of publication was also criminal, a principle that would inevitably interfere with core First Amendment protections. Many journalists—myself included—argued against the investigation. Whether Assange handled the Manning releases well or poorly, his work on it was not criminal.
The Justice Department, it turns out, held the same misgivings about the Espionage Act that journalists did. “The biggest problem was what some of us called ‘the New York Times problem,’ ” Matthew Miller, a former Justice Department official, told me. “How do you prosecute Julian Assange for publishing classified information and not the New York Times? I think it went on for a long time because prosecutors were hoping they would find some obvious criminal act that could support a charge, but it was evident pretty early that, absent that, there was no clear way to bring this case.” Within months, the department had quietly allowed the case to stall.
Assange began to cast the Swedish investigation as an extension of the angry American response to his work. “The Swedes, we understand, have said if he comes to Sweden they will defer their interest in him to the Americans,” his lawyer, Mark Stephens, argued at the time. “So it does seem to me what we have here is nothing more than holding charges.” Assange refused to return to Sweden, explaining that he feared that he would be delivered to the United States. The day after he published Cablegate, Sweden issued a European warrant for his arrest, and the United Kingdom initiated proceedings to extradite him.
The day that the arrest warrant was announced, Assange sent me a message with a smiley-face emoticon. “I’m in my element,” he told me. “Battles with governments come easy. Battles with treacherous women are another matter.” It was our first conversation about the investigation in Sweden, and I asked him what the case was about. “It perplexed me to begin with,” he said. “I understand where they’re at now, though.” He spoke of Sweden’s “very, very poor judicial system,” weakened by external political meddling, careerism, and a culture of “crazed radical feminist ideology.” More important, though, the case was a matter of international politics. “Sweden is a U.S. satrapy,” he said.
If you did not want to see Assange involved in an ugly sex-crimes investigation, the idea that the real issue was geopolitics had an immediate appeal; in 2010, the British journalist and activist Jemima Khan, an early celebrity supporter, noted that the allegations were “highly suspicious.”
But Assange’s argument made little sense. The Swedish extradition process requires the approval of the nation’s Supreme Court; thus, the scenario that Assange was proposing—a geopolitical plot to use his sex-crimes case as a pretext to deliver him to the United States—would require at least three high justices to act as conspirators. If this were not reason enough for skepticism, under the rules governing European arrest warrants Sweden could not extradite Assange to the U.S. without British approval; in other words, shipping him to Stockholm would only add a layer of bureaucratic obstacles for Washington. In any event, Swedish law prohibits extraditions for “political crimes,” which include espionage, and for cases eligible for the death penalty.
Assange and his lawyers often raise the possibility that he will be “rendered” from Sweden to the United States. The precedent they cite is an incident, just after 9/11, in which two Egyptian refugees were detained by the Swedish security services and then turned over to the C.I.A., which delivered them to Egypt, where they were tortured. The episode led to public outrage and a parliamentary probe, which concluded that it had violated Swedish law. But, even if the process were legal, Assange is not a terrorist, and extraordinary renditions do not deliver captives to civilian courtrooms in Virginia.
I raised Assange’s argument with half a dozen former senior U.S. officials—from the White House, the State Department, and law-enforcement and intelligence agencies—who were in a position to know the details of U.S. policy on WikiLeaks. All said that they knew of no plan to pressure Sweden. A member of the Defense Department task force told me that when the Swedes reopened the investigation it was news to his unit, and not terribly momentous. A PowerPoint presentation for the day’s morning briefing, which I obtained with a Freedom of Information Act request, showed that there was just one slide about the Swedish case; it had four bullet points—all cribbed from Reuters.
Another one of these officials told me, “The allegation swirling out there that somehow this was dreamed up by the Americans to get him to Sweden, so he could end up back in America—” He stopped and exhaled. “Think about where this was happening. He is in the U.K.—our absolute closest partner with respect to all things intelligence-gathering. And the perception that somehow Sweden was a place that American officials would want him, as opposed to the U.K., is on its face so ludicrous. The first link that people are making in this argument, which is not true, falls apart right there. It really was not a thing.”
Dwight Eisenhower is said to have once declared, “If you can’t solve a problem, enlarge it.” Assange had taken a personal legal crisis and blown it up into an international incident: he had teleported himself from the mundane into the tragic realm. A number of WikiLeaks volunteers urged him to step down until the investigation was over. Instead, he enmeshed support for WikiLeaks with support for his own case; he blurred the distinction between the broader mission of transparency and genuine legal questions about his personal behavior. The tactic was half brilliant: the more the Swedish prosecutor demonstrated that she did not like being challenged by a celebrity, the more she appeared to act in an irregular way. Yet it was also half blind. It was a move with no clear endgame, and it created complications for those who might want to defend the WikiLeaks cause. Assange began to speak as though he were a dissident. “You know they tried to get an order to put me in solitary confinement, held incommunicado, even from my own lawyers?” he told me. Then he shifted into fighting mode. “We’re only getting started.”
Assange is an atheist, but at times he adopts the mode of a mystic—a seer of deep conspiracies. “Human beings are not very good at perceiving the unseen,” he once told me. “They look out over the sea, and they don’t perceive that if there are waves on top there must be a body of water underneath holding the waves up. When I see something, I think, What is it that I am not seeing that this thing must be produced by?”
“I’m sorry, guys—I guess at our age Truth or Dare is a little too fraught.”
Assange’s habit of describing his organization as suffering a constant existential emergency, of blaming his personal legal difficulties on nefarious external forces, of making the acceptance of narratives a litmus test for support, had an uncomfortable ring. At one point, Jemima Khan criticized him for surrounding the Swedish case with his own mythology, and warned of “an Australian L. Ron Hubbard” in the making. Khan once recalled that after she decided to co-produce a documentary about WikiLeaks, Assange told her, “If it’s a fair film, it will be pro-Julian Assange.”
“Beware of the celebrity who refers to himself in the third person,” she warned.
From London, Assange fought the Swedish extradition request in the courts, and in the media, turning it into a battle against Western hypocrisy and injustice. When a judge, fearing that Assange posed a flight risk, ordered him sent to Wandsworth Prison, he saw a press opportunity. The Guardian reporters had promised to make him a Mandela; here was his Robben Island moment. “Don’t get me out too soon,” he told Mark Stephens, believing that he needed a month in jail for maximum political impact. He told me that he was placed in solitary confinement: “You are living inside the state, physically. There is nothing to gauge the passage of time. You write, and the paper fills up. You read, and the pages you turn add up. Quickly, I saw that isolation was interfering with the order of my thinking. But I discovered that through repeated exercise you can change the tension in your legs, altering the lactic acid, to create a clock in your body and order the passage of time. Once I had done that, I felt I had broken the back of solitary.” After ten days, Assange’s lawyers secured his release, with nearly four hundred thousand dollars in bail.
Remanded to house arrest, Assange moved into Ellingham Hall, the estate of Vaughan Smith, a freelance video journalist and the founder of the Frontline Club. Ellingham Hall was a gilded cage—a beautiful old home in the British countryside—and Smith was an indulgent host. He had covered the fall of Yugoslavia, and he saw in Assange the fearlessness and the vulnerability he had seen in correspondents there. “Isn’t it part of the balance sheet in this changing age that the digital world can provide us an Assange and the N.S.A. at the same time?” he told me. “And to have journalism turn its back on that, simply because he’s not part of us, or simply because we don’t like the result?”
Core members of the WikiLeaks team moved in, working in round-the-clock cycles, but the Smith family imposed some basic rules: no computers at the dinner table. Assange, wearing an electronic security bracelet, held court over a stream of visitors—journalists, activists, celebrities. A financier who came to lunch and was dismayed by his clothes sent over custom-made suits. When Assange’s fortieth birthday came, Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie were reportedly invited to a party; some supporters sought to steer him from the attractions of fame. “I’m not sure who else is going, but the initial invitation did not give train information, but did tell you where to land your private plane,” Craig Murray, a former British Ambassador to Uzbekistan and a whistle-blower, wrote on his blog. He wondered if WikiLeaks was going astray: “I hope when Assange’s celebrity dies down, those helicopter riders will still support him.”
Internally, Assange had been coping with an organization in turmoil. As the stress grew, he threatened volunteers, and elevated people who served him poorly. One of his closest collaborators, after being pushed out, disabled the WikiLeaks submission system and blocked him from reaching the submissions stored there. “We went through an absolute bath of fire,” Assange later told me, apportioning no blame to himself. “Those people who were not fireproof burnt to a crisp.”
Pressures mounted from the outside, too. MasterCard, Visa, and PayPal stopped servicing WikiLeaks, making donations difficult—a response that Assange calls a “banking blockade.” Mark Stephens, with whom he eventually parted ways, charged him hundreds of thousands of dollars in fees. To help pay them, Assange agreed to produce a memoir that he did not want to write, and his relationship with his ghostwriter ended in disaster. Assange was out of his depth. “I was a decent colonial boy who came to a town that specializes in lying and climbing the class ladder, so I was fresh meat to be exploited,” he told me. “I needed a trusted introducer—especially because this has been the dark heart of empire for four hundred years, and I was dealing with the outraged security structure of a superpower.”
Hoping to keep WikiLeaks vital while its anonymous-submission system was down, Assange was seeking material through alternative channels, in some instances taking remarkable risks. Unbeknownst to him, the F.B.I. had opened a second WikiLeaks investigation, this one a possible hacking-conspiracy case. When an Icelandic WikiLeaks volunteer reached out to an offshoot of the hacking group Anonymous to ask its crew to hack the Icelandic government, it turned out that the hacker he was talking with was an informant. Eventually, the Icelandic volunteer was drawn into the F.B.I. investigation, too. Assange, though, began communicating directly with the hacking crew. Its members provided him with reams of material, including e-mails belonging to Stratfor, a private intelligence firm, and to the Syrian President, Bashar al-Assad. For Assange, there is no real difference between a hack and a leak; in both instances, individuals are taking risks to expose the secrets of institutions. What did it matter how the information came to light? Either way, he would publish it.
In May, 2012, Assange’s appeals of the extradition order had gone to the British Supreme Court—and there, too, he had lost. Fearing that he had no further legal recourse, he decided to apply for political asylum with a friendly country. He told me that he was already informally exploring the idea with a number of diplomats, as a way out of his legal mess, and that a representative of the Ecuadorian government had sent encouraging signals.
Assange prepared a disguise—a motorcycle-courier outfit—to wear as he fled, and rented a hotel room on the way to the Embassy, where he could change without being seen. The intrigue was necessary, he believed, because he might be followed. “We had concern that, because there was a lot of intelligence activity on me, that maybe there would be an understanding that I might come here,” he told me. In the room, he put on the costume, along with colored contact lenses and large earrings, and dyed his hair. At the last minute, however, he decided to abort the plan, because his lawyers informed him that there still might be a remaining legal avenue to pursue: the European Court of Human Rights.
While his lawyers and the opposing side wrangled over his petition, Assange said, he had a distressing experience: the company that maintained his security bracelet arrived to change the batteries, in a way that he thought was suspiciously ahead of schedule. He decided that it was time to act. On June 19th, he told me, he rushed over to the Embassy, wearing his disguise and carrying a motorcycle helmet. “There was actually someone waiting on the steps,” he said. “But a good disguise is mostly body language—I put a stone in my shoe, so I didn’t walk the same way—and this forty-eight-year-old, heavyset white guy who was waiting, he did a ‘Who is that guy?’ But I could see that he had so much information to process, and by the time he processed it I was already in.” Assange told me that he rushed across the lobby and knocked on the door, but he had not realized that it was lunchtime, and key staff were out. “That was a bit disturbing,” he recalled. “I had gotten past that guy on the front step, into the interior, but the people who came to the door didn’t recognize me.”
Assange’s asylum request had nothing to do with Sweden—at least directly. It reflected the belief that if Assange were to be sent to the United States he would face a risk of cruel and inhumane punishment—an assessment based primarily on a vague sense of what he would face in court, since it was still unclear if he had even been charged. Nonetheless, he told me, “It put my physical circumstance back into interstate domain, as opposed to, you know, the everyday criminality.”
When the Ecuadorian Ambassador, Ana Albán, learned of his arrival, she was uncertain that his asylum was a good idea for her embassy: what would its end point be? Soon, the building was besieged. There were police cordons. There were threats—someone sent a bloody shark’s jaw. Assange, she recalled, initially behaved like a celebrity brat. (They later became friends.) For weeks, the Ecuadorians reviewed his application; after British authorities threatened to storm the Embassy, Albán recalled, Ecuador’s President quickly approved it, validating Assange’s narrative. Assange told me, “It was a very serious conflict between a small publishing organization and a superpower—very serious conflict.”
One evening this spring, in the Embassy, Assange held a glossy magazine in his hands and deliberately placed it face down on a table, so that I could not see what it was. He was going to get us coffee, and wanted to show it to me after he returned, but he could not wait; halfway to the door, he rushed back and dramatically flipped it over, revealing it to be a commemorative edition of Newsweek, with Hillary Clinton posed beneath the words “Madam President”—a “dewey defeats truman” headline from 2016. “They had to pulp it!” he declared, gleefully. Then he looked at the magazine with disgust. “It’s hagiographic,” he said.
“Pickles, if you don’t get off my lap, we’re toast.”
For nearly half a decade, Assange had been cultivating a dislike of Clinton that was partly personal and partly philosophical. Clinton, he suspected, had wanted to assassinate him, and was instrumental in aggravating his conflict with Sweden. Moreover, he saw her as the main gear of a political machine that encompassed Wall Street, the intelligence agencies, the State Department, and overseas client nations, like Saudi Arabia. “She’s the smooth central representation of all that,” he once said. “And ‘all that’ is more or less what is in power now in the United States.”
In his view, Clinton was corrupt, pathetically driven by personal ambition, a neoliberal interventionist destined to take the United States into war—the epitome of a political establishment that deserved to be permanently ousted. In February, 2016, he wrote a rare editorial on the WikiLeaks Web site declaring Clinton unfit for office. The piece cited video footage, from 2011, which showed Clinton learning that Muammar Qaddafi had been killed. “We came! We saw! He died!” she declared, laughing—a reaction that prompted Assange to write, “Hillary’s problem is not just that she’s a war hawk. She’s a war hawk with bad judgment who gets an unseemly emotional rush out of killing people. She shouldn’t be let near a gun shop, let alone an army. And she certainly should not become president of the United States.” Only Assange knows whether sexism informed his dislike of her. But he often speaks with disdain about feminism generally, and in unguarded moments he is liable to comment on essential distinctions between the sexes. In 2010, when Julia Gillard became Australia’s Prime Minister, he told me scornfully that the incumbent, Kevin Rudd, “just got rolled . . . by a woman.”
Friends of Assange say that he was animated in the days leading up to the election. “There were two forces that were energizing Julian,” Yanis Varoufakis, the Greek politician, told me. “The person who might become President of the United States was targeting him, and at the same time he had material over her. He was exhilarated.”
Because Assange’s Internet access had been cut off several weeks before voting day, he was forced to watch the returns on the Embassy’s television, which, it turned out, was not hooked up to cable. A staff member had to run out to buy an antenna. “I rigged up the TV with an old-fashioned aerial,” Assange told me. He began watching at around midnight, when the first polling stations were closing. The preëlection assessments suggested that Clinton was likely to win, and Assange, watching the early returns, became irked by the smugness that he detected among the BBC presenters.
When Trump took the lead, he recalled, the smugness disappeared. “It took a good fifteen minutes for the BBC staff to adapt,” he said. “They were looking off balance, as if someone had poured opiate gas into the room, and they remained that way for about forty minutes or so. But then, remarkably, they got back into their groove, and adapted. What they saw was that a new power structure had come about—and I just thought, This is the true nature of a worker of a large institution.” (Another term for it: professionalism.) He told me that he, too, had expected Clinton to win, and that his own reaction was “This isn’t happening, is it?”
I asked if he had thought: I did this. “I’m not sure,” he said. “While it is in vogue now to talk up WikiLeaks, and its significance, at the time there was serious suppression of the reporting in establishment publications, because the Democrat-aligned journalists were behind the campaign.” But then he brought up, as he often did, the impact of his campaign publications—e-mails from the D.N.C. and from John Podesta, Clinton’s campaign manager. “During the last five weeks of the election, WikiLeaks was the most referenced political term on Facebook—and, in fact, the second most referenced term of all terms!” (Facebook disputes these numbers but confirms that the term was popular.) After the campaign, Assange helped produce an annotated anthology of his election publications. It is titled “How I Lost: By Hillary Clinton.”
The degree to which WikiLeaks affected the election’s outcome will likely take years to sort out; aside from the leaked e-mails, Clinton’s campaign was also beset by strategic errors, an unpopular candidate, and a prolonged inquiry into the details of her personal e-mail server. But, for Assange, a far more serious question looms: How did he get that material in the first place? Months after intelligence assessments in Washington concluded that the Democratic e-mails were hacked by the Russian government in a coördinated propaganda effort, Assange has not allowed the matter to stand. He has turned the official assessment—at best, a declaration that he had been used—into a symbol of American failure, establishment mendacity, Democratic hysteria, neo-McCarthyism, and fake news, in this way stoking partisan anger and needless institutional mistrust.
The extent to which Assange has developed close ties with Russia remains a matter of controversy, too. At the Embassy one night, Assange expressed fury over an article in the Times, titled “How Russia Often Benefits When Julian Assange Reveals the West’s Secrets.” The story sought to track a pattern of common interest, unfolding across the years, between two secretive entities: the Kremlin and WikiLeaks. Assange regarded it as unfair and even fraudulent. “It’s in my blood not to get pushed around when there’s criticism—especially associational criticism,” he told me.
At times, though, Assange has had questionable associations. In 2010, Israel Shamir, a controversial Russian with extremist views, visited him at Ellingham Hall. (Shamir, a convert from Judaism to Greek Orthodox Christianity, has written several anti-Semitic screeds.) Some WikiLeaks volunteers viewed him as an eccentric hanger-on; some suspected that he had ties to Russian intelligence. During one visit, Assange—who had become lax in his attitude toward the State Department trove—gave him more than ninety thousand unredacted U.S. diplomatic cables concerning Russia, former Soviet-bloc countries, and Israel. Shamir sold some of the material to a magazine friendly to the Kremlin, and delivered other parts of it to Alexander Lukashenko, Belarus’s authoritarian leader, who used them to arrest opposition figures. (Shamir denies this, citing “a malicious invention by my detractors.”) One Belarusian activist later told the Web site Tablet, “I really hate WikiLeaks. How can they do this? The KGB is telling these people, ‘Your name is in the American cables and you are a traitor, an American agent, and you will be treated like an enemy.’ ”
The WikiLeaks staff at Ellingham Hall found out about the incident when Belarusian activists began contacting them in a panic, and immediately became alarmed. Some wanted to investigate the matter. “Julian just shot it down,” one recalled. “His attitude was: Just tell them there is no basis to any of this, that he doesn’t have the cables.”
A few months ago, Shamir described the WikiLeaks ethos to a colleague of mine by saying, “If the information is true, if it is not doctored, if it is not cooked, let it be delivered by Satan himself.” It is not hard to imagine that the Kremlin, watching Assange’s conflict with the United States, found utility in this attitude. While Assange was in Wandsworth, Vladimir Putin offered him sly support, casting him as a symbol of Western hypocrisy: “Why have they hidden Mr. Assange in prison? That’s what—democracy?”
In 2012, during Assange’s house arrest—when he was in dire need of revenue—he began to work on a talk show with RT, a Russian state news network that serves the Kremlin’s propaganda interests. Assange told me recently that the show was a cover for his efforts to secure asylum. “I was using it to interview heads of state, and so on, to approach a variety of embassies,” he said. When I asked about the show’s origins, he told me that the idea had evolved out of a conversation with a friend, but he declined to name the person. Later, I learned that it was Israel Shamir’s son Johannes Wahlström (who lives in Sweden, and testified on Assange’s behalf in the rape investigation). One thing seemed clear: RT had made an investment in the show, but it did not appear to regard the deal in normal business terms. Mark Stucke, the C.E.O. of Journeyman Pictures, which distributed the program, told me that RT had no interest in licensing its shares in markets outside its network. “They didn’t bother pursuing that potential revenue stream,” he said. “It’s very unusual. But Julian was the guy who drove the relationship.”
Assange told me that, as he negotiated the deal, he pushed for editorial freedom. He asked RT’s editor-in-chief, Margarita Simonyan, if he could host Alexei Navalny, a Russian opposition leader. “She said, ‘The Kremlin won’t like it, but it would be good for us, because it will show our independence,’ ” he recalled. He then asked about inviting a Chechen terrorist, and got an unambiguous no. Laughing at the memory, he said, “That’s the line: all the way up to a Chechen terrorist.” Assange did invite Navalny, who declined. Navalny’s spokesperson told me that he believed it was indecent to have any contact with RT, saying, “This channel is associated with the spread of lies and propaganda, including about many opposition activists.”
For Assange, the show on RT was an opportunity. In addition to providing money, it offered a platform, and perhaps, more crucially, a kind of legal protection—journalistic credentials. For the Russians, it provided access to an international celebrity with sympathetic views. Simonyan once said that she went out of her way to choose hosts who “think like us.”
When I first met Assange, his political beliefs blended libertarian and anti-establishment ideas with his own idiosyncratic world view. Since then, he seems to have increasingly come to the view that the United States, despite its humanitarian rhetoric, acts primarily to increase its power in the world, using both economic and military coercion. In this, he shares the position of Noam Chomsky, whom he admires. But unlike Chomsky, who called the Kremlin “the great criminal in modern history,” he tends to characterize Russia as a counterweight; because of its history, geography, and relative might, it can reject Washington policy.
Assange’s show on RT ended after a dozen episodes, but he continued to appear on the network. Once, promoting a book of essays based on Cablegate, “The WikiLeaks Files: The World According to U.S. Empire,” he sat for an RT program called “Going Underground.” The show presented the anthology as evidence of American tyranny, and for half an hour Assange politely agreed while the host described the United States as a global overlord. “The book details genocidal U.S. policy right around the world, from Latin America to Asia, all in the name of liberalism,” the host said. “How does all the torture and the killings work with the free market, and the use of free markets?”
This spring, George Gittoes drew my attention to a speech that Russia’s Ambassador to the United Nations gave about the civil war in Syria; after the United States had mistakenly bombed Syrian forces, the Ambassador took to a podium and framed the error as a parable of American hubris, misjudgment, and bad faith. Gittoes told me that Assange was moved. “He admired him so much,” he said. “You’d think it was Chomsky on the box.” Assange downplayed this, but told me, “There’s a Russian perspective on global politics, and they have become not shy at saying it, and it is good that they say it. I guess Russia eventually thought, There is nothing we can say, so we can say the truth. There’s nothing to lose. There’s no reputation to burn, no relationship to scrap. So they twist things in relation to Ukraine and to their immediate neighborhood, but, in terms of their broader description, then they are free to say what, in my view, is pretty accurate.”
Assange once told me about his life in the Embassy, “I have always said that the most counterproductive thing is to keep me here—I have nothing to do but work.” But during his first year of diplomatic captivity the work began to seem marginal. WikiLeaks still published material, but none of it was as significant as the trove that Chelsea Manning had leaked to him. In isolation, Assange came to resemble the Wizard of Oz, a pallid inventor hidden behind a grand machine.
In 2013, Edward Snowden walked out of an N.S.A. facility in Hawaii with tens of thousands of records about American global electronic surveillance, including a sweeping system to monitor and store phone calls by millions of Americans. The material—voluminous, technical, classified—had the potential to transform not merely perceptions about the N.S.A. but also the law. It was, in many ways, the ultimate WikiLeaks submission. When Snowden mailed a drive containing the trove to the filmmaker Laura Poitras, another collaborator, he wrote his name as “Manning” in the return address.
Snowden flew from Hawaii to Hong Kong, where he decided to identify himself—immediately causing American authorities to seek his extradition. Assange stepped in. From the Ecuadorian Embassy, he sent the WikiLeaks investigations editor, Sarah Harrison, to guide Snowden to a sanctuary where the United States could not reach him. The plan was to smuggle him to Moscow, and then on to a sympathetic Latin-American country, but en route his U.S. passport was revoked. After a month, Russia granted him asylum.
Even as Assange was striving to lead a movement, his publication model was increasingly regarded with suspicion. Glenn Greenwald, a longtime WikiLeaks defender, and one of the journalists who worked with Snowden, told me that Snowden did not want the material handled in the WikiLeaks way. “He was vehement,” he recalled. “He said, ‘I don’t want you to dump it. Curate it.’ ”
When Assange was denied access to the trove, his frustration boiled over. A story based on the Snowden files ran on the Intercept, describing an N.S.A. program that worked with locals in two foreign countries to vacuum up every phone call placed there. After consulting with the N.S.A., the Intercept decided not to name one of the countries, fearing that locals would be killed as a result. Assange learned the name of the redacted country, and declared on Twitter that if the Intercept did not reveal it within seventy-two hours he would do so unilaterally. He eventually made good on the threat, explaining that he could not stand by and watch “an ongoing crime of mass espionage” being covered up. When I asked Assange about his interference, he told me, “We feel some sense of responsibility in relation to the Snowden stuff. We are part of this history, and we feel we have a right to see that it is properly done.”
It was not hard to see that he was desperate for attention-grabbing material. In May, 2015, the WikiLeaks online submission system—offline since 2010—was finally restored. A month later, he published a large database of government information: half a million cables from Saudi Arabia’s foreign ministry. Perhaps more significant than the trove itself was the attribution. For the first time, it seems, a state had sought to use WikiLeaks to release a database. An entity called the Yemen Cyber Army had taken credit for the breach, and a Web site called WikiSaudiLeaks, which published some of the material, claimed to have given the bulk of the trove to Assange. Cybersecurity analysts believe that both were fronts. The consensus view is that Iran created them to weaken an adversary, but this assessment is not universally accepted. An expert familiar with the forensics told me that several indicators also point to Russia.
This spring, a few days after Assange showed me the Newsweek special edition on Hillary Clinton, I saw him again. “I think that’s very mischievous—the claim that the Russians hacked the D.N.C. in order to increase the chance that Donald Trump would win,” he told me. “Because, if you actually look at the chronology, the claim is that the initial hack is in 2015.” Evidence of a hack meant nothing, he said, because prominent institutions are often hacked. “The major political parties in the rest of the world—the U.S. government hacks them. So you would expect that the Chinese, Israel, France, Russia, maybe India, had hacked various U.S. political institutions—because everybody is. But there can’t have been some plan by the Russians to hack the D.N.C. to help elect Donald Trump, because Donald Trump wasn’t even on the radar at the time.”
I began to ask whether such a plan might have evolved gradually, but he cut in: “That’s not the claim! The claim is irrational, just completely irrational!”
In one way, Assange was right. The D.N.C. was hacked in 2015—by an entity called Cozy Bear, which cybersecurity analysts suspect is controlled by Russia’s Federal Security Service. Once inside the network, Cozy Bear used a technique that exploited vulnerability built into the computer’s operating system. Assange was also correct that this breach predated Trump’s candidacy, so it could not have been part of an effort to get him elected. The problem with his argument is that no one in Washington or in the intelligence community is seriously making this claim.
The Russian government appears to have penetrated the D.N.C. network more than once, with a second hack initiated in 2016. The precise trigger for the event is unclear, but it came at a time of escalating tensions between Russia and the United States. In January, a Treasury Department official declared Putin “corrupt.” Several weeks later, journalists working on a mega-leak called the Panama Papers—a trove of eleven million documents revealing how the world’s élite shelter their money—approached the Kremlin to ask about records suggesting that close associates of Putin had moved as much as two billion dollars into offshore accounts. Atypically, the Kremlin made a statement before publication, saying that there would be no response to “honey-worded queries” from reporters, and that Russia regarded the Panama Papers as an “information attack.”
On April 3rd, the reporters published their story, and four days later, visibly irked, Putin offered the first of several responses. He described the Panama Papers as an American-run operation. “They are trying to destabilize us from within,” he said. The Kremlin presented the leak as a personal blow, and as an effort to undermine Russian parliamentary elections. Andrei Soldatov and Irina Borogan, in a forthcoming update of their book, “Red Web,” about the Russian Internet, make the case that the decision to target the American Presidential election with an information-warfare campaign likely originated at a high-level meeting that Putin called the following day. “There is a line you cannot cross, and this line is Putin’s family and his immediate friends,” Soldatov told me.
Within four days, entities that appeared to be fronts for Russian military intelligence began registering domain names for sites intended to release hacked information: first Electionleaks, and then the more general-sounding DCLeaks, which was hosted in a tiny village in Romania. By then, a hacking group known as Fancy Bear—which cybersecurity analysts believe is also controlled by Russian military intelligence—had initiated a wave of phishing attacks targeting American political figures.
“If I had known how adult her place was, I would have brought nicer beer.”
For months, while the Fancy Bear hacking operation harvested data, the newly registered Web sites remained dormant. Then, on June 6th, Hillary Clinton became the presumptive Democratic nominee, and within two days DCLeaks went live. (Electionleaks was never used.) The site positioned itself as a WikiLeaks offshoot: “A new level project aimed to analyze and publish a large amount of e-mails.” DCLeaks claimed that it had been “launched by the American hacktivists”—people who were concerned that “the authorities are just lobbying interests of Wall Street fat cats, industrial barons and multinational corporations’ representatives who swallow up all resources and subjugate all markets.” The first batch of campaign material that it published looked like a test: seventy-two inconsequential memos tracking media coverage of Clinton in 2015. Five days later, a second archive was added: e-mails from a Clinton campaign press aide’s Gmail account. Unlike the earlier content on DCLeaks, the aide’s e-mails were locked with a password—apparently to allow for a controlled release, at a strategically opportune time.
It is a truism of military strategy that no plan survives first contact with the enemy. For the Russian hackers, it appears, first contact had occurred in digital darkness, and on terrain that did not seem to be a primary focus—the D.N.C. computer network. The wave of phishing attacks appeared to concentrate on Clinton staffers: the hackers targeted about a hundred Clinton-campaign accounts and only nine accounts at the D.N.C. The Party’s cybersecurity was weak, and so perhaps Fancy Bear’s hackers did not expect to be discovered as they marched through the system. But, shortly after the operation began, the D.N.C. became aware of their presence, and hired a cybersecurity company called CrowdStrike to do something about it. The responders installed scanning software on workstations, and for a month they did nothing but watch.