Raffi Khatchadourian’s profile of Julian Assange for The New Yorker back in June—before the Afghanistan and Iraq war logs dumps—is still the definitive read on the WikiLeaks founder. And it may always be.
Since releasing the Iraq War Logs at 5 p.m. Friday, EST, Assange has been back in the headlines and back on TV screens. At a press conference in London on Saturday, he hinted that we will see more of him and his organization. “This disclosure is about the truth. We hope to correct some of that attack on the truth that occurred before the war, during the war, and which has continued on since the war officially concluded. While I am not sure we have achieved the maximum possible [political impact] I think we are getting pretty close.”
Stateside, Assange was profiled again in the Sunday New York Times—and while a sure, insightful, and pretty damning look at a complicated, paranoid rebel, John F. Burns’ and Ravi Somaiya’s report, “WikiLeaks Founder on the Run, Trailed by Notoriety,” suggests we may have already gotten as close to Assange as we ever will.
The Times piece is in many ways a kind of companion to Khatchadourian’s. The first is a long and complex read in which the author was given access to Assange and his WikiLeaks brood as they put together “Project B,” the leaked video showing an Apache helicopter killing eighteen people that was released as “Collateral Murder.” The piece unfolds as the thrilling story of a kind of “altruistic Bond villain”—a term coined in a Guardian Assange profile—hiding out in a secret house in Iceland, planning his attack from headquarters, and it delves, in great detail, into the backstory that’s given us the pale and mysterious Assange.
It is very much the story of WikiLeaks’ and Assange’s beginnings—nonconformists on a mission whose leader embodies the contradictions inherent to their core. He is both a noble skeptic out to speak truth to power, and yet he hides and refuses for his site to be held accountable; he sees himself as a journalist, professing to do journalistic work of a type we haven’t seen in decades, and yet he is prone to a kind of chess-match approach to information release that is anathema to our profession. Take this, for example, from a discussion about whether to release a section of “Collateral Murder” with the initial package, or wait for an ambush.
The journalists also found the owner of the building that had been attacked by the Hellfires, who said that families had been living in the structure, and that seven residents had died. The owner, a retired English teacher, had lost his wife and daughter. An intense discussion arose about what to do with this news: Was it worth using at the National Press Club, or was it a better tactic to hold on to it? If the military justified the Hellfire attacks by claiming that there were no civilian casualties, WikiLeaks could respond by releasing the information, in a kind of ambush. Jonsdottir turned to Gonggrijp, whose eyes had welled up.
The New Yorker profile is a must-read for anyone wanting an Assange or WikiLeaks primer. And the Sunday Times piece is a solid continuation of it: if Khatchadourian’s profile is an origin story, this latest piece reads like the middle section a gangster biopic; allies revolting and an organization crumbling from within at the seeming height of its powers.