The first and only time I met Julian Assange was exactly nine years ago—April 12, 2010. He was in New York City to appear on The Colbert Report and I was working as an editor at The New York Times. We met in a coffee shop after the taping so I could interview him about his plans for WikiLeaks.
I remember thinking that he was taking this online secret-leaking business quite seriously. We were on a quiet side street in the West Village, but, like Malcolm X entering a restaurant, he surveyed the room to be sure that he wouldn’t be sitting with his back to the door. He carried a satellite phone with him.
As the night wore on, Assange wondered where he could watch himself on the TV. Going to a bar to ask the barkeep to switch from sports to watch yourself on Comedy Central would be a bit show-offy, even for a platinum-haired renegade. And streaming TV on your phone just wasn’t a thing yet. So I offered my fourth-floor walkup apartment, and at 11:30 that night Assange viewed his appearance on The Colbert Report from my living room/kitchen.
Noam Cohen is a journalist and author of The Know-It-Alls: The Rise of Silicon Valley as a Political Powerhouse and Social Wrecking Ball, which uses the history of computer science and Stanford University to understand the libertarian ideas promoted by tech leaders. While working for The New York Times, Cohen wrote some of the earliest articles about Wikipedia, bitcoin, Wikileaks, and Twitter. He lives with his family in Brooklyn.
The entire evening seemed way over the top—perhaps even laughably so. Colbert, it appeared, had reached a similar conclusion about Assange’s seriousness. He introduced his guest as the cofounder of WikiLeaks, which “reveals corporate and government secret documents.” For the first time, Colbert continued gravely, his show would be using pixelated imagery and voice-altering technology during the interview. Cut to Colbert’s face being pixelated and his voice being altered. Big laughs.
Then, after a short while, Colbert says: “You know what Jimmy, I think you were right. I think it’s probably better to pixelate him and affect his voice, rather than mine. Has his face already been on camera? Have they seen him?” Jimmy says, yes, and pixelated Colbert says, “Oh, he’s a dead man.” Nervous laughs.
Back at my apartment, I remember that Assange told me and my girlfriend (now wife) what seemed like outrageous stories of his life. How he spent his childhood traveling Australia as part of his mother’s theater troupe and visited Magnetic Island, which had strange properties that he implied influenced the minds of the people who lived there. He mentioned that he was part Chinese and that his last name derived from Ah Sang, an early ancestor.
It all seemed part of his mesmerizing performance, and then, a couple of months later, I saw those same details in a profile in The New Yorker, and I was further confused. Was the performance real or was reality a performance?
The Colbert interview was hardly clarifying concerning Assange’s character; after all, Colbert himself was adopting the persona of a blowhard, right-wing commentator. WikiLeaks was in the news for decrypting and releasing a leaked video showing an attack by United States Army Apache helicopters in Baghdad three years earlier, which left 12 people dead, including two employees of the news agency Reuters. It had released an edited version of the encounter, which it titled “Collateral Murder,” as well as an unedited one.
Even though Colbert and Assange are discussing a battlefield horror, there is a giddiness throughout the encounter. Everything is played for a joke—much as I thought at the time that Assange was (over)playing his roguish persona. Back then, it seems, what happened on the internet wasn’t entirely real, at least not in the same way offline events could be.
Brian Stelter, now the host of CNN’s “Reliable Sources,” on Thursday shared the article we wrote together at The New York Times about “Collateral Murder” and marveled at how understated the headline was: “Iraq Video Brings Notice to a Web Site.”
Nine years later, everything seems much more grave. We now know that “a Web site” can foment genocide, spread propaganda, misshape our politics, destroy entire industries. WikiLeaks went from exposing to public light a potential wartime atrocity to putting its finger on the thumb during a US presidential election by releasing material targeted at one of the candidates.
The giddiness is gone. On Thursday, the Julian Assange hauled out of the Ecuadoran embassy in London—where he took refuge to avoid extradition to Sweden to face questions about sexual assault accusations, which he has denied—looked exhausted. With his haggard face and wild beard, he seemed a distorted reflection of the trim, controlled man I met in 2010.
Today, as Assange faces a federal charge in the United States of conspiring to hack into a Pentagon computer network in that year, we debate how the law should consider Assange. He has gone from charismatic provocateur to, in some people’s eyes, a news publisher. Of course, being considered a publisher could be his ultimate provocation.
Colbert pushed Assange over WikiLeaks’ role as a distributor of the leaks it collects, starting with its decision to edit the leaked video of the Apache attack and to give it such a conclusory title. “That’s not leaking that’s a pure editorial,” Colbert said. Which gave Assange the opportunity to explain his philosophy: “The promise we make to our sources, is that not only will we defend them with every means that we have available, technological, and legally, and politically, but we will try to get the maximum possible political impact for the material they give to us.”
That hardly seems like a journalistic standard—it is a standard that fosters leaking, I suppose, and the controversy those leaks are intended to produce. You might even describe it as anarchic. Certainly, the events that followed at WikiLeaks make more sense in light of Assange’s explanation.
Tongue fully in cheek, Colbert complains about WikiLeaks: “If we don’t know what the government is doing, we can’t be sad about it. Why are you trying to make me sad? Yes, you are trying to bum us out about the world.”
Assange responds with a peculiar smile, “Just an interim state, Stephen, you’ll be happier later on.”
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