Convincing yourself, and the world, that you’re a major political player on the global stage is a tough ask when you’re confined to a back bedroom. It’s an act that Julian Assange has been trying for years – and one which is increasingly starting to have consequences on the WikiLeaks founder.
Assange has had his internet access cut off by the staff of Ecuador’s embassy in London for a second time – the first being a result of WikiLeaks’ intervention in the US election with the leak of emails from the Hillary Clinton campaign, and Assange’s tweets expressing political preference.
Ecuador, not wanting to get dragged into this political row, cut off Assange’s internet access and made him sign an undertaking not to get involved in the politics of other countries – only for the WikiLeaks Twitter account, and Assange’s personal account, to tweet about Catalonian independence and Britain’s expulsion of Russian diplomats. As a result, Assange has once again had his internet access stopped – and the embassy is reportedly turning away visitors, including Vivienne Westwood, who want to see him.
The move tells us much about Assange’s psychology and how it clashes with the reality of his day-to-day life. Assange would like to be seen as a figure on the world stage with equal stature to those he leaks and tweets about – footage in Laura Poitras’s documentary on Assange, Risk, showed him insisting he speak with Clinton directly when she was secretary of state, to discuss the forthcoming cable leaks.
This desire to be part of the conversation, a focus of attention, is marked by much of Assange’s theatrics: WikiLeaks’ constant tweeting of mysterious insurance codes, strange hints at contacts with intelligence agencies, and more – usually when the world is talking about a huge story that has no connection to WikiLeaks.
Assange is a man who would rather be viewed with suspicion – is he working with people at the top of Putin’s government? – than not be thought of at all, or worse yet be thought of as a cat’s-paw of a greater power.
The realities of Assange’s day-to-day life, though, reveal that that is exactly what he has become, in many ways. There is good evidence in the public domain – as well as testimony from intelligence agencies across the world – that Russian state-sponsored hackers obtained the campaign emails from Clinton, which were later published by WikiLeaks and came to dominate months of coverage of the US election.
No one has offered any good evidence that WikiLeaks knowingly cooperated with the Russian government in this effort – but the simple alternative explanation is a hurtful one to Assange’s ego: the documents would simply be presented to WikiLeaks from a “hacking group”, in the knowledge that WikiLeaks wouldn’t ask too many awkward questions. Who needs an accomplice when you have an unwitting and useful tool on hand?
Assange’s position with Ecuador is weaker still. When he entered the embassy in the summer of 2012 – a few weeks after the country’s then-president jokingly invited him to seek asylum in Ecuador during a Russia Today interview – Assange was a useful symbol to shore up Ecuador’s anti-US position to South American allies, especially as he was still then a hero to many on the left.
There has since been a change in government, a change in Assange’s public image, and years of daily frustrations between a man who has been called the “world’s worst houseguest” and a country not known for respecting a free media. As early as 2015, documents leaked from Ecuador’s intelligence agency showed that Assange was facing minute-by-minute surveillance on all his activities in the embassy, all of which were being sent back to Ecuador daily. The documents also logged Assange clashing with embassy staff, breaking into secure rooms, and more.
The man who would like to portray himself as a stateless challenger of power has found himself in the same position as a grounded teenager: Ecuador decides who he sees, what can be in his room, even when he washes and tidies up (a regular source of friction).
Additionally for someone trying to offer safety to whistleblowers around the world, he is a stationary target for the world’s intelligence agencies: any of them able to piggyback on Ecuador’s surveillance – or create new surveillance of their own – and track what his site is up to.
Assange lives in a world of dissonance, right down to his reasons for being in the embassy. He talks of being a political prisoner, who has been under “house arrest” for seven years due to his work for free speech. In reality, he fled from justice having decided not to face Swedish authorities over an investigation into rape and sexual assault.
Reconciling Assange’s version of events with reality is an all-but impossible task, and one Ecuador has been trying to unravel as it finds a way to end his stay. As Ecuadorian patience continues to crumble, Assange may soon find reality will come to bite.
James Ball is a former Guardian special projects editor