WikiLeaks’ Founder, in a Gilded British Cage

By , Published: September 25, 2011, Ellingham, England

The man in the rubber boots and a thick coat to protect against the evening chill walked purposefully about a farm here, scattering pheasants as he went. He could have been an English gentleman out for a bit of hunting, except he carried no gun.

In his current circumstance, the WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange is more hunted than hunter, fighting extradition to Sweden on accusations of sexual misconduct while struggling to maintain the influence of WikiLeaks even as he remains here at Ellingham Hall, the country manor house of Vaughan Smith, a former soldier and journalist who runs a restaurant and club for journalists in London.

Mr. Assange and a few WikiLeaks staff members who are staying at the farm joined some friends of Mr. Smith on Saturday for an outdoor lunch. I took the train up from London to get a first-hand look at Mr. Assange’s gilded, remote sanctuary.

In December, Mr. Assange was unable to meet the terms of bail because he had no permanent address — he is an itinerant who leads a stateless organization that operates in an online world without borders. Mr. Smith, after consulting his wife, Pranvera Shema, decided they would provide Mr. Assange with an address, a roof over his head and a place to manage his legal case.

“None of us knew it would go on this long,” Mr. Smith said, “but I think that Julian deserves justice in the same way as anyone else, so we have found a way to make it work.”

It has not all been rural bliss. There have been times when as many of 20 people from WikiLeaks stayed at the house. “I’d open a cupboard and another one would fall out,” Mr. Smith said. And then there is the matter of the farm animals. “Julian messed with my pigs,” Mr. Smith said, smiling.

Ellingham Hall, 130 miles north of London, is a working farm, and Mr. Assange decided to use the pigs to make a film about the credit card companies that have denied him the means to raise donations. Mr. Smith said Mr. Assange induced the pigs to break through an electric fence and make themselves at home in a nearby berry patch, a bit of porcine anarchy that did not amuse the farm manager.

Standing near the pig pen at dusk, Mr. Assange said it was not his fault, pointing to two young males. “They hacked the fence,” he said, deploying the terminology that has made WikiLeaks and its founder household names.

Mr. Assange, who has become “Uncle Julian” to Mr. Smith’s young children, seems less international man of mystery than a person frozen in the odd circumstance of the moment. He wears an electronic bracelet, reports to the local police every day and, to the extent he can, continues to push the WikiLeaks agenda.

Even here he sees enemies everywhere, suggesting helicopters have swooped in for occasional reconnaissance, and at one point backing me out of a kind of war room near the kitchen. “You can’t be in here,” he said, closing the door with a wan smile.

But if Mr. Assange is in compliance with the conditions of his bail, he remains at the margins of the law. Federal authorities in the United States and Australia continue to investigate whether the release of classified information by WikiLeaks constitutes criminal behavior that has endangered various operatives. And Swedish prosecutors are seeking his extradition for questioning — he has yet to be charged — on accusations of sexual misconduct with two women.

As the controversy has grown, some WikiLeaks staff members have left, saying Mr. Assange runs the organization less transparently than he should. In his view, he is guilty of nothing more than challenging powerful elites, but his current isolation, in acute relief in the English countryside, is a consequence of his choices.

After a week in which his autobiography was published against his wishes, he was not much in the mood for another media moment, but he was friendly in an argumentative way as long as I did not take out a notebook.

Mr. Assange was willing to say on the record that he was “very grateful” for the refuge provided by Mr. Smith, and then spent time after lunch chatting about his long list of enemies: The New York Times, The Guardian, the governments of Britain, Sweden and the United States. He sees his tendency to end up at cross-purposes with almost everyone who does business with him as a measure of the threat he presents to the status quo, and not, as some have said, as a byproduct of his habit of acting unilaterally according to rules only he knows.

He has, however, not worn out the patience of Mr. Smith. Now 48, Mr. Smith has done a fair amount of brave — and perhaps foolhardy — things in his life. He was an officer in the British Army’s Grenadier Guards, serving in Northern Ireland, Cyprus and Germany.

In the 1990s, he worked as a freelance video journalist, covering conflicts in Iraq, Afghanistan, Bosnia, Chechnya, Kosovo and elsewhere. He was shot twice, and in one instance was saved by a cellphone and a wad of cash tucked into his waist. The wad is on display in the Frontline Club, a hangout for journalists that Mr. Smith runs in the London neighborhood of Paddington. It is financed in part by a restaurant of the same name that sits beneath the club and serves some of the food grown at Ellingham.

His decision to house Mr. Assange, who is not especially popular in the British press circles of which Mr. Smith is very much a part, carries its own kind of risks. A member of the Frontline Club, who asked not to be identified because he and Mr. Smith are friendly, said he thought Mr. Smith meant well, but was leaving himself exposed. “He has been a very visible supporter of Julian and has no control over what he does while he is free on bail. It’s worrisome at the very least,” the man said.

While no one, including Mr. Smith, thought Mr. Assange would still be at Ellingham 10 months later, Mr. Smith says he “made a commitment and I plan on keeping it. People support WikiLeaks, but they don’t seem to have much in the way of support for Julian.”

“Look,” he added, “you can see Julian as a kind of Bond villain, stroking a white cat and contemplating his next evil act, or you can see him as a complicated and interesting person who has really altered journalism in a historic way. I think many people in our business took an immediate dislike to him, and there has been a lot of lazy and unfair coverage.”

Mr. Smith is something of a libertarian in his political beliefs, and a bit of a renegade. As a freelance videographer, he obtained unauthorized footage of the Persian Gulf war by impersonating a British officer and bluffing his way into an active duty unit. He organized Frontline News TV as a press agency during the 1990s because he felt that video freelancers were not being credited for their work, much of it obtained at great personal risk.

“We have 1,500 dues paying members of the Frontline Club and there has been a fair amount of debate about it, but at this point, he is staying at my home, not the club,” Mr. Smith said. “I wouldn’t say that having anybody stay at your house for almost a year is a prescription for domestic tranquility, but I’m proud of the fact that we’ve worked our way through a difficult situation.”

I suggested that it was an odd move for someone who was literally “to the manor born.” Ellingham Hall has been in Mr. Smith’s family for hundreds of years.

“I was taught from a very young age that you need to stand up for the weaker party,” Mr. Smith said. “If Julian had ended up at a flat in London, it would have just been another sort of prison because of the press coverage of the case.”

The distance keeps Mr. Assange safe from the prying eyes of the press, give or take my visit, but it also means that someone who has remained in motion for many years is now fixed in place, left to operate a shadowy global enterprise from a country farm north of London.

Mr. Smith is proud of the place, but sees work to be done everywhere he looks. Mr. Assange sees Ellingham Hall through a different lens. When we step into a walled garden that would thwart any directional microphones, he looks around and suggests, “This the only place you can have a really secure conversation.”

For the time being, it will have to do.


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