Julian Assange: master of disguise
For almost seven years, we have seen Julian Assange when he has wanted us to. From tactical appearances on the balcony of his asylum, to Skyped TV interviews and a fundraising series of Australian town-hall lectures – all participated in remotely, of course. But then, last week, a dramatically unmediated – or mostly unmediated – appearance. A shockingly dishevelled Assange was pulled from the Ecuadorian embassy, yelling “the UK must resist!” The cameras of major media missed it, despite Assange having warned 72 hours prior of his imminent eviction. The sole footage of the moment was recorded by Ruptly, a subsidiary of Russia Today, and its watermark became a triumphantly ubiquitous feature of global news broadcasts.
Much was made of Assange’s appearance. His dishevelment contrasted with his fashionably stylised appearances made in previous years, in suits or leather jackets and with artfully jagged hair. Assange has long been an assiduous, if imperfect, manager of his image. Imperfect because the presentation of hip freedom fighter was always threatened by his unsavoury self-satisfaction. But now he resembled the Unabomber, unkempt and bellowing, dragged by a pack of solemn-faced police. For years, his supporters have spoken of the physical and mental dissolution that follows extensive confinement – paranoia, depression, swollen limbs and failing eyesight. Here was the proof.
But some cunning had survived. From the embassy, Assange carried a book by Gore Vidal, the late and eminent American writer. Like Assange, Vidal was imperious, caustic and quite brilliant, but his later years were spent writing grim and conspiratorial polemics and defending the convicted terrorist Timothy McVeigh. The book Assange was holding was a long transcript of interviews with Vidal about the destructive influence of America’s “national security state”. In the hours after Assange’s arrest, it quickly became an Amazon bestseller. Assange’s message was unsubtle: he was a victim of America’s shadowy and amoral security state.
Having provided Assange refuge for seven years, Ecuador’s bitter withdrawal of its protection was blamed on Assange’s “aggressive and discourteous” behaviour, a reference to his obnoxiousness and refusal to quit meddling in global affairs. Assange had never wanted mere asylum, he wanted a headquarters.
Ecuador also cited – as though a housemate bringing charges against a rogue tenant – skateboarding, outlandish personal hygiene, neglect of his cat and even Assange’s smearing of faeces on walls. The WikiLeaks founder and his lawyers dismissed all of this – the real reason Ecuador revoked his protection, they say, was because of crooked pressure from the United States.
Ecuador denies this, saying the decision to expel Assange was taken independently. They also said assurances had been sought from Britain that Assange would not be extradited to the US if he could face the death penalty there – which is already British policy.
The doomsday scenario Assange’s supporters long warned about – that the secret US indictment against him contained charges under the Espionage Act, which would effectively criminalise the publication of government documents – hasn’t happened. When the indictment was unsealed last week, it revealed Assange had not been charged under the Espionage Act for his receipt of classified information. Rather, he was charged with computer fraud – the allegation being that he had conspired with military analyst Chelsea Manning to breach protected government systems. In the practice of journalism, there is surely a distinction between receiving classified information and helping in its illegal obtainment. Still, Assange’s supporters said, could we emphatically rule out additional charges?
In Sweden, where rape charges against Assange were dropped in May 2017, lawyers for the complainants argued for their revival. If Sweden reopens the case, Britain will need to determine whether the US or Sweden has priority for Assange’s extradition.
Former Greens senator Scott Ludlam, a man Assange has described as a personal friend, wrote last year that the WikiLeaks founder is a Rorschach test. Different people see different things, even if fewer people today are interpreting those ink blots flatteringly. Ludlam is right – few recent public figures have contained such multitudes or served so well as a bitterly contested cipher. Is Assange a journalist, a publisher or a freedom fighter? A misogynist, an anarchist, a narcissist or a mercenary? Is he Daniel Ellsberg or Kim Philby? Mikhail Bakunin or a digital Milton Friedman? Philosopher or con man? Is he some unstable compound of them all?
A week before the 2016 US election, Australian lawyer Greg Barns, a long-time adviser to Assange and the 2013 campaign director for the WikiLeaks Party, discussed with me the failure of the political party. The experiment ended with few votes and internal acrimony. Barns said the party candidates’ bitter frustration with Assange resulted from their own failure to appreciate his complexity. People projected upon Assange their own politics and ignored the parts that didn’t fit. The inference was that disappointment in Assange derives from one’s own imaginative or intellectual failing, an inability to grasp his originality. Another theory was suggested to me by a former candidate: “It’s all about Julian. And it’s all games. He loves games and thinking of himself as the grandmaster.”
Barns had a point about convenience. The left cheered WikiLeaks when it was exposing the US military, but many lost their taste for radical transparency when its publication of Democrat emails helped elect Donald Trump to the White House. Conversely, Trump spoke effusively about the organisation throughout the 2016 campaign – “I love WikiLeaks!” – but today his passion has conspicuously cooled.
Then there are the Swedish rape charges. Assange has previously dismissed them as both a “feminist conspiracy” and CIA entrapment. “Honeypots,” he called the alleged victims. Confusingly, Assange’s supporters argued it was merely a ruse to extradite him to the US – even though the country of his residence, England, already had an extradition agreement with America. The rape allegations must have invited some amount of cognitive dissonance for his liberal supporters, but post-#MeToo it is much harder for them to reconcile these duelling stories of victimisation.
If the public reception of Assange has been inconsistent, Assange himself is intensely, often repellently, contradictory. He has referred to himself as a journalist but had contemptuous impatience for journalistic processes when he severed ties with The New York Times, Der Spiegel and The Guardian. His notoriety was secured with the video “Collateral Murder”, which showed a US Apache helicopter fatally unleashing on journalists in Iraq. But he shrugged indifferently when advised not to publish the names of anti-Taliban informants. He has argued that justice is contingent on transparency but his failed political party was scandalised by machinations. He reviles propaganda but hosted a talk show on Russia Today. As a candidate for the Australian senate, he told the ABC he was “not a politician”. He voluntarily found asylum, then described it as “illegal detention”. He has denounced “Fascists” but kept a long and consequential relationship with a Holocaust denier. He has theorised against conspiracies but created a laundering house for international mischief. He speaks of accountability but fled Swedish justice. He praises honesty but is thrilled by espionage. In the Ecuadorian embassy, he lived as both philosopher king and squalid bachelor.
The record suggests that Assange thinks of himself as a great and nobly dangerous man. If so, he has an unseemly reluctance to face the consequences of his brilliance. In 1939, the Christian theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer fled Germany on a ship to America. He immediately regretted it. Once in New York, he realised that if he were to have any moral authority in post-Nazi Germany then he would have to resist in Nazi Germany. Fatefully, he returned.
In January 2017, Assange pledged to leave the embassy and deliver himself, via extradition, to the US if then president Barack Obama granted clemency to Chelsea Manning, who was then serving 35 years in a military jail for espionage and theft – the fruits of which she had provided Assange. Just weeks later, Obama granted her clemency. Assange went nowhere. Two years later, he would have to be dragged out by police. Like many great men, Assange has conferred himself some great exemptions.
To the question of whether we can see a journalist in the Assange Rorschach test, Margaret Simons says there is no simple answer. “It’s difficult to answer yes or no about whether he is a journalist,” says the Walkley award-winning associate professor of journalism at Monash University. “We live in an age when lots of people can broadcast and publish – all you need is an internet connection. We have a situation today where it’s more helpful to think about journalism as an activity rather than a profession.
“Some of what WikiLeaks has done unquestionably qualifies as journalism: publishing information with the stated aim of holding the powerful to account. What Assange hasn’t done, which is normally journalistic practice, is doing the ethical balancing act around disclosure. Most of his media partners would say he hasn’t taken sufficient care with redactions. But we can’t be too pure about this. Media organisations have published material that’s been damaging to individuals.”
Simons says the recent emergence of “fake news factories” in Eastern Europe, and their influence on distant elections, means we might reconsider the traditional journalistic responsibility of verification, something “WikiLeaks or citizen journalists might not do”.
As Simons tells me, regardless of what we think of Assange personally, his legacy is substantial. He pre-empted the encrypted digital repository, a now-common feature of media organisations everywhere. His technical ingenuity is considerable. His theories of information symmetry and secrecy taxes are influential. He was ahead of his time, the subterranean hacker who emerged, dramatically, into the light of the world.
One strange chapter in a very strange life has ended. But it’s far from
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Apr 20, 2019 as "Master of disguise". Subscribe here.