As a polarizing figure, Julian Assange, the Australian founder and public face of WikiLeaks, makes Sarah Palin look like everyone’s favourite grandmother. A hero of the digital age for millions after posting thousands of government and corporate secrets online, for others—including government officials worldwide—Assange is a reckless endangerer of lives. Now in Britain fighting extradition to Sweden to face accusations of sex crimes—intentionally damaging a condom during sex with one woman and forcing sex on another while she was asleep—the 39-year-old Australian is also variously viewed as the victim of a CIA plot, a rapist or simply a cad.
But for his former No. 2 at WikiLeaks, once a hero-worshipping acolyte, Assange is pretty much all these things. As Daniel Domscheit-Berg, known (after his cat) as Daniel Schmitt in his days as WikiLeaks’ chief spokesman, writes in his just-released book, Inside WikiLeaks, never before or since has he met anyone like Assange: “So imaginative, so energetic, so brilliant, so paranoid, so power-hungry, so megalomaniac.”
Daniel met Julian in WikiLeaks’ early days, and worked with him long distance for over a year, before the Australian came to stay in the German’s Wiesbaden apartment for two eye-opening months in 2009. His peculiar guest had clearly been “raised by wolves,” Daniel writes. When he cooked—Julian never did—dividing the food was a matter of who could eat the fastest; Assange generally got three-quarters. After Daniel came back from Switzerland with Ovaltine powder he never had a chance to make a drink—Julian ate all the powder straight from the packages. Assange eats everything with his hands, Domscheit-Berg records, and a reader can feel the fastidious German’s concern for his couch when he adds, “and he always wipes his fingers on his pants.” In between constant attacks on Daniel’s cat Mr. Schmitt—a matter of “training vigilance,” Julian explained to Domscheit-Berg—Assange kept “reinventing himself every day,” providing his host with no fewer than three different versions of his past.
Domscheit-Berg is muted on Assange and women, writing elliptically about the time Julian brought a woman into a hotel bed the two men were sharing: “I buried my head in my pillow and tried to sleep.” Assange liked his women young, 22 or less, and subservient, something that leads Daniel to guess what happened in Sweden: “A sexist guy came together with a pair of emancipated women in a country with stricter standards concerning sexual conduct than most other nations.”
In the end, it wasn’t Assange’s manners or morals that drove Domscheit-Berg from WikiLeaks. By mid-2010, arguments over what to do with new secrets, monetary donations—Daniel wanted new servers, Julian wanted to hoard money—and how WikiLeaks should respond to the Swedish allegations, had turned personally rancid. In the German’s view, Assange had become secretive, controlling and paranoid—a caricature of what he was battling. When he acted to toss Domscheit-Berg overboard, Assange expressed himself in words that read like a bad satire of 1984: “You are suspended for disloyalty, insubordination and destabilization in a time of crisis.”