Jemima Khan on Julian Assange: how the Wikileaks founder alienated his allies

WikiLeaks – whose mission statement was “to produce a more just society based upon truth” – has been guilty of the same obfuscation and misinformation as those it sought to expose, while its supporters are expected to follow, unquestioningly, in blinkered

Julian Assange. Photo: Zed Nelson/INSTITUTE

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I passed through Los Angeles recently on my way to the Sundance Film Festival. I don’t know the place well, but it always feels to me as if it is in limbo and has never grown into a proper city: a municipal playground, populated by restless kidults. Here, people dine at seven and sleep by nine, ferried around in cars, sipping sodas, suspended in a make-believe world, poised in that fake calm between a toddler’s fall and ensuing screams.
 
Its transient, unevolved quality may have something to do with it being a temporary home to a disproportionate number of famous people. There’s a theory about fame: the moment it strikes, it arrests development. Michael Jackson remained suspended in childhood, enjoying sleepovers and funfairs; Winona Ryder an errant teen who dabbled in shoplifting and experimented with pills; George Clooney, a 30-year-old commitment-phobe, never quite ready yet to settle down.
 
Every plan in LA is SBO (“subject to better offer”). Fame infantilises and grants relative impunity. Those that seek it, out of an exaggerated need for admiration or attention, are often the least well equipped to deal with criticism.
 
Julian Assange was the reason I ended up at Sundance, the showcase for international independent film-makers. I was there to attend the premiere of Alex Gibney’s documentary about WikiLeaks, We Steal Secrets: The Story of Wikileaks, which I executive produced and which Assange denounced before seeing. He objected to the title; WikiLeaks tweeted that it was “an unethical and biased title in the context of pending criminal trials. It is the prosecution’s claim and it is false.”
 
However, as I had previously pointed out to Assange, the title was derived from a comment in the film by Michael Hayden, a former director of the CIA, who told Gibney that the US government was in the business of “stealing secrets” from other countries. It was used specifically to highlight the irony of the situation of Bradley Manning, the US army private alleged to be the source of the American intelligence cables leaked to Assange. Manning may be put to death by his own government for doing the very thing to which Hayden so candidly admits.
 
The film wasn’t in the competition at Sundance, as Gibney is a well-known film-maker and it already has a distributor, but that didn’t stop the WikiLeaks account from tweeting: “Anti-#WikiLeaks doc ‘We Steal Secrets’ steals no prizes at Sundance as film is rejected in all 31 categories”.
The problem with Camp Assange is that, in the words of George W Bush, it sees the world as being “with us or against us”. When I told Assange I was part of the We Steal Secrets: The Story of Wikileaks team, I suggested that he view it not in terms of being pro- or anti-him, but rather as a film that would be fair and would represent the truth. It would address, directly, the claims of his critics, which needed to be included so that the film could be seen as balanced and could reach people beyond the WikiLeaks congregation. He replied: “If it’s a fair film, it will be pro-Julian Assange.” Beware the celebrity who refers to himself in the third person.
 
It became clear to me that Assange would be willing to co-operate only with an amanuensis and not an independent film-maker such as Gibney, whose nuanced work includes Enron: the Smartest Guys in the Room, Client 9: the Rise and Fall of Eliot Spitzer and Taxi to the Dark Side, for which he won an Oscar. In many ways, the film’s narrative arc mirrors my own journey with Assange, from admiration to demoralisation.
 
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I supported Assange before I ever met him. I knew of his work when he was arrested on allegations of sexual assault in late 2010 and held in solitary confinement and I decided to stand bail for him because I believed that through WikiLeaks he was speaking truth to power and had made many enemies. Although I had concerns about what was rumoured to be a nonchalant attitude towards redactions in the documents he leaked, as well as some doubts about the release of certain cables – for example, the list of infrastructure sites vital to US national security – I felt more passionately that democracy needs strong, free media.
 
Accountability and democratic choice, I deeply believe, are guaranteed by rigorous scrutiny only. As Manning wrote, “without information you cannot make informed decisions as a public”.
 
As editor-in-chief of WikiLeaks, Assange had created a transparency mechanism to hold governments and corporations to account. I abhor lies and WikiLeaks exposed the most dangerous lies of all – those told to us by our elected governments. WikiLeaks exposed corruption, war crimes, torture and cover-ups. It showed that we were lied to about the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan; that the US military had deliberately hidden information about systematic torture and civilian casualties, which were much higher than reported. It revealed that Bush and Obama had sanctioned the mass handover of Iraqi prisoners of war from US troops to the Iraqi authorities, knowing they would be tortured. 
 
It revealed that America’s ally Pakistan was playing a double game, taking US aid and collaborating with the Taliban. It revealed the existence of a secret American assassination squad, with a terrible record of killing women and children in Afghanistan, and it exposed America’s covert war in Yemen. It laid bare criminal behaviour and corruption by tyrants in Egypt, Tunisia and Libya, which in turn helped to fuel the popular anger against repression that gave rise to the Arab spring.
 
Meanwhile, the man accused of leaking the cables, Bradley Manning, was arrested and placed in solitary confinement in an American prison. He was put on suicide watch – against the protests of prison doctors – with his clothes and blankets taken away from him, the cell lights always on. He was cold and deprived of sleep and forced to stand naked at roll-call.
 
There were also calls by American politicians and pundits for the punishment (execution, even) of Assange, the man who had exposed US war crimes – but not for those who sanctioned or perpetrated them. The US justice department mounted an investigation into whether it could use the Espionage Act to put him in jail. A grand jury was convened to consider whether Assange as well as other members of WikiLeaks should be charged with a crime. Rumours emerged of a sealed indictment against him.
 
Under political pressure, Visa and MasterCard stopped processing donations to the WikiLeaks fund, even though, as the former WikiLeaks employee James Ball (who is now a Guardian journalist) points out in We Steal Secrets: The Story of Wikileaks, they would happily process payments for the Ku Klux Klan. No charges have yet been filed, but I remain convinced that if Assange is prosecuted for espionage the future of investigative journalism everywhere would be in jeopardy. 
 
As Bill Leonard, the classification tsar for the Bush administration, says in our film: “The Espionage Act is primarily intended to address situations where individuals pass national defence information over to the enemy in order to allow the enemy to harm us. It would be unprecedented if the Espionage Act was being used to attack individuals who did not do anything more than the New York Times or the Washington Post does every day.”
There is no evidence that US national security was damaged in any way by the leaks, nor indeed that democracy has ever been harmed by an increase in the public’s knowledge and understanding. If Assange is prosecuted in the US for espionage, I suspect even his most disenchanted former supporters will take to the barricades in his defence.
 
The list of alienated and disaffected allies is long: some say they fell out over redactions, some over broken deals, some over money, some over ownership and control. The roll-call includes Assange’s earliest WikiLeaks collaborators, Daniel Domscheit-Berg and “The Architect”, the anonymous technical whizz behind much of the WikiLeaks platform. It also features the journalists with whom he worked on the leaked cables: Nick Davies, David Leigh and Luke Harding of the Guardian; the New York Times team; James Ball; and the Freedom of Information campaigner Heather Brooke. Then there are his former lawyer Mark Stephens; Jamie Byng of Canongate Books, who paid him a reported £500,000 advance for a ghostwritten autobiography for which Assange withdrew his co-operation before publication; the Channel 4 team that made a documentary about him which resulted in his unsuccessful complaint to Ofcom that it was unfair and had invaded his privacy; and his former WikiLeaks team in Iceland.
 
The problem is that WikiLeaks – whose mission statement was “to produce . . . a more just society . . . based upon truth” – has been guilty of the same obfuscation and misinformation as those it sought to expose, while its supporters are expected to follow, unquestioningly, in blinkered, cultish devotion.
 
Photo: Phillip Toledano
 
In August last year, I asked Julian Assange to address the points made by the New Statesman’s legal correspondent, David Allen Green, in a blog entitled “Legal myths about the Assange extradition”. These were myths that, as a vocal supporter, I was concerned I might have spread unwittingly. Despite several attempts to elicit a response, I never received one. 
 
I was told that Assange was “very busy”, though I was invited to visit the Ecuadorean embassy, where he had recently taken refuge to avoid extradition, for a photo opportunity, which I declined.
 
I had wanted to ask him about the opinion of objective legal experts who – contrary to the claims made by WikiLeaks – insist that he is no more vulnerable to extradition to the US from Sweden than he is from the UK. The WikiLeaks server was once hosted in Sweden to take advantage of the country’s liberal protections for journalists (in contrast to Ecuador, which ranks 119th in the World Press Freedom Index).
 
After two Swedish women made allegations that Assange had raped and sexually assaulted them in August 2010, Mark Ste­phens, speaking as his lawyer, referred to Sweden as “one of those lickspittle states which used its resources and its facilities for rendition flights”. Yet even WikiLeaks had revealed that in 2006 Sweden stopped rendition flights for the US.
 
Stephens also did not mention that another “lickspittle” state which had involved itself with rendition and torture was the United Kingdom. In any case, onward extradition of Assange from Sweden to the US would still require the consent of the UK, as the original country involved.
Furthermore, the extradition treaty between Sweden and the US prohibits extradition for political or espionage offences and prevents extradition where there is any risk of the death penalty.
 
There have been troubling aspects to the Assange case and questions may need to be asked about the conduct of the Swedish police investigation. The more serious allegation of rape against him, for example, was dropped at one stage and his arrest warrant withdrawn by the Swedish authorities. One of the chief prosecutors in Stockholm, Eva Finne, who had heard the prosecution evidence against Assange, stated: “I don’t think there is reason to suspect that he has committed rape.”
 
However, ten days later the rape investigation was reopened by the Swedish director of prosecution Marianne Ny.
 
There are also questions about why the public prosecutor waited so long to arrange an interrogation date with Assange (although there were reportedly repeated requests by the prosecution, and it was difficult to contact Assange) and why the prosecutor failed to take up Assange’s offer of being interviewed via video link when there is a precedent for this in Swedish law. (However, it is worth noting that the Swedish prosecutor has said that Assange is wanted not merely for questioning, but for “the purpose of conducting criminal proceedings” – so that he can be arrested and charged.)
 
The timing of the rape allegations and the issuing of the Interpol arrest warrant for Assange in November 2010 initially seemed suspicious to many, including me. They came just two days after the release of the first batch of embarrassing state department cables. Conspiracy theories about the timing were given credibility by Mark Stephens, who attributed the allegations to “dark forces”, saying: “The honey-trap has been sprung.” In an interview with ABC News, Assange said that Swedish prosecutors were withholding evidence which suggested that he had been “set up”. There were claims by his legal team that Interpol red notices of the type issued in his case were reserved for “terrorists and dictators”. In fact, red notices have been issued for drink-driving and making voyeur videos of college students. The two women at the centre of the rape allegations against Assange were subsequently named and defamed on the internet, threatened with rape and pictured with bullseyes on their faces.
 
It may well be that the serious allegations of sexual assault and rape are not substantiated in court, but I have come to the conclusion that these are all matters for Swedish due process and that Assange is undermining both himself and his own transparency agenda – as well as doing the US department of justice a favour – by making his refusal to answer questions in Sweden into a human rights issue. There have been three rounds 
in the UK courts and the UK courts have upheld the European Arrest Warrant in his name three times. The women in question have human rights, too, and need resolution. Assange’s noble cause and his wish to avoid a US court does not trump their right to be heard in a Swedish court.
 
I don’t regret putting up bail money for Assange but I did it so that he would be released while awaiting trial, not so that he could avoid answering to the allegations.
 
On the subject of Assange, pundits on both the left and the right have become more interested in tribalism than truth. The attacks on him by his many critics in the press have been virulent and highly personal. Both sides are guilty of creating political caricatures and extinguishing any possibility of ambivalence. “On the other handism” doesn’t make great copy, but in this particular debate everyone is too polarised. The kind of person who spends his life committed to this type of work, wedded to a laptop, undercover, always on the move, with no security, stability or income, is bound to be a bit different. I have seen flashes of Assange’s charm, brilliance and insightfulness – but I have also seen how instantaneous rock-star status has the power to make even the most clear-headed idealist feel that they are above the law and exempt from criticism.
 
We all want a hero. After WikiLeaks released the infamous Collateral Murder video in 2010, showing US troops gunning down a dozen civilians in Iraq, I jokingly asked if Assange was the new Jason Bourne, on the run and persecuted by the state. It would be a tragedy if a man who has done so much good were to end up tolerating only disciples and unwavering devotion, more like an Australian L Ron Hubbard. 
 
Jemima Khan is the associate editor of the New Statesman

Editor's note: The full title of the film about Wikileaks "We Steal Secrets: The Story of Wikileaks" has now been included in this article.