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Macmillan Childrens Publishing Group

The Secret Life

Three True Stories of the Digital Age

Andrew O'Hagan

Farrar, Straus and Giroux



On January 5, 2011, at 8:30 p.m., I was messing about at home when the phone buzzed on the sofa. It was a text from Jamie Byng, the publisher of Canongate. “Are you about?” it said. “I have a somewhat left-field idea. It’s potentially very exciting. But I need to discuss urgently.” Canongate had bought, for £600,000, a memoir by the WikiLeaks founder, Julian Assange. The book had also been bought for a high sum by Sonny Mehta at Knopf in New York, and Jamie had sold foreign rights to a slew of big houses. He said he expected it to be published in forty languages. Assange didn’t want to write the book himself and he hoped the book’s ghostwriter could be somebody who didn’t already know a lot about him. I told Jamie that I’d seen Assange in London at the Frontline Club, a watering hole for foreign correspondents, the year before, when the first WikiLeaks released its first stories, and that he was really interesting but odd, maybe even on the autism spectrum. Jamie agreed, but said it was an amazing story. “He wants a kind of manifesto, a book that will reflect this great big generational shift.” He’d been to see Assange in Norfolk and was going again the next day. He said he and the agent Caroline Michel had suggested me for the job and that Assange wanted to meet me. I knew they’d been talking to other writers, and I was at first skeptical.

It’s not unusual for published writers to get requests to write things anonymously. How much did Alex Haley protect Malcolm X when he ghosted his autobiography? To what extent did Ted Sorensen create the verbal manner of John F. Kennedy when he wrote Profiles in Courage, a book for which the future president won the Pulitzer Prize? And are the science fiction stories H. P. Lovecraft ghosted for Harry Houdini not the best things he ever wrote? There would be a touch of all this in the strange case of Assange. But there is something else about the genre, a sense that the world might be more ghosted now than at any time in history. Isn’t Wikipedia entirely ghosted? Isn’t half of Facebook? Isn’t the World Wide Web a new ether, in which we are all haunted by ghostwriters?

I had written about missing persons and celebrity, about secrecy and conflict, and I knew from the start that this story might be an insider’s job. However it came, and however I unearthed it or inflected it, the Assange story would be consistent with my instinct to walk the unstable border between fiction and nonfiction, to see how porous the parameters between invention and personality are. I remembered Victor Maskell, the art historian and spy in John Banville’s The Untouchable, who liked to quote Diderot: “We erect a statue in our own image inside ourselves—idealised, you know, but still recognisable—and then spend our lives engaged in the effort to make ourselves into its likeness.” The fact that the WikiLeaks story was playing out against a global argument over privacy, secrets, and the abuse of military power left me feeling the story might be irresistible.

At 5:30 the next evening Jamie arrived at my flat with his editorial colleague Nick Davies. (Mental health warning: there are two people named Nick Davies in this story. This one worked for Canongate; the second is a well-known reporter for The Guardian.) They had just come back on the train from Norfolk. Jamie said that Assange had accidentally poked his eye with a log or something, so had sat through three hours of discussion with his eyes closed. They were going to advertise the book for April. It was to be called WikiLeaks Versus the World: My Story by Julian Assange. They said I would have a percentage of the royalties in every territory and Julian was happy with that. We talked about the deal and then Jamie went into detail about the security issues. “Are you ready to have your phone tapped by the CIA?” he asked. He said Julian insisted the book would have to be written on a laptop that had no Internet access.

When I arrived at Ellingham Hall a few days later Assange was fast asleep. He’d been living there, at the house of Vaughan Smith, one of his guarantors and founder of the Frontline Club, since his arrest on Swedish rape allegations. He was effectively under house arrest and wearing an electronic tag on his leg. He would sign in at Beccles police station every afternoon, proving he hadn’t done a runner in the night. Assange and his associates kept hackers’ hours: up all night and asleep half the day, one of the little bits of chaos that would come to characterize the circus I was about to enter. Ellingham Hall is a drafty country residence with stags’ heads in the hall. In the dining room there were laptops everywhere. Sarah Harrison, Assange’s personal assistant and girlfriend, was wearing a woolly jumper and kept scraping her ringlets off her face. Another girl, maybe Spanish or South American or Eastern European, came into the drawing room, where the fire was blazing. I stood at the windows looking at the tall trees outside.

Sarah made me a cup of tea and the other girl brought it into the room with a plate of chocolate biscuits. “I’m always trying to think of new ways to wake him up,” she said. “The cleaner just barges in. It’s the only way.” He soon came padding into the room in socks and a suit.

“I’m sorry I’m late,” he said. He was amused and suspicious at the same time, a nice combination, I thought, and there were few signs of the mad unprofessionalism to come. He said the thing that worried him was how quickly the book had to be written. It would be hard to establish a structure that would work. He went on to say that he might be in jail soon and that might not be bad for writing the book. “I have quite abstract thoughts,” he said, “and an argument about civilization and secrecy that needs to be got down.”

He said he’d hoped to have something that read like Hemingway. “When people have been put in prison who might never have had time to write, the thing they write can be galvanizing and amazing. I wouldn’t say this publicly, but Hitler wrote Mein Kampf in prison.” He admitted it wasn’t a great book but it wouldn’t have been written if Hitler had not been put away. He said that Tim Geithner, the U.S. secretary of the treasury, had been asked to look into ways to hinder companies that would profit from subversive organizations. That meant Knopf would come under fire for publishing the book.

I asked him if he had a working title yet, and he said, to laughter, “Yes. Ban This Book: From Swedish Whores to Pentagon Bores.” It was interesting to see how he parried with some notion of himself as a public figure, as a rock star, really, when all the activists I’ve ever known tend to see themselves as marginal and possibly eccentric figures. Assange referred a number of times to the fact that people were in love with him, but I couldn’t see the coolness, the charisma he took for granted. He spoke at length about his “enemies,” mainly The Guardian and The New York Times.

Julian’s relationship with The Guardian, which appeared to obsess him, went back to his original agreement to let them publish material that WikiLeaks had procured, it turned out, from Bradley (now Chelsea) Manning, a giant cache of coalition war logs that gave details of military incidents in Afghanistan. Julian quickly fell out with the journalists and editors at The Guardian—essentially over questions of power and ownership—and by the time I took up with him felt “double-crossed” by them. It was an early sign of the way he viewed “collaboration”: The Guardian was an enemy because he’d “given” them something and they hadn’t toed the line, whereas the Daily Mail was almost respected for finding him entirely abominable. The Guardian tried to soothe him—its editor then, Alan Rusbridger, showed concern for his position, as did his deputy, Ian Katz, and others—but he talked about its journalists in savage terms. The Guardian felt strongly that the secret material ought to be redacted to protect informants or bystanders named in it, and Julian was inconsistent about that. I never believed he wanted to endanger such people, but he chose to interpret The Guardian’s concern as “cowardice.”

His relationship with The New York Times was every bit as toxic. He believed its editor at the time, Bill Keller, was determined to treat him as a “source” rather than a collaborator—which was true—and that Keller wanted to hang him out to dry, which was not true. Keller wrote a long piece in his own paper saying Julian was dirty, paranoid, controlling, unreliable, and slightly off his head, which naturally made Julian feel his former collaborator was out to get him. But both newspapers, in concert with others, had given over vast numbers of pages to the leaks and given WikiLeaks top billing in bringing the material to light. I always felt the involvement of The New York Times would save Julian from prison, and I still believe that. Even the U.S. authorities know that it would be impossible for them to convict Assange of espionage without also convicting Keller and Rusbridger. But instead of seeing that, Julian could only view the men in personal terms as dissemblers or something worse.

He had a strange inability to realize when he was becoming boring or demanding. He talked as if the world needed him to talk and never to stop. Oddly for a dissident, he had no questions. The left wingers I have known are always full of questions, but Assange, from the first, seemed like a manifestation of the hyperventilating chat room. It became clear: if I was to be the ghost, it might turn out that I was the least ghostly person in the enterprise.

He was avoiding “our book.” He wanted to discuss the other books about to be published. “There’s this book by two guys from Der Spiegel,” he said. “It will be more high-toned than the others. The two guys are friendly towards me but the book will contain new allegations.” He spoke about another book to be published by The Guardian. He said it would come from journalists he’d worked with there. He was obsessed with David Leigh and Nick Davies, two of the main reporters. “Davies is extremely hostile to me,” Assange said. “The Guardian basically double-crossed the organization in the worst way … We left them with a cache of cables—to act as security in case any of us got it in the neck—and they made a copy of the data. They were against my getting other media organizations involved, so they leaked the data to The New York Times and others and they behaved abominably. Davies has a known personal animosity towards me.” (The Guardian denies all this.)


“Because he’s an old man who’s basically at the end of his career. He can’t bear it that a onetime source of advancement has gone away. He wrote a smear about me and none of the Guardian management stood in his way.” He mentioned Ian Katz as failing in this regard. He said The Guardian’s behavior would likely be laid out in Der Spiegel’s book, and that the Guardian journalists were obviously keen to put out their version. “They have scheduled the book to come out at the time of my legal hearing, to cause maximum damage.”

“Surely not,” I said, incredulous. “Wouldn’t they wait, just for old times’ sake?”

“You’re joking.”

He said the third book was by his former colleague Daniel Domscheit-Berg. “This will be a complete smear,” he said. “The guy is working from hatred of us and he will seek to make it as damaging as possible.”

“Embarrassing or damaging?”

“Both, probably. He has chat room stuff … conversations.”

“Between all of you?”

“Yes,” he said. “He put out one of them before, about having been suspended. He printed all the stuff in the conversation except the parts that related to why he was suspended. There is also a book by the New York Times journalists and several other quick books. But these will be damaging, too, because they will just repeat the worst allegations.”

I’d never been with a person who had such a good cause and such a poor ear, nor had I met a head of an organization with such an unending capacity to worry about his enemies and to yawn in one’s face. I asked him how he thought the court case would turn out. “I have, I’d say, a forty percent chance of being freed,” he said. “If they free me on February 6, I’ll leave the country immediately because in this country there would be a second arrest and the U.S. will be determined to have me extradited. I would sooner be in a country where no extradition treaty exists with the U.S., such as Cuba or Switzerland. A lot of people in America want me dead and there was an article in The Washington Times which showed my face with a target on it and blood coming out the back of my head.”

He suggested I come with him to the police station at Beccles. We went outside and waited for Sarah to get the car. Standing there, I saw that the contradictions might just work out well for the book. I saw he had problems but he could be funny and I liked him. Ellingham Hall is surrounded by barns and storage buildings. “I would like to convert one of those stables into an office,” he said. He smiled. “And a book was born in a manger.”

“You’d never find three wise men and a virgin in Norfolk,” I said. He made another joke about Norfolk, about local social workers stamping cases N.F.N.—“Normal for Norfolk.” He phoned ahead to the police station to tell them he was coming. There were two phones on his lap but he answered neither one himself. A French journalist was following the car but lost us. At the police station, Sarah stopped and said: “Shall I do the honors?” I watched as she went out and searched the bushes.

“Is she checking for paparazzi?” I asked.

“I wish,” said Julian.

“What, then?”


I said I would write the book on condition that I could do it without being named, for the thrill of getting the story right and learning something in the process. I thought I would have a kind of authorly freedom by not being the author on the cover. I told Jamie I didn’t want my name anywhere on the book and that I wouldn’t give interviews or talk about the project. I wouldn’t become a WikiLeaks spokesman or go on Newsnight or confirm anything with the newspapers. I wanted to let the publication speak for itself. I was assured this would work and Julian agreed.

* * *

On Monday, January 17, 2011, I drove to Norfolk. It was dark and drizzly by the time I got to Ellingham Hall. I stopped the car and got changed in a lane, putting a hoodie over a T-shirt, while rabbits hopped in the headlamps. I’d been told there were journalists everywhere, and indeed there were lights around the fields and sometimes helicopters overhead. I looked at the driveway under a full moon. It felt almost comically filmic, a strange technological distortion of Jane Austen’s novels, with character and power waiting to combust. The house loomed through the fog, as they say, and I texted Sarah to say I was two minutes away from the door.

The kitchen was the usual thing: blue Aga stove, double sink, farmhouse table, plates everywhere. On top of the Aga a garlic loaf was warming and on the table was a little bowl of tomato salad. I could hear American voices through the door that led to the drawing room, and one Australian voice, Julian’s. On the walls of the dining room there were many paintings hung on brass rails. One of them showed a nineteenth-century gentleman. I later found out he was Vaughan Smith’s ancestor who had expanded the estate after marrying into it. Vaughan’s father was ruddy-faced and in uniform. Julian later told me the white thing he was holding was a diplomatic bag.

Filming was going on. There was always filming or the possibility of filming, which was odd for people who liked to think of themselves as hiding in the shadows. “You want a book to read?” Sarah asked. “I’ve got tons of your books upstairs.” The television people were from the U.S. show 60 Minutes and were making a film about WikiLeaks. I heard Julian say to them that this was his gilded cage, the same thing he had said to me several days earlier. While Julian continued to deal with the interviewer in the drawing room, Sarah and I had a drink in the kitchen. She said she was from South London and had come to work for the organization the previous July. She brought up the rape allegations and said they were “the most massive cliché.” “We expected flak from the Pentagon,” she said, “but not smears based on two weeks in Sweden.” She said it was bizarre what the Swedes considered to be rape, yet some of her friends were distressed by the allegations and couldn’t believe she would work for WikiLeaks. She also said she thought the allegations were mad. She asked me about my career and we spoke about the writing business. “I thought I’d get to do a lot of traveling in this job,” she said, laughing, “but instead I’ve been stuck in one house in the English countryside since last October.”

We sat down to dinner at ten. Vaughan joined us, pulling baked potatoes out of the oven and lasagne that had been prepared by the housekeeper. We had a joking conversation about movie rights in general and they all larked about who should play them in the movie. Vaughan was most concerned about the movie company hiring the house for filming. I told them about Battle Bridge Road, the place in King’s Cross where I lived in my twenties, which was used all the time as a film set. I told them about the day they were making a film about Oswald Mosley and staging a riot in our street. The hippies who squatted nearby thought the revolution had begun and ran out and joined the fray. “Who’s Mosley?” Julian asked.

When we began speaking about the book, I was concerned to get a sense of what the elements were, so that I could think about how to build the picture. I said that perhaps there should be a narrative in which the past and present alternated. “What did you think of Anna Karenina?” Assange said. “I just thought it took too much of my life away. But then there’s this scene where the dog begins to speak, and I thought, yes, this is beginning to make sense.”

The biggest surprise for readers of his book, I suggested, would be to discover it wasn’t written luridly or defensively but quite frankly.

“Maybe it should be experimental,” he said, “like chapter one has one word; chapter two has two words…”

“The real innovation,” I said, “would be to come up with a book that sums up the relationship between the individual and the state as it seems from your position now.”

“But I am not a complete person yet,” he said.

“It will be the book you can write now.”

He wanted his book to be like Thomas Paine’s Rights of Man.

I noticed he tended to eat pretty much with his hands. People in magazine articles say he doesn’t eat, but he had three helpings of lasagne that night and he ate both the baked potato and the jam pudding with his hands. He turned from being very open and engaged to being removed and sort of disgusted. About midnight, he and Sarah, while continuing to talk, lifted over their MacBooks and opened them and began to type with their faces strangely lit. After a while, Sarah exclaimed.

“What?” I asked.

“Bloody hell.” She looked at Assange.

“What?” he asked.

The Guardian have redacted the following from a cable about Tunisia,” she said.

“Read what they’ve redacted,” said Julian.

She read two sentences about a deposed president having sought cancer treatment abroad. “They’re taking them out,” she said.

Julian made a face. “They’re disgusting.”

“Why do it?” Sarah asked. Julian said they were obviously worried about being sued.

“Come on,” Sarah said.

Julian: “British courts.”

Julian always behaved as if he was being pushed onto the back foot over redactions.

The issue was this: on July 28, 2010, Major General Campbell, a U.S. commander in Afghanistan, said, “Any time there’s any sort of leak of classified material, it has the potential to harm the military folks that are working out here every day.” The notion got under the skin of many people, including some of the journalists dealing with the leaks, and a feeling grew among the “media partners” and many supporters of the organization that WikiLeaks must avoid having “blood on its hands.” Julian gave several answers to the question of how the leaked material should be “redacted.” Sometimes he appeared to suggest that editing it was wrong, but he admitted to me that they wanted to “improve when it came to having a better focus on redactions.” He denied ever saying, as reported by others, that informants’ names should not be taken out and that “they deserved to die.” He would go over these positions again and again, but the interviews I conducted contain many inconsistencies. And horrible longueurs.

At ten o’clock one night I drove over to the house and Julian spoke for nearly three hours without pause. At one point he looked quite moved as he spoke about “backstabbers.” He talked about Domscheit-Berg. In some way he found it impossible to imagine how other people could have a view of him, or of themselves, that didn’t accord with his own. “Every good story needs a Judas,” he said, and “nearly everybody is a fucking wanker.” He spoke about other people he’d worked with, and felt it would be different with me. (I was never certain it would be, though I hoped so.) “You are in artistic control of this book,” he said. I replied that I felt the book could become an argument about disclosure, about the difference between secrets of a political kind, on the one hand, and the tabloid hunt for salacious details about private lives, on the other. The book, I said, should be revealing on all fronts, but also be frank about revelation itself. If he could not discuss a matter of importance—his son, for example, and the custody battle, or what happened in bed with the two Swedish girls—we should seek to explain why in a statement about sleaze. I said what we shouldn’t do was close our eyes and hope no one would notice. Making the ends meet in a moral sense was the project’s great conundrum, and he agreed at that point to let me say everything, in the spirit of just saying what happened.

Copyright © 2017 by Andrew O’Hagan