The man who spilled the secrets

Vanity Fair tells the story of the fraught relationship between Julian Assange and The Guardian newspaper.

On the afternoon of November 1, 2010, Julian Assange, the Australian-born founder of WikiLeaks.org, marched with his lawyer into the London office of Alan Rusbridger, the editor of The Guardian. Assange was pallid and sweaty, his thin frame racked by a cough that had been plaguing him for weeks. He was also angry, and his message was simple: he would sue the newspaper if it went ahead and published stories based on the quarter of a million documents that he had handed over to The Guardian just three months earlier. The encounter was one among many twists and turns in the collaboration between WikiLeaks—a four-year-old nonprofit that accepts anonymous submissions of previously secret material and publishes them on its Web site—and some of the world’s most respected newspapers. The collaboration was unprecedented, and brought global attention to a cache of confidential documents—embarrassing when not disturbing—about American military and diplomatic activity around the world. But the partnership was also troubled from the start.

In Rusbridger’s office, Assange’s position was rife with ironies. An unwavering advocate of full, unfettered disclosure of primary-source material, Assange was now seeking to keep highly sensitive information from reaching a broader audience. He had become the victim of his own methods: someone at WikiLeaks, where there was no shortage of disgruntled volunteers, had leaked the last big segment of the documents, and they ended up at The Guardian in such a way that the paper was released from its previous agreement with Assange—that The Guardian would publish its stories only when Assange gave his permission. Enraged that he had lost control, Assange unleashed his threat, arguing that he owned the information and had a financial interest in how and when it was released.

The Guardian partnership was the first of its kind between a mainstream media organization and WikiLeaks. The future of such collaborations remains very much in doubt. WikiLeaks, torn by staff defections, technical problems, and a crippling shortage of money, has been both battered and rejuvenated by the events of the past several months. A number of companies—PayPal, Visa, and MasterCard—stopped acting as conduits for donations, even as international publicity has attracted high-profile supporters and many new donors. Kristinn Hrafnsson, a close associate of Assange’s and a WikiLeaks spokesman, promises that WikiLeaks will pursue legal action against the companies. Although it is not known where the instigation came from, hackers launched a wave of sympathy attacks on PayPal, Visa, and MasterCard operations, and temporarily shut them down. Assange himself, arrested in December on behalf of Swedish authorities for questioning in a sexual-assault investigation, spent time in a British prison before being granted release on bail. At press time, he awaits a decision on extradition and, in the meantime, must wear an electronic anklet, must check in with authorities daily, and must abide by a curfew. Some are pressing the U.S. government to take action against him under the Espionage Act or some other statute. Whatever the fate of WikiLeaks itself, the nature of the Internet guarantees that others will continue to step into its shoes. “The WikiLeaks concept will bring about other organizations and I wish them well,” Hrafnsson says, even as he insists that WikiLeaks is “functioning fully” without Assange.

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2 thoughts on “The man who spilled the secrets

  1. Christopher Hoare

    Nothing unusual in some article trading on a media sensation to publish unflattering portraits of people in the news — happens all the time. It’s also universally evident that people with the energy and force of personality to achieve have faults as well as attributes. Assange is still owed a huge debt of gratitude by everyone who values freedom and truth.

    The most encouraging development is that the internal difficulties will result not in one, but in a hundred Wikileaks spin-off sites. Far too many for any truth-fearing governments and venal corporations to attempt to control. May a hundred flowers bloom.

  2. Norman

    I believe that the spin-off sites are already taking form. Of course, there is no way to tell if such sites are real-non governmental-or otherwise. Wouldn’t put it past the F.B.I. or some other government agency setting up a copy cat site to entrap whistle blowers. That’s what paranoid governments do.

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