In July 2007, two American helicopters killed about a dozen people in a suburb of New Baghdad. Two children were wounded. The US military initially claimed the dead Iraqis were “insurgents”. In fact, they were innocent people, and two of them were employees of the Reuters news agency.
The American military exonerated itself from any wrongdoing, but in April 2010 WikiLeaks released a video of the attack, provided to them by Chelsea Manning, then an army private. WikiLeaks was established in 2006, and this was their most significant revelation yet – a scoop that any journalist would be proud of.
WikiLeaks began working with news organisations around the world and its founder, Julian Assange could be seen striding around London newsrooms. Fond of wearing linen suits and Panama hats, he loped about dressed like the man from Del Monte. If part of the complexity of thinking about Assange is trying to separate the man from the mission of WikiLeaks, even then the silver-haired Australian was trying to do the opposite: for him, WikiLeaks was Assange and Assange was WikiLeaks; both were animated by a monumental mission to hold everything up to the light, no matter the consequences.
Assange was riding high, but trouble was brewing. In November 2010, a Swedish prosecutor issued a European arrest warrant for Assange over sexual assault allegations involving two Swedish women. Assange denied the claims, but it was the beginning of a chain of events that would lead him to take up refuge in the Ecuadorian embassy in London, imprisoning himself voluntarily to avoid facing charges. The cases were dropped in 2017, as Swedish prosecutors said the possibility of investigating Assange was “exhausted”.
Laura Poitras’s 2017 film on the WikiLeaks founder, Risk, provides a telling insight into the man’s attitude towards the allegations. In a scene early in the documentary, Assange is given a lecture by a media coach. He is told to be less aggressive when he makes public statements about the two Swedish women. Instead of looking to discredit them, he needs to acknowledge that charges of sexual assault should be taken seriously even as he insists his own innocence.
Assange tells everyone that he gets it. He then says that, “privately”, he thinks the whole thing is a “mad feminist conspiracy”, a “thoroughly tawdry radical feminist political positioning thing”. His two accusers are, he says, running a “tag team” on him. It’s all a con. He says that he knows this but of course he would never say it publicly. On he goes, delivering what he seems to somehow believe is another piece of killer evidence about one of his accusers: “She started a lesbian nightclub in Gothenburg”. His lawyer, a woman, is left speechless.
In another scene he tells Poitras that: “An actual court case is going to be very, very hard for these women… They will be reviled forever by a large segment of the global population, so I don’t think it’s in their interest to proceed that way." He then suggests that he could perhaps strike a bargain with his accusers by which he would “apologise for anything that I did or didn’t do that hurt their feelings”. The pause before he says “hurt their feelings” is eerie.
The calculation in Assange’s misogyny is present in both these scenes. It’s a shame, he thinks, that he has two accusers, because if he had just one, she could be dismissed in the minds of the public as a “bad woman”. He knows that he can rely on an army of trolls to come to his defence, and that his status to many as a heroic truth-teller will mean that the charges are seen as an American plot to bring him down.
Poitras, the filmmaker, comes to believe that she cannot ignore the contradictions anymore, that they are the story. Assange the man – his paranoia, his bitterness, his desire to release all information into the world regardless of whether innocent people might be exposed, his misogyny – has come to overshadow WikiLeaks, and the holding of truth to power it once represented.
That doesn’t make the international forces ranged against him worthy of applause. There was something grotesquely predictable and familiar about Democratic senator Joe Manchin calling Assange "our property". The American establishment hates Assange with a cold fury. The US wants Assange extradited not out of concerns over sexual conduct, but to face charges of conspiracy to commit computer intrusion. A number of prominent America journalists have criticised these charges – if you begin with someone reviled like Assange, you can proceed to the rest of the media from there.
When Donald Trump was the insurgent Republican candidate for president he couldn't get enough of Assange, because the Podesta leaks delivered the dirt on Hillary Clinton. Trump told a crowd, “I love WikiLeaks”, and cited the publication more than 100 times in the final month of his campaign. Sean Hannity of Fox News heaped praise on him, as did former KKK grand wizard David Duke.
Both the Trump train and far right and took on Assange as a hero. For a while it looked as though the former reality TV star's unlikely triumph would result in a reprieve for a man reviled by the Obama administration and the US security establishment.
Assange always knew, though, that Trump was unpredictable and that whatever happened in the 2016 election, he was likely to remain in a bad place with Washington. The appointment first of men like HR McMaster and James Mattis, and subsequently of John Bolton and Mike Pompeo, has confirmed that the Trump administration is, in practice, very different to the freewheeling, security establishment baiting Donald Trump of the campaign trail. Washington wants to put its man in the stocks and Washington looks set to have its day.
Assange’s arrest on Thursday, the sight of his long hair and beard, looking almost like a captured Saddam Hussein as he clutched Gore Vidal’s History of the National Security State for good measure, was a new low for him. And yet, the nature of his arrest has brought many back to his defence.
Julian Assange is a paranoid and megalomaniacal man who dodged the sexual assault and rape charges levelled against him, but perhaps that can be separated from the need to protect whistleblowers and expose the darkest, most secret crimes of those who rule us.