Visiting Julian Assange in the GDR

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A long time ago, I was an American living in the German Democratic Republic, the GDR, more commonly called East Germany. I made friends and met characters — fake diplomats, real diplomats, real spies, dissidents, idealists, apparatchiks, political refugees, political opportunists. I grew accustomed to visiting people who could not visit me. I acquired a taste for smuggling information. When I crossed into the East, I studied how others around me avoided checks by the border guards. The tightness of the border varied, so sometimes you could walk across the border with an open-carry Spiegel magazine, while other times, you would be taken to the small room for carrying Western contraband. When things were tense, I fixed magazines, tapes, or books to my legs with rubber bands and behaved very, very innocently. In return, my friends in the East passed me samizdat or a hard-to-find book.

Years later, I visited Julian Assange in London to give him a copy of my own book, a collection of interviews with some of those East Germans. That book, like all of Assange's effects at the time he was seized, is now in the possession of the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia.

I had an early interest in Wikileaks, long before it cracked open the secrecy behind American war and diplomacy. Wikileaks reminded me of John Brunner's 1975 novel The Shockwave Rider, which features a computer worm (Brunner coined the word) that infiltrates government computers and spews incriminating documents onto the public web. When Wikileaks achieved a similar kind of fame by publishing the Chelsea Manning leaks in 2010 (the basis in 2020 for the charges against Assange), the US and its proxies tried to shut Wikileaks down. On December 1, Amazon Web Services dropped Wikileaks.org as a hosting customer. On December 3, I sent a donation that slipped through minutes before PayPal blocked payments. Then I joined several hundred other sysadmins in setting up a mirror site with the full Wikileaks archive. I was hacked by an unknown party soon after, but the embargo was broken, I had no regrets, and I improved my security.

Meanwhile, the authorities went after Assange personally. Sweden wanted him for questioning about rape allegations. In London at the time, he turned himself in to police on December 7. That case would ultimately be abandoned, but now Assange was in the hands of the authorities. Believing he was being set up for extradition to the US, he jumped bail in June 2011 and received political asylum in the Ecuadorian embassy in London.

My visit to Assange came after his years in the embassy had multiplied. I knew people in the Wikileaks inner circle by then, and I was carefully briefed. I was expected and I should be prompt. Reveal my plans to no one, bring no electronics, ignore the London police I would find stationed in front of Flat 3B, 3 Hans Crescent. I wrapped my passport in literal tin foil so it could not be read from a distance.

I remembered this atmosphere of intrigue from East Berlin — the preparation, the working of contacts, the controls on information, the involvement of diplomats, the border crossings, the guards. Still, the embassy was its own reality. I passed the police outside, ignoring them as coached when they asked about my business. In the foyer, I knocked on a door to the left and was passed through the hands of several stone-faced Ecuadorians. They held on to my passport and would have taken my phone if I had brought it. I was greeted by Joseph, Assange's pleasant and officious chief of staff, and then I looked down a corridor and saw, past a door, Assange sitting at a desk crowded by a sun lamp and videotaping gear. People pushed in and out of the narrow entryway as I walked toward him. Joseph led me in, and then I was alone with Assange and an assistant, who worked the whole time at a laptop in the far extent of the narrow, closet-like room.

Assange in confinement was deathly pale, and on the day of my visit, sick with a cold. He sipped from a late-afternoon glass of scotch as we talked, tired, but interested, charming, and brilliant. I passed along greetings from the friends who had arranged my visit, most of them living in Berlin. While the United States and its English-speaking security allies (the UK, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand — FVEY in spy jargon, the Five Eyes) pursued their campaign to silence Chelsea Manning and Wikileaks, and later Edward Snowden, Berlin had become a refuge for US journalists and technologists critical of their country. Looking down at the copy of my book, I sensed a connection between the ghosts haunting this newly hospitable Berlin and Assange's predicament, a repeating history of corrosive secrets, criminalized thought, show trials, prison, and asylum. The outcome of this script was not predetermined, but the suffering was.

After Assange accepted my book, we talked about Germany, and he spoke of the inevitability of states embracing surveillance, collecting it all, using it all, these wonderful tools that the Stasi, the GDR's secret police, never had — universal electronic surveillance, all of it automated, unlimited digital storage capacity, and analytical tools to comb through the data and make interesting connections. "It's gold," he said. I knew that the cypherpunk philosophy behind Wikileaks envisions a leveling of this playing field, putting the same surveillance and encryption tools in the hands of citizens to undermine the state's monopoly on secrecy. Hence the Wikileaks slogan, "Privacy for the weak, transparency for the powerful."

I asked some practical questions — about how to get money to Wikileaks, about possible collaboration, about the effectiveness of various kinds of activism. Then I asked him about life in the embassy. He looked down the length of the room toward a dim airshaft window. He missed sunlight, and certain foods. I suddenly imagined him walking out of the embassy with me, heading to the nearest pub garden, relaxing, speaking freely without fear of being overheard. I felt an iron band around my chest. There was no escaping from our appointed roles. It was a feeling experienced in GDR days by countless people at the "Tear Bunker" near Bahnhof Friedrichstrasse, where Westerners disappeared through a door, and East Germans remained behind. Then my 30 minutes were up, and Joseph poked his head in the room to rush Assange along to the next appointment. We shook hands, and I was gone.

Recently, about the time I returned to Berlin and bought an apartment (in the East Berlin neighborhood Friedrichshain, for old time's sake), Assange's asylum was revoked under US pressure. He was dragged out of the embassy. The US and UK are working to imprison him, for life, for publishing government secrets. A show trial of sorts is underway at London's Old Bailey, where the US argues that its prosecution is not political.

In The Origins of Totalitarianism, Hannah Arendt says of Hitler and Stalin:

Before mass leaders seize the power to fit reality to their lies, their propaganda is marked by its extreme contempt for facts as such, for in their opinion fact depends entirely on the power of man who can fabricate it.

Disclosing facts that cannot be denied is revolutionary — witness the Black Lives Matter movement, whose main weapon is the cell phone video. No longer helplessly watched and recorded by police cameras, we now watch and record the police. Leaks are facts, too. The Manning and Snowden leaks sparked revolutions (some more successful than others) by holding up a mirror to society. Four years of the Trump-and-Boris war on facts threaten to kill democracy if the planet does not die first. It is no mystery why these two are now trying to make an example of Assange. Right now, we should all be leaking facts, and publishing them on any platform available. Samizdat and smuggling are now.

We can take inspiration from the East Germans who broke into Stasi headquarters in Berlin and opened the secret police files they found there. "Everybody knew" that they had been spied on, but the concrete names, dates, and details, the absurd biographical sketches, the banal telephone transcripts, and the sheer number of intimate betrayals provoked enough fury to sweep away a corrupt regime. The US and UK will stop at nothing to prevent that outcome. If they succeed, then Julian Assange's present will be our future.