“I don’t drink water,” said John Young. The 74-year-old architect was an early associate of WikiLeaks and has run his own document-publishing website, Cryptome.org since 1996. “Why drink water when there is alcohol?”
Young sipped his coffee and looked surprised as I guzzled a glass of water. He asked if I owned a water filter, inquired about my daily water intake and then wondered if I was addicted to water.
“How does that water taste?” he asked.
It made me uneasy. I immediately thought about recent accusations of lithium being spiked into drinking water. He seemed pleased with that. After all, he doesn’t trust the water. And he certainly doesn’t trust strangers who unexpectedly e-mail him, arrive with a digital recorder and then tell the waitress, “I’ll have the same,” after he orders lunch.
“ Human activity is built on tricking and being tricked,” he declared. “Those who don’t hoodwink are evil people up to no good. I certainly expect to be hoodwinked. I’ll do it, too. I’ll do it in this conversation.”
During a two-hour interview, John Young spoke about sports, speed-reading, social media, Cryptome, WikiLeaks, his relationship with WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, information, aggregation, aggregating information, secrets and lies. Most of it was fascinating. None of it can be confirmed as truth. “I’ve posted all kinds of shit about myself [online],” he said. “Some true, most of it fiction.”
According to his CV, which is posted online, Young graduated with a Master of Architecture degree from Columbia University in 1969. Afterward, he launched an impressive career, working on projects for the Howard Hughes Medical Institute in Ashburn, Va.; the Pierre, an apartment-hotel on Fifth Avenue; and Columbia University, where he also taught.
In 1996, he launched Cryptome. “It was something that was interesting to do,” he said. “It’s not a huge task. It’s something I do periodically. Since there is no intention behind it, it can’t fail. It just continues. Hobbies go on and on until you get burned out.”
Cryptome’s “mission statement” notes that it “welcomes documents for publication that are prohibited by governments worldwide, in particular, material on freedom of expression, privacy, cryptology, dual-use technologies, national security, intelligence and secret governance—but not limited to those.”
Some of Cryptome’s most famed leaks included disclosing the names of possible British and Japanese spies, photos of Dick Cheney’s alleged post-9/11 bunker and Yahoo’s Compliance Guide for Law Enforcement.
“There are no secrets that shouldn’t be published,” Young said. He doesn’t believe that Cryptome or WikiLeaks has published risky secrets. “Only low-grade stuff like what WikiLeaks does, but they just exaggerate it.” His dream leaks: The International Atomic Energy Agency, the Red Cross, tax authorities, banks and the Vatican. “Go down the list of all the sacred cows and say, ‘Open them up.’ That stuff will come someday but not easily and it will be fought over fiercely.”
In late 2006, Young was invited to join WikiLeaks before its launch—he was on the same Cypherpunks mailing list as Julian Assange in the mid-1990s. He grew irritated, especially after WikiLeaks announced a $5 million fundraising goal. On Jan. 7, 2007, Young e-mailed the restricted internal WikiLeaks mailing list: “Fuck your cute hustle and disinformation campaign against legitimate dissent. Same old shit, working for the enemy.” Of course, the entire chain of e-mails was published on Cryptome.
His current view on WikiLeaks is complicated. “I’m a member of WikiLeaks. I’m an insider of WikiLeaks. I’m a devotee of WikiLeaks. I’m a critic of WikiLeaks,” he said. “My current shtick is to pretend that I am an opponent of WikiLeaks. It’s called friendly opposition. Praising each other is so insipid. Your parents praise you. Your friends never do. They know it’s a con job, so praise is manipulation. Criticism is more candid. [Assange] hasn’t returned the favor.”
His relationship with Assange, who was arrested Dec. 7 in London on sex crimes allegations, is equally convoluted.
Do you consider Julian Assange a friend?
“A friend? I don’t know him. I don’t know him at all. I don’t recall hearing of him during the Cypherpunks days. I didn’t learn about him until this brief association with setting up WikiLeaks. I learned more about him since then.”
He was silent after I asked if he’s ever had a telephone conversation with Assange—Young wrote on Cryptome that he spoke with Assange once earlier this year. That, of course, might not be true—but then, minutes later, he offered insight into his personality. “Assange appears to be humorless but I know that he is a very funny guy in private,” Young said. “He loves to poke fun at pretentious people, so I think it’s a good acting job. You have to admire that.”
Later, he pivoted, creating a sudden shift in the conversation. “I don’t know if The Observer will publish this if it’s not a screw job, because it won’t be interesting.”
He asked to see my credentials, so I handed him a business card. “I’ve been fucked several times these last six months by people who say they are journalists and they are not,” he said. “It happened this morning. I got punked.”
He was still unconvinced, so I brandished my Social Security card. “Is this a good thing to carry around?” I asked. “You want this, too?”
“I’ll take that, too,” he said, reaching for it. But I snatched it away, thinking the better of it.
“Give me your editor’s name and phone number,” he demanded then.
I hesitated and looked out the window, exasperated. And that’s when he took my digital recorder.
“Journalists are real shits,” he said. “What did you think was going to happen? You thought I was going to be a pushover?”
He ordered me to e-mail my editor and confirm that the story was for The New York Observer. He even dictated the e-mail: “Please confirm to John Young that I am authorized by The Observer to interview him for The Observer … or he will not give me my recorder back.”
The standoff lasted 16 minutes. My editor didn’t e-mail, but without explanation Young eventually returned the recorder.
“This is not how you do this,” he scolded. “You need to find someone I trust and get them to vouch for you to me and not just send me an e-mail. Otherwise, I think you are up to no good.”
“I don’t think you trust anybody.”
“You are completely clueless,” he said, growing angrier. “You did a lousy job. You didn’t do anything that made me want to open up to you. You never gave me any information. It’s just about as bad as you can get.”
“Then why did you meet up with me?”
“Because I wanted to give you a tip not to do it this way anymore. It’s usually not done in such a clumsy way. It’s an insult to approach me in such a clumsy way. It’s just bad. It’s a pretty awful thing that you’ve done. You’ve basically wasted my time and seem to have no problem with that.”
Now, he tied his scarf around his neck, put on his coat and shuffled toward the exit. Meanwhile, I quickly packed my recorder and notepad and—yes, clumsily—dropped some computer discs onto the floor. After recovering them, I looked up and saw that he had turned left and was walking uptown on Broadway. I ran past the host.
“Thank you, sir,” he said. “Please come again.”