Julian Assange: The Byline Interviews, Part Three - "It’s Quite Funny Having Been Called a Mossad Agent, a CIA Agent, a Cat Torturer."
This interview was conducted in late March, shortly after the Swedish Prosecution Authority announced they were to reverse their decision to demand Assange’s presence in Sweden to question him over sexual assault allegations. While the prosecutor, Marianne Ny stated that she would question Assange in London, she still has not made arrangements to do so, and, according to Assange, has already cancelled an agreed interview date at short notice.
In the third and final part of our series of interviews with Julian Assange, we ask about the man and his work - has he made a difference, is there anything he wouldn’t release, and will he ever get out of the embassy?
SY ("Seung-yoon Lee)": On your blog, you wrote “People try to fool themselves and others into believing that one can ‘think globally and act locally’. However to anyone with a sense of proportion (not most people, by the way) thinking globally makes acting locally seem to be a marginal activity. It's not setting the world to rights…” Then, you say acting globally is very hard, but can be “only satisfied by creating ideas or inventions that have a global impact.” You then say, “Perhaps I have found one.” I guess you are referring to WikiLeaks here? Looking back, are you proud of yourself? Do you think of yourself as ‘saving the world’?
JA ("Julian Assange"): I would say the world is a complex nasty business, so I wouldn’t go that far. But we have definitely helped save some individual people, in a variety of situations - for example, people who were released from prison as a result of material that we published. We have also helped some groups of people choose their destiny. Because the world is complex and evolving, it is hard to determine the impact except with great hindsight, and we are not far enough along yet. But there are some optimistic signs that we have made some important contributions, not only directly but also in inspiring the transition of internet culture from a completely apolitical culture to one that is more politically engaged.
SY: In your conversation with John Pilger, you summarised the philosophy behind WikiLeaks thus: “The goal is justice, the method is transparency”.
As far as I understand, WikiLeaks’ philosophy is that spreading knowledge can provoke change. Knowledge will lead to organised political action by the public, and such actions will ultimately achieve justice. But there hasn’t really been a strong organised action as a result of information made available through WikiLeaks. Has the public reaction been a let down in some way?
JA: Let’s say the goal is justice, and through a long study of history of how justice is achieved and how justice is repressed, we know that knowledge is often the key ingredient. Or to put it in another way, the elimination of ignorance is often the key ingredient in the liberation of individuals, and in preventing people and organisations from doing dumb things as well. Sometimes people make mistakes and are ignorant of the damage they are doing.
You are lucky if once every two or three years you can get the population together en masse to demand something… very lucky. Society is complex and there are many things going on. So it will never be the case that society as a whole can address the frequent injustices that happen everyday. Additionally, it is only when the mass comes together, that the masses have any power. The masses are powerless by definition.
We have always operated on the basis of playing various interests off one another, in terms of when our material is revealed. You can have political parties that are rivals, and factions within a political party that are rivals, and rivalries between states and intelligence agencies - that are affected by this kind of information. These kinds of rivalries can be used in important ways.
I will give you an example - when we revealed billons of dollars of corruption in Kenya, eventually there was a public response which swung the vote by around 10 per cent. However, in the early stages we revealed that the conspirators had been robbing each other, even though they had all been in on this looting of the Treasury together under Daniel Arap Moi. They had been lying to each other about the percentages they were getting, and in some cases, which bank account money happened to be stored in, and so when the information came out they desperately fell in on each other and moved to try and shore up their bank accounts and their positions vis-a-vis each other instead of fighting the election.
SY: The US public hasn’t demanded more accountability, the US hasn’t shifted its foreign policy - what do you think about this kind of public reaction?
JA: Well, it depends what ‘public’ you mean. The Iraqi public demanded more accountability, when we revealed those war crimes in Iraq.
When we reveal information about the United States military or intelligence services doing bad things to people outside the US, the American public isn’t usually concerned. And the American media is sadly in bed, or largely in bed, with the US military and its allies, so it doesn't promote those concerns either. But we must understand that such information is very important not just in the United States but also to people who are being affected by these crimes, and who can choose to engage in a different way.
I discovered an assassination squad operating in Afghanistan. In fact it was the first time - now we all know about the US assassination squads, but this was the first time it was revealed. Six children had been killed by a missile strike on a school by the United States. The US had deliberately targeted the school, and the target, some Taliban commander, wasn’t even in the school. The strike was carried out by a task force - Task Force 373 - that was specializing in these assassinations. It made the front page of the most impactful German weekly Der Speigel - though the NYT decided to bury it and not report the story at all. But it had an impact in Germany and it had had an impact on German relations with America. And that ultimately led to people collectively scrutinizing these assassinations - because we discovered that there were assassinations, regardless of the format, the numbers involved, and whether NATO was involved, and so on.
SY: Your title is the “Editor-in-Chief” of WikiLeaks. Do you edit anything that gets published on WikiLeaks? Does WikiLeaks publish everything that gets leaked? Is WikiLeaks itself susceptible to the claim that it is engaging in self-censorship? And what if the material is of no political significance? Are you, Julian Assange, the gatekeeper who decides what information is of real value or not?
JA: We are resource-bound, which means that we cannot publish everything. However, to prevent WikiLeaks from suffering from problems that other publishers suffer, we have very clear criteria; if something is of ethical or historical importance, has not been published before, or is under active threat of censorship. So far we have published 8.3 million documents and associated analysis.
However, I have long held that the media has too much of a ‘story’ background. It misses opportunities if we see the world in that way now. Newspapers are finite, and limited in the amount of information… that information comes from a very small range of sources or backgrounds.
Similarly, what was published in the past can have relevance in the future in a way that is not represented by newspapers, which are printed and then thrown away, leading us to go searching through old stacks of newspapers… so WikiLeaks has developed a sophisticated search engine that is considerably more sophisticated than Google. This searches not only our 8.3 million documents published to date, but also Twitter feeds that we consider to be important. We see WikiLeaks as an avant-garde library, the world’s greatest library, with world’s most persecuted documents. We try to protect the historical record from persecution and elimination to create a kind of historical and intellectual foundation of recent history that others can derive theories from about how to improve our institutions and our lives. If you’re going to meet with any important person, for example, you should search WikiLeaks for that person first.
SY: Sarah Palin says you are an “anti-American operative with blood on [your] hands”, and you even had a disagreement with Glenn Greenwald - he chose not to name a country where NSA is secretly recording “virtually every cell phone conversation” because of “a very convincing probability that innocent people would die.” You strongly disagreed with him on this point. But surely there are times when the journalist must make a decision not to release information…
JA: I come at this from two perspectives. One is as someone who has had twenty years of experience in publishing censored material. Back in Australia, I started one of the first three ISPs in the country. We became specialists in hosting the accounts of people who had been censored. For example, the Australian Anti-Church of Scientology Centre. They were previously hosted by a university, but the cult threw legal threats. Through absurd claims that the ‘bibles’ of the Church of Scientology were copyrighted, they managed to successfully terrorize the university holding the material to make them go somewhere else because they didn’t want to deal with the risk of associated legal costs, even if they thought that they were correct in the eyes of the law. The Church put private investigators on me and then of course attempted to sue us. They failed, and this was one of the first times the Church of Scientology failed. This really broke the back of its scam before the public, and encouraged others to not be scared of such litigation.
So I’ve had this 20 years of experience of, on the one hand, how things played out in practice, and on the other hand a philosophical view that objects to the arrogance of journalists. The documentation of human history is a historical artefact and when it concerns a powerful organisation or individual, it’s a treasure of human history. Those treasures of human history belong to all of humanity. They are our collective history. Anything of significance in one country is of significance to others, because of the interconnections between peoples. It affects everyone eventually. And it is the height of arrogance for a journalist to say that “No, I have decided, in this particular case, to remove this piece of human history from the world”. Then you can take a consequentialist position, which is that in practice to easily engage in censorship, is to generate a climate where censorship is easy and ends up corrupting, or facilitates the corruption of the media organisation, or of the journalists concerned, and sets bad examples to others.
SY: It’s been more than 1,000 days since you came to the Ecuadorian Embassy seeking political asylum, and Swedish prosecutors have finally issued a request to question you in here rather than in Sweden. When is this going to happen? Are you feeling optimistic about the case?
JA: We need to put things into context. The United States started the largest investigation ever into a publisher against us back in the beginning of 2010, and has continued and expanded it. At one stage they had 120 people publicly declared to be operating 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, on the ‘WikiLeaks war’ - run principally by the Pentagon, the DIA, FBI, CIA, and the Department of Justice. That case is the reason I have been seeking asylum here in the embassy. The charges they are trying to bring are disclosed as espionage, conspiracy to commit espionage, computer fraud and abuse, the theft of secrets, and general conspiracy.
These constructions are designed to project US influence outside the US - WikiLeaks is not a US publisher, I am not an American but an Australian, who operates and publishes principally from Europe - to reach out from the US into a foreign country and into a foreign country’s media organisations, and through the normal work flow of organisation or communication from source to journalist, journalist to editor, editor to sub-editor, sub-editor to the technical guys that do the publishing, and engulf the whole media organisation into what it claims to be the conspiracy, because that flow of information is the same as the flow of conspiracy, they argue. And through that method they arrive at a precedent - essentially the US annexes the media organisations of the world by saying our laws, US laws, apply to you. Whenever you publish something we don’t like, something that is critical of US national security, we can say that this affects US defence, and because of the flow of information in your media organisation, everyone from the organisation can be prosecuted by the US and extradited.
Now a ‘preliminary investigation’ by the court in Sweden was erected and then dropped and then re-erected at a time when we were publishing material about the US war in Iraq, with the result that my passport was seized and I was kept trapped here in the UK at a very dangerous moment. I have nothing to do with the UK and Sweden - I’m Australian. We said that if Sweden wants to direct a preliminary investigation where there are no charges it can do what it does in other cases, other preliminary investigations. It can speak to me on the phone, it can come to the United Kingdom - behaving in a normal manner. For the past four and a half years it has refused to do that. Finally now it has accepted it should do that because we have them right now in the Supreme Court in Sweden, and the Supreme Court has said “please tell us what is happening with this preliminary investigation in relation to how it is being conducted, and the proportionality of what is going on”.
So this is a response to that. It is a type of victory, but it will make no difference in relation to my asylum at the embassy, because my asylum at the embassy is in relation to the threat of US extradition. The UK government has said formally that if the Swedish preliminary investigation goes away - that being the reason my passport is being held - then they will arrest me anyway.
SY: They still have your passport?
JA: They still have my passport. But even if it comes back, if the Swedish preliminary investigation goes away - as it is likely to within the next year - the UK will arrest me regardless.
SY: So even if the Swedish investigation drops and becomes resolved – you will have to stay in the embassy anyway?
JA: There is no connection between me being here at the embassy and the Swedish matter, with the exception that the Swedish investigation was preventing me from leaving the UK because my passport was seized in connection with it.
SY: What could get you out of the Embassy?
JA: People are seeing that a very serious on-going abuse of human rights is being conducted. You can’t detain someone in Europe without charge for four and a half years - an indefinite process. The UN has been talking about the issue this year. The UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention is reviewing the case formally. The United States has had several court actions. The Swedish Supreme Court is considering this matter as we speak. The formal groupings of Latin American states are also becoming increasingly active on the issue. There is still going to a significant battle for several years more. But the politics is clarified, and as more information comes out on what is going on as a result of litigation we have been pursuing against the US government, we gain increasing support.
SY: If the US pauses its Grand Jury?
JA: Yes, if the US cancels its Grand Jury then that’s a different situation. However the US is also investigating us in relation to the Snowden case and over some other publications as well. So it’s going to be a while.
Hilary Clinton is the favourite for the 2016 election – the overwhelming favourite. We checked the odds across 16 bookmakers yesterday, and she is at a 90 per cent chance. Hilary is quite a hawkish figure and if she is in Government then the Democrats are not in opposition, so there will be no restraint. It’s the same with the Obama administration, but Hilary is considerably more hawkish than Obama. So things will be more difficult if she is in power. But the increasing support for my situation and my work is a really positive tendency.
SY: When are the Swedish coming?
JA: It hasn’t been decided yet. It depends on whether they really want to come and accept the offer. They have said so, but they said so in relation to the Supreme Court making some critical comments.
SY: So they have to accept what the Supreme Court is saying?
JA: We’ll see whether they actually turn up or whether it is something that is being said for the Supreme Court.
SY: You have been here for more than 1,000 days now. But if you were free, what would be your first goal?
JA: Seeing my family. And just seeing that they are safe.
The UK has spent more than ten million pounds on spying on me and this embassy, and on surrounding it with police. That’s only the police component - GCHQ are also involved, as well as the US National Security Agency. So it’s a difficult situation being here, and being under so much surveillance. I’m under so much surveillance that I can’t have people I care about visit me without exposing them to that surveillance. That includes my family and other people that I care about, and obviously includes any sources I might have, as well as others, such employees of WikiLeaks, who would be exposed.
SY: Sarah [Harrison] is in Germany now…
JA: Sarah is in Germany now and that is because we managed to get Edward Snowden out of Hong Kong. Sarah was involved in that and an investigation has started in the UK in response to that. It’s presently not safe for her to be in the United Kingdom.
SY: What do you think people get most wrong about you?
JA: There are so many false claims that I don’t know where to start. Anyone who’s been involved in exposing or criticizing very powerful organisations will understand that all sorts of assaults are made on your public record. False assaults. I encourage people always (and in life in general) to read the primary source documents, not stories and not opinion writing. You can look at FreeAssangeNow.org. Sometimes it’s quite funny having been called a Mossad agent, a CIA Agent, a cat torturer. Of course, I am none of these things.
Byline thanks Alex Nunns (@alexnunns) for his assistance in editing this interview.