Until very recently, there have been only a handful of people on the planet with a precise sense of how much interest the world’s intelligence agencies have in them. Some schizophrenics have been convinced someone was always monitoring them, but they were wrong. Most of the rest of us have assumed that we did not matter to spies at all, but after the Edward Snowden disclosures, that seems wrong, too: Each of us, evidently, is of a very tiny bit of interest to spy agencies.
In 2010, as he was publishing Bradley (now Chelsea) Manning’s revelations of the crimes of the American military and the inner workings of the U.S. diplomatic corps, Julian Assange was the rare individual with a good idea about who was watching him, and how intently.
When Assange, already infamous, fled London for the English manor house where he would prepare the Cablegate disclosures, and costumed himself for the trip as a giant woman with an implausible wig; when his assistants, watching American politicians on television calling for their boss’s murder by drone, heard planes passing overhead and flinched; when he insisted on paying for everything in cash to avoid leaving an electronic trail—when he did all of this, Assange was being amateurish and overly theatrical. But he was probably not being crazy.
Which makes one aspect of Assange’s behavior especially surprising: how trusting he was with new volunteers, how quickly they breached his inner circle. “There was no vetting at all,” says James Ball, who was part of Assange’s inner circle at WikiLeaks for several months in 2010. It helps to explain Ball’s own story. He was 24 years old, working for a production company pitching documentaries about the Iraq War, when he heard that WikiLeaks had a tremendous trove of secret documents related to that war. Ball managed to arrange an introduction to Assange, and at the end of their first evening together, Assange slipped him a thumb drive containing everything about Iraq that WikiLeaks was preparing to release. If he was at all cautious about the motives of newcomers like Ball (and the whole genre of literary British spy fiction is built around characters like Ball, a couple of years out of Oxford, government internships in his past), Assange did not act like it. No encryption, no conditions, no formal nondisclosure agreements. Here it was.
Assange’s entire public life has been an experiment on the theme of trust, one devoted to the conviction that the public trust in government has been badly misplaced. But for a time, in 2010, Assange felt a part of something larger—if not affiliated with any institution other than his own, then at least part of a broader political movement against American power. The Fifth Estate, a thoughtful drama out this week with the English actor Benedict Cumberbatch as Assange, focuses on the extraordinary eight-month period when WikiLeaks published the military’s war logs from Afghanistan and Iraq, the State Department’s internal cables, and the “Collateral Murder” video—everything that made Assange famous. There was a casual brutality to the way that powerful states and companies seemed to behave in these documents: A Shell executive bragged about having packed the Nigerian government with sympathizers, American military officers substantially underreported the numbers of Iraqi civilians their soldiers were killing. In London, WikiLeaks became an Establishment liberal cause, and the Australian found himself joined by human-rights crusaders who had been knighted by the queen, journalists and filmmakers, concerned citizens and TED Talk celebrities.
These allegiances were always bound to collapse—Assange is simply too weird, in his person and his politics, to have become part of any mainstream coalition—but they have collapsed so completely that there is little left of Assange’s public image right now beyond the crude cartoon. Vain and self-mythologizing, he has been accused of sexual assault by two of his supporters; a prophet of the mounting powers of the surveillance state, he now reportedly lives in a fifteen-by-thirteen-foot room in London’s Ecuadoran Embassy, sleeping in a women’s bathroom, monitored by intelligence agencies at all times; still trusting of the volunteers around him, he gave one such man access to secret American diplomatic cables about Belarus, only to find that information passed along to the Belarusian dictator. It is as if Assange has been consumed by his own weaknesses and obsessions. Calling around, I’d heard that the last prominent London intellectual who still supported him was the writer Tariq Ali, but when I finally reached him, via Skype, on an island in the Adriatic, it turned out that Ali, too, had grown exasperated with Assange. “He hasn’t formulated his worldview,” Ali said. “Certainly he is hostile to the American empire. But that’s not enough.” Assange has come to be seen, as a journalist at The Guardian put it, as nothing more than “a useful idiot.”