The 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.
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 news story.
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 impossible.
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 WikiLeaks”, 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 of Assangeand his associates.
At the same time, WikiLeaks was having its payment accounts frozen by Visa and Mastercard, Amazon Web Services pulled hosting support, and Assange was jailed for a week in the UK (before being bailed) on unrelated charges relating to alleged sexual offences in Sweden.
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 tragic consequences.
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 is personal.
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.
How it ends
All of 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.
Assange 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.
The poet 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 occasion to.”
Such is 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 will.
The question 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.
For a 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.
WikiLeaks 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.
Assange’s 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.
Assange 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 opponents.
These are 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.
It remains to be seen what they’ll do for Donald Trump.
James Ball is a special correspondent for BuzzFeed News and is based in London.
Contact James Ball at James.Ball@buzzfeed.com.
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