By Michele Neubert, NBC News Producer
Best-selling fictional muck-raking journalist vs. headline-stealing international man of mystery (and possibly a journalist).
Tale of government conspiracies and hackers vs. tale of government conspiracies and hackers.
What they have in common: Sweden, and sometimes it’s hard to separate fact from fiction.
For example, he’s been described as "sexy, confident, at times disarming,” or "interesting, brave, admirable.”
No, that’s not Blomkvist, one of the world's best known fictional characters thanks to Swedish author Stieg Larsson's madly popular “Millennium Trilogy.” Those are real-life comments from interns who worked with the WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange.
Readers of the books – full of complicated conspiracies – will see some of the inevitable parallels between the fiction and non-fiction Swedish tales: computer hackers, crusading journalists, tales of vicious sexual assaults and rape.
Sweden has issued an international arrest warrant for Assange, who is accused of rape and sexual molestation in one case and of sexual molestation and unlawful coercion in another. He’s now behind bars in London after a judge rejected his bail request Tuesday.The accusations were originally brought against him last August, but quickly dropped. Then with the recent spate of WikiLeaks revelations - the release of 250,000 U.S. diplomatic cables online – the allegations curiously remerged, and were deemed sufficient enough to solicit an Interpol arrest warrant.
Assange has denied the allegations and has suggested the prosecution is being manipulated for political reasons.
It’s a scenario that even Stieg Larsson couldn’t have dreamt up.
On the Assange trail…
Just a few months ago, I was part of an NBC News team in Stockholm doing a feature on the "Girl with a Dragoon Tattoo” craze.
We visited locations where the film version of the book was shot, sipped buckets of coffee in Blomkvist's favorite cafes and caused great curiosity shooting a stand up in the trilogy's heroine Lisbeth Salander's favorite food store, 7-11. Then we caught up with a group of tourists (mostly American) who were doing the Millennium walking tour, re-living all the major venues of the books’ intrigue.
We were back in Stockholm again last week, but this time on what seemed to resemble more of a life imitating art assignment: reporting on Assange and his Swedish WikiLeaks connections.
Our assignment to find the alleged victims of sexual assault by Assange and to see if they would talk. And like it or not, as readers of the Millennium trilogy, we couldn’t get that tale of intrigue out of our minds.
We arrived in a snowy, freezing cold, Stockholm late in the evening and up against deadline. The first piece of luck was to find the lawyer who represented the two women, Claes Borgstrom. He is the type of campaigning lawyer character Larsson or Salander would very much have approved of, a respected ombudsman fighting sexual discrimination who pulls no punches. “He's the ultimate male feminist if such a thing exists,” one government official told us.
He made it perfectly clear his clients would not be available, but thankfully he would.
Next was to try and nail down what could easily have been one of Larsson's "Swedish Establishment" characters, the Swedish prosecutor Marianne Ny. She is the person who issued the latest arrest warrant that triggered the arrest of Assange.
After some persuasion we were able to meet this composed woman who gently (and convincingly) explained to us, "There have been no contacts whatsoever from other countries and authorities." She added, "This has nothing to do with WikiLeaks and has been handled as every other case."
"He is accused of rape, sexual molestation and unlawful coercion," she said, spelling out the allegations. She is hopeful that he will be extradited to Sweden after his arrest.
What about the Swedish WikiLeaks servers? Were they at least still safe? After some late night searching, we found their server provider company, Bahnhof, on the side of a snowy hillside. The entrance was through a thick steel door reminiscent of a nuclear bunker. Inside, sealed glass doors restricted movement everywhere, but we did get chance to film this remarkable high-tech room with 8,000 servers – only two of them dedicated to WikiLeaks.
Jon Karlung, Bahnhof’s director, said it would continue to stand by WikiLeaks as a client. "It’s a high-profile customer, but once you have a customer you have to stand by them,” he said. “And as long as there are no legal claims from Swedish authorities and we comply with Swedish law, we will stand up for our clients.”
To make sure nothing jeopardizes that, Bahnhof has set aside a separate network for its WikiLeaks servers to ensure extra back up and safeguard that any future web attacks wouldn’t affect other customers. Blomkvist and Salander, let alone Assange, would have been relieved.
Most liberal freedom of speech in the world
That kind of protection helps explain why Assange chose Sweden as a safe haven.
"He feels safe here, especially that his information is safe because Sweden has the most liberal freedom of press and freedom of speech laws that you can find on this planet, " explained Morgan Olofsson, one of Sweden's foremost TV news directors.
(As we drew up in the car outside the elegant town house venue where we caught up with Olofsson, we saw the name of the street "Bellmansgatan," wasn't that the street Blomkvist lived on?!)
But we asked Olofsson if anywhere can be safe when superpowers like the U.S. are riled?
"I'm not a big fan of conspiracies,” Olofsson told us. “But you do start to wonder how all this fits together, are all these dots connected? How come this new arrest warrant happens at the same time, in the same week as all these damaging publications regarding U.S. diplomacy? Is there maybe , and I doubt it being a strong believer in rationality, but you begin to wonder if a big superpower like the U.S. has put pressure on the Swedish prosecutor or not? That is my big question [and it’s] many people’s question I think.”
We also obtained copies of the court documents for the rape and sexual misconduct allegations. Needless to say we can’t divulge much of what we read or where it came from (and many important sections had been deleted by the police already). But we spent a curious hour sitting in a fashionable lakeside hotel drinking (yes, tons of coffee), trying to patch together what they documents meant with our local fixer.
The bottom line is that sexually liberal Sweden takes sexual misconduct incredibly seriously. And the interpretations of what kind of conduct can be interpreted as sexual molestation or rape are surprisingly wide ranging.
With Assange behind bars, the United States still riled up about the leaks, the next chapter – when the WikiLeaks founder appears again in court on Dec. 14 – should be another page turner.