Assange wore out his welcome at embassy
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.”