THESE DAYS, Hillary Clinton has no bigger foe than Julian Assange, who’s been trying to sink her presidential bid by dumping trove after trove of hacked campaign e-mails. But there are worse things in life than being targeted by the WikiLeaks founder.
For instance, working for him.
This week in BuzzFeed, the British journalist James Ball published a brutal recollection of his brief stint as a WikiLeaks collaborator and employee half a decade ago. In Ball’s account, entitled “Inside the Strange, Paranoid World of Julian Assange,” the WikiLeaks founder misleads underlings, settles personal scores, and inexplicably tolerates anti-Semites. After two women in Sweden accused him of sexual assault — leading him, eventually, to claim asylum in Ecuador’s embassy in London — Assange conflates his own legal needs with those of the organization as a whole.
Ball is hardly impartial, and WikiLeaks downplays his role. But what he says meshes with other news coverage, as well as the ever harsher content and tone of the group’s own Twitter feed.
At one point, Ball claims that Assange pressured him relentlessly — to the point of prodding him with a stuffed giraffe — to sign a far-reaching agreement not to talk about WikiLeaks’ activities. For a group devoted to a radical transparency, this is a strikingly corporate move.
While we like to think political ideas rise and fall on their merit alone, the truth is that a lot depends on the messenger. If the future of WikiLeaks is in doubt, maybe it’s because Assange is a lousy boss — and because even shadowy global activist networks face the kind of organizational drift familiar to fans of “Office Space” or “Dilbert.”
“Assange’s approach has taken WikiLeaks from the most powerful and connected force of a new journalistic era,” Ball contends, “to a back-bedroom operation run at the tolerance (or otherwise) of Ecuador’s government.”
Still, Assange’s group isn’t helping itself by lashing out even at its natural allies. Over the summer, the exiled whistleblower Edward Snowden praised WikiLeaks for its role in “democratizing information” but took issue with the group’s “hostility to even modest curation” of the hacked e-mails that it’s been dumping.
Snowden, of course, faces federal charges after revealing secrets of the National Security Agency to The Washington Post and the Guardian. WikiLeaks accused him sucking up to Clinton in the hope of a pardon.
As it happens, the 2016 campaign has pushed lots of people to the edge. “Dilbert” creator Scott Adams, the quintessential purveyor of cheeky jokes about managerial excess, has switched his endorsement from Clinton to Donald Trump to Gary Johnson and has vowed to help kill the GOP nominee if “he does anything that looks even slightly Hitler-ish in office.” Nerves are fraying everywhere, not just behind the walls of a tiny London embassy. But still. . .
Six years ago, Assange looked like a management genius for creating a global distribution platform for secrets that, one could argue, needed to be exposed. Today, the group, like its leader, looks increasingly isolated. Sure, WikiLeaks has been an innovator, a disruptor, a unique new influence in global affairs. But bosses who settle personal scores and buy their own hype are as old as humanity.