Wednesday, Dec. 01, 2010
This is the transcript of TIME managing editor Richard Stengel’s interview with WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange via Skype on Nov. 30, 2010.
RICHARD STENGEL: Hi, Mr. Assange, it’s Rick Stengel. I’m the editor of TIME magazine, and thank you for joining us this evening.
JULIAN ASSANGE: You’re welcome.
RS: So sorry about the technical difficulties, but I’m sure it’s something you’re used to. So here we go.
JA: Thousands of them.
RS: What is the effect thus far of the latest round of leaks and what effect do you hope to have from those leaks?
JA: I can see that the media scrutiny and the reaction from government are so tremendous that it actually eclipses our ability to understand it. And I think there is a new story appearing, a new, original story appearing about once every two minutes somewhere around the world. Google News has managed to index. At this stage, we can only have a feeling for what the effect is based upon just looking at what the tips of the wave are doing, moving currents under the surface. There is simply too much volume for us to even be able to see. But looking at what we can, I can see that there is a tremendous rearrangement of viewings about many different countries. And so that will result in some new kind of harmonization [variant: harm minimization]. And we can see the Israeli Prime Minister [Benjamin] Netanyahu coming out with a very interesting statement that leaders should speak in public like they do in private whenever they can. He believes that the result of this publication, which makes the sentiments of many privately held beliefs public, are promising a pretty good [indecipherable] will lead to some kind of increase in the peace process in the Middle East and particularly in relation to Iran. I just noticed today Iran has agreed to nuclear talks. Maybe that’s coincidence or maybe it’s coming out of this process, but it’s certainly not being canceled by this process.
RS: One of the unintended consequences is the opposite effect, which is what we’ve seen with the Department of Defense, and even the State Department, here in the U.S., of trying to make secrets more impenetrable rather than less and trying to take precautions against what has happened from happening again in the future. How do you regard that?
JA: Well, I think that’s very positive. Since 2006, we have been working along this philosophy that organizations which are abusive and need to be [in] the public eye. If their behavior is revealed to the public, they have one of two choices: one is to reform in such a way that they can be proud of their endeavors, and proud to display them to the public. Or the other is to lock down internally and to balkanize, and as a result, of course, cease to be as efficient as they were. To me, that is a very good outcome, because organizations can either be efficient, open and honest, or they can be closed, conspiratorial and inefficient.
RS: Are there any instances [in] diplomacy or global affairs in which you see secrecy as necessary and as an asset?
JA: Yes, of course. We keep secret the identity of our sources, as an example, [and] take great pains to do it. So secrecy is important for many things but shouldn’t be used to cover up abuses, which leads us to the question of who decides and who is responsible. It shouldn’t really be that people are thinking about, Should something be secret? I would rather it be thought, Who has a responsibility to keep certain things secret? And, Who has a responsibility to bring matters to the public? And those responsibilities fall on different players. And it is our responsibility to bring matters to the public.
RS: You mention the public. Do you believe the American public in this particular instance was either dissatisfied or unhappy with the way the U.S. government was conducting diplomacy, so that you felt compelled to expose it to them? Because it seems to me that the public is reacting negatively to a lot of this exposure of diplomatic secrets that they presumably feel were actually in their interest.
JA: Well, I think the response by the American public has been very favorable to our endeavor. In fact, I think the State Department is going to have a hard time of it trying to spin this. It’s one thing to tap into http://lost. It’s one thing to talk about the need to protect this image of the innocent young soldier; it’s another thing to talk about how diplomats are hard done by when they find their very privileged position in life undermined by having their lies revealed. And it doesn’t seem to me that there is grass-roots, broad support for the behavior of diplomats, say, stealing [inaudible] DNA. That’s just something that doesn’t resonate well with the average person.
RS: And I know you’ve e-mailed about this, but what is your reaction to Secretary [Hillary] Clinton’s declaration that you’ve put lives in jeopardy and now the apparent attempts by the U.S. Justice Department to prosecute you? What is your reaction to that? And have you committed any crimes that they should be prosecuting you for?
JA: Well, this sort of nonsense about lives being put in jeopardy is trotted out every time a big military or intelligence organization is exposed by the press. It’s nothing new, and it’s not an exclusively American phenomenon by an means. It goes back at least 50 years, and in extremely different forms hundreds of years before that, so that sort of reactionary sentiment is equally expected. We get that on nearly every post that we do. However, this organization in its four years of publishing history — we don’t need to speculate, it has a history — has never caused an individual, as far as we can determine or as far anyone else can determine, to come to any sort of physical harm or to be wrongly imprisoned and so on. That is a record compared to the organizations that we are trying to expose who have literally been involved in the deaths of hundreds or thousands or, potentially over the course of many years, millions.
See TIME’s video “WikiLeaks’ Assange on China’s ‘Reform Potential.’ ”
Read “TIME Interview: Assange on Secrecy, China and WikiLeaks’ Growth.”
RS: How would you characterize your actions, both in this latest set of leaks as well as in the past? Would you say you’re practicing civil disobedience against breaking the law in order to expose greater law-breaking? Is that the moral calculus that you use to justify the leaks?
JA: No, not at all. This organization practices civil obedience, that is, we are an organization that tries to make the world more civil and act against abusive organizations that are pushing it in the opposite direction. As for the law, we have now in our four-year history had over 100 legal attacks of various kinds and have been victorious in all of those matters.
So if you want to talk about the law, it’s very important to remember the law is not what, not simply what, powerful people would want others to believe it is. The law is not what a general says it is. The law is not what Hillary Clinton says it is. The law is not what a bank says it is. The law, rather, is what the Supreme Court in [the] land in the end says it is, and the Supreme Court in the case of the United States has an enviable Constitution on which to base its decisions. And that Constitution comes out of a revolutionary movement and has a Bill of Rights appraised by James Madison and others that includes a nuanced understanding for the balancing of power of [the] states in relation to the government. Now, where the Supreme Court makeup now is such that it keeps to its traditions or proposes a radical reassessment of the power of the First Amendment and the U.S. Constitution remains to be seen. However, the U.S. Espionage Act is widely viewed to be overbroad, and that is perhaps one of the reasons it has never been properly tested in the Supreme Court. I think it was maybe found to be unconstitutional and struck out. Now we understand that there are attempts by [Attorney General Eric] Holder and others in the U.S. Administration to shoehorn the Espionage Act, Section G in particular, onto legitimate press functions. Those efforts are dangerous in the sense that they may give rise to a Supreme Court challenge, which throws out the Espionage Act, or at least that section, in its entirety. If that succeeds, that will of course only be good business for WikiLeaks, because the rest of the U.S. press will be further constrained and people will simply come to us.
RS: And obviously there are competing equities, even constitutionally, between the Espionage Act, which was, as you know, 1917, and the expansion of the First Amendment rights that have happened subsequent to that, but as you say, the law ultimately becomes what the Supreme Court says it is, and they could narrow some of those First Amendment rights and use some of that in the Espionage Act. Which leads me to my next question: One of the issues that’s discussed a lot in American politics these days, in part because of criticism of President Obama, is this idea of American exceptionalism. You seem to also believe in American exceptionalism in a negative sense, that America is exceptional only in the harm and damage it does to the world. Would you describe that as a fair characterization of your view of the U.S.?
JA: Well, I think both of those views lack the necessary subtlety. The United States has some immutable traditions, which, to be fair, are based on the French Revolution and the European Enlightenment. The United States’ Founding Fathers took those further, and the federalism of the United States also, of relatively powerful states trying to constrain federal government from becoming too centralized. Also added some important democratic controls and understandings. So there is a lot of good that has historically come from the United States. But after World War II, during World War II, the federal government of the United States started sucking the resources to the center, and the power of states started to diminish. Interestingly, the First Amendment started overriding states’ laws around that time, which I see as a function of increasing central power in the United States. I think the problems with the United States as a foreign power stem from, simply, its economic success, whereby it’s, historically at least, a very rich country with a number of people and the desire left over as a result of … Let me explain this a bit better. The U.S. saw the French Revolution and it also saw the behavior of the U.K. and the other kings and dictatorships, so it intentionally produced a very weak President. The President was, however, given a lot of power for external relations, so as time has gone by, the presidency has managed to exercise its power through its foreign affairs function. If we look at what happened with Obama and health care reform, we see this extraordinary situation where Obama [indecipherable] can order strikes against U.S. citizens overseas but is not able to pass, at least not easily and not in the form that he wanted, a health reform bill domestically. And that seems to be … the very good idea, which was to try and keep the country free from dictatorship by keeping the presidency weak. But as the United States has grown economically, that has led to a situation where the foreign affairs power is latched on to by central government to increase the power of the government, as opposed to state government. The U.S. is, I don’t think by world standards, an exception, rather it is a very interesting case both for its abuses and for some of its founding principles.
RS: Rather than get in a conversation of Executive power, let me ask you about some other nations and your views of their role on the world stage. Certainly the rise of China, the power of Russia in the marketplace. They are two nations that compete with the U.S. in terms of wealth and influence. Would you put them in the same category as countries that you would indeed like to expose some of their secret dealings the way you have done with American documents?
JA: Yes, indeed. In fact, we believe it is the most closed societies that have the most reform potential. The Chinese case is quite interesting. Aspects of the Chinese government, Chinese Public Security Service, appear to be terrified of free speech, and while one might say that means something awful is happening in the country, I actually think that is a very optimistic sign, because it means that speech can still cause reform and that the power structure is still inherently political, as opposed to fiscal. So journalism and writing are capable of achieving change, and that is why Chinese authorities are so scared of it. Whereas in the United States to a large degree, and in other Western countries, the basic elements of society have been so heavily fiscalized through contractual obligations that political change doesn’t seem to result in economic change, which in other words means that political change doesn’t result in change.
RS: We talked a little bit about this earlier, your desired outcome from the leaking of this information is presumably, as you said, that world leaders and officials would say the same things in public that they say in private. Um, lots and lots of people would regard that as naive, in part because they in their own lives don’t say the same things in public that they say in private. Is that the outcome that you would like, and how do you respond to the charge that that’s the naive view of the way the world works?
JA: Well, I was quoting Netanyahu, who [is] certainly not a naive man. The, of course …
RS: But the effect, by the way, Mr. Assange, for Netanyahu, is that what he’s been saying publicly — i.e., Arab leaders have privately been saying that Iran is the greatest threat, and they want Israel and the U.S. to do something — the revelations have been in his interest.
JA: Of course. We’re talking about a sophisticated politician who is of that sentiment he’s on the side of, in this issue. But I suggest it is generally — of course, there are exceptions — but generally true, across every issue. We are negotiating … We need to be able to negotiate with a clear understanding of what the ground is and what our [inaudible] positions are. Of course, one side has a disproportionate amount of knowledge compared to the other side. There cannot be negotiations or proper understanding of the playing field in which these events are to happen. Now, we would like to see all organizations that are key to their authority … opened up as much as possible. Not entirely, but as much as possible, in order to level out that asymmetric information playing field. Now for the United States, its government actually has more information available to it than any other government. And so it is already in a symmetric position. I think this disclosure of diplomatic information, which is often third-hand, will allow people to understand more clearly these sort of broad activities of the U.S. State Department, which acts not, of course, in the interest of the U.S. people but in the interest of the State Department. It will allow people of other countries to see that. But it will also meet more reasonable negotiations and reveal a lot about the Arab states, and Central Asian republics, to the rest of the world and to their peoples.
RS: But you do clearly have a hierarchy of societies that are more closed than open, and you mentioned China and Russia as two of them. I mean, in that hierarchy, the U.S. is probably the most open society on the planet.
JA: It’s becoming more closed. But you know, the U.S. [as] a superpower. Let’s just imagine that Russia had the same resources, the same temperate climate and the same number of people as the United States — would it be a better-behaved or worse-behaved superpower? The answer is, it would be, based upon its current [inaudible] it would be a much worse-behaved superpower. And what has kept the United States in check, to the degree that it has been kept in check from abusing its powers, is this federalism, this strength of the states. And a relative degree of openness, which probably peaked in about 1978, and has been on the way down, unfortunately, since.
RS: I want to ask you a broader question, about the role of technology and the burgeoning world of social media. How does that affect the goal you’re trying to achieve of more transparent and more open societies? I assume that enables what you’re trying to do.
JA: Let me just talk about transparency for a moment. It is not our goal to achieve a more transparent society; it’s our goal to achieve a more just society. And most of the times, transparency and openness tends to lead in that direction, because abusive plans or behavior get opposed, and so those organizations which tend to commit them are opposed before the plan’s implemented, or it’s an exposure or something previously done, the organization tends to lose a [inaudible], which is then transferred to another, and then we [inaudible] organization. For the rise of social media, it’s quite interesting. When we first started, we thought we would have the analytical work done by bloggers and people who wrote Wikipedia articles and so on. And we thought that was a natural, given that we had lots of quality, important content. Surely it’s more interesting to write an article about top-secret Chinese [inaudible] or an internal document from Somalia or secret documents revealing what happened in [inaudible], all of which we published, than it is to simply write a blog about what’s on the front page of the New York Times, or about your cat or something. But actually it turns out that that is not at all true. The bulk of the heavy lifting — heavy analytical lifting — that is done with our materials is done by us, and is done by professional journalists we work with and by professional human-rights activists. It is not done by the broader community. However, once the initial lifting is done, once a story becomes a story, becomes a news article, then we start to see community involvement, which digs deeper and provides more perspective. So the social networks tend to be, for us, an amplifier of what we are doing. And also a supply of sources for us.
So when I saw this problem early on in our first year, that the analytical effort which we thought would be supplied by Internet citizens around the world was not, I saw that, well, actually, in terms of articles, form tends to follow the funding. You can’t expect to get news-style articles out of people that are not funded after a career structure in the same way that news organizations are. You will get a different sort of form, and that form may be commentary, which sometimes is very good and sometimes there are very senior people providing commentary that is within their media experience, or we get sources who hand over material, because once again, within their media experience, it is an important issue to them. But what we don’t get from the [inaudible] community is people writing articles about an issue that they didn’t have an intimate involvement with in the first place. And of course, if you think about it, that’s natural — why would they be? The incentive’s not there. When people write political commentary on blogs or other social media, it is my experience that it is not — with some exceptions — their goal to expose the truth. Rather, it is their goal to position themselves among their peers on whatever the issue of the day is. The most effective, the most economical way to do that is simply to take the story that’s going around — it has already created a marketable audience for itself — and say whether they’re in favor of that interpretation or not.
RS: That’s interesting. And I want to go now from the macro back to the micro, um, and ask you a specific question about, uh, PFC [Bradley] Manning, um … Was he the sole source of the latest dump?
JA: Can you hear me?
RS: Yes, I’m sorry, I don’t know … let me ask the question again. I wanted to ask a question about Bradley Manning, PFC Manning. Was he the sole source of all the documents in the latest WikiLeaks dump?
JA: Well, we’re a source-protection organization, so the last thing we would do is discuss possible sources. However, we do know that the FBI has been … the FBI, State Department and U.S. Army CID [Criminal Investigation Command] has been going around Boston visiting number of people there… people who have been detained coming back into the United States. The FBI visited, or raided, depending on how you want to describe it, Bradley Manning’s mother’s home in Wales, in the U.K. There’s a lot more action and people … U.S. government authorities are certainly looking to try and grill other individuals … apart from [inaudible], in the wake of a variety of materials that we have published.
RS: There’s been, again, just very close to the ground, a speculation in the media that Secretary Clinton would be the fall guy for the embarrassment that you’ve caused the U.S. and the State Department. Would her resignation or firing be an outcome that you would want out of this?
JA: I believe … I don’t think it would make much of a difference either way. But she should resign if it can be shown that she was responsible for ordering U.S. diplomatic figures to engage in espionage in the United Nations, in violation of the international covenants to which the U.S. has signed up. Yes, she should resign over that.
RS: Let me ask you what the future has in store for you and WikiLeaks. You’ve been quoted recently as saying your next target is Big Business and/or Wall Street. What’s next coming down the pipe?
JA: We don’t have targets, other than organizations that use secrecy to conceal unjust behavior … that’s created a general target. Otherwise we’re completely source-dependent. We are a source-protection organization and a publishing-protection organization. Quite a bit of our effort, historically, has been taking articles from journalists who were censored or a book that was censored and republishing them as a way of disarming the censorship [inaudible]. But yes, we have a lot of source material that … collection that remains unpublished. And that is actually something not to be proud of, but rather a great distress to us. We don’t have the resources that are required to get through this very valuable material and sources that are given to us, those past sources are given to us … We’re working on various mechanisms to speed that up and to acquire those resources. So yes, the banks are in there, many different multinational organizations are in the upcoming weeks, but that is a continuation of what we have been doing for the past four years. However, there are greater volumes of material, that is true. The upcoming bank material is 10,000 documents, as opposed to hundreds, which we have gotten in the other cases.
RS: And are there any, Mr. Assange, any more documents from this latest dump that will be coming out in the next days or weeks?
JA: Yes, we’re doing about 80 a day, presently, and that will gradually step up as the other media partners kick in.
RS: And as you were saying, do you review every document before you release it?
JA: All the Cablegate documents, every document is the backing document to a story appearing on a news website or in a newspaper or on a TV program or that we ourselves have released as an analysis. So yes, they’re all reviewed and they’re all redacted, either by us or by the newspapers concerned.
RS: And how — and I know we’re running out of time, but — and the standards by which you do the redaction, how would you define that?
JA: Carefully. Also, what we have asked the State Department, we have formally asked the State Department for assistance with that. That request was formally rejected, and they also refused to engage in any harmonization [variant: harm minimization] negotiation. So that tends to lead us to the view, given what we think about it, that they’ve being working on the material for some four months now, and we have intelligence of many organizations and individuals [inaudible] have been contacted by the State Department. They do not believe that there are many people that would be vulnerable, but we are still conducting with [inaudible], and the New York Times, the State Department already mentioned eight broad areas of concern. And some of those were people trying to cover up some embarrassing activities, which the New York Times also rightfully rejected.
RS: Mr. Assange, I think we’ve run out of time. I appreciate your having taken the time to talk to us. I hope you will do so again.
JA: Absolutely, thank you.
RS: Thank you.