The latest release from war whistle-blowers WikiLeaks — over 390,000 classified documents about the Iraq War — “constituted the most comprehensive and detailed account of any war ever to have entered the public record,” according to the group’s founder, Julian Assange, who is profiled today in the New York Times. But in addition to the content of the documents, which are still being parsed and likely will for years to come (one initial headline-worthy number: 15,000 additional civilian deaths) is a blooming personal drama centered around Assange, whose “own comrades are abandoning him for what they see as erratic and imperious behavior, and a nearly delusional grandeur unmatched by an awareness that the digital secrets he reveals can have a price in flesh and blood.” Ouch.
(UPDATE: Assange, asked to address some of his personal turmoils, walked off a CNN interview. See the clip below.)
Assange’s ego has long-been a worry for supporters of WikiLeaks’ work, but the Times gets some key on-the-record quotes from coworkers that call the whole operation into question.
Several WikiLeaks colleagues say he alone decided to release the Afghan documents without removing the names of Afghan intelligence sources for NATO troops. “We were very, very upset with that, and with the way he spoke about it afterwards,” said Birgitta Jonsdottir, a core WikiLeaks volunteer and a member of Iceland’s Parliament. “If he could just focus on the important things he does, it would be better.”
As their profile has risen, many insiders have “defected,” and the Times describes, writing of Assange, describes “someone whose growing celebrity has been matched by an increasingly dictatorial, eccentric and capricious style.” He doesn’t appear to deal well with criticism:
When Herbert Snorrason, a 25-year-old political activist in Iceland, questioned Mr. Assange’s judgment over a number of issues in an online exchange last month, Mr. Assange was uncompromising. “I don’t like your tone,” he said, according to a transcript. “If it continues, you’re out.”
Mr. Assange cast himself as indispensable. “I am the heart and soul of this organization, its founder, philosopher, spokesperson, original coder, organizer, financier, and all the rest,” he said. “If you have a problem with me,” he told Mr. Snorrason, using an expletive, he should quit.
One volunteer puts the “disillusioned” volunteers at around twelve with more to come. And Assange is not pleased:
In an encrypted online chat, a transcript of which was passed to The Times, Mr. Assange was dismissive of his colleagues. He described them as “a confederacy of fools,” and asked his interlocutor, “Am I dealing with a complete retard?”
When the Times questioned Assange about the swirling dramas, he called “the questions ‘cretinous,’ ‘facile’ and reminiscent of ‘kindergarten.'” So he’s not exactly a PR expert.
Assange, according to the paper, “moves like a hunted man,” and in addition to being tracked and pursued by governments, his brash moves are also making enemies within groups expected to be allies like Amnesty International and Reporters Without Borders. Obviously, the work WikiLeaks can have a huge effect on the world writ large and thus the behavior of the man at its core can drastically sway the results. But Assange has his own take when it comes to his critics: “These are not consequential people.”
UPDATE: Assange appeared on CNN to discuss the flood of Iraq War documents but grew agitated when asked first about the dischord within WikiLeaks and then about the pending sexual harassment charges against him in Sweden.
“This interview is about something else,” Assange told [interviewer Atika] Shubert. “I’m going to walk if you’re going to contaminate us revealing the deaths of 104,000 people with attacks against my person.”
She pressed on and he decided to leave.