On WikiLeaks and Julian Assange
Good morning, how was your night?
Julian Assange had spent the night under my desk and stood up as I entered. He was sleeping and working in my office in central Stockholm. Day and night, with computers and encrypted phones, he sat and did things of which he never uttered a word. Since there was no bed around, he’d spent the few hours he was away from his computers resting on the floor.
When one of my colleagues at the office asked in astonishment how he could sleep right on the floor under my desk, Assange answe laconically, “no problem, as long as it’s flat.” Hotels were not his cup of tea; he preferred more spartan conditions, giving him tighter control on security and surveillance. However, following WikiLeaks’ global breakthrough in April 2010 with its well-known disclosure, “Collateral Murder“, of US soldiers killing innocent civilians in Eastern Baghdad from an Apache helicopter, I personally assumed that there was more than one intelligence service monitoring Julian Assange wherever he was — including our office in central Stockholm during that hot August of 2010.
My puzzled colleagues, who came into the office early in the mornings and were met by this mysterious character under the desk, sometimes fed him a breakfast sandwich from the bakery down the street. Meanwhile, there was concern mixed with fascination over having a hunted publicist in our offices.
The idea was to launch a completely new type of journalism. With WikiLeaks’ unique source material that no spy in world history had ever before come close to, the door was now open to the next level in media evolution. These were primary sources, straight from the horse’s mouth, from leading political, military, diplomatic and economic figures around the world — their own words in print. No secret was too big or too small for WikiLeaks.
“People can only make the right decisions if they have the right information,” was the working hypothesis of WikiLeaks.
The question was how to go about the whole thing. Managing the material in the way WikiLeaks had done so far was not relevant anymore. WikiLeaks’ strategy had been to release all material, unprocessed, freely on the internet, allowing anyone who was interested to single-handedly dive into and penetrate hundreds of thousands of documents. It was no small challenge to decipher and interpret all that information. From then on, our publication would be the opposite: the material would be reviewed, edited, and written intelligibly in a way that would not compromise the safety of individuals, just like any regular newspaper with a regular editorial staff. The difference would be our unique sources that no other media outlet in the world could possibly access.
The outlined by-laws for the business were simple:
To provide information and documents that are of interest to the public. To promote international freedom of information in order to enhance democracy in societies. To support independent, investigative journalism. To deepen public debate and increase citizens’ knowledge of their society.
A well-intentioned paragraph, which, however, never materialized because reality took a different turn.
The first paragraph of the agreement between WikiLeaks and me read:
Donald Boström has access to and contact with staff, volunteers and facilities of WikiLeaks from January 2011, on different locations and via different means of communication, including but not limited to access to confidential information, confidential electronic and telephonic communications and meetings, facilities, locations, policies, documents, archives, files, records, and other materials which are solely the property of WikiLeaks.
The agreement was never signed for the same reason.
In addition to journalistic competence there were another three requirements in order to launch the publication:
• apply for a residence and work permit for Assange
• apply for a publishing license with Julian Assange as editor-in-chief
• establish a limited liability company to operate the business under the name Sunshine Press AB
The paperwork was finished in an afternoon. Assange had conveniently been hired as a columnist for Aftonbladet. This meant that he could provide evidence to the Swedish Migration Agency that he was employed, with a steady income of SEK 13,400 (approximately USD $1,400) a month from Aftonbladet alone.
Naturally, Aftonbladet did not hesitate to accept the offer to have the world’s number one cyber megastar, considered to be the leader of cutting-edge media development, as its regular columnist.
Sweden has a reputation as a highly democratic country, perhaps the best in the world for this kind of work on freedom of expression and free press. For that reason, WikiLeaks’ servers containing sensitive information were parked in suitable locations in Sweden. Assange had already visited Sweden in the early summer of 2010, taking the opportunity to meet Swedish journalists and discuss collaboration and, possibly, publication.
On August 11, 2010, Assange returned to Sweden after being invited by the Social Democratic Brotherhood Movement to hold a seminar at the headquarters of the Swedish Trade Unions Confederation.
WikiLeaks contributors had been praised as innovators and heroes by various political groups around the world who appreciated openness and freedom of expression. Not unexpectedly, the forthcoming Brotherhood seminar in Stockholm attracted substantial international interest. I was contacted by a press officer (whom I will call “Woman A” here for anonymity), who asked me to act as media coordinator. I accepted the assignment, as I had experience in communicating with international media of all kinds. I had not imagined what was about to happen.
Assange arrived back in Sweden on August 11, 2010, and spent the following weeks in Sweden alternating between hotels, my office, and Woman A’s apartment.
The Mick Jagger effect Assange’s celebrity had already attained was unmistakable. At close range, it was very clear that the women who were drawn to his star power — his irresistible limitlessness — were clamoring over each other.
Woman A called me and expressed pride in having the world’s hottest guy in her bed, but she was not the only woman with such feelings. For those of us witnessing it all, it was a ritual that did not seem particularly dignified on anyone’s count. On one specific occasion, I argued that Assange had crossed the line and gone too far. We had a serious chat about the issue in my car one dark evening. I implored him to stop, referring to a particular event the night before. In addition to reasons of decency and morality there were a number of intelligence and security services who were gratefully taking note of any of his weaknesses. I reminded him of some current cases of certain countries’ security services trapping political opponents with women, drugs, and sex. Assange disagreed, arguing he was a good judge of women he had dealings with. “It’s not a weakness, it’s a strength.”
Simultaneously with the unfortunate turn of events in Sweden, a most constructive collaboration was developing between WikiLeaks and global media. Major media loved partnering with WikiLeaks. They opened their pages to WikiLeaks exposés. The new trend, “leaks,” was a journalistic wet dream. The documents and the “cables” from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan became historic: Afghanistan war logs in July 2010, Iraq war logs in October 2010, and CableGate in November 2010. We were monitoring the war minute by minute as if it were a video game — only this was for real. Never before had the world experienced such “super-authentic” media reporting. It was Fact News in its literal meaning. The Guardian, Der Spiegel, The New York Times, Aftonbladet, and others had people toiling for months in the so-called “bunker” in London, processing material.
The star of WikiLeaks reached its zenith. Its world fame eclipsed anything else. No government or security agency could avoid fearing what the next revelation would bring. The free word and Fact News celebrated triumphs the likes of which had rarely been witnessed before.
However, dialectical developments made no exception for Julian Assange. Rise and fall — two sides of the same coin. Assange and WikiLeaks certainly suffered no lack of enemies, greater or lesser.
The beginning of the end for Assange in Sweden was unmistakable that late Friday evening of August 20, when Woman A called to tell me that she and “Woman S” intended to file a police report. Their condition for not going to the police, Woman A told me, was that Assange should immediately take an HIV test.
After about 10 -15 something phone conversations back and forth between the women, myself, and Assange, he finally agreed to take the test in order to avoid a police investigation. Woman A provided contact numbers to different clinics that I was to call on Assange’s behalf to arrange for the HIV test. It was past 5pm on Friday evening, and there I was, at the supermarket vegetable stand with my nine-year-old daughter. I put down my food basket and started calling the clinics that Woman A had recommended. No hospital or clinic had test facilities open that late on a Friday, and I was repeatedly asked to call back on Monday. There was no HIV test conducted that Friday.
Four days after our evening chat in the car, Julian Assange was reported for rape and sexual assault. The police report of August 20, 2010 states, “on the above-mentioned date, Woman A entered Klara police station with intent to report a man for misconduct.” A description of the offender follows. Woman S from Enköping visits police station on the same day.” Woman S stated that she was raped in her home on the morning of Tuesday, August 17, by a man having sex with her against her will. See hearing records.”
The last thing that happened before all hell broke loose was that Woman A called me again on the morning of Saturday, August 21 to tell me that they had been to the police and told their story, and that Assange now was reported to the police. I looked out the window and saw the events unfolding in front of me. I then told Woman A, “I know exactly what the front pages and headlines will say tomorrow.”
That wasn’t a difficult guess. The reporter Niklas Svensson of Expressen newspaper reportedly received a tip involving a police leak during dinner with then-Prime Minister Fredrik Reinfeldt. Svensson, according to the same source, threw himself into a taxi to go sink his teeth into the juicy scandal.
Assange’s reputation changed drastically overnight, from acclaimed hero to asshole — a person who used the WikiLeaks platform for his personal benefit. All of Sweden agreed on this. WikiLeaks supporters in the UK and the United States had trouble buying into that picture, however. They still believed that Assange had been lured into a trap.
While any Swedish support for Assange had been wiped out, it was glaringly obvious in the United States that the CIA was behind this plot against Assange — a honeypot had been set, sending a few women in short skirts to ensnare the victim. Much of the American Left and international leftist groups, including celebrities like Michael Moore, John Pilger, Bianca Jagger, Pamela Anderson, and others, worked actively to garner support for Julian Assange — the man who had proven himself daring enough to reveal the secrets of global powers and to sacrifice himself at the altar of truth. He must, no doubt, be the victim of US intelligence.
My personal opinion based on my daily contact with everyone involved during this whole time, contrary to the American Left, is that this was neither a matter of the CIA nor any “honey trap.” The CIA was quick to exploit the situation, for sure. At the same time, I share chief prosecutor Eva Finné’s assessment that there was no rape, either. I was planning to disclose how, and on what grounds, I came to that conclusion during the court hearing, which now might never take place. That is the reason that I have not commented on the details of the case in any media.
Woman A was interviewed on the case in Aftonbladet. Paradoxically, her comments then were favorable to Assange. She described him as “neither violent, nor threatening.” She did add that he had a “shitty attitude towards women and couldn’t accept that no means no.”
In the last message I received from Woman A, she wrote that her lawyer had advised her to discontinue all contacts with journalists and that she therefore could not stay in contact with me either. We have not spoken since.
When the confidential interrogation protocols leaked from the police, I could see that Woman S had filed her report as early as 4:11pm on Friday, August 20. Woman A filed hers at 4:31pm that same day at the Klara police station. This means that they had already reported Assange to the police while I was at the supermarket calling all those clinics and hospitals, so that Assange could avoid being reported to the police. Woman A then told me that she herself had no “case” against Julian Assange, she would just accompany and support Woman S when she went to the police. However, the documents showed that Woman A herself, contrary to what she told me, had also filed her own report against Assange.
Things were looking a bit puzzling, to say the least. Furthermore, the day after she had been the victim of sexual assault, Woman A went through the trouble of arranging a crayfish party — in Julian’s honor, as she herself described it — when she invited us.
When I left the party at midnight and said goodbye, Woman A and Julian Assange were sitting next to each other. Woman A turned to me and said, “Julian will spend the night with me.” There was another couple, members of the Pirate Party, at the crayfish celebrations, who had already agreed to host Assange for the night so that Woman A wouldn’t have to deal with him. Surprisingly, Woman A declined their offer.
If I had been Chief Inspector Barnaby from Midsomer Murders in that situation, I would have wondered why the victim of sexual abuse, having filed a police report the day before, want the same man in her bed as soon as the day after?
Many would agree that Assange’s attitude towards women was crummy. There had been plenty of examples of when he had behaved terribly in his relationships with women. Chief public prosecutor Eva Finné, however, could not find anything criminal in the submitted police reports; she saw no grounds for an arrest warrant.
Journalists all over the world scratched their heads, wondering how Assange could have gone from being wanted in his absence on rape allegations to not being wanted for arrest at all in less than one day.
In her statement, chief prosecutor Eva Finné pointed out that she did not mean that she did not believe the woman in question. She only meant that, after reading the interrogation records, she couldn’t find anything criminal. Claes Borgström, the women’s lawyer, had a different opinion. Borgström requested a review of the case.
Director of public prosecution Marianne Ny agreed with Borgström’s position, and reopened the case. My main advice to Assange was then to stay in Sweden and face the legal proceedings. I gave him the number to attorney Leif Silbersky. Assange met Silbersky, and, later, the prosecutor, for discussion and interrogation. Silbersky then went to the media and asked a question: “Why had the prosecutor confirmed Assange’s identity to reporters? That was irregular. A person who is detained in his absence is not meant to be made aware of it. That gives him or her a chance to escape.” The prosecutor offered no answer to that question.
The two women were under enormous pressure from the media. One of them was harassed by an internet mob. Two sides developed, both representing humanity’s most primitive qualities. One side hated and threatened the women, dishonoring and bullying them in a most shocking way, beyond what might be legal. The other party was after Assange in very similar fashion.
After five weeks of waiting in Sweden, Assange wanted to go on a mission to London and contacted the prosecutor’s office with a request to leave the country. The prosecutor granted his request, and Assange was formally authorized to leave Sweden.
He never came back.
Almost exactly one month after the police report against Assange, on October 18, a rejection notification arrived in the mail at our office from the Migration Agency’s work permit unit:
The Swedish Migration Agency has decided to reject your application for a residence and work permit.
Anyone who believes in conspiracies would have suspected a connection between the Migration Agency’s rejection and US demands on Sweden in the Assange case. By that time, it had become clear that the United States had been in contact with Sweden at a high level, making strict demands. But the rejection was based on an administrative error on our behalf; not on a conspiracy. An application of that kind must be submitted from the country of the applicant’s origin, not from Sweden. We broke the rule when we applied from my office in Sweden, and the decision followed accordingly.
Assange was wanted internationally in the fall of 2010. He took refuge in northern England at the elegant Ellingham Hall, which sits on an estate of 650 acres. There, in accordance with a bail agreement with the British government, he could move around within a certain area of the property, wearing an electronic tag.
We met for the last time on January 31, 2011 at Ellingham Hall. I remember studying expensive wines around us on the shelves, while the discussions focused on, among other things, the secret information that was available on Iraq, in particular on the Northern Kurdish region and on Kurdish media’s interest to cooperate with WikiLeaks for that reason. However, this cooperation never happened.
Every time we had contact after that, via agents, by phone and or by an encrypted chat program, I urged him to come back to Sweden and face the court procedure. Whatever the outcome, he would be a free man after that. If he didn’t do it, he would never be free. The fact that serious legal analysts agreed that the case would be dropped, or that he would face damages and fines at most, did not help persuade Assange.
He believed he could not travel to Sweden, claiming he had information from a reliable source that Sweden would hand him over to the US. He chose to trust that information despite the strong arguments that I, among others, offered to the contrary.
Assange was correct in that Sweden had handed over persons to the CIA before, in violation of current law. He wouldn’t listen to reasoning why this would not happen this time. No doubt, the US wanted to get its hands on Assange and have him locked up, like they had done previously to 30-year-old Bradley Manning — now Chelsea Manning — who had been Assange’s most important source. Assange received a new wave of criticism for exploiting Chelsea Manning, letting her take the blame for information he used to forward his own career. What was Assange doing for Manning now? Nothing, the critics said.
When his coworkers from London visited my office in Stockholm, they repeatedly asked how the discourse on Assange was developing in Sweden, where his solidarity groups were, and how many demonstrations had been held in support of Julian Assange. They had the idea that this unfairly-treated hero enjoyed strong support in Sweden. A jailed Robin Hood standing on the side of the weak, loved by the people. Despite all our attempts to describe reality, they found it difficult to believe that WikiLeaks’ founder Julian Assange was dead in the eyes of the Swedes. It wasn’t until the Right Livelihood Award dinner that Sarah Harrison, one of Assange’s closest associates, told me that she had come to realize the situation in Sweden. At dinner, she had spoken to Arne Ruth, the newspaper Dagens Nyheter‘s former cultural editor, and that had finally made an impression. Sweden and Assange were living on different planets, which explains the complete failure of Wikileaks’ communication and media strategy in Sweden.
I was hired by Filter Magazine to interview Julian Assange about all of it, to ask those questions on everyone’s mind that needed answers. Assange and his team considered Filter an interesting publication, and we started discussing the interview. In December 2012, I handed in 50 questions to the London team: personal, political, critical, on the future and the past — just about everything. It was supposed to be a forty-page-long interview, with Assange as a groundbreaking thinker, offering answers and expressing views on complex issues, giving an interested audience his interesting input. But Assange didn’t want to talk history; he wanted to focus on attacking the Swedish judicial system that was already suffering international scorn for its handling of the Assange case.
Why didn’t the prosecutor go to London to do her job and question Assange there? Swedish prosecutors had done that a number of times before in important court cases. Why not this time? Prosecutor Marianne Ny’s way of handling the Assange case made many lawyers, judges, liberals, and free-speech advocates not only raise their eyebrows but gather for meetings, protests, write opinion pieces, and form a kind of democratic opposition to the hypocrisy of the Swedish judiciary, and thus, in practice, offering support to Assange. The main criticism was “lack of initiative to complete the inquiries.” The prosecution’s inaction is a central reason for the investigation dragging on for several years. Meanwhile, memories had faded and the evidence had started going stale. Neither the women nor Assange have been able to move on with their lives.
Julian Assange was right in his criticism of the Swedish judicial system regarding his case, but he was not the least bit interested in any of my other questions. I called the Filter editor-in-chief Mattias Göransson and told him I didn’t want to do the interview that Assange wanted to do, and Assange didn’t want to do the one I wanted to do. I suggested we cancel the whole thing. Mattias shook his head and agreed.
Assange was never inclined to follow anyone’s advice. Certainly, I was not the only one to advise him on how to act in relation to Sweden, the legal process, and the media. There were many others acting as advisors, offered the same advice many of us had already given, obviously without success. Assange’s lawyers have all wrestled with the problem. Assange dropped attorney Leif Silbersky who didn’t want to follow his orders. He called me later when I was out in the country: “We have a situation.” He needed to change his lawyer again, because Björn Hurtig, who replaced Silbersky, was not smart enough, according to Assange. “Do you have other suggestions? Other names?”
The famous British human rights lawyer Gareth Peirce took Assange’s case and called me, anxious to discuss some issues. Her experiences were identical to those many of us shared. Jennifer Robinson in London and Thomas Olsson in Stockholm, among several other lawyers, had all felt frustration that Assange did not follow their advice. Someone said that Assange was the sharpest “hacker” in the world, but, to his own detriment, he thought himself superior in every other area as well, such as media or the law.
In June 2012, Assange dramatically broke his bail agreement, leaving Ellingham Hall and taking refuge at the Embassy of Ecuador in London. The Guardian wrote that Assange “Initially entered the Ecuadorian embassy on 19 June, 2012 claiming diplomatic asylum, which was granted by the Ecuadorian Government on 16 August, 2012.” Now trapped in the Ecuadorian embassy, Assange was living in difficult conditions, devastating for his body and his soul. Someone very close to him commented anxiously after a visit that he believed Julian Assange might very well die at the embassy.
In August 2015, the investigation of two of the suspected crimes — one of sexual molestation and one of unlawful coercion — were dropped. The more serious allegation of rape was not due to expire until 2020.
In May 2017, the Swedish director of public prosecutions announced that the investigation of rape allegations on Assange was being dropped, and his arrest warrant was being revoked, as it was impossible to serve him notice. Many people believed that Assange was a free man. But British authorities swiftly reported the opposite. The Independent wrote, ”Julian Assange will be arrested if he leaves the Ecuadorian embassy despite Sweden dropping its sexual assault investigation, British police have confirmed. A spokesperson for the Metropolitan Police said that despite Sweden’s European arrest warrant for the WikiLeaks founder being lifted, he was under a separate warrant for skipping bail.”
In three years, the Swedish rape charges will expire according to the statute of limitations, but Assange still won’t be free. Greater forces await battle. What will Britain do with regard to Assange’s crime of skipping bail? And what additional charges will be brought against Assange in the US?
The hunt for Assange has not dwindled over the years. In the spring of 2017, seven years after the police report and the charges in Sweden, international media reports signaled an escalation of the hunt:
The arrest of WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange is now a “priority” for the US, the attorney general, Jeff Sessions, has said. Hours later it was reported by CNN that authorities have prepared charges against Assange.
The Trump administration now says its actions threaten national security. It said the hearing was investigating “possible violations of federal criminal law involving, but not necessarily limited to, conspiracy to communicate or transmit national defense information in violation of” the Espionage Act.
Julian Assange upset the entire world for all kinds of reasons. Some wanted to put him in prison for espionage and treason. Others wanted to lock up the messenger who had exposed their criminal activity. Yet others were fighting an ancient, patriarchal world order that allows systematic abuse of women, which they believed Assange represented.
Perhaps it was Julian Assange’s rock star status in that late summer of 2010 that became the beginning of the end, combined with forces that had long sought to destroy him. According to Assange himself, the NSA (the US National Security Agency) had hundreds of people trying to crack his codes while the CIA was busy on its end. A US Federal Grand Jury had thought long and hard how to formulate potential charges against Assange. When Julian Assange boarded a flight from Sweden for London, his checked-in suitcase with computers and hard drives disappeared without a trace.
From my point of view, and the first-hand information I had of that dramatic autumn of 2010 that Assange spent in Sweden, I concluded that reality had more nuances than the debate had ever managed to convey. I witnessed essential portions of the course of events, where they happened and when they happened.
Two of my conclusions are: it was not a “honey trap” set by the CIA that put Julian Assange in a bad situation, nor was it rape. These are two controversial conclusions that both undermine and support both sides. It follows that nobody is pleased with the few comments I have made in the media so far.
In January 2018, Assange was granted Ecuadorian citizenship. On April 11, 2019, Ecuador withdrew Assange’s asylum. He was then arrested by British police at the Ecuadorian Embassy in London. The United States has requested his extradition and charged him with conspiracy to hack classified US government computers.
The fact that WikiLeaks and Assange revealed violations against international laws is no basis to require the extradition. An open and democratic society needs whistle-blowers.
The discussion of whether the case in Sweden should be reopened or not has now started. If that happens, it’s time for Julian Assange to come back to Stockholm and once and for all end this case.
Published in Los Angeles Review, April 23, 2019.