Even the cover is a mystery. Julian Assange’s memoir carries a contradictory, if eye-catching, title: the unauthorised autobiography. On his WikiLeaks site the author disclaims authorship altogether. ‘I am not “the writer” of this book. I own the copyright of the manuscript which was written by Andrew O’Hagan.’ He claims that the text was ‘distributed secretly’ in the final week of September. Well I wonder. My copy was delivered by a helmeted courier who handed me the book only after a pre-arranged password had been exchanged between us: my name. This was hardly secret. The publishers, Canongate, explain in their racy introduction that Assange signed a contract last December and submitted his first draft in June whereupon he renounced his contract. ‘All autobiography is prostitution,’ he declared. He spent the money from his advance on a legal bid to annul the publishing deal. This failed. So out came the book.
Assange makes enemies easily. Popular lore characterises him as a stroppy, self-publicising prig with messianic tendencies and a weakness for cheap and faintly dictatorial epigrams. (His testy dismissal of the memoir genre is a characteristic example). But the author of this book, and let’s call him Assange for brevity’s sake, has erased that caricature and produced a compelling portrait of a brave, complex, difficult, brilliant and essentially humane individual. Far from being a lousy aphorist he has a knack for memorable phrases. Recalling his arrest in London last autumn, he describes being carried in a prison van from the court towards Wandsworth jail. ‘Press photographers were scrabbling around the windows like crabs in a bucket.’
No stranger to criminality, Assange was prosecuted in Australia in 1996 for hacking into Nortel, the Canadian telecom system. His recollection of the trial’s opening gesture sounds like the first line of a classic movie. ‘It brings a focus to your life, the moment a judge says, “the prisoner shall now rise,” and the only person standing is you.’ Across the court-room he spotted a former colleague, anxious but impassive, who had turned Crown Witness against him. ‘It was a look that I would come to know: the look of betrayal, organized on the face to look like a high-minded interest in the truth.’ Treachery is never far from his experience. ‘Betrayal often comes not as a surprise but as a recognition,’ he says, a line so forceful that you assume you’ve have read it somewhere before.
Assange’s upbringing was radically informal. His parents were good-time Bohemians, creative drifters with a political conscience, who sent their son to over 30 schools during his peripatetic childhood. His intelligence is formidable. As a teenager he had already snuck past the Pentagon’s security systems and hacked into the US Air Force 8th Group Command Headquarters.
But he was no spy. He idealised the causes of justice and social change. And he understood that the internet was neutral and could easily become a tool of repression. ‘Stalin would have loved it’. He set up WikiLeaks as an ‘intelligence agency for the people’ that would expose the corrupt and covert habits of ‘patronage networks’. His eyes were open from the start. ‘Any person or organization that stood against them would be murdered, either in the courts, or by intelligence agents, or in the press. I was ready for them.’
The book’s centrepiece is the release of classified documents revealing America’s conduct in Iraq and Afghanistan. His troubles with American power are overshadowed by his tussles with his media partners on both sides of the Atlantic. He claims that the Guardian and the New York Times retreated from their obligations to him and began to smear him as ‘a hacker and an unstable source.’ His derision is loaded with flavour. ‘I thought these were men of action and principle not weaklings with a crush.’
He now faces highly questionable charges of rape in Sweden. The United States will do everything it can to extradite him and charge him with treason. This should, and will, be vigorously resisted. Assange is not easy to like but his intellectual gifts, his moral courage and his carelessness of his own physical safety make him impossible not to admire.
The bust-up with Canongate is almost beneath him. He accuses them of opportunism, duplicity, and ‘screwing people over to make a buck’. When attacked by vested interests in the past his policy has been ‘to reward our torturers with further revelations.’ He should therefore publish this ‘unauthorised’ book on WikiLeaks and destroy Canongate’s earnings from it. Technically, perhaps, it’s not a leak as he owns the copyright. He may even have written it too. Perhaps we’ll never find out.
This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated October 1, 2011