Arrogance, insults, faeces on a wall: how Assange outstayed his welcome
After seven years in the Ecuador embassy, the WikiLeaks founder's 'overbearing narcissism' finally took its toll
In the end, he was right about one thing. WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, who entered Ecuador’s cramped embassy in London in June 2012, once predicted that his time there would last “five to seven years”.
By Thursday, the seventh anniversary of the moment he first entered 3 Hans Crescent was fast approaching. Seven years since he was shown along a short corridor to his bedroom – a converted women’s toilet. Almost 2,500 days of self-imposed exile, though he preferred “unlawful detention”. Either way, it didn’t end as he hoped.
Assange had bet on his capacity to outlast his pursuers: in Sweden, where he faced charges of rape and molestation; in the UK, where he was wanted for skipping bail; and in America, where prosecutors alleged he played a key role in the most notorious intelligence breach of the modern age. But justice remained patient as diplomatic wheels turned.
British and American officials nurtured a better relationship with Ecuador’s current president, Lenín Moreno, than they had enjoyed with his predecessor, Rafael Correa – the man who initially conferred his nation’s protection, and later, passport, upon Assange. And Assange, like so many house guests, outstayed his welcome.
Many tales have been told of his appalling manners: how he ate with his hands and rarely showered, of his “many casual libels, sexist or anti-Semitic remarks”; and his failure to clean up after the cat he kept there. Above all, it seems, his hosts – like so many who have met him, then liked and offered to help him – eventually identified something they could not tolerate: an overbearing narcissism that downgraded the concerns and lives of others to walk-on parts in his own all-consuming drama.
Such was the character who reportedly walked around the embassy in his underwear, skateboarded along corridors and played loud music at night, was rude to staff and, according to Ecuador’s interior minister María Paula Romo, “smeared faeces on the walls”.
Assange, perhaps, considered that a noble “dirty protest” against a host he latterly came to accuse of plotting against and spying on him. To Moreno, who blames Assange’s not-for-profit organisation for leaking details of what could be a damaging political scandal – as well as personal photos – it was just another outrageous smear. Assange, he said during a speech explaining his decision to renounce protection and strip his Ecuadorian citizenship, was a “spoiled brat”.
So, instead of leaving a free man, Assange, now 47, was bundled into the back of a police van to face near instant trial for skipping bail. Assange’s behaviour, in the words of the judge, “is that of a narcissist who cannot get beyond his own selfish interests”.
For Assange, who once said he was prepared for the embassy building to be stormed, and equipped to chain himself to the Ecuadorian consul, it was not how he’d imagined appearing in handcuffs. Like so many of his boasts, the claim did not match up to reality. In many other ways, however, he was a changed man. He looked puffy and bloated; his skin pallid, with a long, wispy beard in place of the sharply-trimmed goatee that once adorned his boyish features. Time, and the almost surreal conditions of his existence in the embassy, had aged him: shut off (both physically and, since his internet connection was withdrawn in 2018, digitally), the boundaries of his world stretched a mere 30 square metres.
The window in his bedroom was frosted but, concerned about surveillance and threats to his safety, he kept the curtains drawn anyway (“a lot of people in America want me dead”). On Friday a member of his team suggested that, so long deprived of sunlight, Assange was now struggling with his teeth and bones. He began to look somewhat wasted. One aide described his time in confinement as akin to “living in a space shuttle” – ironic given that Nasa was one of the first major US institutions, along with the Pentagon, which Assange hacked into as a teenager in his native Australia.
The cult of Julian
Born Julian Hawkins, his mother and father, an anti-war activist, had split by the time of his birth; he later took his stepfather’s surname. After their divorce, his mother had another son with Leif Meynell, a member of an Australian cult, The Family.
Assange had lived in about 30 towns by the time he was a teenager, and was 17 when his first child, Daniel, was born. “He seemed to enjoy the idea of lots and lots of Julians, one on every continent,” said his former WikiLeaks colleague, Daniel Domscheit-Berg; Assange is thought to have four children with different women, all of whom he reportedly reduced contact with after receiving death threats.
With others, he created WikiLeaks in 2006, which would go on to release classified material from Iraq war logs to interviews with purportedly unlawfully detained prisoners at Guantánamo Bay.
He lived a peripatetic existence, travelling constantly on behalf of the organisation, until 2010 when he found himself in Britain, appealing against his extradition to Sweden to face the rape charge. His bolt-hole was Ellingham Hall in Norfolk, the home of Vaughan Smith, founder of the Frontline Club in Paddington, a hangout of war correspondents.
As Andrew O’Hagan detailed in a riveting account of his attempts to ghostwrite his memoirs, Assange was mesmerisingly thoughtless, drifting about with groupies and keeping “hacker’s hours”, even though Smith had young children. Smith, as well as celebrities including Jemima Khan and the film director Ken Loach, helped to guarantee his £240,000 bail that initially appeared to get Assange out of hot water. Khan later publicly withdrew her support, while Loach remained loyal, sending Assange a treadmill to stay fit on once he was inside the embassy.
And there were always more to take up the cause, most bizarrely the former Baywatch star Pamela Anderson, who even hinted that there was a romantic quality to her embassy visits. Yet even his closest allies struggled to reconcile the magnetic qualities of Assange’s nature, simultaneously attractive and repulsive. He could certainly be charming, if with the egocentric fervour of the cult leader.
Sarah Harrison was a WikiLeaks colleague widely cited as his girlfriend while he was at Ellingham, but even she revealed that Assange told “such appalling, sleazy stories about women you wouldn’t believe it. He openly chats girls up and has his hand on their arse.”
Such an uncontrollable desire to antagonise and take for granted those closest to him merely deepened once he was inside the embassy in Knightsbridge. Initially surrounded by the hampers sent by supporters from Harrods just around the corner, he ended up conflating his own cause with that of the one he had started.
The personal noise surrounding Assange would go on to rise above all else. Just as his initial refusal to travel to Sweden, believing that he would simply be passed from there on to the US authorities, made no sense (because Britain also has an effective extradition arrangement), so Assange’s conduct has even driven away supporters like President Donald Trump, who three years ago claimed to “love” WikiLeaks, but as of last week says he “knows nothing about” it.
Today, WikiLeaks’ failures – such as the dumping of vast troves of unredacted files, compromising sources’ lives – overshadow any noble principles: its name has become synonymous with vanity and self-aggrandisement. And so, too, has that of Julian Assange.
– © Telegraph Media Group Limited (2019)