Inside Julian Assange’s Alleged Plot to Steal The Fifth Estate Book By Kevin Poulsen 10.19.13 6:30 AM
Updated by Endah
Inside Julian Assange’s Alleged Plot to Steal The Fifth Estate Book
- 6:30 AM
The time: January 2011. The location: Ellingham Hall, an elegant mansion northeast of London. The scene: Julian Assange sits in front of a fire, entertaining a visitor from America. The conversation is light at first, but as it turns serious, they stop talking and start passing messages jotted on pages torn from a notepad, tossing each in the fire after reading.
Assange is worried about something. It’s not his court battle to avoid extradition to Sweden. It’s not WikiLeaks’ continuing rollout of 250,000 State Department diplomatic cables. It’s not even the fate of his source, Bradley Manning (now Chelsea), locked in a Marine brig in Virginia under oppressive conditions. At this moment, Assange’s preoccupation is a tell-all book being penned by his former second-in-command,
Daniel Domscheit-Berg, titled WikiLeaks: My Time with Julian Assange at the World’s Most Dangerous
Website — one of the two books that form the basis of the new movie The Fifth Estate.
The visitor was David House, a Boston computer scientist, a friend of Manning’s and a co-founder of the Private Manning Support Network. On this, his first visit with Assange, he was hoping to open a channel of communication between WikiLeaks and Manning supporters, and to try to secure a significant role for himself inside the secret-spilling organization.
Instead, he found Assange was mostly interested in talking about Domscheit-Berg’s betrayal of WikiLeaks.
“He had started to talk more and more about Daniel during those few days, telling anecdotes, and it was clear that it was bothering him,” House says. In front of the fireplace, Assange finally got to his point, House says. Assange wanted House “to protect the future of WikiLeaks by obtaining access to a ‘corpus of lies,’ or something like that,” House says.
In a follow-up conversation later, Assange got more explicit, House says.
“He wanted me, and in fact told me, to get to Berlin … and obtain access to Daniel Domscheit-Berg’s apartment and to get access to the manuscript of the book that was being published, and to take this manuscript with me back to the London so he could see it before it came out,” says House, publicly discussing his experience for the first time.
What followed, by House’s account, was one of the more bizarre sideshows in the WikiLeaks drama: a feigned attempt by House to steal the manuscript and satisfy Assange of his loyalty.
Assange’s preoccupation with his public portrayal is not in doubt. In the week leading up to yesterday’s U.S. opening of The Fifth Estate, the WikiLeaks Twitter feed became a steady stream of negative reviews of the film. In September, Assange even posted a leaked copy of the screenplay, with pages of scathing commentary. A similar campaign accompanied last spring’s unauthorized documentary on WikiLeaks, We Steal Secrets. But the allegation that Assange solicited a burglary is something new.
“You know, Julian referred to me once as his ‘adversary,’ so it might make sense in his little world of games to do something like that,” Domscheit-Berg says. “It’s a new low.”
Reached by phone Friday, WikiLeaks representative Kristinn Hrafnsson said he would ask Assange about the allegation, but by press time WikiLeaks had no response. (Update: WikiLeaks denies the plot).
The allegations might seem preposterous, except that they come from one of the most important supporters of WikiLeaks’ biggest source: Manning.
David House met Manning casually in January 2010 at a party at Boston University’s hacker space. After Manning was arrested four months later as the WikiLeaks leaker, House began visiting Manning in jail and publicly campaigning for the Army private’s release; he co-founded the Private Manning Support Network, which ultimately raised $1.4 million for Manning’s defense, spoke at rallies around the country, made numerous media appearances, and was first to alert the press to Manning’s harsh confinement conditions at Quantico.
“He did really great media, especially while Manning was being subjected to the torture-like conditions at Quantico,” says Jeff Patterson of the Private Manning Support Network. “Having someone in front of the TV camera saying, ‘I personally saw this man and what they were doing to him’ was invaluable.”
House’s connections to Manning made him a target himself, and in November 2010, U.S. Customs officials detained him at the airport as he returned from a vacation to Mexico, seizing his computer, cell phone and digital camera (With the ACLU’s help, House later sued the government and won a settlement last May that forced the U.S. to delete the files it had taken from his computer.)
After the airport incident, House began privately pressing WikiLeaks for a face-to-face meeting with Assange, arguing that WikiLeaks and Manning supporters should coordinate their efforts. House’s insistence on a personal meeting made at least one WikiLeaks activist wary, according to internal chat logs previously leaked to WIRED, and Assange was advised against the meeting.
“My personal opinion is something’s fishy about this. All of a sudden when you are being hunted he wants to meet with you?” wrote WikiLeaks activist Sigurdur Thordarson, who, ironically, would later become an FBI informant. “What do you think?”
“I think he’s legit,” Assange replied. “Too weird not to be.”
House finally made it to Ellingham Hall in early January 2011 while on a fundraising trip to Europe for Manning’s defense. He arrived from Berlin, where he’d attended the annual Chaos Communications Congress, a hacker gathering. House hoped to ingratiate himself with Assange and shape WikiLeaks from the inside. “At the time I really believed that they were fighting for human rights,” he says. “I wanted a seat at the table.”
Assange, though, had his own objective, House says. He was dismayed by Assange’s proposal, but he agreed to try and steal Domscheit-Berg’s manuscript, and together he and Assange picked out a flight from London to Berlin.
House says he had no intention of going through with the caper, but he wanted to make it look to Assange as though he’d made a serious effort. That meant he’d have to visit Domscheit-Berg and act suspicious. “It’s important to go through the motions in a case like this.”
He made it to Berlin the same day and began looking for the German hacktivist. He’d met Domscheit-Berg briefly at the Chaos Communications Conference, but he hadn’t exchanged contact information. On this trip he took a train and then walked to the Berlin hacker space called the C-Base and asked around. A hacker gave him directions to the Chaos Computer Club, where he finally met up with someone who knew Domscheit-Berg personally. That person took House to Domscheit-Berg’s apartment.
“I went in and had a lovely dinner with him and his wife,” says House, who says he’s writing a book about his experiences. “And the apartment was quite nice.”
Without initially sharing House’s story, I asked Domscheit-Berg if he’d ever met David House. He volunteered that House unexpectedly dropped by the apartment he shared with his wife, Anke, in January 2011.
“Someone from Berlin just dumped him at our apartment without asking me about it in the first place — which resulted in a little awkward visit of half an hour or an hour,” he says. “We had tea, and he was asking me a lot of questions about things that are way beyond what I speak about, and some strange stuff about my apartment and living situation, if I had a dog or pets, and stuff like that.
“Slightly suspicious questions, certainly, but on the other hand also way too obvious to be taken as an attempt at anything,” he says. “It certainly was one of the more bizarre encounters.”
After I told Domscheit-Berg about House’s claims, he elaborated. While Domscheit-Berg was in the bathroom, House took the opportunity to start showing himself around. “He got up and started walking around as if he wanted to see the apartment,” he says. Anke “went after him and stopped him in the living room. Which is where I found them.”
“House never was alone,” he adds. “And on top of that, the manuscript for the book never was in this apartment in the first place.”
House says he needed to be able to describe the apartment to Assange upon his return to Ellingham Hall. That meeting did not go well.
“Hey man, I tried, but I couldn’t get it,” House allegedly told Assange. “It wasn’t going to happen.”
Assange simmered with rage, House says. “He got pretty red in the face and started to talk pretty quickly and then left the room,” House says. “He came back later and started yelling about the book.”
Despite House’s utter failure as a thief, Assange agreed to pay him for press strategy advice and other work for WikiLeaks, House says. He made House sign a non-disclosure agreement (an agreement he has obviously now violated), then handed over $5,000 in cash and gave House an encrypted cell phone so they could stay in touch. House had the phone nearby when he later pleaded the fifth in front of the government’s WikiLeaks grand jury in Alexandria, Virginia.
House continued his advocacy for Manning as well, but his visibility lessened when, in March 2011, Manning abruptly took House off the jail visitor’s list. In November 2012, Manning spoke of House during court testimony, complaining that House had been making media appearances over Manning’s objections.
“I just wanted somebody to talk to, you know, a friend,” Manning said, “not somebody to take advantage of that, or use it as a soap box.”
House severed his relationship with the Support Network after the rebuke and later unloaded a two-day diatribe on Twitter, airing a list of grievances about Assange and the activist community. “House took it a little more personally than he needed to,” Patterson says. “He was dropped at the same time that I was dropped, but I kept working for the Support Network.”
House says he continued to visit Assange and perform various work for WikiLeaks until October 2011, but was never again asked to commit a burglary.