Where's Stieg Larsson when you need him? This plot was made for him. A crusading truth-teller reveals shocking secrets about the covert operations of the richest and most powerful empire in the world. He is also a legendary hacker. Not surprisingly, the cabal decides he must be taken out. He goes into hiding. His powerful enemies, including the CIA and the Pentagon, launch a dirty-tricks campaign. He's accused of unrelated, trumped-up criminal charges, and his home country issues an international warrant for his arrest. The bad guys lean on another country to arrest and extradite him. He might even wind up as a prisoner in the United States. Or he could do time in a Swedish jail, where he will be forced to eat large quantities of pickled herring.
That, at any rate, is the conspiracy theory that has elevated WikiLeaks's Julian Assange from hero to martyr. Since his arrest in London earlier this week, armies of celebrities, hackers and leftists have declared that he is essentially a political prisoner. Many are convinced he's the victim of a CIA plot to entrap him by planting a couple of alluring Swedish blondes to smear him with false rape allegations.
"It is clearly a smear campaign," Mr. Assange said when the allegations started leaking out last summer. "The only question is who was involved. We can have some suspicions about who would benefit."
"The honeytrap has been sprung," said Mark Stephens, his British lawyer. "Dark forces are at work. After what we've seen so far, you can reasonably conclude this is part of a greater plan."
Named in court only as Ms. A and Ms. W, Mr. Assange's accusers have been thoroughly trashed on the Internet. Their identities are an open secret. One website called Ms. A a "psychotic feminist." The women's lawyer says that, like many rape victims, they've been doubly victimized. One of the women recently struck back. "The responsibility for what happened to me and the other girl lies with a man who had attitude problems with women," she told a Swedish newspaper.
Mr. Assange now enjoys rock-star status, with many of the same perks. As one acquaintance told The Guardian, "A lot of women invited him to their beds and he took that opportunity too much." He said he warned Mr. Assange that his behaviour might get him into trouble.
It's possible, of course, that Mr. Assange could be both things at once - a heroic champion of transparency and truth-telling, and also a sex offender. Or it's possible he could be neither.
Sweden has some of the most stringent sexual-consent laws in the world. (The joke is that a man needs written permission to have sex.) But even by Swedish standards, this case seems like a stretch. Mr. Assange met one woman last summer when she invited him to stay at her apartment, the night before a conference he was attending. According to the prosecutor, they had consensual sex. The next morning, they had sex again, and the condom broke.
Mr. Assange met the other woman at the conference. She bought him a computer cable. They had sex. He went home with her to a distant suburb. She bought a train ticket for him because he didn't have any cash. He ignored her on the train and spent his time tweeting. ("He paid more attention to the computer than to me," she said in her official complaint, which has been published in both Sweden and Britain.) The next morning, they had sex again. She'd told him to use a condom, but he didn't. She made him breakfast. He said he'd call her, but he didn't.
The two women soon ran into each other, discovered what they had in common, and became outraged. They went to the police, lodged a complaint, and demanded that Mr. Assange be tested for various sexual diseases. It's hard to see what he's guilty of, beyond being a really bad date.
I relate these tedious details not out of prurient interest (really!) but because the sexual-assault charges are now central to the controversy surrounding Mr. Assange. Although these charges have nothing to do with his activities at WikiLeaks, try explaining that to his legions of defenders. To them, this is "really" about shutting down WikiLeaks. In retaliation, cyberhackers have been launching attacks aimed at shutting down the sites of MasterCard, Visa, Amazon and any other entity that has cut its ties with WikiLeaks.
But just as in Stieg Larsson's novels, not everything is as it seems. Julian Assange is no champion of openness, transparency and democracy. His stated aim is to bring down institutions of government and business by crippling their ability to communicate internally and share information. He's no Daniel Ellsberg, who leaked the Pentagon Papers. He's more like Ted Kaczynski, who didn't care what he blew up.
Personally, I believe Julian Assange is an extremist who hasn't obviously broken any law. But is he a rapist? Not by any definition of the word that I can find. A political prisoner, then? Not that, either. He's a narcissistic, arrogant and unsavoury jerk. A very dangerous jerk.