Contractual messiness aside, the book is a well-written account of Assange’s rise from hacker slacker to the brains behind WikiLeaks; from being the US administration’s nemesis to his current house arrest in Norfolk over sex allegations in Sweden.
Loading article content
The first-person narrative also gives a pacy run-through of WikiLeaks’ early achievements: exposing corruption in Kenya; embarrassing Scientologists; and lifting the veil that hung over Guantanamo Bay.
And then there were the leaks that turned an awkward, self-confessed “autistic” Aussie into one of the world’s most famous men. First WikiLeaks published hundreds of thousands of documents on the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, followed by Cablegate, dubbed the biggest “unauthorised disclosure in history”.
Assange, writing about his time as a hacker, also explains the political thinking that would later underpin the whistleblower site: “What we wanted to do was not protest abusive power but unseat it.”
In a nice turn of phrase, he describes the ethos of WikiLeaks as “anti-bastard” and suggests the venture amounts to the “first intelligence agency of the people”.
So far, so good. Even Assange’s detractors would have to admit that he has had more scoops in three years than most journalists will get in a lifetime. However, the “first draft” autobiography also confirms another centuries-old pattern: mavericks tend to be screw ups.
I’m no sofa psychologist, but I can’t imagine Assange’s itinerant childhood made for a stable upbringing: 30 schools; various father figures, one of whom beat him; and a slow drift into computer hacking.
His curious attitude towards women can also be date-stamped to his early years in Australia. In one chapter, he tells a story of an “obnoxious little girl who wouldn’t share”. Some boys would have taken their revenge by pulling her pigtails. Not Assange, who recalls how he “hit her over the head with a hammer”.
A more significant criticism of Assange’s story is that he fails to live up to the high standards he sets for others. In his mind, he is a crusader against a world built on “concealment, secrecy and lies”. Fine. But Assange says almost nothing about the internal operation or financing of WikiLeaks, issues that have long been the subject of speculation.
This particularly applies to how WikiLeaks raises funds. One of the organisation’s triumphs, the Kenya expose, focused on how cash stolen from the African country had zig-zagged through various zero-tax jurisdictions. As a result, Assange said that “upending tax havens would be a future hobby of ours”.
But according to Daniel Domscheit-Berg, Assange’s former WikiLeaks colleague, the Australian was himself interested in tax havens as a way of protecting his own group. “Suddenly all he could talk about was ‘front companies’, ‘international law’, and ‘offshore’ firms”, recalls Domscheit-Berg in his book.
This lack of transparency is again evident in the chapter that deals with the Swedish sex allegations involving two separate women.
Other than the three individuals involved, nobody can say for sure what happened behind closed doors during Assange’s 10-day Swedish trip last year.
He is said to have had sex with one woman with a ripped condom, and had unprotected sex with another female while she slept. Assange’s response can easily be summarised. He had “consensual sex” with two women in Stockholm. He regrets “not ringing” them back. And he may be a “chauvinist pig”, but not a rapist. No mention of condoms – the issue that apparently distressed the women.
His book instead plays up the idea of conspiracy, which holds that sinister forces may have plotted his downfall in Scandinavia.
Assange floats the notion that “the agenda had been rigged from the start”, and that he could have been the victim of “some kind of set up”. He also referred, and not in a positive way, to Sweden’s “hardcore feminism”.
Assange’s unpersuasive reasoning has the conscious effect of subsuming serious personal allegations into WikiLeaks’ battle against the US. This convenient approach also gives his supporters the chance to argue against his extradition to Sweden on the grounds that the allegations are being orchestrated by the US.
His tactics are a reminder that people who have done good also have the capacity to do bad. An individual’s achievements should be praised, but that does not give the same person an exemption from answering serious claims about his personal life.
More broadly, Assange’s account of WikiLeaks’ rise gives the impression of a man tackling vested interests in the political, media and legal spheres.
This may be true, but it is undeniable that Assange falls out with an awful lot of people: Domscheit-Berg; journalists at the Guardian and the New York Times; his publisher; various women.
Either Assange is the unluckiest guy in the world, or he is a nightmare to work with.
His difficulties with the two newspapers, with whom WikiLeaks shared the Afghan war logs, are charted extensively in the book, but do not reflect well on the author. Trying to co-ordinate a worldwide exclusive with more than one newspaper is not a task to relish – navigating multiple egos would be fiendishly difficult – but Assange’s gripes seem petty.
His problems with the Guardian – primarily over trust and the timing of stories – seem disproportionate to him accusing the paper of “venality”.
Other books on Assange and WikiLeaks, but not this one, give an indication as to why his personal relationships end badly.
According to Domscheit-Berg’s book, Assange once warned him: “If you f*** up, I’ll hunt you down and kill you.”
Like all mavericks, Assange is a paradox. He is a brave campaigner whose efforts have made the world a better place. He has rocked many of the world’s most powerful governments and shone a light on to unpopular wars. But some of his attitudes, particularly towards women, have caught up with him. Eccentrics with a streak of genius tend to burn brightly, and then flicker out. Flashes of Assange’s brilliance are evident in this account, but the fog of doubt about his personality remains.