Em Junho de 2012, Julian Assange refugiou-se na embaixada do Equador, em Londres, para evitar ser detido e extraditado para a Suécia, onde é procurado no âmbito de um processo de abuso sexual. O fundador da Wikileaks receia que essa investigação seja apenas um pretexto para o seu envio posterior para os Estados Unidos. E, desde então, nunca mais saiu da representação diplomática equatoriana. No entanto, isso não o fez parar: realizou uma série de entrevistas (transmitidas em O Informador, no ano passado), dirigiu-se à Assembleia Geral da ONU, escreveu um livro, candidatou-se ao senado australiano e, envolveu-se na fuga de Edward Snowden. Este artigo da Vanity Fair explica como.
Julian Assange hasn’t set foot outside Ecuador’s London embassy in more than a year—avoiding extradition to Sweden, where he faces allegations of sexual assault. But physical confinement seems only to enhance his reach. The WikiLeaks founder has video-addressed the U.N., launched a Senate campaignin absentia in his native Australia, entertained Lady Gaga, and played a key role in the case of N.S.A. leaker Edward Snowden. As several movies depict aspects of Assange’s story, Sarah Ellison focuses on the center of his web.
I. Dead End
Every afternoon, at four o’clock, a small group of demonstrators gathers outside 3 Hans Crescent, in London’s Knightsbridge district, to protest the confinement of a man inside the embassy at that address. The man hasn’t set foot beyond the embassy since June 19, 2012, the day he walked through its doors to avoid extradition from Britain to another country, where he is facing allegations that, he contends, are merely a first step in his eventual extradition to the United States.
The man is Julian Assange, the 42-year-old Australian who is best known as the founder (in 2006) and public face of WikiLeaks, the nonprofit Web site that publishes previously secret material. In April, the organization released its largest trove to date, a database of approximately 1.7 million declassified diplomatic records from the years 1973 to 1976 that WikiLeaks refers to as “the Kissinger Cables.” In 2010, in partnership with The Guardian, Der Spiegel, The New York Times, and others, WikiLeaks began releasing more than 450,000 military documents relating to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan along with 250,000 U.S. diplomatic cables. The documents had been provided by Bradley Manning, an army private stationed in Iraq, who, when tried in military court, was found not guilty of “aiding the enemy” but guilty of espionage, theft, and computer fraud. Despite Manning’s statement that he had first tried to get his information to both The Washington Post and The New York Times, the prosecution argued that it was “obvious that Manning pulled as much information as possible to please Julian Assange,” and said that Assange “had found the right insider” in Manning. WikiLeaks is under investigation by the Justice Department, and there are reports that a sealed indictment exists for Assange himself. In the meantime, for the past year, he has been living in a small room—reportedly 15 feet by 13 feet—at the Ecuadoran Embassy, largely unseen by the public. He has most recently surfaced as a prominent adviser to Edward Snowden, a former “infrastructure analyst” at National Security Agency contractor Booz Allen Hamilton, who last June leaked details about top-secret U.S. surveillance programs to The Guardian and The Washington Post.
Assange’s living space, a former embassy office, is located on a ground-floor corner overlooking a small dead-end street. His window sits above one of the hundreds of thousands of security cameras that blanket London, and when I visited the embassy in June, two Metropolitan Police vans were parked just outside. WikiLeaks says the building is watched by about a dozen British police officers at any one time. According to Scotland Yard, the authorities have so far spent $6 million to keep Assange under a watchful eye (and to keep him in place at the embassy). Early on, officials from Britain’s Foreign Office were threatening to remove Assange from the embassy against his will. In his first two months there, the Ecuadoran consul, Fidel Narváez, slept at the embassy to serve as a diplomatic presence at all times and thereby “protect” Assange from the aggressive police attention. Narváez told The Prisma, a London-based newspaper published in both Spanish and English, that he got to know Assange well during that time. “It’s certainly true that we talked a lot over those months, especially at times when we were alone, at night,” Narváez said. In July, Ecuadoran intelligence found a microphone hidden in the office of the ambassador, Ana Albán. The intelligence officials were doing a routine search in preparation for a visit from the country’s foreign minister, Ricardo Patiño, who said that the device appeared to have been planted by a private investigation company, the Surveillance Group, Ltd., adding that the bugging represented “a loss of ethics at the international level in relations between governments.” The company has denied involvement.
Assange took refuge at the embassy in June 2012, shortly after he lost his bid in the British courts to prevent extradition to Sweden, where he is sought for questioning in relation to the alleged sexual assault of two women. (He has yet to be charged with a crime.) At first, Assange slept on an inflatable mattress on the floor that the ambassador brought from her own apartment nearby. Assange found that the noise from the street outside his window disturbed his sleep. After exploring the embassy for a quiet room, he settled on the women’s bathroom, where the embassy staff reluctantly removed the toilet so he could sleep there. He has a lamp that mimics natural light, to enhance his psychological well-being, and he jogs every day on a treadmill, a gift from the film director Ken Loach. The embassy has installed a shower for Assange’s use. There is a fireplace with a Victorian white mantel in his room, and a small round table of blond wood, on which Assange keeps his computer. Several shelves line the walls. Assange eats a combination of take-out food—he keeps the restaurants from which he orders secret, for fear his food might be poisoned—and simple Ecuadoran dishes prepared by the embassy staff. He is able to receive visitors, including Sarah Harrison, the 31-year-old WikiLeaks researcher who met up with Edward Snowden in Hong Kong, where Snowden initially hid from the American authorities, and helped deliver to him a temporary Ecuadoran travel document that Assange and Fidel Narváez had reportedly secured.
The Ecuadoran Embassy itself is modest—a suite of 10 rooms on a single floor of a red-brick Victorian pile, with no bedrooms and no facilities except a small kitchenette. For atmospherics, imagine the offices of a private upscale medical practice that for some reason is partial to flags of yellow, red, and blue. Assange’s diplomatic immunity does not extend to the lobby of the building, which is shared with the Colombian Embassy and some 15 well-appointed private apartments upstairs. The entrance to the Men’s Fragrance department at Harrods department store is just half a block away. The door to the embassy is thick black metal and opens immediately onto a full-body metal detector. A portrait of the Ecuadoran president, Rafael Correa, hangs on the walls, along with paintings of tropical birds. The government of Ecuador has stated that Assange is welcome to stay in its London embassy for “centuries.”
Last year, on July 3, the day he turned 41, Assange sent 12 pieces of birthday cake to the 12 protesters standing outside the embassy. On his birthday this year, people outside carried a sign noting that the number 42, in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, is “the answer to Life, the Universe and Everything.” On ordinary days, protesters carry small signs with photos of Assange, his mouth taped shut by an American flag, and bearing slogans such as “Don’t Shoot the Messenger.” From time to time Assange appears in vaguely papal fashion at the front window, silver-haired and pale, and waves. He gives the occasional press conference from a small balcony. He recently showed up for an interview with Agence France-Presse wearing a coat and tie but no shoes, a gesture to underscore the fact that he has little need for them.
Even before the Snowden affair brought him back into the limelight, Assange had been busy. During his year of confinement at the embassy, he has released a vast cache of documents, written a book, addressed the U.N., founded a political party in Australia and launched a bid for a Senate seat there, entertained socialites and celebrities, maintained contact with leakers and whistle-blowers all over the world, and worked behind the scenes to influence depictions of him that are now hitting movie screens (the most high-profile being a DreamWorks production starring Benedict Cumberbatch). As for the Snowden case, Assange and WikiLeaks have served, in effect, as Snowden’s travel agents, publicists, and envoys; it is still not clear how far back the Snowden connection goes, or precisely how it originated, though the filmmaker Laura Poitras likely played the key role.
Assange cannot move from his quarters, but he is either at his computer or in conference, working in an impressive number of spheres. “He is like any other C.E.O.—plagued by constant meetings,” WikiLeaks told me. He employs sophisticated encryption software, which anyone wishing to make contact with him or his circle is encouraged to use. To gain a sense of his life and work, during the past months I have spoken to Assange’s lawyers and to many longtime or former friends, supporters, and professional associates. (Some have requested anonymity.) Daniel Ellsberg, the former U.S. military analyst who brought the Pentagon Papers to light, has met with Assange and speaks with personal knowledge about the lonely life of a leaker and whistle-blower. “We are exiles and émigrés,” he told me.
But the fact that Assange has had to take himself physically out of circulation has had the effect, oddly, of keeping him more purely at the center of things than he was before. His legal perils have not receded, but his state of diplomatic limbo means that he is no longer being hauled out of black vans and in front of screaming reporters and whirring cameras. The U.S. government has tried to decapitate his organization, which has only made him a martyr. No one is talking, as they were when he was free to mingle with the outside world, about his thin skin, his argumentative nature, his paranoia, his self-absorption, his poor personal hygiene, his habit of using his laptop when dining in company, or his failure to flush the toilet.
“If anything, I think he’s stronger and more sophisticated than he used to be, and so is the organization,” Jennifer Robinson, an Australian human-rights lawyer best known for her work defending Assange in London, told me. “They’ve weathered three years of intense pressure and all forms of legal and political attacks, and they are still here and still publishing and still making headlines.” Today, Assange is alone and unbothered, but not isolated—the unquiet center of a web whose vibrations he can both detect and influence.”