In his first interview, Vaughan Smith, host to Julian Assange for nearly a year, speaks about his houseguest
Exactly one year ago last week, a scruffy Australian journalist knocked on the door of the Frontline Club, London’s only private members’ hotel and bar for independent journalists. After walking past framed photographs of cameramen in some of the world’s most dangerous places, the white-haired man was greeted by Captain Vaughan Smith, an affable ex-soldier who founded the club after spending nearly two decades filming conflict zones from Bosnia to Afghanistan.
Julian Assange’s reputation preceded him. Two months before, his WikiLeaks organisation released a video showing US soldiers gunning down a Reuters cameraman in Iraq. Assange had then caused international consternation by releasing thousands of internal war logs relating to the Afghanistan war, which in the process also exposed the identities of dozens of Afghan informants.
“On the Monday after the Afghan release, he held a press conference at the club and did 30 interviews afterwards which took two or three days. He then needed somewhere to stay and seeing as at least three members knew him — which under our rules means he could stay — he stayed put. It was all paid for in the normal way.”
Smith, 48, is reclining in a big chair in the sitting room of his club. His manner is genial but he seems suspicious of how his latter-day friend will be portrayed. You quickly get the feeling he sees Assange as a fellow soldier; someone open to criticism but for whom his support is unwavering. “Why did Assange choose us? I’ve never asked him but what I believe is that he has a large respect for journalists who cover conflicts. He admires courage, physical courage,” he says.
Assange lived in the Frontline for four months, using the club to coordinate the release of leaked documents relating to the Iraq war. During this period he developed such a close bond with Smith that the latter agreed to let him use his family home, a 10-bedroom mansion in Norfolk called Ellingham Hall, to prepare WikiLeaks’ biggest release yet: the leak of thousands of secret US diplomatic cables in November 2010. “He told me he couldn’t work from the Frontline, sensing that running something like Cablegate from the club was probably beyond his invitation,” Smith says. “But this wasn’t living in the lap of luxury, it’s f***ing cold in the winter and it’s got a terrible internet connection.”
In December, Assange was arrested after two women in Sweden accused him of rape and sexual assault, accusations he denies. At his bail hearing in London’s High Court, his lawyer told the judge that Smith had agreed to hold Assange under “mansion arrest”. “If he didn’t have a very strong bail proposition he wouldn’t have got it. He needed somebody that the judge could recognise was reasonably upstanding.”
Impressed by the former Grenadier Guard, the judge remanded Assange to Smith’s home. Electronically tagged, he and his team have lived there since. Now, weeks before an appeal judge decides whether Assange will be sent back to Sweden, Smith is speaking for the first time about providing sanctuary to the world’s most famous hacker.
“I certainly didn’t think he would stay eight months. But we’ve made it work and I’m proud of that,” he says. At first, he recalls, he felt under siege. “All these journalists were sneaking around the farm and peering through windows. There was this Japanese guy who turned up in a London taxi having flown in from Tokyo. Unfortunately, he arrived at a house containing the most paranoid organisation in the world at a time where we didn’t want to see anyone, where we had been bothered from 4am to midnight. I behaved terribly with him and I feel guilty to this day.” Smith told the reporter from Tokyo in “no uncertain terms to go away” because he hadn’t booked an appointment.
It wasn’t just journalists to fend off. Assange’s postbag started filling up with “scented envelopes”. “We definitely had a problem with groupies,” Smith says. “They rented a house in the village, a groupie commune, mostly Germans or Austrians, who just felt they could turn up to this house and Julian would take them in. Julian is hunted by a certain type of woman, and hunted is the right word, who can be quite pushy. They are mainly from Eastern Europe. It’s extraordinary.”
Given Assange’s daily proximity to Smith’s wife and two children from his second marriage, Beatrice, 4, and Louise, 3, has he ever sought reassurances from his guest over what occurred over the 12 days in Sweden?
“There hasn’t been any formal sitting down, it would be kind of ‘naff’, wouldn’t it?” Smith says, displaying the kind of reticence associated with the English upper classes. “Your instinct is not to bring it up. And I’ve been a soldier, for f***’s sake. I believe I can tell the difference between a dangerous person and someone that takes opportunities when they are thrown at him.
“The allegations relate only to minor rape [a separate category of rape in Swedish law]. If I’m honest, I attempted to behave in my twenties disrespectfully unsuccessfully lots of times, as I think a lot of men do.
I know this guy very well, and at no time have I thought this is someone who’s inappropriate to have in my house. None of us believe he’s a rapist.”
Not for the first time, Smith draws on his military experience to inform his judgment. “What do you think the barrack rooms were like? Groups of men often encourage and reward that sort of behaviour. Men show off to other men if they’ve slept with two girls at once. I think we can be over prurient. I’m making no comment on the law, but men who are womanisers are rewarded and envied.”
But the allegations against Assange — if true — go further than womanising. One woman alleges he penetrated her while she was sleeping, although Assange maintains that the woman’s testimony shows she consented to sex afterwards and was only “half-asleep”. “How do we satisfy ourselves about these things?” Smith says. “You make judgments based on the reaction they have to you and the reaction of others. We’re all quite discerning people. My wife is a pretty good judge of character. I’ve got teenage daughters. And none of us feel uncomfortable having him around.”
Smith’s 33-year-old Kosovan second wife, Pranvera, has been central in supporting the arrangement. “Pranvera has been as strong a supporter as I have been,” he insists. “I don’t think it’d be possible if she wasn’t. She spent part of her life living in a conflict, being bullied by what she perceived to be an oppressive regime. Her make-up is to look at people without the baggage.” And Assange is “extraordinarily good” with Smith’s children.
M any have questioned why Smith, an upper middle-class landowner, right-wing libertarian, former captain in the Grenadier Guards, and one-time captain of the British Army’s shooting team, is backing such an anti-Establishment figure. Most of Assange’s political supporters, including journalist John Pilger and human rights campaigner Bianca Jagger, have come from the Left.
The answer is tragic. Since its foundation during the Romanian revolution of 1989, eight contributors to his Frontline Television News agency, out of a total of 17, have died. During its operation, giants such as the BBC viewed the agency as outsiders, often neglecting to credit its footage and eventually driving it out of business. “We took on huge physical risk in the interest of our profession in an industry that had little respect for us,” he says. “So when someone like Assange comes along and the industry rubbishes him, and I’ve lost half my friends, what have I got to lose? I do think, what would they do? What would they expect me to do? I’ve got all these friends that have been killed for what they believe in.”
He has little respect for the stance taken by many liberal commentators: to praise WikiLeaks and disparage its founder. “If one believes that WikiLeaks is a good thing, it is no refuge to say ‘I like WikiLeaks but I don’t like Julian’,” he says. “At some point you’ve got to credit Julian for WikiLeaks. The other views look very discerning but I’m afraid what I’ve learnt is that we have to bite the bullet.”
Biting the bullet meant feeding and providing shelter to Assange’s supporters: Smith and his wife often encounter strangers in their kitchen. “It’s total chaos,” he says. “Complete nuts. But it’s been worth every strain.”
In the midst of it all is the nomadic Assange, who seems to behave quite like a moody teenager. He “eats when he’s hungry, sleeps when he’s tired”. House rules have been “implemented” and then “ignored”. He’s “not interested in food”, often “skipping meals”. If he “sees you washing up, he’ll come and join you, but he won’t start”. He’s not a “hugely domestic animal, but in a funny way no one really expects him to be”. He’s “always in front of a computer”.
Unlike many teenagers, however, he can work “despite the volume of the music or the commotion in the room”. He’ll “give you his whole attention for much longer that you’d expect”. He’s “incredibly accommodating with other people’s views”. Over dinner, he is an “entertaining and engaging” conversationalist. He’s most satisfied “by being left alone and getting his work done”. Apart from jogging and swimming “at strange times of the day”, “Julian drinks, probably less than I do, he smokes cigars if he’s given them, and enjoys a glass of port if its available, but he won’t seek it”. A work obsessive, he’s not “someone who gets enjoyment from life’s pleasures”. At a New Year’s Eve party last year he let his hair down, getting drunk on champagne and smoking strange Russian cigarettes.
As an ex-soldier, Smith is less prissy than some about Assange’s hygiene. The New York Times editor Bill Keller described the WikiLeaks founder as wearing “filthy white socks” and smelling as though he “hadn’t bathed for days”. “Look,” Smith says. “The guy is an unmarried man. I know a lot of unmarried men who would reverse their underpants if they could. It’s a very funny thing to make an issue of.” It emerges that a variety of people wash and clean for the WikiLeaks founder, including the Smiths’ housekeeper, “the real heroine in the story”. Assange’s two assistants, British journalists Joseph Farrell and Sarah Harrison, are also on hand. “He’s quite henpecked. They buy his clothes for him.”
Does he think Assange is a hero? “Certainly by some measures, yes.” Financially, Assange has covered his own expenses up until July but has now agreed a deal to pay Smith an extra sum to “compensate me for the discomfort”. When he eventually leaves, Smith will “miss him a great deal”. “Life will be more comfortable, but the house will seem empty,” he says. “We’re rather used to it being packed to the gunnels.”
View the article here: http://www.thetimes.co.uk/tto/public/life/article3114254.ece