As­sange wore out his wel­come at em­bassy

The Tribune (SLO) - - Local - BY STEVEN ERLANGER AND NI­CHOLAS CASEY

BRUSSELS

The spec­ta­cle of Ju­lian As­sange, bearded and hag­gard, re­sist­ing ar­rest while London po­lice of­fi­cers dragged him through the street, punc­tu­ated the end of seven con­found­ing years inside the Ecuadorean Em­bassy, where he lived with his cat in a small cor­ner room as the world’s most fa­mous self­pro­claimed po­lit­i­cal refugee.

As­sange, 47, has long fash­ioned him­self as a cru­sader for re­veal­ing se­crets. The in­ter­net group he founded, Wik­iLeaks, pub­lished caches of clas­si­fied U.S. gov­ern­ment com­mu­ni­ca­tions, as well as emails hacked by Rus­sian in­tel­li­gence clearly in­tended to dam­age the pres­i­den­tial can­di­dacy of Hil­lary Clin­ton.

Though ar­rested Thurs­day morn­ing by the British for skip­ping bail, As­sange was im­me­di­ately charged in the United States for con­spir­acy to hack a gov­ern­ment com­puter. To sup­port­ers, As­sange was a mar­tyr and cham­pion of free speech. To the U.S. gov­ern­ment, he was a pariah and a lackey of the Krem­lin. But it was the hard­ened opin­ion of Ecuador’s gov­ern­ment that per­haps mat­tered most. He had be­come an un­wanted house­guest.

At the tiny red-brick em­bassy, he con­tin­ued to run his in­ter­net group, con­ducted news con­fer­ences be­fore hun­dreds of fawn­ing ad­mir­ers from a bal­cony, rode his skate­board in the halls, and played host to a pa­rade of vis­i­tors, in­clud­ing Lady Gaga and Pamela An­der­son, a ru­mored lover who brought ve­gan sand­wiches. On Thurs­day, An­der­son sent out a batch of Twit­ter mes­sages at­tack­ing the ar­rest as a “vile in­jus­tice” and called Bri­tain and the United States “devils and liars and thieves.”

In in­ter­views with The New York Times in 2016, as part of a long look at his ties to Russia, As­sange de­nied any link to Rus­sian in­tel­li­gence, in par­tic­u­lar re­gard­ing the leaked Demo­cratic emails. Clin­ton and the Democrats were “whip­ping up a neo-McCarthy­ist hys­te­ria about Russia,” he said. There is “no con­crete evidence” that what Wik­iLeaks pub­lishes comes from in­tel­li­gence agen­cies, he said, even as he in­di­cated that he would hap­pily ac­cept such ma­te­rial.

Small as they were, As­sange’s liv­ing quar­ters at the em­bassy, close to the lav­ish self-in­dul­gence of Har­rods, the fa­mous depart­ment store, did not cramp his de­sire to re­main in the lime­light. As­sange had an of­fice equipped with a bed, sun­lamp, phone, com­puter, kitch­enette, shower, tread­mill and book­shelves. Three years ago, one per­son fa­mil­iar with the setup called it “a gas sta­tion with two at­ten­dants.”

Vaughan Smith, who had been a long­time sup­porter of As­sange and helped put up his bail money, said that “Ju­lian’s a big bloke, with big bones, and he fills the room phys­i­cally and in­tel­lec­tu­ally.”

“It’s a tiny em­bassy with a tiny bal­cony,” he added, “small, hot and with not great air flow, and it must be jolly difficult for every­one there.”

But from there, As­sange for years held court for ad­mir­ers and fa­mous cu­rios­ity seek­ers, among them soc­cer star Eric Can­tona, and Nigel Farage, the proBrexit ra­dio host and for­mer head of U.K. In­de­pen­dence Party.

Still, As­sange’s iso­la­tion was wear­ing on him, a friend said on Thurs­day, es­pe­cially the long, lonely week­ends in an es­sen­tially empty em­bassy he could not leave. Even his friends have de­scribed him as difficult, a nar­cis­sist with an out­sized view of his im­por­tance and a dis­in­ter­est in mun­dane matters like per­sonal hy­giene. He was be­com­ing deeply depressed and won­dered about sim­ply walk­ing out, the friend said, speak­ing on con­di­tion of anonymity. And re­la­tions with his hosts were be­com­ing deeply strained, even ad­ver­sar­ial.

A copy of a 2014 let­ter from Juan Fal­coní Puig, then Ecuador’s am­bas­sador to Bri­tain, to the For­eign Min­istry, seen by The New York Times, out­lined the grow­ing re­sent­ment be­tween the diplo­mats and As­sange over his be­hav­ior at the em­bassy. Among Fal­coní’s top con­cerns was As­sange’s pen­chant for riding a skate­board and play­ing soc­cer with vis­i­tors. His skate­board­ing, Fal­coní said, had “dam­aged floors, walls and doors.” The am­bas­sador said the soc­cer games had destroyed em­bassy equip­ment. When an se­cu­rity agent stopped the game and took away the ball, As­sange “be­gan to shake, in­sult and push the agent,” re­claimed the ball and then “launched the ball at his body.”

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