WikiLeaks founder is out to settle a score with Hillary Clinton and reassert
himself as a player on the world stage, says BuzzFeed News special
correspondent James Ball, who worked for Assange at WikiLeaks.
Oct. 23, 2016, at 4:11 p.m.
/ Getty Images
On 29 November 2010, then US
secretary of state Hillary Clinton stepped out in front of reporters to condemn
the release of classified documents by WikiLeaks and five major news
organisations the previous day.
WikiLeaks’ release, she said, “puts
people’s lives in danger”, “threatens our national security”, and “undermines
our efforts to work with other countries”.
“Releasing them poses real risks to
real people,” she noted, adding, “We are taking aggressive steps to hold
responsible those who stole this information.”
Julian Assange watched that message
on a television in the corner of a living room in Ellingham Hall, a stately
home in rural Norfolk, around 120 miles away from London.
I was sitting around 8ft away from
him as he did so, the room’s antique furniture and rugs strewn with laptops,
cables, and the mess of a tiny organisation orchestrating the world’s biggest
Minutes later, the roar of a
military jet sounded sharply overhead. I looked around the room and could see
everyone thinking the same thing, but no one wanting to say it. Surely not.
Surely? Of course, the jet passed harmlessly overhead – Ellingham Hall is not
far from a Royal Air Force base – but such was the pressure, the adrenaline,
and the paranoia in the room around Assange at that time that nothing felt
Spending those few months at such
close proximity to Assange and his confidants, and experiencing first-hand the
pressures exerted on those there, have given me a particular insight into how
WikiLeaks has become what it is today.
To an outsider, the WikiLeaks of
2016 looks totally unrelated to the WikiLeaks of 2010. Then it was a darling of
many of the liberal left, working with some of the world’s most respected
newspapers and exposing the truth behind drone killing, civilian deaths in
Afghanistan and Iraq, and surveillance
of top UN officials
Now it is the darling of the
alt-right, revealing hacked emails seemingly to influence a presidential
contest, claiming the US election is “rigged”, and descending into conspiracy.
Just this week on Twitter, it described the deaths by natural causes of two of
its supporters as a “bloody year for
”, and warned of media outlets “controlled by
members of the Rothschild family – a common anti-Semitic trope.
The questions asked about the
organisation and its leader are often the wrong ones: How has WikiLeaks changed
so much? Is Julian Assange the catspaw of Vladimir Putin? Is WikiLeaks
endorsing a president candidate who has been described as racist, misogynistic,
xenophobic, and more?
These questions miss a broader
truth: Neither Assange nor WikiLeaks (and the two are virtually one and the
same thing) have changed – the world they operate in has. WikiLeaks is in many
ways the same bold, reckless, paranoid creation that once it was, but how that
manifests, and who cheers it on, has changed.
Julian Assange in the grounds
of Ellingham Hall in December 2010. Carl Court / AFP / Getty Images
The cable release
Clinton’s condemnation of WikiLeaks
and its partners’ release of classified cables was a simple requirement of her
job. Even had she privately been an ardent admirer of the site – which seems
unlikely – doing anything other than strongly condemning the leak was
nonetheless never an option.
That’s not how it felt to anyone
inside WikiLeaks at that moment, though. It was an anxiety-inducing time.
WikiLeaks was the subject of every cable TV discussion, every newspaper front
page, and press packs swarmed the gates of every address even tenuously
connected to the site. Commentators called for arrest, deportation, rendition,
or even assassination
and his associates.
Inside WikiLeaks, a tiny
organisation with only a few hundred thousand dollars in the bank, such
pressure felt immense. Most of the handful of people within came from a
left-wing activist background, many were young and inexperienced, and few had
much trust of the US government – especially after months of reading cables of
US mistakes and overreactions in the Afghan and Iraq war logs, often with
How might the US react, or
overreact, this time? WikiLeaks was afraid of legal or extralegal consequences
against Assange or other staff. WikiLeakers were angry at US corporations
creating a financial blockade against the organisation with no court ruling or
judgments – just a press
statement from a US senator
And the figurehead of this whole
response was none other than Hillary Clinton. For Assange, to an extent, this
Hillary Clinton in 2010,
giving remarks condemning WikiLeaks’ release of classified embassy cables. Win Mcnamee / Getty
In the room
It’s unfair, or at least an
oversimplification, to say that Assange is anti-American. He would say he
supports the American people but believes its government, its politics, and its
corporations are corrupt.
A result of this is that he doesn’t
see the world in the way many Americans do, and has no intrinsic aversion to
Putin or other strongmen with questionable democratic credentials on the world
This shows in some of his
supporters. A few days after Assange arrived with me and a few others at
Ellingham Hall, an older man, introduced to us as “Adam”, turned up. Assange
had invited independent freelance journalists from around the world to the
country house to see cables relating to their country – usually no more than a
few thousand at a time.
“Adam” was different: He
immediately asked for everything relating to Russia, eastern Europe, and Israel
– and got it, more than 100,000 documents in all. A few stray comments of his
about “Jews” prompted a few concerns on my part, dismissed quickly by another
WikiLeaker – “don’t be silly… He’s Jewish himself, isn’t he?”
A short while later, I learned
“Adam”’s real identity, or at least the name he most often uses: He was Israel
Shamir, a known pro-Kremlin and anti-Semitic writer. He had been photographed
leaving the internal ministry of Belarus, and a free speech charity was
concerned this meant the country’s dictator had access to the cables and their
information on opposition groups in the country.
Assange showed no concern at these
allegations, dismissing and ignoring them until the media required a response.
Assange simply denied Shamir had ever had access to any documents.
This was untrue, Assange knew it
was untrue, and I knew it was untrue — it was me, at Assange’s instructions,
who gave them to him. A few days later, a reporter at a Russian publication
wrote to WikiLeaks.
“I really can’t understand why
Wikileaks is just cooperating with the magazine Russian reporter which never
had a record of even slightly critising [sic] the Russian government,” they
“I contacted the person responsible
for contacts with Wikileaks in Russia (Israel Shamir) but he told me we could
not look at the cables ourselves and requested money which is not very
convenient for us (not because of money but because we would like to go through
the files as well).”
Anti-Semitism never seemed a major
part of Assange’s agenda – I never heard him say a remark I caught as
problematic in this way – but it was something he was happy to conveniently ignore
in others. Support for Russia or its strongmen eastern European allies was much
the same: tolerable for those who otherwise are allies of WikiLeaks and do as
WikiLeaks has never had a problem
with Russia: not then, not now.
A supporter of Julian Assange
stands outside Ecuador’s London embassy at a protest in 2012. Oli Scarff / Getty Images
A certain resemblance
Assange is routinely either so
lionised by supporters or demonised by detractors that his real character is
Far from the laptop-obsessed autist
he’s often seen as, he’s a charismatic speaker with an easy ability to dominate
a room or a conversation. He may have little interest in listening to those
around, but he can tell whether or not he has your attention and change his
manner to capture it. He has, time and again, proven to be a savvy media
manipulator, marching the mainstream media up the hill and down again to often
damp-squib press conferences. His technical skills are not in doubt.
What’s often underestimated is his
gift for bullshit. Assange can, and does, routinely tell obvious lies:
WikiLeaks has deep and involved procedures; WikiLeaks was founded by a group of
12 activists, primarily from China; Israel Shamir never had cables; we have
received information that [insert name of WikiLeaks critic] has ties to US
At times, these lies are harmless
and brilliant. When, on the day the state cables launched, WikiLeaks’ site
wasn’t ready (we hadn’t even written the introductory text), the site was kept
offline after a short DDoS attack, with Assange tweeting that the site was
under an unprecedentedly huge attack.
Six hours later, when we were done,
all eyes were looking: What was so bad in the cables that someone was working
so hard to keep the site offline? The dramatic flourish worked, but other lies
were dumb and damaging – and quickly eroded any kind of trust for those trying
to work closely with him.
Redaction – possibly one of the
clearest apparent changes between 2010 and 2016 WikiLeaks – became one of these
trust issues. For Assange, redacting releases was essentially an issue of
expediency: It would remove an attack line from the Pentagon and state, and
keep media partners onside. For media outlets, it was the only responsible way
to release such sensitive information.
These days, WikiLeaks routinely
publishes information without redaction, and seemingly with only minimal
pre-vetting. This is merely a change in expediency: There are no longer
newspaper partners to keep onside. The results are a partial vindication for both
sides – while it’s hard to dispute that some
publication of private data has been needlessly reckless and invasive
there remains no evidence of any direct harm coming to someone as a result of a
Conversely, Assange often trusts
strangers more than those he knows well: He dislikes taking advice, he dislikes
anyone else having a power base, and he dislikes being challenged – especially
by women. He runs his own show his own way, and won’t delegate. He’s happy to
play on the conspiratorial urges of others, with little sign as to whether or
not he believes them himself.
There are few limits to how far
Assange will go to try to control those around him. Those working at WikiLeaks
– a radical transparency organisation based on the idea that all power must be
accountable – were asked to sign a sweeping nondisclosure agreement covering
all conversations, conduct, and material, with Assange having sole power over
disclosure. The penalty for noncompliance was £12 million.
I refused to sign the document,
which was sprung on me on what was supposed to be a short trip to a country
house used by WikiLeaks. The others present – all of whom had signed without
reading – then alternately pressured, cajoled, persuaded, charmed and pestered
me to sign it, alone and in groups, until well past 4am.
Given how remote the house was,
there was no prospect of leaving. I stayed the night, only to be woken very
early by Assange, sitting on my bed, prodding me in the face with a stuffed
giraffe, immediately once again pressuring me to sign. It was two hours later
before I could get Assange off the bed so I could (finally) get some pants on,
and many hours more until I managed to leave the house without signing the
ridiculous contract. An apologetic staffer present for the farce later admitted
they’d been under orders to “psychologically pressure” me until I signed.
And once you have fallen foul of
Assange — challenged him too openly, criticised him in public, not toed the
line loyally enough — you are done. There is no such thing as honest
disagreement, no such thing as a loyal opposition differing on a policy or
To criticise Assange is to be a
careerist, to sell your soul for power or advantage, to be a spy or an
informer. To save readers a Google search or two, he would tell you I was in
WikiLeaks as an “intern” for a period of “weeks”, and during that time acted as
a mole for The Guardian, stole documents, and had potential ties
to MI5. Compared to some who’ve criticised Assange, I got off fairly lightly.
Those who have faced the greatest
torments are, of course, the two women who accused Assange of sexual offences
in Sweden in the summer of 2010. The details of what happened over those few
days remain a matter for the Swedish justice system, not speculation, but
having seen and heard Assange and those around him discuss the case, having
read out the court documents, and having followed the extradition case in the
UK all the way to the supreme court, I can say it is a real, complicated sexual
assault and rape case. It is no CIA smear, and it relates to Assange’s role at
WikiLeaks only in that his work there is how they met.
Assange’s decision – and it was a
decision – to elide his Swedish case with any possible US prosecution was a
cynical one. It led many to support his cause alongside those of Chelsea
Manning or Edward Snowden. And yet it is not: It is more difficult, not easier,
to extradite Assange to the US from Sweden than from the UK, should Washington
even wish to do so.
Assange coming to believe his own
spin may be what’s been behind six years of effective imprisonment for him. No
one is keeping him in the Ecuadorian embassy – where he has fallen
out with his hosts
– but himself, and a fear of losing face. But the women
who began the case have lost at least as much, becoming for months and years
two of the most hated figures on the internet, smeared as “whores”, “CIA spies”,
and more. They will never get their time back.
Four photos of Julian
Assange’s room in Ecuador’s London embassy, prepared for an internal report
following an incident in which officials believe Assange toppled a bookshelf. Ecuadorian government
report / Via buzzfeed.com
this is the cocktail of ingredients that produces 2016’s incarnation of
WikiLeaks. Julian Assange mistrusts the US government, dislikes Hillary
Clinton, and has spent years trapped in a small embassy flat in west London, in
declining physical and psychological health, monitored minute-by-minute in
reports filed by
his wary Ecuadorian hosts.
would not, in my view, ever knowingly be a willing tool of the Russian state:
If Putin came and gave him a set of orders, they’d be ignored. But if an
anonymous or pseudonymous group came offering anti-Clinton leaks, they’d have
found a host happy not to ask too many awkward questions: He’s set up almost
perfectly to post them and push for them to have the biggest impact they can.
Humbert Wolfe wrote, “You cannot hope to bribe or twist / (thank God!) the
British journalist. / But, seeing what the man will do / unbribed, there’s no
Russia’s good fortune with Assange. If it is indeed Russia behind the leaks, as
US intelligence has reported, he will need no underhanded
deals or motives to do roughly as they’d hope. He would do that of his own free
is whether Assange will end up disappointed. Assange believes WikiLeaks was a
primary driver of the Arab Spring, which led to major uprisings in around a
dozen countries. This is the stage on which Assange believes he plays — the
equal of a world leader, still the biggest story in the world.
time, he was. While the extent of WikiLeaks’ role in the Arab Spring remains a
matter for debate, Assange was at the forefront of an information revelation.
His attempts to regain the spotlight in the meantime have largely failed.
has republished public information as if a leak; published hacks obtained by
Anonymous and Lulzsec for only moderate impact; and email caches of private
intelligence companies of much less significance than what went before. Even
Assange’s attempt to aid Edward Snowden was largely botched, leaving the
whistleblower stranded in a Moscow airport for weeks. In recent weeks, Snowden
has publicly clashed with Assange over the latter’s
handling of the Democratic National Committee leaks.
Opportunism won't earn you a pardon from Clinton & curation is not
censorship of ruling party cash flows https://t.co/4FeygfPynk
approach has taken WikiLeaks from the most powerful and connected force of a
new journalistic era to a back-bedroom operation run at the tolerance (or
otherwise) of Ecuador’s government. This is his shot at reclaiming the world
stage, and settling a score with Hillary Clinton as he does so.
is a gifted public speaker with a talent for playing the media struggling with
an inability to scale up and professionalise his operation, to take advice, a
man whose mission was often left on a backburner in his efforts to demonise his
traits often ascribed to Donald Trump, the main beneficiary of WikiLeaks’
activities through the reaction, and its modern-day champion during
presidential debates. Those traits have left Assange a four-year resident of a
Harrods hamper–laden single room in a London embassy.
remains to be seen what they’ll do for Donald Trump.
Ball is a special correspondent for BuzzFeed News and is based in London.