“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.”
ON THE DAY of our meeting, Mr. Young wrote a story on Cryptome about WikiLeaks redacting names from some of the classified files it had recently posted.
“This redaction is some reputation-building shit and WikiLeaks is a coward for adopting this mode,” Mr. Young said, his voice rising. “They promised never to do that. And now they are doing that. And why? Because there is money in it and reputation in it, and they want to be part of the players. … [The mainstream media] have used flattery, attention and bribery, all the usual ways that you bring people in the fold because it’s irresistible if you have a narcissistic streak.”
Mr. Young then cited the profile picture of Mr. Assange that adorned the skyline of the WikiLeaks site and his flair in promoting upcoming leaks. “I have separated ‘WikiLeaks’ from ‘Julian,’” he said. “He has now taken off on his own track. WikiLeaks is still out there as a wonderful idea of a large number of people working without being celebrated or known–the wiki–and the leaks are still needed by multiple people but not a singular person running it. He’s on the verge of a career of being Julian Assange. He’s used WikiLeaks to leverage that. So now WikiLeaks is breaking away from him and other wikis are being set up by other people disaffected by his monomania.”
Mr. Young said that in some cases, he has funded these “new wikis.” “We are talking about generic sites,” he said, vaguely refusing to offer further details.
Soon after, I asked him if he was this curious about information as a youth in Texas. “Now, don’t go into this background shit,” he snapped. “C’mon, you don’t need to do that. I’ll just get up and leave.”
We then had a friendly argument about picking up the check and discussed the benefits of living in New York City. A second 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, fingering the card. “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 said. “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, fumbled some words 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 email my editor and confirm that the story was for The New York Observer. He even dictated the email: “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.”
“What do we do now?” I wondered.
“You can fight me for the recorder if you like. These are my worlds. You can’t take them without me setting conditions.”
The standoff lasted 16 minutes. My editor didn’t email, but without explanation Mr. 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 email. 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 continued his tirade. “It’s all me giving you stuff,” he said. “Even now. It’s all about me talking to you. All these trappings–the notepad, the recorder. Don’t you know how much that is fake? Anyway.”
He then 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.”