WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange’s life on the inside
On August 18, Julian Assange, the Australian founder of WikiLeaks, announced he would soon be leaving the Ecuadorian embassy in London, where he has been holed up for the past two years under political asylum.
Assange provided no further details or timeline for his departure, other than to hint it wouldn’t be for reasons to do with his health, a reference to British news reports claiming he was suffering from high blood pressure and a chronic lung problem caused by a shortage of vitamin D. (He did, however, acknowledge that it has been proving rather hard to get any sun.) Speaking alongside Assange, Ecuador’s foreign minister Ricardo Patiño said Ecuador was in the process of setting up meetings with the British foreign secretary to plead Assange’s case, reiterating that it would continue to offer Assange political asylum. A WikiLeaks spokesperson later clarified that plans for Assange to leave the embassy remain dependent on the British government.
Assange now says his departure from the embassy could take a little more time. “The situation I am in is highly politicised,” he said recently in a phone interview. According to Assange, his ability to leave the embassy is dependent on the political climate in Britain, Sweden and the United States. Britain, for example, has been busy with the Scottish referendum, while Sweden has just formed a new coalition government. The US is preparing for general elections on November 4. “But it’s only a matter of time,” he said.
In the meantime, Assange has found much to keep him busy. Last month, he released a book, When Google Met WikiLeaks, which recounts a conversation that took place between himself and Google’s executive chairman, Eric Schmidt, in 2011 while Assange was under house arrest. Schmidt used the conversation to inform his own book, The New Digital Age, written with Google colleague Jared Cohen in 2013. Assange claims he was misrepresented. “In many ways, this book is a reply to Google’s vision for the future of the internet,” he said.
This vision, Assange argues, is not too dissimilar from that of the National Security Agency, whose increasing ties to Google should be a cause of concern for anyone fighting for a free and open internet. “Google’s business model is, in practice, the same as that of the NSA – spying and collecting information about people, storing and indexing it. It is a very valuable repository of information. The NSA doesn’t need to feed on the world directly, because Google can do that for them.”
This is the message Assange delivered to the 150 people who turned out for the book’s official launch in New York on September 24. The launch, held inside the cramped headquarters of a hacker collective on West 14th Street in Manhattan, attracted the publishing elite and bearded hipsters from Brooklyn, who sat on milk crates and drank beer waiting for Assange to appear via video link from London. Liesl, a freelance book critic, killed time playing on one of the video arcade games lining the wall. “I just killed some asteroids with the tail of my rocket,” she said. Dan, 22, watched her play. “His brother works here,” his friend Margaret said. “He doesn’t know anything about Julian Assange; he’s just trying to look cool.”
Outside, people waited in line. “We’re here specifically as supporters of Assange,” said Ted, a comedian. “He’s a modern-day hero willing to put himself on the line to expose the surveillance state.” A book cover designer from Brooklyn was less convinced. “Sometimes he can be over the top, you know?”
Assange was introduced by one of his editors, who joked, “One of the things we love about Julian is that we always know where he is.” The man himself appeared in suit and tie, rosy-cheeked and seemingly well nourished. As he spoke about Google’s unsavoury ties to Washington, a man in an electric blue suit and yellow neckerchief sat cross-legged on the floor, sketching Assange’s face on a large drawing pad. Twenty minutes in, the British singer M. I. A. joined Assange on screen. The two spoke briefly about freedom of expression before Assange opened the floor to questions. Someone asked how Assange felt about still being labelled a traitor. Assange replied that he was well and truly over it, reminding the crowd of his own country’s response to his case. “The Australian government came after me harder than the US government,” he said. “It’s a sad thing how pathetic my own country is.” An OR Books rep then asked any Google employees in the room to come forward and ask Assange a question. No one fessed up. (The publisher of When Google Met WikiLeaks is now offering 20 per cent off the book for all Google employees.)
While the book focused primarily on Google, it also provided an unintended insight into WikiLeaks’s progress since it was founded in 2006. Assange, who still regards himself as its editor-in-chief, said the organisation’s power to further its cause had increased significantly despite limited funding and small staff. “We’ve had to learn a lot of secondary techniques to defend our work,” he said.
This included helping Edward Snowden leave Hong Kong in 2013 and assisting him to gain political asylum, despite playing no role in Snowden’s public release of classified NSA documents. However, the organisation’s growing influence has done little to help Assange with his personal troubles. He is resisting extradition to Sweden to face allegations of sexual misconduct, which he denies. Britain ordered his extradition to Sweden in February 2011 and, after filing a series of unsuccessful appeals, Assange was granted political asylum at the Ecuadorian Embassy in August 2012, where he has remained since. Earlier this year, his lawyers petitioned a Swedish court to repeal an order to have him detained in Sweden, arguing it was a restriction of his civil rights.
Whether to drum up support for his own cause or to help WikiLeaks make some extra cash – or both – Assange has made himself increasingly visible since the announcement in August that he could soon be leaving the embassy. A week after the book launch in New York, he appeared as a hologram at a conference in Nantucket, Massachusetts. This week, it was revealed he is planning to launch a line of clothing and accessories. Ólafur Vignir Sigurvinsson, a WikiLeaks representative based in Iceland, was quoted in The Times of India saying the line of T-shirts, watches and stationery will feature Assange’s face alongside slogans such as “Leaks exposing injustice” and “Enemy of the state”. The hope is Assange’s face will become as recognisable – and as symbolic – as that of Che Guevara.
This echoes a similarly left-of-field sartorial stunt earlier this year, when Assange was scheduled to model at a London Fashion Week event for designer Ben Westwood – the son of Vivienne Westwood – held at the Ecuadorian Embassy. Assange had to pull out of the event due to ill health, but a spokesperson for Westwood told media Assange was still enthusiastic about hosting the event, and would do so at next year’s London Fashion Week.
Perhaps all Assange is trying to do is diffuse the tension. Either way, he remains confident justice will prevail.
“There has been a gradual realisation that a significant injustice has occurred,” he said. “I know we’ll win – it’s inevitable.”
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Oct 18, 2014 as "October: Assange county ". Subscribe here.