Assange poses for a portrait at his undisclosed location in the English countryside. Max Vadukul
It’s a few days before Christmas, and Julian Assange has just finished moving to a new hide-out deep in the English countryside. The two-bedroom house, on loan from a WikiLeaks supporter, is comfortable enough, with a big stone fireplace and a porch out back, but it’s not as grand as the country estate where he spent the past 363 days under house arrest, waiting for a British court to decide whether he will be extradited to Sweden to face allegations that he sexually molested two women he was briefly involved with in August 2010.
Assange sits on a tattered couch, wearing a wool sweater, dark pants and an electronic manacle around his right ankle, visible only when he crosses his legs. At 40, the WikiLeaks founder comes across more like an embattled rebel commander than a hacker or journalist. He’s become better at handling the media – more willing to answer questions than he used to be, less likely to storm off during interviews – but the protracted legal battle has left him isolated, broke and vulnerable. Assange recently spoke to someone he calls a Western “intelligence source,” and he asked the official about his fate. Will he ever be a free man again, allowed to return to his native Australia, to come and go as he pleases? “He told me I was fucked,” Assange says.
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Assange pauses and looks out the window. The house is surrounded by rolling fields and quiet woods, but they offer him little in the way of escape. The British Supreme Court will hear his extradition appeal on February 1st – but even if he wins, he will likely still remain a wanted man. Interpol has issued a so-called “red notice” for his arrest on behalf of Swedish authorities for questioning in “connection with a number of sexual offenses” – Qaddafi, accused of war crimes, earned only an “orange notice” – and the U.S. government has branded him a “high-tech terrorist,” unleashing a massive and unprecedented investigation designed to depict Assange’s journalism as a form of international espionage. Ever since November 2010, when WikiLeaks embarrassed and infuriated the world’s governments with the release of what became known as Cablegate, some 250,000 classified diplomatic cables from more than 150 countries, the group’s supporters have found themselves detained at airports, subpoenaed to testify before a grand jury, and ordered to turn over their Twitter accounts and e-mails to authorities.
Assange was always deeply engaged with the world – and always getting into trouble. Born in a small town in Queensland, he spent much of his youth traveling around Australia with his mother and stepfather, who ran a theater company. As a teenager, he discovered computers – his first was a Commodore 64 – and became one of the world’s foremost hackers, going by the name Mendax, Latin for “nobly untruthful.” After breaking into systems at NASA and the Pentagon when he was 16, he was busted on 25 counts of hacking, which prodded him to go straight. But as he traveled the world, working as a tech consultant through much of the 1990s, he continued putting his computer skills to use ensuring freedom of information – a necessary condition, he believes, for democratic self-rule.
“From the glory days of American radicalism, which was the American Revolution, I think that Madison’s view on government is still unequaled,” he tells me during the three days I spend with him as he settles into his new location in England. “That people determined to be in a democracy, to be their own governments, must have the power that knowledge will bring – because knowledge will always rule ignorance.
You can either be informed and your own rulers, or you can be ignorant and have someone else, who is not ignorant, rule over you. The question is, where has the United States betrayed Madison and Jefferson, betrayed these basic values on how you keep a democracy? I think that the U.S. military-industrial complex and the majority of politicians in Congress have betrayed those values.”
In 2006, Assange founded WikiLeaks, a group of hackers and activists that has been dubbed the first “stateless news organization.” The goal, from the start, was to operate beyond the reach of the law, get their hands on vital documents being censored by governments and corporations, and make them available to the public. After a series of initial successes – publishing leaks about Iceland, Kenya and even a Pentagon document warning of WikiLeaks – Assange rocked the U.S. military in April 2010 with the release of “Collateral Murder,” a video that revealed an American helicopter in Iraq opening fire on unarmed civilians, killing two journalists and several others.
He quickly followed up with the release of hundreds of thousands of classified files related to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, creating an international firestorm. But soon after he began releasing the diplomatic cables, which were widely credited with helping to spark the Arab Spring, he was detained and imprisoned after spending a week with two female supporters in Stockholm, entangling him in a yearlong legal battle to win his own freedom.
Assange agreed to a lengthy interview at his new home, on the condition that the location be kept secret, along with the identities of the core WikiLeaks staffers who have stuck by him since he ran into trouble in Sweden. Though he continues to run the group from captivity, working on what he calls a new set of scoops concerning the private-surveillance industry, the media furor over his personal life has turned him into a pariah among many former supporters, making it difficult for WikiLeaks to raise money. He’s been called a rapist, an enemy combatant, and an agent of both Mossad and the CIA.
His two most prominent collaborators – The New York Times and The Guardian – have repeatedly tarred him as a sexual deviant with bad personal hygiene, while continuing to happily sell books and movie rights about his exploits. His own personality has also proved divisive: He’s charming, brilliant and uncompromising, but he has inspired intense hatred among former colleagues, who portray him as a megalomaniac whose ego has undermined the cause.
When I arrive for my last day with Assange, I’m 45 minutes early. Most of his staff have gone home for the holidays, and he’s alone in the house with only his personal assistant to keep him company. Assange is huddled over a laptop in the dining room he has turned into his office, monitoring what has become his sole focus over the past few days: the trial of Bradley Manning, the 24-year-old Army private alleged to have provided the diplomatic cables to WikiLeaks. Assange has two lawyers representing him in the Maryland courtroom, and his name has been mentioned virtually every day during the initial hearing. The government’s strategy, it has become clear, is to pressure Manning to implicate Assange in espionage – to present his work at WikiLeaks as the act of a spy, not a journalist.
When Assange comes into the living room and sits on the couch, a small Jack Russell terrier jumps up onto his lap and remains there for most of the next five hours. “You use two recorders,” Assange says, looking at the digital recorders I’ve put down on the small coffee table. “I usually use three.” But as soon as we start the interview, the phone rings. It’s Daniel Ellsberg, the man who leaked the Pentagon Papers, who had attended the Manning trial with Assange’s lawyers. Ellsberg is in a car driving back to Washington, D.C. “I can hear you,” Assange shouts, ducking into the dining room. “Can you hear me?”
Five minutes later he returns, energized by his talk with America’s most famous whistle-blower. “Where were we?” he says. His assistant brings in two cups of coffee, and the interview begins.