dr marten socks a Man Without a Country
Khatchadourian writes: “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.”
Editor in chief of WikiLeaks Julian Assange. (photo: Nadav Kander/The New Yorker)
he 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 faade 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.”
“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 Mnima” (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. 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 Reykjavk’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. 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.