“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 Web site, Cryptome.org since 1996. “Why drink water when there is alcohol?”
Last Friday, at the Five Napkin Burger on the Upper West Side, Mr. Young sipped 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 had a slight metallic tint that resembled garden-hose water. In short, it was gross.
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 email 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. Mr. Young was wearing a black blazer with a charcoal V-neck sweater and matching shirt, buttoned up to the top. “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, Mr. Young graduated with a Master of Architecture degree from Columbia University in 1969. He then helped found Urban Deadline, which, according to Cryptome, “was set up after the student strike [at Columbia] to provide unpaid public services as a parallel to professional careers.” Afterward, he launched an impressive career, working on projects for the Howard Hughes Medical Institute in Ashburn, Virginia; 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, which described their data-retention policies.
“His work is very important,” said Alex Jones, the radio host and founder of infowars.com. “I don’t really know of anybody who was posting secret, classified and restricted but also open-source documents to a site and creating a library. You have to say that he is the granddaddy of the WikiLeaks-type phenomenon.”
“There are no secrets that shouldn’t be published,” Mr. 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 IAEA, 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, Mr. 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 fund-raising goal. On Jan. 7, 2007, Mr. Young emailed 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 emails 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 Mr. Assange, who was arrested Tuesday morning 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. However, in the American vein, they are all ‘my friends.’ ‘My friends across the aisle’. ‘My dear friends.’”
He was silent after I asked if he’s ever had a telephone conversation with Mr. Assange–Mr. Young wrote on Cryptome that he spoke with Mr. 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,” Mr. Young said. “He loves to poke fun at pretentious people, so I think it’s a good acting job. You have to admire that.”