A huge trove of WikiLeaks records shows the website’s founder Julian Assange sought a Russian visa as his troubles mounted.
Image: Julian Assange
He had just pulled off one of the biggest scoops in journalistic history, laying American diplomacy bare, but technology firms were cutting ties to his website, cable news pundits were calling for his head and a Swedish sex crime case was threatening to put him behind bars.
At that stage in 2010, the Australian wrote to the Russian consulate in London.
“I, Julian Assange, hereby grant full authority to my friend, Israel Shamir, to both drop off and collect my passport, in order to get a visa,” said the letter, obtained exclusively by the Associated Press.
The November 30 letter is part of a much larger set of WikiLeaks emails, chat logs, financial records, secretly recorded footage and other documents leaked to the AP.
The files provide an intimate look at the radical transparency organisation and an early hint of Assange’s budding relationship with Moscow.
The ex-hacker’s links to the Kremlin would become increasingly salient before the 2016 US presidential election, when the FBI says Russia’s military intelligence agency directly supplied WikiLeaks with stolen emails from Hillary Clinton’s campaign chairman and other Democratic figures.
In a statement posted to Twitter, WikiLeaks said Assange never applied for the visa or wrote the letter, naming a former associate of his as the alleged source of the document.
WikiLeaks has repeatedly been hit by unauthorised disclosures, but the tens of thousands of files obtained by the AP may be the biggest leak yet.
The AP has confirmed the authenticity of many of the documents by running them by five former WikiLeaks associates or by verifying non-public details such as bank accounts, telephone numbers or airline tickets.
One of the former associates, an ex-employee, identified two of the names that frequently appeared in the documents’ metadata – “Jessica Longley” and “Jim Evans Mowing” – as pseudonyms assigned to two WikiLeaks laptops.
All five former associates spoke to the AP on condition of anonymity, in some cases because they did not want their past association with WikiLeaks to become public, and in others because they feared legal retaliation or harassment from the group’s supporters.
Among other things, the documents lay out Assange’s campaign to avoid being arrested and extradited to Sweden over allegations that he sexually molested one woman and raped another during a trip to the country in August 2010.
He has always denied wrongdoing in the case, which he cast as a prelude to extradition to the US.
The Swedish prosecution jeopardised what at the time was WikiLeaks’ biggest disclosure: the publication of around 250,000 US State Department cables.
Swedish authorities issued a warrant for his arrest on November 18, 10 days before the cables exploded across the web, with bombshell revelations about drone strikes in Yemen, American spying at the UN and corruption across the Arab world.
Italy’s then-foreign minister, Franco Frattini, described the release as the “September 11 of world diplomacy”. Enraged American politicians demanded Assange be treated like a terrorist.
Metadata suggests it was on November 29, the day after the release of the first batch of US State Department files, that the letter to the Russian consulate was drafted on the Jessica Longley computer.
The AP could not confirm whether or when the message was delivered, but the choice of Shamir as a go-between was significant.
Assange’s involvement with Shamir, a fringe intellectual who once said it was the duty of every Christian and Muslim to deny the Holocaust, would draw indignation when it became public.
Shamir told the AP he was plagued by memory problems and could not remember delivering the letter or say whether he eventually got the visa.
“I can’t possibly exclude that it happened,” he said in a telephone interview. “I have a very vague memory of those things.”
His memory appeared sharper during a January 20, 2011 interview with Russian News Service radio, a Moscow-based station now known as Life Zvuk, or Life Sound.
He said he had personally brokered a Russian visa for Assange but that it had come too late to rescue him from the sex crimes investigation.
Russia “would be one of those places where he and his organisation would be comfortable operating,” he said. Asked if Assange had friends in the Kremlin, he smiled and said: “Let’s hope that’s the case.”
Assange would eventually skip bail after exhausting his British legal campaign to block the Swedish extradition effort, darting into the Ecuadorian embassy on June 19, 2012.