The LRB features Andrew O'Hagan's account of ghosting for the most prominent guest in the Ecuador Hotel, ie Julian Assange.
People who've followed the adventures of Mr Wikileaks will be unsurprised by passages such as
Assange referred a number of times to the fact that people were in love with him, but I couldn’t see the coolness, the charisma he took for granted. He spoke at length about his ‘enemies’, mainly the Guardian and the New York Times.
Julian’s relationship with the Guardian, which appeared to obsess him, went back to his original agreement to let them publish the Afghan war logs. He quickly fell out with the journalists and editors there – essentially over questions of power and ownership – and by the time I took up with him felt ‘double-crossed’ by them. It was an early sign of the way he viewed ‘collaboration’: the Guardian was an enemy because he’d ‘given’ them something and they hadn’t toed the line, whereas the Daily Mail was almost respected for finding him entirely abominable. The Guardian tried to soothe him – its editor, Alan Rusbridger, showed concern for his position, as did the then deputy, Ian Katz, and others – but he talked about its journalists in savage terms. The Guardian felt strongly that the secret material ought to be redacted to protect informants or bystanders named in it, and Julian was inconsistent about that. I never believed he wanted to endanger such people, but he chose to interpret the Guardian’s concern as ‘cowardice’.
His relationship with the New York Times was every bit as toxic. He believed its editor, Bill Keller, was determined to treat him as a ‘source’ rather than a collaborator – which was true – and that Keller wanted to hang him out to dry, which was not true. Keller wrote a long piece in his own paper saying Julian was dirty, paranoid, controlling, unreliable and slightly off his head, which naturally made Julian feel his former collaborator was out to get him. But both newspapers, in concert with others, had given over vast numbers of pages to the leaks and given WikiLeaks top billing in bringing the material. I always felt the involvement of the New York Times would save Julian from prison, and I still believe that. Even the US authorities see that it would be impossible for them to convict Assange without also convicting Keller and Rusbridger. But instead of seeing that, Julian could only see the men in personal terms as dissemblers or something worse.
He had a strange, on-the-spectrum inability to see when he was becoming boring or demanding. He talked as if the world needed him to talk and never to stop. Oddly for a dissident, he had no questions. The left-wingers I have known are always full of questions, but Assange, from the first, seemed like a manifestation of the hyperventilating chatroom. It became clear: if I was to be the ghost, it might turn out that I was the least ghostly person in the enterprise.
He was avoiding ‘our book’. He wanted to talk about the other books about to be published. ‘There’s this book by two guys from Der Spiegel,’ he said. ‘It will be more high-toned than the others. The two guys are friendly towards me but the book will contain new allegations.’ He spoke about another book to be published by the Guardian. He said it would come from journalists he’d worked with there. He was obsessed with David Leigh and Nick Davies, two of the main reporters. ‘Davies is extremely hostile to me,’ Assange said. ‘The Guardian basically double-crossed the organisation in the worst way.’ (The Guardian denies this.) ‘We left them with a cache of cables – to act as security in case any of us got it in the neck – and they made a copy of the data. They were against my getting other media organisations involved, so they leaked the data to the New York Times and others and they behaved abominably. Davies has a known personal animosity towards me.’
‘Because he’s an old man who’s basically at the end of his career. He can’t bear it that a one-time source of advancement has gone away. He wrote a smear about me and none of the Guardian management stood in his way.’ He mentioned Ian Katz as failing in this regard. He said the Guardian’s behaviour would likely be laid out in the Der Spiegel book, and that the Guardian journalists were obviously keen to put out their version. ‘They have scheduled the book to come out at the time of my legal hearing, to cause maximum damage.’
‘Surely not,’ I said, incredulous. ‘Wouldn’t they wait, just for old time’s sake?’
I’d never been with a person who had such a good cause and such a poor ear, nor had I met a head of an organisation with such an unending capacity to worry about his enemies and to yawn in one’s face. I asked him how he thought the court case would turn out. ‘I have, I’d say, a 40 per cent chance of being freed,’ he said. ‘If they free me on 6 February, I’ll leave the country immediately because in this country there would be a second arrest and the US will be determined to have me extradited. I would sooner be in a country where no extradition treaty exists with the US, such as Cuba or Switzerland. A lot of people in America want me dead and there was an article in the Washington Times which showed my face with a target on it and blood coming out the back of my head.’And
I spoke to Jamie Byng, who made the point that Julian didn’t appear to see how unattractive he could seem. He said the book would fail if we didn’t know how to temper or transform that; if the book didn’t save him from himself and go deeper than his defences. I knew what he meant. I told him I was trying to give Julian a crash course in self-deprecation, and would continue to insist that he not make himself the hero of every anecdote. I told Jamie the work WikiLeaks was trying to do might be bigger than Julian’s ability to articulate it.
There was this incredible need for spy-talk. Julian would often refer to the places where he lived as ‘safe houses’ and say things like, ‘When you go to Queensland there’s a contact there you should speak to.’
‘You mean a friend?’ I’d say.
‘No. It’s more complicated than that.’ He appeared to like the notion that he was being pursued and the tendency was only complicated by the fact that there were real pursuers. But the pursuit was never as grave as he wanted it to be. He stuck to his Cold War tropes, where one didn’t deliver a package, but made a ‘drop off’. One day, we were due to meet some of the WikiLeaks staff at a farmhouse out towards Lowestoft. We went in my car. Julian was especially edgy that afternoon, feeling perhaps that the walls were closing in, as we bumped down one of those flat roads covered in muck left by tractors’ tyres. ‘Quick, quick,’ he said, ‘go left. We’re being followed!’ I looked in the rear-view mirror and could see a white Mondeo with a wire sticking out the back.
‘Don’t be daft, Julian,’ I said. ‘That’s a taxi.’
‘No. Listen to me. It’s surveillance. We’re being followed. Quickly go left.’ Just by comical chance, as I was rocking a Sweeney-style handbrake turn, the car behind us suddenly stopped at a farmhouse gate and a little boy jumped out and ran up the path. I looked at the clock as we rolled off in a cloud of dust. It said 3.48.
‘That was a kid being delivered home from school,’ I said. ‘You’re mental.’
‘You don’t understand,’ he said.And
What Julian lacked in efficiency or professionalism he made up for in courage. What he lacked in carefulness he made up for in impact. In our overnight conversations, he told me about the mindset of the expert hacker. He described how, as a teenager, he’d wandered through the virtual corridors of Nasa, Bank of America, the Melbourne transport system or the Pentagon. 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 found myself writing notes culled from what he said to me about himself. ‘When you’re a hacker you’re interested in masks within masks,’ and ‘We could undermine corruption from its dead centre. Justice will always in the end be about human beings, but there is a new vanguard of experts, criminalised as we are, who have fastened onto the cancer of modern power, and seen how it spreads in ways that are still hidden from ordinary human experience.’
But he was also losing touch with promises he had made and contracts he’d signed. His paranoia was losing him support and in a normal organisation, one where other people’s experience was respected and where their value was judged on more than ‘loyalty’, he would have been fired. I would have fired him myself if I hadn’t been there merely to help him straighten out his sentences. But his sentences too were infected with his habits of self-regard and truth-manipulation. The man who put himself in charge of disclosing the world’s secrets simply couldn’t bear his own. The story of his life mortified him and sent him scurrying for excuses. He didn’t want to do the book. He hadn’t from the beginning.