Times’s Act Two Profile of Assange

A revealing follow-up to The New Yorker

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.

The Burns and Somaiya piece begins much like Khatchadourian’s—a secret meeting at a secret location, this time an Ethiopian restaurant in London. But the similarities are few from there. Burns and Somaiya catch Assange at his most paranoiac, with key characters from the New Yorker piece, like Icelandic parliamentarian and anarchist Birgitta Jonsdottir, turned from supporters to skeptics, and criminal charges threatening. It feels like the beginning of an end, precipitated by Assange’s own actions and behaviors.

Several WikiLeaks colleagues say he alone decided to release the Afghan documents without removing the names of Afghan intelligence sources for NATO troops. “We were very, very upset with that, and with the way he spoke about it afterwards,” said Birgitta Jonsdottir, a core WikiLeaks volunteer and a member of Iceland’s Parliament. “If he could just focus on the important things he does, it would be better.”

… After the Sweden scandal, strains within WikiLeaks reached a breaking point, with some of Mr. Assange’s closest collaborators publicly defecting. The New York Times spoke with dozens of people who have worked with and supported him in Iceland, Sweden, Germany, Britain and the United States. What emerged was a picture of the founder of WikiLeaks as its prime innovator and charismatic force but as someone whose growing celebrity has been matched by an increasingly dictatorial, eccentric and capricious style.

… But if Mr. Assange is sustained by his sense of mission, faith is fading among his fellow conspirators. His mood was caught vividly in an exchange on Sept. 20 with another senior WikiLeaks figure. In an encrypted online chat, a transcript of which was passed to The Times, Mr. Assange was dismissive of his colleagues. He described them as “a confederacy of fools,” and asked his interlocutor, “Am I dealing with a complete retard?” In London, Mr. Assange was angered when asked about the rifts. He responded testily to questions about WikiLeaks’s opaque finances, Private Manning’s fate and WikiLeaks’s apparent lack of accountability to anybody but himself, calling the questions “cretinous,” “facile” and reminiscent of “kindergarten.”

The latest Assange chapter finds the hacker-cum-freedom-of-information-fighter paranoid, alone, and in a position he said he had never wanted to be in: where he and his organization have become as much the story as the information he is leaking.

“When it comes to the point where you occasionally look forward to being in prison on the basis that you might be able to spend a day reading a book, the realization dawns that perhaps the situation has become a little more stressful than you would like,” he said.

What’s markedly different is the level of access. That’s a function of the outlets in which the profiles have been published—the Times does not have the New Yorker’s luxury of writing graf after graf of on-the-ground in-the-bunker prose. And timing: New Yorker came to Assange before his king-making Afghanistan dump. There is a noticeable shortness of time spent with Assange in the Times piece; it reads as if he is as much on the run from the writers as those who might be legitimately pursuing him. In the New Yorker piece, Khatchadourian was on the run with him.

(It’s worth noting though that Assange might have had reason to fear the reporters: the portrait is unflattering, a very negative take on a man who for better or worse, the paper felt good enough about to use a vehicle to a trove of valuable source material.)

Together, the two chapters, an Act One and Act Two, suggest that while we will likely be seeing more of WikiLeaks and its founder, we are unlikely to get too much closer to Assange. The Times profile ends:

Mr. Assange’s own fate seems as imperiled as Private Manning’s. Last Monday, the Swedish Migration Board said Mr. Assange’s bid for a residence permit had been rejected. His British visa will expire early next year. When he left the London restaurant at twilight, heading into the shadows, he declined to say where he was going. The man who has put some of the world’s most powerful institutions on his watch list was, once more, on the move.

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Joel Meares is a former CJR assistant editor. Tags: , , , ,