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Greg Palast's Column

A Public Apology to Julian Assange

Why a secret meeting with WikiLeaks in New York made me want to stop pissing on Julian.

Greg Palast is a New York Times bestselling author and fearless investigative journalist whose reports appear on BBC Newsnight and in The Guardian. Palast eats the rich and spits them out. Catch his reports and films at, where you can also securely send him your documents marked, "confidential".

New York – The cover for my meeting with the WikiLeaks chief with the weirdly white hair was brilliant. Last week, I was misled into believing I’d be interviewing a member of Iceland’s parliament, the poetess Birgitta Jonsdottir. Which, initially, seemed about as exciting as watching some doofus on YouTube pretending to make his cat talk. But Jonsdottir had come to New York in defence of an American political prisoner, Bradley Manning, the inestimably courageous source of the documents released by WikiLeaks. If Manning was willing to sit in a steel cage for the rest of his life for the truth, I could handle a few Nordic couplets in a downtown church. But they switched Vikings on me. It was actually a set-up for me to meet with Kristinn Hrafnsson, the spokesman for WikiLeaks – whose hair is as icy white as Julian Assange’s. I couldn’t be told the name of my true interviewee until he’d successfully gotten past US Customs agents, because the last time Hrafnsson had tried to get into the States, he was blocked at New York’s Kennedy Airport and bundled back to Iceland – despite possessing both an invitation to the UN and a valid passport. Hrafnsson was crucial in planning WikiLeaks' release of Manning’s documents. But the US State Department knows that blocking an UN invitee is a no-no under the treaties that allowed the UN General Assembly in New York. So, the border cops, US Customs, told Hrafnsson the passport he’d given them was “stolen”, though they confirmed his identity. In other words, they were claiming he stole his own passport from himself. Kristinn said, dryly, "They could come up with better stories, no?"


Above: Birgitta Jonsdottir (left, via) and Kristinn Hrafnsson (right, via). Of course, Assange, co-founder of WikiLeaks, couldn’t meet with me directly because he’s in prison – one he built for himself – in the basement of Ecuador’s Embassy in London. Should Assange ever step out of his diplomatic safe house, he assumes, not without reason, that, his next address will be a cage at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. And let's face it; Julian would look terrible in orange.

Hrafnsson and I quickly cut out of the church and found a place where we could load up on cheap bottles of red and work over ideas for getting Manning out of prison. Or, at the very least, not forgotten by a world in which most stories tend to last for a maximum of 140 characters.

Did we also talk about, say, new documents? Well, I'm sure you can get the complete transcript of our meeting from the US Department of Homeland Security. (I had to laugh: when we left the bistro, a white limo pulled up and offered us a ride. Then a black one – which we took. I wish to thank the folks at Langley for a sweet cruise.) I can only tease you with, “Yes, there’s more.” And when I see them, I’ll show them to you. But for now, I am writing to publicly eat shit, or humble pie. To retract, recant and apologise to WikiLeaks and Julian Assange.

A pro-Assange protester outside London's Ecuadorian Embassy. Photo by Henry Langston. 

Three years ago, I accused Assange of jumping in front of the cameras to steal the limelight from the real hero, Bradley Manning. It seemed to me that Assange had narcissistically snatched away the public celebrity which would have saved Manning – just as notoriety helped win public support for Daniel Ellsberg, the man who released the Pentagon Papers, the secret reports of America’s losing the War in Vietnam. I wrote, Who the hell is this guy with a silly silk scarf swanning in front of cameras? Meanwhile, Manning, in his cell, stripped down to underpants by his captors, is ignored while Assange sucks up the accolades and attention. In fact, Hrafnsson assured me, both he and Assange had thought that WikiLeaks would hardly get a mention. They assumed all the attention would focus on the content in the files. They assumed that US news outlets would be first and foremost focused on the video of the killing of the Reuters reporters and other civilians in Iraq by US helicopter gunships. Last week, I watched that “collateral murder” video again. It’s horrific – but vital: to look at the journalists dying on a machine gun's video screen. But of course, the press spun the story away from military murder into a story about the leaking itself. People like Joe Klein and stooges like Christiane Amanpour's houseboy, James Rubin, piled on against WikiLeaks. WikiLeaks is just a bunch of "criminal hackers" who endangered innocent people and sources. Assange, thrown before the cameras, with Manning absurdly silent (until last month), was stunned – and clearly out of his depth. The story was spinning away from the substance and re-directed to Assange's cavorts. Assange, with his dandyish appearance, nightclub forays and beaming self-regard, was an easier figure to vilify than a conscience-driven American soldier willing to face prison for life. And Assange was clearly visible in the gunship’s sites. You know the old saying, "If you don’t like the message, kill the messenger." But, if you can’t kill the messenger, the next best thing is to get him laid. Assange, despite warnings, couldn't resist a honey trap. Two women, one bed, no clothes – soon on every front page worldwide. (I mean, if you have powerful enemies, you’d have to be a complete idiot to let your dick take you where your brain fears to tread. Reminds me of that fool Greg Palast on the front page of The Mirror).

Unfortunately, Assange handled himself with neither the humility nor grace required of the moment. But that's a lot to ask of a human. When you are suddenly surrounded by 20 camera crews, your brain gets weird on you. Remember the Kony 2012 filmmaker masturbating in the middle of the street, babbling crazy shit? Not a pretty sight, but no less cringeworthy than Assange’s icky anti-Semitic brain-fart attacks on The Guardian’s stellar investigative reporter, David Leigh. (Without Leigh, the WikiLeaks-Manning documents would have never seen the light of day.) I am sorry I shot my spit-wads at Assange for his idiocies – it only encouraged the jackals. Trying to support Manning, I joined in the pissing on Julian, and thereby I undermined Manning’s own messenger. And for that reason, this apologia will hopefully be my last word, or anyone's, on the poor Julian, in the basement of the Ecuadorian embassy with nothing left but a silk scarf and a certain, if short, prison sentence. Even if Assange is guilty of the crime, the punishment in store is not for his bedtime antics but for his sincere attempt to help soldier Bradley Manning reveal to Americans the facts about our deadly rulers. Greg Palast investigated BP PLC and the Deepwater Horizon disaster for Channel 4’s Dispatches based, in part, on the revelations in the WikiLeaks US State Department confidential files.

Follow Greg on Twitter: @Greg_Palast

Previously - How Bradley Manning Could Have Prevented the Deepwater Horizon Explosion