Next to 10 Downing Street, 3 Hans Crescent may be the safest address in London these days, surrounded as it is by British police 24 hours a day, at a cost to the British taxpayer estimated at £4.5 million a year. Seven million pounds and counting might seem like a big investment to keep a 42-year-old Australian computer programmer off the streets, even if he is wanted for questioning by Swedish police in connection with two sexual assault investigations. However, it’s safe to say it wasn’t concern for the Ecuadorian Embassy’s neighbours in posh Knightsbridge that has led the police to keep such close tabs on Julian Assange.
Nor does it explain why two years ago Assange sought Ecuadorian hospitality rather than run the risk of a stint in a Swedish slammer—especially given that compared to life in the Ecuadorian embassy, Swedish prison life seems like a picnic, with its Ikea showroom kitchens, day passes, and a brisk sea breeze.
For both the prisoner of Hans Crescent and the Metropolitan Police Service, the reasons for the standoff appear to have next to nothing to do with any scandals in Scandinavia and everything to do with WikiLeaks—on the one side, making sure their quarry does not fly off to Ecuador, and on the other, keeping out of reach of the long arm of Uncle Sam.
But the saga may end soon. On 16 August, Assange told reporters he is preparing to leave his sanctuary. Always pale, he is supposed to suffer now from a variety of heart and lung ailments, including a Vitamin D deficiency from seeing too little sun. He hasn’t agreed to turn himself in, but his attorney, human rights lawyer Amal Alamuddin, has not announced any deal with the British government, so presumably he would face extradition either to Sweden or, more seriously for him, charges related to his 2010 posting of a vast cache of US military and diplomatic communications.
It doesn’t take the talents of George Clooney, Alamuddin’s fiancé, to imagine various endings to this movie: close up of Assange and a Pacific beach sunset, announcing a new set of revelations; close up of Assange with cell door slamming shut; or maybe—if some right-wing American politicians get their wish—close up through the crosshairs of a Navy Seal sniper.
But it is also beginning to seem possible that something much less dramatic will happen, a fate even more horrible for a publicity hound like Assange to contemplate: no close ups at all, just a fade to black. Some legal scholars have speculated that US prosecutors might have a tough time convicting Assange, given that the First Amendment’s guarantee to freedom of the press doesn’t include an exception for information it would rather not have see daylight.
If that’s the case, Assange’s real punishment may be just beginning. After two years offstage, with his site starved for funds (US pressure has made it nearly impossible to donate money to his organisation), the debate about government secrecy and surveillance now goes on without him.
Like the snowy white beard he now sports, Assange is now too familiar a figure. Always on the lookout for fresh news and fresh faces, the photographers have found a more congenial anti-secrecy poster boy—Edward Snowden, the National Security Agency whistleblower.
Why should Snowden, who is in Russia, earn more positive press than Assange, who wants to go to Ecuador?
One reason may be personal. Assange clearly rubbed a lot of people the wrong way. As one journalist I know who specialises in national security issues told me, he thought Assange was “a hero and at the same time, a total prick”.
Among those who would probably agree with that assessment is his estranged ghostwriter, Andrew O’Hagan, author of a book he published as Assange’s ‘unauthorized autobiography’—basically, the book that he would have published as a memoir until he pulled the plug on the project on the eve of publication. In February, O’Hagen wrote a scathing account of his work with Assange in The London Review of Books, in which he describes Assange as narcissistic, unbalanced, and just plain odd: Who eats lasagna with his hands?
But O’Hagen also understood that Assange had brought something new to the landscape:
At his best, he represented a new way of existing in relation to authority. He wasn’t very straightforwardly of the left and couldn’t have distinguished dialectical materialism from a bag of nuts. He hates systems of belief, hates all systems, wants indeed to be a ghost in the machine, walking through the corridors of power and switching off the lights.
I suspect it’s also part of the reason Snowden and not Assange is now the face of opposition to the surveillance state. Snowden is a great leaker, maybe the greatest of all time—a whistleblower who hacked the code of modern publicity more effectively than Assange ever did, parcelling out his revelations week by week, building their cumulative impact and forcing reporters to stay focused on his charges rather than his personal story, and offering very limited access to reporters.
He has also been less cavalier than Assange, taking care not to post the names of individuals, or compromise classified information that was not essential to his case. Where Assange seems to have always aimed to thwart authority generally, Snowden claims more modestly that he doesn’t want to change anything, he just wanted to give people a chance to decide if this was the kind of system they wanted.
Most importantly, Snowden is a more conventional kind of whistleblower, the kind of character that reporters are familiar with: someone who might break government rules, but still plays by the reporters’ rules. He is peddling his own secrets and presumably, once they are all told, he will be out of the secrets business.
Assange, on the other hand, tried to create in WikiLeaks a new kind of secret-distribution system, an institution he called ‘a democratic intelligence agency’ with no institutional restraints. At some level, he was not only publicising secrets, as journalists have always done, but trying to do to the front of the newspaper what Craig’s List did to the back—eliminate the middleman.
THE DIRECT ACCESS WikiLeaks promised was one factor that first attracted Swiss bank whistleblower Rudolf Elmer to the site. For several years before he published his material on WikiLeaks, which he said proved that his former employer, Swiss bank Julius Bär, was engaged in tax evasion for its clients through the Cayman Islands, Elmer had tried and failed to get anyone to pay attention to him. No Swiss tax authorities, Swiss NGOs, or Swiss or German newspapers were interested in publicising his charges. Even the global financial media “were too cozy with the financial industry during the years before 2008”, he says. WikiLeaks gave him a chance to make his case.
Whether WikiLeaks actually succeeded as a new kind of medium is open to debate. Functionally, the site may have simply served the same kind of role that tabloids and the more raggedy kind of gossip magazines have long played—as a way for more established papers to get hold of a story without actually taking responsibility.
For his part, Elmer believes the case he made on WikiLeaks would not have gotten any attention if the bank had not hired prominent Los Angeles entertainment lawyer Evan Spiegel to try to shut it down.
Other media watchers agree. One columnist at Infoworld described the stratagem as “stunningly stupid” in that it brought attention to an otherwise obscure case, linked the Bär name indelibly with money laundering, and insured that Elmer’s documents travelled all over the internet. ‘The documents in question, which might have been quickly forgotten alongside the 1.2 million others on the site, are now hotter than the Paris Hilton sex video,’ wrote tech columnist Robert Cringely.
However, at least when it came to the leak of US Army Private Bradley (now Chelsea) Manning of nearly 750,000 computer files concerning the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and US foreign policy—and most damningly, a video of US forces firing on Reuters employees they believed were carrying anti- tank weapons, not camera equipment—WikiLeaks arguably did change the way secrets made its way into the public eye.
The posting of Manning’s troves on the internet also offered an oblique critique of reporting on the brutal wars in Iraq and Afghanistan to the outside world. Unlike Vietnam, the media had let the Pentagon stage manage the event in a way that kept coverage highly favorable, such as offering access to active troops only to journalists who could be relied on for positive stories, with little of the kind of footage that turned the public against that earlier war.
Looking back, Elmer says he won’t defend everything that Assange and his partner Daniel Domscheit-Berg did, but he argues that they did accomplish something valuable. “WikiLeaks was a start-up company and start-ups make mistakes. That has to be accepted,” Elmer says. Still, he adds, WikiLeaks “changed the world of information access and management. Truth tellers have a better chance to bring their message across.”
This may be part of the reason that deep down, the Snowden story is attracting more coverage now even as Assange is derided as ‘a rock star on the skids’. In spite of itself, it’s a familiar movie in a familiar genre—the brave whistleblower, a few crusading journalists, and particularly at The Guardian, a damn- the-torpedoes editor.
In movie terms, the Snowden narrative takes us back to All the President’s Men, where the Fifth Estate is doing its job in restoring liberty, and away from Robert Redford’s paranoid thriller Three Days of the Condor, which ends when he tells a CIA operative that he is going to take his story to The New York Times, and the agent asks, but how do you know they’ll print it?
Meanwhile, for Assange, it also means that if he fails to make himself a martyr to free speech, the lights will continue to dim on the freelance spymaster… Unless, of course, you have a secret you’d like to share.