PBS-Frontline aired the documentary “WikiSecrets” on May 24 2011. WikiLeaks has had intelligence for some time that the program is hostile and misrepresents WikiLeaks’ views and tries to build an “espionage” case against its founder, Julian Assange, and also the young soldier, Bradley Manning.
This is a behind the scenes, interview tape between Julian Assange & PBS Frontline’s Martin Smith which was recorded some days before. In the tape, Assange scolds Martin Smith for his previous coverage of Bradley Manning and addresses a number of issues surrounding the 1917 Espionage Act investigation into WikiLeaks and Bradley Manning.
The Frontline documentary includes footage of a number of individuals who have a collective, and very dirty personal vendetta, against the organization. These include David Leigh, Adrian Lamo, Daniel Domscheit-Berg, Eric Schmitt and Kim Zetter. While the program filmed other sources, such as Vaughan Smith who provided a counter-narrative, these more credible voices have been excluded from the program presented to the US public.
So let’s just talk about the idea of WikiLeaks, how it comes about, when you begin to conceptualize what eventually becomes WikiLeaks. What were you thinking?
I had had a lot of experience in bringing the Internet to Australia, and I saw that knowledge in the hands of people achieves reform. And in my involvement in cryptography and human rights, protecting human rights workers using cryptography, [this] also showed that privacy is an important part of spreading knowledge. [The] ability to be able to communicate privately helps people spread knowledge out to the public for these human rights workers in South America. …
“Our technology does not permit us to understand whether someone is one of our sources or not, because the best way to keep a secret is to never have it.”
So there’s certain constraints on knowledge, and those basic constraints affect all of us. So we could go back to James Madison, who put it perhaps best: that a people who mean to be free must have the power that knowledge brings.
Because knowledge will always rule ignorance. In the United States’ context, that meant people who wanted to self-rule, to have a democracy, needed the information that is the lifeblood of a democracy. So I considered what were the limitations in spreading of knowledge, and they were really at the source so that we have a Fourth Estate: We have journalists; we have the press.
But all of this is only as good as its basic input. The knowledge that we have about secret governments, the governmental programs’ secretive organizations, organizations acting in secret to conceal abuses — and so we needed to devise a mechanism so as much knowledge from those organizations could enter into the press and then be distributed to the people.
I found that wasn’t the only thing that needed to be done. We also needed to protect the publishing side, because there was a lot of press self-censorship and a lot of assertive, direct censorship in different countries. So WikiLeaks and the Sunshine Press publishing organization is an attempt to bring these two parts together, to get more knowledge from sources who know what’s actually happening in powerful organizations, and to have a publishing infrastructure that is able to publish that knowledge even though states or other powerful organizations are trying to censor it from getting to the people. It gets to the people; it brings that lifeblood that Jefferson spoke about true democracy.
You wrote to Daniel Ellsberg [the former U.S. military analyst who released the Pentagon Papers in 1971] at one point asking him to participate in the project?
And you said to him, “We have come to the conclusion that fomenting a worldwide movement of mass leaking is the most [cost-]effective political intervention.”
Can you elaborate?
Well, this is [a] very old message, so it’s hard to elaborate. But —
When you talk about political intervention —
There’s a bit of confusion between the Australian use of the word “political” and the U.S. use of the word “political.” The word “political” in the Australian vernacular, what we mean by “political” is that everything that has to do with polity. So “political” means the political system, the interaction between information and people and power. And that is what we mean by “political.” And a “political intervention” is anything that intervenes within the system.
I’m not sure Daniel Ellsberg, as an American, would have understood that either.
Well, I didn’t understand this difference until I spoke on [The] Colbert [Report] that the Australian view about “political” means everything that encompasses politics and the U.S. view that “political” is something that is “party political.” In Australian English, we use “party political” to talk about political parties, “political” to talk about democracy and everything that it entails.
I mean, the reason that people raise that is, for example, is they question whether or not you have a partisan political agenda.
Well, it’s absolutely false. I mean, you can see the proof of that in all of the material we have released, from Climategate on the one hand, broadly sympathetic to Republican politics, and the U.S. diplomatic cables on the other, which actually reveals abuses from many organizations all over the world, but including the central powers in Washington, like the State Department.
Climategate is an interesting case. What’s the intent that you had when you leaked the Climategate e-mails?
The truth needs no policy position, so there does not need to be an intent. We have a framework, and the framework has an intent. We have policies that have an intent as a whole. And our intent is to bring knowledge to the people where it can do some good.
We have, unlike every other media organization, a very concise and clear editorial policy. So our editorial policy is we accept information of diplomatic, political, ethical or historical significance that is under active suppression, that has not been published before.
But if you believed that we had a climate problem, that man was contributing to rising greenhouse gases — I don’t know, do you believe that’s a reality?
I believe the issues are very complex. I do not think anyone working outside of climate science understands whether that is true or not, because people simply do not understand all the complexities. Rather, instead we look to see who is the most critical voice. What are the motivations behind those people?
On the one hand, we can see scientists are typically not very good political players. They’re not very good manipulators. They are geeks. On the other hand, we see well-funded oil companies and politicians associated with them, powerful interests that are good political players.
When these two are starting to achieve parity in political debate, it is natural to assume that this group is more credible because their ability to manipulate and influence the political debate without facts is reduced compared to this group, who has long experience and plenty of money behind them. So my view is it is probably the climate scientists are right because they are scientists, and they are a more critical voice.
Did it give you any second thoughts that by releasing the Climategate e-mails, it would give credence [to] the climate-change deniers?
It gave me pause for thought that we have established policies. We make promises to sources that we publish material of that sort. And in that particular case, we had the University of East Anglia in the United Kingdom, a central hub in Climategate science, deliberately try to suppress information from the Freedom of Information Act, asking other scientists to delete information before Freedom of Information request got it.
So on the one hand, in this particular case, was justice served or not in the overall? We are not sure. Certainly when we look at keeping effective Freedom of Information Act and exposing abuses of the Freedom of Information Act, justice was served.
But it is important to keep the system as a whole, our system as a whole, as integral as possible. So we must dispense our duties in a manner that is in accordance to what we are publicly promising. And that is what keeps us on the straight and narrow in terms of this journalistic project, to be doing as most editors do do, picking and choosing cases to promote up or promote down, depending on whether they like the people associated with it. It’s a topic corruption, and that is something that we are seeking to fight against.
So you publish the truth regardless of what effect it’s going to have on the debate? Fair?
Anything that is received by us that fits that editorial promise, we publish.
You wrote an essay, “State and Terrorist Conspiracies” [PDF] — this has been brought up to you a number of times, I’m sure — about how to destroy conspiracies’ abilities to conspire. Can you explain the mechanism?
This is one of many sort of theoretical documents that provide a background into WikiLeaks. It’s a real concern in our own eternal debate as to whether if we released information about an abusive organization, whether it would simply go off record. So would an organization simply move all their correspondence, all their planning and plotting, off paper into purely all conversations?
So I produced this essay looking at that situation and showing that, well, if organizations do do that, if they move themselves off paper, and they are large organizations, then they will cease to be functional organizations, because they won’t be able to efficiently administrate themselves. That is why large organizations do use paperwork, they use e-mails, they use trackable material.
And when in late 2007 we got hold of Guantanamo Bay’s main manuals, we discovered that there were sections outlining how to keep information from the Red Cross and how to falsify records in relation to Red Cross visits to detainees. And this really surprised me, because I thought, who would be foolish enough to put in a military manual that that sort of deliberate fabrication against U.S. covenants with the Red Cross would occur?
But I came to understand why: that if you have a center that is devising policy, the center of a military organization, the center of a commercial organization, and it wants to have that policy widely implemented, including by grunts [inaudible], then it needs to go down in writing, because otherwise you just have Chinese whispers occurring, and the grunts [inaudible] can’t work out what it is precisely that they are meant to be implementing.
Instead, they conduct behavior that is purely in their own interests, and the central policy gets distorted. So that’s a rather interesting understanding of how organizations really only have two choices to deal with transparency. The first choice is they can simply stop doing things that embarrass the public, so instead of committing an unjust act, commit a just act. Instead of hiding something, explain it. That’s one choice.
The other choice is that they can spend more on their security; they can become more baroque; they can take things off-record, speak orally and continue with this course of unjust action. But if they do that, they will become inefficient compared to other organizations, and they will shrink in their power and scale. And that’s also great because unjust organizations are in economic and political equilibrium and competition with just organizations.
That’s what you call the “secrecy tax”?
Yes, that’s right. So organizations that are doing things that the public doesn’t like, when there are leaks, self-impose [a] secrecy tax through all this bureaucracy administration secrecy, and as a result simply shrink in their power and influence to conduct their affairs in that manner.
Are all governments necessarily conspiracies?
Well, they’re not necessarily conspiracies. One has to be careful with this word that I use, “conspiracy,” and to differentiate it from the sort of conspiracy talk that you hear about 9/11. The notion of conspiracy is quite ancient and goes back to Lord Halifax, who speaks about political groupings in general as a type of conspiracy. Or if we look at the RICO [Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations] Act against the Mafia in the United States, it speaks directly about conspiracies.
So what we mean about conspiracy is simply people getting together in private to make plans to do something that the public would be outraged against. They keep it in private because the public would oppose it. And if the public finds out about it and opposes it before it’s implemented, then chances are it won’t be implemented.
There’s a number of things that come up in your writings that cause people to sit back and say: “What’s this guy talking about? Governments are conspiracies?” [PDF] Tell me whether this is true, that in an e-mail you said, “The total annihilation of the current U.S. regime or any other regime that holds its authority through mendacity alone could be accelerated or advanced by several years if WikiLeaks does its job right.”
I don’t know if I wrote that e-mail, but I recall that it spawned [controversy]. That I’ve read. I don’t think the word “regime” was used. I believe the word [was] “administration.”
… I just raise the issue to give you a chance to address [it] before our audience [gets] this idea that you are setting yourself up as an opponent of the government of the United States and are interested in the annihilation of the U.S. government.
We’re not interested in annihilating any government. It is a difficult thing to have a critical, functional institution. Institutions derive their legitimate authority from an informed public that chooses to grant them authority. If the public is not informed, then any authority that chooses to grant an organization in itself is not informed, and therefore is not legitimate.
When we have cases of clear cover-ups of abuse, which was certainly true under [President George W.] Bush, certainly true in relation to its rendition program and the administration of Guantanamo Bay and many other matters we are dealing with, in the case of those sections or Bush, then an administration that governs by, I’m not sure the word “mendacity” would have been used, but governs by concealing of abuse. And that in itself is abuse, and that must be stopped.
Can I take you back to your association with Tor [network]? It’s been said that you had set up — this is prior to this sort of drop box WikiLeaks idea — that you had set up listening posts at the edge of Tor to essentially —
This is not true.
No use of Tor listening post to —
We used Tor in many different ways, which is to conceal the path that things travel. There was an investigation into the use of Tor by Chinese intelligence, and we had sources who were involved in that investigation.
But I just want to be clear: You were not using Tor, as some say, to hack information out of the —
No, of course not. …
Your idea initially was to post documents and then let people comment upon those, and perhaps illuminate things that weren’t clear in the document, or to explain them, like an annotation.
Yes, that was my initial idea, and the reason being is that I was of the belief, and I am still of the belief, that the total economic size of the media is not enough to be able to properly contextualize and assess the potential volume of leaked material. And we can see that, I mean, even in the case of Cablegate, where we are only some 7,000 cables in, pulling together over 63 different media organizations around the world.
So really the Fourth Estate as a functional unit of the civilization that we have is just not large enough to make sense of the world [as] we know it. So it is required to bring in other sources of labor to make sense of this. So we did try to do that, and —
Why didn’t it work?
Very interesting. So it didn’t work for a couple of reasons. The first reason has to do with incentives. So when we release a document that is complex or long to everyone, the supply goes from zero to infinity. Everyone can have it, so there’s infinite supply. And just like the air that everyone can have, no one pays for it. In our case, what that means is no one pays labor to investigate it. And people are motivated by many different reasons. But they are all in sort of an economic equilibrium.
Can you talk about the importance of the Julius Baer case to WikiLeaks?
The Bank Julius Baer case was the first big, real case that we had. We had come across information from the Swiss bank Bank Julius Baer, the largest private Swiss banking concern. It handles the accounts predominantly of millionaires. You need a million bucks to open an account.
It had been hiding assets in the Cayman Islands and minimizing its own taxes through tricks in the Cayman Islands. We released a number of secret trust records. This is not a sort of conventional banking operation. This is using the laws of the Cayman Islands and trust hiding to conceal assets of wealthy and powerful individuals.
In response, Baer threatened to sue us. And in fact, my legal advice at the time was that this is not the case that we should fight because of some political claims made by Baer. But nonetheless, it was our promise to never censor things that fitted our editorial policy, and this material certainly did. And as a result, the case was taken in California by Baer, and very quickly. And initially for that day we were not represented, but we pulled together a big team of around 22 different lawyers.
From different publications —
Eleven mainstream media organizations, professional journalist unions, NGOs [non-governmental organizations], Harvard, University of Texas and our own four lawyers, and won the day under the First Amendment protections for what was going on.
So that was a big deal for you.
That was a big deal. I mean, The New York Times put our IP address in its editorial. CBS came in to support us. It was quite important. The reason these groups had come to bat for us was that today we would be taken down, in terms of our domain name, tomorrow CBS.com or NYTimes.com would be taken down from the Internet. So there was a strong mutual interest and a good tradition among groups like the First Amendment Coalition [FAC] and Citizen.org in protecting the First Amendment.
And we had structured things so that this case would take place in San Francisco, arguably the hotbed of First Amendment activism in the U.S. And the end result, other than winning the case, was that Bank Julius Baer had to cancel its U.S. initial stock offer, which it had predicted would bring it a profit of $300 million. So it was a good case. We stood by our public guidelines; we stood by our philosophy, even though we knew it was going to be very hard; and we prevailed.
Describe how you reacted when you first saw the Apache video, as much as you can tell me about the circumstances of seeing it, and how you took it in and what you thought, felt, saw.
Well, when we finally had the Apache video decrypted and de-encoded and saw it —
It was encrypted?
Not very much, I thought.
It [w]as encrypted, and we had to go through a program to break it. And it was quite complex. So when we finally managed to decode it into a form where I could see it, actually I wasn’t shocked. I wasn’t shocked at all. Rather, I saw a complex situation involving individuals. I had no idea what they were doing, who they were, what their purpose [was]. The before and the after — was it contiguous time, was it jumps? Who was on which side of the equation, who was a civilian, who not a civilian.
And as I researched it more, I started to piece together dates from this video to an event that occurred in Baghdad, where two Reuters journalists were killed. And then I looked for, could we see which ones were the Reuters journalists, which ones were not? We managed to find them and follow them throughout the sequence.
And the research made it more and more impact[ful] and more extraordinary as time went by. So it turned out that the Reuters journalists were the two principal visual characters, the people that move the most, and they suffer the most, including Saeed Chmagh, who is at one stage, after a large group of people have been mowed down, is crawling along the curb, wounded in his blood, toward the van that has stopped by, seeing this wounded man in the street. And he’s lifted up and taken into the van. And then extraordinar[ily], the helicopter opens fire on the van and wounded men, killing the Reuters journalist and most of the occupants of the van. So it was only after understanding what was happening that it became so impactful.
And this taught me a lesson in terms of how we would have to present it, that we couldn’t just release it as it came in, with no context. Rather, in order for people to feel the impact that I felt after researching it, we needed to present that.
So I experimented in different ways when I showed it to my colleague Kristinn Hrafnsson. I gave an introduction, a narration: “You will see these two people — they are journalists — and follow them through here. And you will see what happens to them. And then there’s other people, etc., etc.”
So you now [have] a production of the documentary about that video, “Collateral Murder,” that is the basis under which we proceeded to give people an understanding of who they were looking at, why they happened to be there that day, what was going on, because it is that that really gives the impact. It is not just this dramatic scene. In fact, most people have seen more dramatic scenes in Hollywood movies in full color, in video games.
So it is not the scene that is dramatic; rather it is what actually happened, combined with this visual proof. And of course the cover-up that the U.S. military engaged in, and [that] the mainstream media, like The New York Times, was complacent in that, to me made this a big story.
Would you do anything differently in releasing that video if you had to do it all over again?
Always when I look back in the past, I hope to want to do things differently. That is what happens to anyone who learns.
Sometimes you nail it.
No, always. You should always look back in the past and think, I would do something differently, because otherwise you haven’t learned.
But in this case, were you satisfied with the impact of the video? Did it achieve the result that you had hoped?
It was pretty close. I mean, it is hard to know precisely what a more successful impact would look like. So I can imagine some scenarios where that is a possibility, but those scenarios also have costs.
Some say that you felt that it taught you the lesson that you needed to work more closely with established organizations.
I’m sure established organizations say this. But actually we have been working with fellow journalists since 2007.
But you’re not disappointed in the impact of it. I mean, that’s what is being said out there.
No, I am not disappointed with the impact of it. Could we have structured things, structured various deals, economic incentives and so on, to get an even bigger impact? The answer is probably yes. The answer, if we had done a deal with a U.S. broadcaster, to give them some kind of exclusive access to this, that U.S. broadcaster probably would have then defended it.
They wouldn’t have called it “Collateral Murder.” I mean, that’s been–
No, I’m not concerned about that. I wanted to call it “Permission to Engage,” because that was a phrase that came out of it. But that phrase was already used elsewhere. And as you know, as a sort of headline, many documentary titles are inflammatory. And actually, we did want to attract attention to the very specific event of this journalist crawling in the gutter and being deliberately targeted and killed, even though he was unarmed, and his rescuers.
In common parlance, that is murder, and there is no doubt about it. We also released the rules of engagement, in very detailed description, including flow charts, to show that even under the U.S. military’s internal procedure, that was not a justified attack. And all sorts of rhetoric occurred by a military apologist after the event, talking about, “Oh, well, the rules of engagement perhaps allows this.” But we produced the rules of engagement. Not one of those people read those rules of engagement and said, “Here, under this section, this is not a murder.”
We did. I did. I am confident that that title is correct. Now, should we have chosen another title to discourage an attack based on the title, a misleading [title] that would deflect from the content? Possibly. But having done many of these high-profile releases now, I know for certain that you have initiative for about two days.
After two days, the group that you’ve exposed conducts a counterattack, and they look for whatever is a weakness or something that will gain parlance in the political debate, and they seize on it. And there’s always one. And those energies will go toward some mechanism of defense for the organization that has been exposed and embarrassed.
And when you’re dealing with a situation like we were dealing with the United States, where we have a very powerful grouping, which is not just the U.S. military — rather, it is a patronage system that conserves the U.S. military, and tens of thousands of military contractors and their families and the politicians that make their way and their power out of that system — it is inevitable that there is a very aggressive counterattack. And we saw that.
But the way that this footage has gone on in the world is effective. So there are continual documentaries and investigative reports that use this footage in many languages, in many nationalities. It is now part of the historical record. That political churn and debate over it is now gone. Now this piece of information, this footage, is part of history and is being used like part of history, like a quote from Madison.
Not long after the release of that video, you hear about this chat between Bradass87 and [hacker] Adrian Lamo. What went through your mind?
I saw this in Wired magazine, and the claims were that this “Bradass” character was the source for the “Collateral Murder” movie video.
He’s in it. He says he’s the source, whoever that is —
This is a computer record. We investigated very quickly who this Adrian Lamo character was, and this is a very disreputable character.
He was a contributor to WikiLeaks.
And he was not right to call him a contributor to WikiLeaks. We looked up our records. According to those records, he donated $20 on one occasion and then immediately went out and told his social grouping that he had done so.
So it was mischievous to suggest the individual has anything to do with WikiLeaks. He seems to be someone who plays on the media. He’s even perhaps addicted to the media in a very self-destructive manner. He owes the federal government a large amount of money. I encourage everyone to simply look at an interview with him to see the sort of character involved.
But this is an individual [who] has some computer skills, strange motivations. Had been in a mental hospital three weeks beforehand, is addicted to the limelight, and has done I would say almost self-harm in order to get media exposure.
So the integrity of the electronic record, which can be fabricated very easily, that he submitted to a friend, a very long-term friend of his and former computer hacker at Wired magazine, Kevin Poulsen, we don’t know about. But we investigated the context and the surroundings very quickly when it came out.
Do you believe that it’s not a legitimate chat?
We know that there are certain sections that are not legitimate. For instance, the time stamps at one point in time are reversed in this conversation. We also know that Adrian Lamo has made statements that are contradictory to each other and what is inside the conversation. We know that there are some contradictions with what Kevin Poulsen, the editor at Wired magazine, has said.
For instance, Kevin Poulsen said that all material that didn’t reveal national security matters, or was purely personal issues, was released. But we can see that Adrian Lamo has spoken about other parts that he alleged to be in this conversation that are neither personal nor matters of national security that concerned things that he says are the framework of the conversation — how the conversation started, under what conditions, etc. — and those are not there. So there is something odd with this conversation. We don’t know whether it is mostly illegitimate or partly contaminated. But there are certainly elements of it that are incorrect.
So what do you suspect? You think it’s a frame?
We can look at the long history of the interaction between Adrian Lamo and Wired magazine. It goes back almost, with Kevin Poulsen, almost 10 years. He has been involved in these sorts of things, trying to get stories into the media about hacking-related activities.
What’s his motivation, do you think?
Adrian Lamo, as far as I can see, his general motivation is he’s an attention seeker.
He says that you wrote him an e-mail after the fact
Yes, that’s correct.
And that you encouraged him to change his characterization of the events.
Well, I don’t have the e-mail before me. Perhaps you —
This is just from an interview with him where he says, “Assange sent me an e-mail after Bradley was arrested, encouraging me to change my characterization of the events to refer to Manning as a whistleblower rather than a spy.”
Yes, I thought that if there was a chance that — regardless — let me clarify. As spokesperson for WikiLeaks, we are in a very difficult position concerning Bradley Manning. The difficulty of our position is that our technology does not permit us to understand whether someone is one of our sources or not, because the best way to keep a secret is to never have it. We are dealing with intelligence agencies that are very sophisticated.
So instead of keeping source identity secret, we simply do not collect them at all, even in the first place. So we do not know whether Mr. Manning is our source or not, or whether he is some intermediary in this process or whether he knew a source. We have no understanding of this. And of course if we did know, we are obligated ethically to not reveal it.
We are also in a position where we cannot say things which might be misconstrued as us suggesting that he is a source. But nonetheless, what we do know is we have a situation where there is a young man in solitary confinement, who has been there for over 300 days now, in very severe conditions, and the allegations against him are related to our publishing activities. Therefore, we do have some kind of moral obligation to look into his case. But we have to conduct how we talk about it very carefully.
People who have read the chat will raise those sections [where] this guy Bradass87 — I don’t know if that’s Manning or not; there’s no way I can know at this point — talks about developing a relationship with you. He says things: “I don’t know much more than what he tells me.” And there’s several of these instances where he talks about you and his relationship. And when you read it, it sounds like there’s a connection, perhaps a chat or e-mail or some kind of connection with you. When you read those, what did you think?
We looked at the whole context, and was there someone trying to big-note themselves by suggesting their connection to us? We don’t have sources that we know about. And I had never heard the name Bradley Manning before. I never heard the Bradass87 before.
And you wouldn’t have a relationship with somebody that was supplying source material?
We receive inquiries from people who say, “How do I upload something?” That is something that our help desk deals with. People ask questions about what is secure, what is insecure and things like this.
But how do you prevent me from writing you and telling you in a chat that I have a video of a massacre in Iraq or Afghanistan or somewhere, and I want you to tell me how to get it to you? I mean, now you’ve got a situation sort of placed out there where —
Yeah, our help desk has a completely anonymous chat. It’s anonymous to us. The usernames are anonymous and so on.
I understood that initially you had hoped to publish in the order in which it was received the material that you were leaked. Is that wrong? I want to get to this question of being overwhelmed by the amount.
Did you have in your imagination that you were going to be inundated with a tsunami of materials as you have been?
Yes. That was a view that that would gradually happen, and we would need resources to scale up accordingly.
But you’re a very small organization with a very small infrastructure. How did you ever think that you were going to be able to handle the kind of volume of material that you got?
Well, through delegation; that it’s something that needs to be built up and something we are building up. We’re working on 63 or more media partners now.
Did it happen faster than you imagined it would happen?
Overall impact did not happen faster than we imagined, but the spikiness in receiving the material is something that was a bit unexpected. So some weeks things are very flat, and other weeks we see a lot of information often coinciding with press activity. So [they] hear about us, and they’re enthused and encouraged by hearing about a successful case that we’ve dealt with, and so they step forward.
More than 390,000 Iraq war logs — 391,000 or 392,000.
We have a lot more than this.
So you expected you would get that kind of volume of material?
Yes, eventually. That’s why I said that, you know, I believe that the media alone as an economic sector is simply not large enough to process what we need to understand about the institutions that make up our society. It’s just not big enough. We need the media and we need people, the average man, to come forward and assess the material we’re releasing.
Have you ever coached or helped a source figure out how to not deliver material to you but to crack it, to get it out of the system that it’s in?
Well, I’m going to speak in a different way on this question. There is something occurring now in the United States which is very dangerous. It is, if it’s not dealt with, the end of national security journalism in the United States. The argument being proposed by the Pentagon pushed in a 40-minute public press conference by spokesperson Geoff Morrell is that any sort of traditional investigative journalism concerning classified information is espionage.
If that interpretation is allowed to stand, there will be no more quality journalism in the United States holding the national security sector to account — a very, very dangerous thing. And [executive editor] Bill Keller of The New York Times has slotted into that interpretation in order to protect the journalists of The New York Times and himself. Keller has said that The New York Times is not involved with any collaboration with us.
That is simply false. There was collaboration from beginning to end in terms of timetabling, researching stories, talking about how to understand data, etc., etc., embargo dates, the works. Keller has tried to say we were just the source; they were a passive recipient. And the reason that Keller did that and we knew before it became public was that they received legal advice in order to protect themselves from the Espionage Act they needed to be completely passive, or be presented as completely passive.
One man’s collaboration is another man’s conspiracy. So any collaboration between a journalist and a source, between one media organization and another media organization, can be viewed, the Attorney General Justice [sic] [Eric] Holder says, as a conspiracy that flows through.
That’s a very dangerous interpretation, and that interpretation must be resisted. And The New York Times must stand up, and it must hold the line that the traditional form of journalism that people have been doing in the United States, Sy [Seymour] Hersh and others, concerning the national security sector, calling up sources, saying, “What do you know about this helicopter accident? What do you know about these abuse allegations that we’ve been hearing, and can you prove it?,” that needs to be protected at all costs, because if it is not protected, it will be the end of holding the national security sector to account. And the reality is that that sector makes up, directly and indirectly, some 30 to 40 percent of the entire U.S. economy. It is extremely powerful.
And at the moment that tax revenues in the United States have gone down, we see that that sector is increasing the amount of money it’s getting; i.e., it is increasing its political power domestically to suck out more money from the U.S. tax base and give it to its patronage network, which includes all the big military contractors, plus the military itself and the spy agencies and the politicians that get their power pulling the whole thing together. A very dangerous business.
I hear you, but your answer [is] effectively deflecting from the question of whether you have in practice encouraged, coached, helped sources get material out of —
Well, I’m answering you this way for a very specific reason. To say yes would be to fall under what the Pentagon is trying to say is espionage, but is nonetheless legitimate journalistic activity, and to say no would be to not hold the line journalistically.
To say no [would be to] encourage and legitimize the argument that the only form of journalism that is not illegal is when journalists don’t speak to sources. Actually, WikiLeaks as an organization is one of the very rare media organizations that doesn’t tend to speak to sources.
But you want to defend the right of all journalists?
I want to defend the right of all journalists to do precisely that, and that if we need to do that one day as well, I want to defend that right as well.
And there’s nothing in your view, just to be clear — in fact, it’s necessary for you to be in a position where you can help a source get material out of the national security establishment and release it to the public.
We see that individuals like Sy Hersh and many other traditional investigative journalists in the United States, for some of their best stories, have done precisely that. They speak to sources embedded within the national security sector, and those sources give them proof of allegations in the form of documents. That’s a very, very valuable thing, and it must be protected at all costs. And the right of journalists to do that must be protected. …
Was there internal discussion about further release, after the “Collateral Murder” film was made, and then Manning’s arrest takes place, did you discuss internally, among yourselves, whether or not releasing additional [material], the war logs and eventually the cables, could further jeopardize him?
There was discussion about, you know, we have a situation where there was a young man held in military prison under investigation who’s alleged to be a source for “Collateral Murder” video. But we have published and received military documents long before Bradley Manning ever joined the Army. We have received military documents long after Bradley Manning was arrested. So we are in a difficult position where we do not know precisely what it is Bradley Manning is alleged to have given to us.
But he did say he mentions some of these packages allegedly in the chat.
For example, in that alleged chat, he does not mention anything about the Afghan material or whatsoever.
But the Iraq war logs and the cables are mentioned, and the Gitmo [Guantanamo Bay] papers that are about to be released.
He mentions a number of things, or is alleged to have mentioned a number of things. What we don’t know [is] whether he is an intermediary source. We have no idea precisely how he’s alleged to be involved, how he is or is not involved in this conduit of getting information to us.
But what we do know is that we promised the source that we would publish everything that they gave to us. That’s what we publish. That’s what we promise all our sources. If we receive the information, it is done under that promise. We cannot be in a position whereby people can take hostages and prevent publication. We cannot be in a position where we negotiate with hostage takers, because to do that would not only be to violate a promise that we make to the people who give us information. It would be to set up a structure whereby publication could be stopped by taking hostages and claiming that these hostages, true or false, are our sources.
The question of harm minimization: You came in for a lot of criticism of that, that you were in your initial conversations not concerned.
That’s absolutely false, and this is a typical rhetorical trick —
Why does this keep coming up? Why are there people out there that are saying that you didn’t care if informants were killed?
It’s absolutely false. And I’ll explain to you why it keeps coming up. First of all, this is the bog-standard tactic of the Pentagon. Whenever they are or expect to be criticized for slaying innocent civilians, thousands — in the case of the Afghan war diaries — [of] people killed documented in this conflict, over 20,000 in our material. Whenever they come under that criticism, they use the bog-standard rhetorical trick which is to turn the precise criticism that you expect back on your opponent.
So the criticism that they were expecting is they were involved in the situation that has led to the deaths — that documents deaths of over 20,000 people. So what do they say? They say we might have blood on our hands when their own records document that broader military conflict killing 20,000 people.
Now, if we go to the detail about names, it is right to name names. It is absolutely right to name names. It is not necessarily right to name every name. We’re dealing with a situation where we have in Kabul radio stations, who are meant to be independent, who are funded by USAID [U.S. Agency for International Development], taking PSYOPS programming content, psychological operations programming content, to be played on their radio stations as news, but it is actually propaganda. Now, the names of those people involved, do the Afghan people have a right to understand which one of their media channels are propaganda and which one is the true independent? Of course they do.
I’m confused. You’re saying that you have the right to name names of those people who were informing the U.S. military —
Ah, there’s many names that first of all, we didn’t release one in five of the documents.
Right. You held them back.
Right. We held it back, one in —
Those were the threat reports?
One in five, because the assessment by the media partners that we were working with is that those documents contained names of informers who were innocent.
But you reject the idea or the allegation that you were into just releasing the names?
It’s completely false. We, as all good investigative journalists do, name names. We name names of those people that are involved in corrupt or abusive activities, and that includes in Afghanistan. And then there are people that are incidental characters, that are not themselves threatened in any way. They should also be named as part of just the context of the situation.
We have a harm-minimization procedure. A harm-minimization procedure is that we don’t want innocent people who have a decent chance of being hurt to be hurt. Now, no one has been hurt. There is no allegation by the Pentagon or any other official source that anyone has been physically harmed as a result of our publication of the Afghan war logs, the Iraq war diaries or the State Department records, or the “Collateral Murder” video, or in fact anything we have done over the past four years in over 120 countries.
Now, we are dealing with very significant and substantial information. There may come a time where in order to save people from war, to save people from corruption, to assist in taking a dictatorship to a democracy that people incidentally come to harm. That is never our intention. That day may yet come, but that day has not come yet. And that is, in fact, a proud record for this organization.
The cables, according to U.S. diplomats, has made it harder for them to do their job. Was that the intent?
Well, if they are embarrassed by what their job is, then yes, it is. That was absolutely the broader philosophical intent, to make embarrassing behavior harder to commit.
But it will make local officials less likely to share information —
Their embarrassing behavior is just this side of abusive behavior. And we wanted to generate a situation not only where people have the knowledge to conduct their affairs, the knowledge to understand the powers in their society, but whereby there are disincentives for behaving in an abusive way.
But the embarrassed parties, for the most part, are foreign leaders, foreign officials, who now are reluctant to share information, to talk to U.S. officials.
If the cost of stimulating revolutions like we’ve seen in Tunisia, in Cairo and a whole sway of political reforms that have been sweeping down through Southern [sic] America, if the cost for that is that for a little while some foreign leaders are going to be a bit more cautious when speaking to the State Department, then that is clearly a cost that bounces in favor of what people need.
Who are you accountable to, Julian?
We are accountable to the public. And let me explain how we’re accountable to the public. All the fruits of our labor are published. We are a publishing organization. There is nothing that we do that does not result in material that is being published. So the public can see what it is we do. We don’t do anything that doesn’t result in publishing.
The public chooses to support us by defending us politically, by giving us money and by giving us source material. And the media chooses to work with us or not, depending on whether they think we’re doing a good job. And all our job is published.
We survive on a week-to-week and month-to-month basis purely as a result of public donations, purely as a result of intellectual donations, information provided by our sources. If the public believes that in a three-month period that we should not be supported, that is the end of WikiLeaks. And that is unlike any democratically elected government.
We are the, maybe not perhaps the most, but one of the most accountable organizations to the public because we draw out all our support from the public. We are not an organization that draws our support from advertisers. We are not an organization that draws our support from the USAID or from the Russian government. We are not an organization that draws its support from controlling oil in the ground. We are an organization that draws our support from the public. As soon as the public stops supporting us, there is no more WikiLeaks.
What’s next for WikiLeaks?
WikiLeaks is continuing to step up its publishing speed, the number of organizations we’re involved in, the number of countries we’re involved in. We have a number of significant upcoming projects. We have an increased coalition of media partners. We are still involved in getting the majority of these cables out to all the countries where they can make a difference.
And you can see just recently we have done that in India, and we have done that in Paraguay, where this information about how senior people in these countries operate, their corruption, their relationships with each other, is really generating significant and important reform.
And I guess in a way [we] have the State Department to thank for collecting that information and the U.S. taxpayers for subsidizing the collection of that information. You know, it should have been the case that our release of that material made no difference whatsoever. If we had investigative journalists funded to the same degree that the State Department was funded, that information would have been picked up by those journalists. It isn’t.
So we have to rely on the subsidies that powerful organizations — intelligence agencies and diplomatic establishments — give to describe the world. And then we are able to give that description to the people, and it does good. We can see the effects all around us.
… [British investigative journalist] Nick Davies came to see you in Brussels. He says that he convinced you that you needed the major media, the mainstream media.
It is normal for the British press to try and take credit for other people’s work. This case is no exception. However, Nick Davies did play an important and instrumental role. I was busy in Brussels giving a censorship talk to the European Parliament. I spoke to a local Guardian reporter and mentioned that Nick Davies was a good guy and that we would like to do something later on. And Nick flew over, and we had a six-hour discussion about how WikiLeaks was going to release this material.
We had already been in contact with Der Spiegel. We had worked with the mainstream press since 2007. In fact, our first Guardian front page was in September 2007. Working with whoever we can to maximize the impact for our sources is not a new idea for this organization. Rather, it’s always been there. And this particular event in that regard is no exception. Where it is different is that we decided to pull in three additional media partners together to work in collaboration and task them to share research with each other.
So we tasked The New York Times, the Guardian and Der Spiegel to work with us to share research, put it together and have it all released at a go date. Our role, other than providing the information and explaining how to read it and understand it, and publishing it, was to make sure this collaboration worked well.
And there were a number of disputes and debates about what was the right publishing time, whether people were sharing enough information, etc., etc. I’ll give you an example of one of those. For legal reasons, we felt that it was most likely that the source of the material or sources of the Afghan material were someone from within the United States government, so we wanted it to be very clear that the release of this material was normal press publishing, likely to be protected under the First Amendment.
That is why we insisted on bringing in The New York Times. We also insisted on The New York Times publishing first, so if there was any debate before a jury about had it been published first in a foreign publication or a U.S. publication, it would be very clear it was published first in a U.S. publication.
Protected by the First Amendment.
Protected by the First Amendment.
Not an act of espionage by a foreign —
Exactly. Not an act of espionage. But clearly that wasn’t the case, but we didn’t want anyone to try and spin it, either, that it was the case.
We also wanted to give The New York Times a sweetener to invest in the material. And having the initial publication is something that’s important to journalists, because that’s what they get awards from and what the newspaper gets its brand recognition from.
One week before our scheduled publication date, Bill Keller said that he didn’t want The New York Times to go first. The New York Times was too scared to release the first stories — not the material, but to release the first stories —
The Afghan war logs.
— on the Afghan war logs. The New York Times asked that we go first. The New York Times —
That WikiLeaks publish first.
— was asking that a small Web startup, a free-press organization, scoop it, in one of the biggest stories of the year, if not of the last eight years. Why was that? That goes against all the instincts you would think of a newspaper to have another organization publish first — because it was scared of the political fallout.
And that is a reality, a realpolitik reality for The New York Times. Now, one might say that perhaps someone other than Bill Keller might have handled things differently. There’s a pattern of behavior going back to how he dealt with the National Security [Agency’s] illegal warrantless wiretapping on its citizens.
On the eve of the election.
On the eve of the election, and concealing that for a whole year. There’s some other events that are similar.
You’re attacking Keller and The New York Times for lack of courage and timidity. They say you are difficult to deal with. They used words like “arrogant,” “imperious,” “unreliable”; you don’t show up when you say you’re going to show up. If we’re going to get into attacking them for their timidity and lack of courage, I have to ask you to address what they throw back at you.
Well, look, Bill Keller is meant to be the head of the most influential single publication in the world. That is a serious position. That is a leadership role. His journalism carries down through the whole of The New York Times and carries down, in fact, through many of the publications in the United States, because it is a type of a standards-bearer.
He has a special responsibility to not engage in yellow journalism, to not self-censor, and to act with courage and responsibility where the U.S. government and its pressure is concerned. And it’s the U.S. government that is particularly important, because that is the nation that The New York Times is meant to be holding to account.
That editorial committee at the Times, while it has done some very good work with us, has also failed in important respects. For example, going back once again to the Afghan war diaries, we discovered a very serious story about Task Force 373, an undisclosed U.S. Special Forces assassination squad working its way down a list of some 2,000 people to assassinate or imprison them. That list is called the JPEL, Joint Priority Effects List.
Der Spiegel, who we were concurrently publishing with, made that story their front cover. It’s a weekly magazine, and the most respected in Germany. The importance of a front cover for Der Spiegel is seven times that of the front page for a newspaper. Der Spiegel made it the front cover. The Guardian made it a significant story within their collection of stories. And it didn’t appear in The New York Times.
Now, does that just mean it was oversight and it wasn’t written for The New York Times? No. In fact, Eric Schmitt, senior national security reporter at The New York Times, that we had worked with on a number of other stories, had written the story. He had written the story on Task Force 373 for The New York Times, and it was killed off at the editorial level.
When I spoke to Keller and complained about this and asked him if The New York Times was doing things like this, why should we continue the collaboration, he said, “Well, maybe we thought maybe we could use it in the future,” etc., etc.
You were also upset about a very negative profile of you —
No, not at the —
— and their treatment of Bradley Manning.
Later on we were concerned about it.
But all these things angered you about The New York Times.
Yes. And the treatment of Bradley Manning was really appalling; that while there had been some brief descriptions of him in Wired magazine, there had not been a proper treatment of him as a person presented to the U.S. public.
The New York Times decided to do the first one, so it carried with it a special responsibility, because it was the initial version of history of this young man that was being laid down, a young man completely unable to speak for himself. He is detained in a military prison, not talking to the press and, at that stage, possibly not even having the ability to speak at all to the press — even indirectly — through lawyers.
So what did The New York Times do? It could have looked in a balanced way at what was known about him, presented the difficult situation that he was in with the facts about perhaps why he said he had done what he’s alleged to have done. That never —
We don’t have any statement why he did. We have a chat with Adrian Lamo that you say you can’t trust.
We have a chat with Adrian Lamo which we cannot trust in detail.
So that’s not exculpatory material, is it?
But that chat is the chat that The New York Times used. It selectively picked material from that chat to paint Bradley Manning in a certain light as — let me put it crudely — as a sad, mad, bad fag in the military.
… The government has a right to secrets or not?
The government doesn’t have a right to secrets. Governments give rights to the people. The government through police enforces rights for people. In a good system, courts are the mediators in that. Now, the government — parts of the government — can argue a case that in particular circumstances, they need to keep things secret. And I would agree with that, that there are many cases, operational cases, say, during the police investigation into a murder when information needs to be kept secret. Now, the question is, who has to keep things secret and for how long?
And who decides who leaks what?
And who has to justify secrecy? And how is secrecy accountable? Now, the problem with secrecy is that it has encoded within it its own corruption.
But I feel like we’re getting away from the question. It’s a simple question: Does the government have the right to keep secrets? Yes, you’re saying?
No, it is not a simple question. That’s completely wrong. Who bestows rights? Who has to justify the use of secrecy? If you’re justifying the use of secrecy, how can you do it? If you say, “I have this secret information, and it needs to be secret,” who do you then tell to say that you need this to be secret?
We have a situation in many countries, including the United States, where intelligence agencies go to congressmen and give them secret briefings, and they say to the congressmen: “Look, if you don’t give us all this money, something very bad is going to happen. But you can’t tell anyone why we say something very bad is going to happen. And in fact, we’re not going to show you the intimate details of that.” So you have a built-in unaccountability in the procedure of secrecy. So that means secrecy needs to be kept in check. It needs to be used very sparingly. Just like secret courts are inherently corrupting, because justice needs to be seen to be done, similarly, government secrecy is inherently corrupting, because it allows abuses to flourish in secret.
Would you agree that if a government has a hostage rescue operation in the works that that deserves to be kept secret?
I would say that it is legitimate for those people involved in that, in the government, to take the necessary steps to keep that information secret. Now, that does not include deploying police to everyone else in the world to shut them up. Obviously, in some cases, we can say information, say about a hostage situation, would be better off kept secret. But we know what would be much worse off: if the state had the right to shut everyone up in the world at a point of a gun if those people were saying something that the state did not like.
That is the situation that mirrors that in the Soviet Union and instantly corrupts the state and the people, because in the end, it is only the people working with the press that holds powerful groups like the states to account. That system of scrutiny of the state is so sacrosanct in preventing democracy’s going astray that it must be kept open, and that people must be kept free to exchange knowledge with each other, and the press must not be censored.
Now, that is a lesson that the founding fathers of the U.S. learned with regard to censorship that was applied to them by the British. That is a lesson that has been learned in a number of countries that have themselves gone through revolutions after periods of dictatorship or abuse.
You’re a very bright guy, but do you understand why so many people have difficulty with you coming out of seemingly nowhere with this idea, WikiLeaks, and getting so many people bent out of shape — powerful people, but as well journalists, partners, other people within WikiLeaks?
What other people within WikiLeaks?
Apparently the architecture was upset.
According to whom?
To Daniel Domscheit-Berg.
OK, the man we suspended.
But other people quit around that time.
No, other people did not quit.
You’re very perceptive, but do you understand why you have become the subject of so much derision by so many —
Of course. It is par for the course. And we have had it for years and years and years. Every time that we expose powerful organizations and powerful groups, there is a counterattack.
But isn’t that too easy?
That has always happened in the history of the world, and we are no exception. We are a small organization that does not yet have a vast and powerful lobby to support it. But at the same time, we are taking on extremely powerful groups that do have vast and powerful lobbies to support them. So of course we are going to be attacked in all sorts of manners. Of course people are going to try and capitalize and distort and hype up any sort of possible criticism.
Just like the criticism that was against Obama into his presidential election, where we have statements that Obama was not even an American — that is still flowing around — that are completely insane. Those are a result of a very powerful lobby opposing the election of President Obama. But Obama had also a very powerful lobby pushing back in the other direction, so he was able to keep the relative influences of these two things in check.
Do you think you’re as powerful as Obama?
As a young organization, we don’t have a lobby that is the size of the entire U.S. Democrat Party and its backers on Wall Street, so it is hard for us to respond to all that criticism. On the other hand, actually, the people and young journalists and some very good older journalists are strongly supportive of us. And people are starting to see, as we’re having this fight for political perception and for legitimacy in the public sphere, that actually we do have some people on our side.
We have a lot of people on our side. We have a lot of people who are not organized to the degree that the State Department or Democratic Party is organized. There are millions of people who support us. And we can see that not just in sort of statements that we see at rallies or statements that we see on the Internet or statements of good people coming out to the press in public. We can see this in a way which is impossible to fake.
We can see this in a way which is impossible to fake, which is mums and dads donating us money for no other reason than to keep us going. They don’t even get their name on the list. They don’t even get a thank-you card, although we are very thankful. They do it simply to keep us going.
You are a hero to many, and others want to see you dead — have actually called for your execution.
What’s the question?
I don’t know. Its effect [on] you?
We have to go through lots of inquiries, security procedures as a result of statements like that. They are not without cost. But also, they certainly have not stopped us publishing.
Some people say you’ve called too much attention to yourself and not enough to Bradley Manning.
We are in a very difficult position with Bradley Manning. Look at the statements that happened last year against me from the U.S., from Sarah Palin, from shock jocks on FOX News, from Peter T. King, [R-N.Y., chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee]. There’s bills in the U.S. Senate to declare us a transnational threat, have us dealt with like Al Qaeda. That’s a serious business. Why did that happen? Because there was a lobby, a powerful lobby in the U.S. national security sector that certain individuals like Peter T. King, a politician, thought that they could appeal to in engaging in this behavior.
That was all targeted toward WikiLeaks as an organization and toward me personally. I have always been the lightning rod for this organization and our publishing. I take those hits. That’s a hard job, but we need someone to do that job. Bradley Manning is an individual that, especially at that time, we cannot speak too much about. The more we speak about him, the more we put in the mind that he could be a source of ours. And that would affect his trial process.
Similarly, that vitriol that has come to my direction, if we make Bradley Manning the Mr. WikiLeaks of America, he will receive that, and he will not receive a fair trial as a result. The way that we must —
Is he a whistleblower, or is he what?
Well, I don’t know what he is. But clearly —
Clearly our source is or — if it depends on whether you consider all this material as a package. But anyway, our source or sources for this dramatic military material and the State Department material that we have been releasing over the past seven months is the greatest whistleblower that has ever existed, is the bravest source that we know about in journalism. And to that extent, he’s an absolute hero.
[He] has been a catalyst for the revolutions that are happening in the Middle East, something that we thought was never possible; has been a catalyst for important political change happening in Peru and other parts of South America; for exposing corruption in the Indian Parliament, which has walked out over four times as a result of material in the State Department cables. That individual or individuals operating as a switch to enable a certain course of action has done more for the world in the past, done more for the world than any other person that I can think of. Who has done as much as that?
He did this Apache video or “Collateral Murder” film that you made out of it. And that clearly was an outrageous event. Things went very wrong. The subsequent releases were not things that he could have fully understood or have read. I mean, he could not have read over half a million documents.
I have heard this allegation before, and this is quite facile.
Well, it’s true. It’s not an allegation; it’s true.
Is every second in that “Collateral Murder” video, is every second a crime?
No. Not every second of that video is. So you can’t — and should we expect that our source or sources of that video edit out every second except the seconds that were crimes?
I don’t think that’s a very good argument.
Of course not. Rather, there is a bunch of material, and there are crimes, and the rest is context. Let’s look at the reality for someone working within the U.S. government. The whole of the world’s media has only been able to publish stories for some 7,000 of the diplomatic cables. How is a small group of individuals or a single individual meant to be able to read 250,000 diplomatic cables?
It is enough that they have read several thousand and go, “That’s an abuse; that’s corruption; that’s someone getting killed; that’s a distortion of what the public is told,” and to have a feeling for it and then say, “I understand that there’s an organization that can do what I cannot possibly humanly do, which is to read all that material.” And I have seen enough samples to know that there is important revelatory material in there that could achieve change.
And [they] give it to us, and then we give it to our partners, and change is all around us as a result. That’s just simply intelligent. What would the person do otherwise? Not reveal that information? Because if they hadn’t revealed that information, all these tremendous benefits that the world has seen would never have happened.
Is that the standard that we should hold people to, that they should not engage in action that has helped to free people from dictatorships? What kind of standard is that? If someone has an opportunity to free people from dictatorships and does not act, obviously that is an immoral standard. That is a standard that no one should be held to.
The Army says there was a mechanism through which he could have gone. There are whistleblower statutes. There was an inspector general that he could have gone to with this material; that he didn’t follow procedure; he violated his oath to the U.S. Army, and —
Well, look, the abuse of the law by generals and CEOs is something we’ve seen again and again and again.
But will the system work if everybody just freely leaks the material?
No, a general or a CEO is not the arbiter of the law. There are lower laws, and there are higher laws. There are laws that operate together, and there are laws that are in conflict. The First Amendment is part of the Constitution, and it is a law of the United States. Similarly, there are laws about government cover-up of crimes. There are all sorts of laws. There are laws that protect the press, the right of whistleblowers and so on.
You cannot simply pick one law that says a soldier takes an oath and then say that’s the end of the matter. A soldier lives within a system of laws, including in the United States. That goes all the way up to the Constitution and all the federal laws. And we all know that laws, even so, are not always right. Laws need to be changed. There is abuse of laws everywhere that come about as a result of improper lobbying, as a result of mistakes, as a result of some system that is antiquated.
Sometimes laws need to be broken. And I say that if any laws were broken in the release of this material, then they should have been broken, because look at the result. The result is we do not know and there is no allegation of a single person having been killed. But there is all around people being encouraged and facilitated in the liberation of dictatorships and government corruption and so on. I mean, if we look at what is the cost and what is the benefit, clearly the benefits are the most tremendous we have ever seen in journalism.
We can say that journalism and societal change and political change and the collapse of dictatorships, that means nothing. But if you say that, I say you are against the sentiment of the majority of the population. The majority of the population believes these things are important, and they should be held high. And if an individual has the courage of their conviction and their beliefs to say these things are important, and takes an act at their own risk and possibly their own detriment to do it, then clearly they are a hero, because they are giving through risk taking what the world has said that it always needs.
There are those in the government who say, look, none of these documents that were released were top-secret documents, and many of them were examples of overclassification. This was not such a big deal. The revolution in Tunisia was not sparked by WikiLeaks, nor was the revolution in Egypt. Perhaps it added fuel to the fire, some of the cables that were released, but that this has all been overdone.
What Tunisians say in interviews, Tunisian professors, is that it did spark the revolution in Tunisia. Of course, the tinder was dry, and there are other factors and other —
There was a grocery seller who [set himself on fire to protest police brutality and sweeping abuses of human rights in Tunisia].
That was after. That the tinder was dry and other courageous acts also contributed to it. And in the end, it is the people on the ground committing courageous acts. But what sparked it actually, the newspaper Al-Akhbar, the best newspaper in the Middle East, publishing out of Lebanon, publishing online, published in Arabic in early December, it also worked with a newspaper, Al-Masry Al-Youm, in Cairo, publishing in early December and right through. Al Akhbar was attacked after publishing material in Tunisia and Saudi [Arabia], and it had its whole domain name taken down for a day. It then received denial-of-service attacks. It was banned by the Tunisian government. WikiLeaks was banned by the Tunisian government early in December. Computer hackers supportive to us went into Tunisian government websites and redirected them to point at this material.
The material didn’t just criticize and expose the corruption and opulence of [ousted Tunisian President Zine El Abidine] Ben Ali and his wife and his relatives. It presented the U.S. view on that. It made it impossible for the State Department to support Ben Ali, because their own ambassadors were saying something contrary. It made it difficult for the French and others to support Ben Ali when their allies in the United States were writing against him.
And it became clear that if it came to a struggle between the Ben Ali political regime and the [Tunisian] army that the U.S. would probably support the army. That gave a signal to activists inside Tunisia, but it also gave a signal from the states within the Middle Eastern region, such as Saudi Arabia, who are in the process of propping up and supporting their neighboring dictatorships.
But are you a hacker, an activist, a journalist, a publisher, a source? What is WikiLeaks? What are you?
WikiLeaks is a publication. Sunshine Press is an organization that is involved in contributing to the actual publishing venture —
So you’re a publisher?
— and other ventures. I am many different things. It is the easiest, broadest umbrella to say that I am a publisher.
Do you make political choices in what you publish?
We promise our sources that we will try and get maximum possible impact for the risk that they take.
But you have to choose, because you have more to publish than you could possibly publish. So you have to pick and choose among those things as to what’s —
To begin with, we were able to publish in order of material that we received. As we became more popular, we started receiving too much information, and we developed a subproject to deal with that, to automatically delegate to partner media organizations. For our backlog of material, of submissions to us that take extra time and extra vetting, clearly we have to prioritize our resources in terms of our values. And our stated values are that we are doing all this to make a more just and civilized world.
So you make political choices as to what material you think will have the best impact —
That’s not correct. It’s not correct within the U.S. parlance to say that we make political choices. The choices that we have made, that we make, is that we want to bring about a more just world, that we are interested in justice. That is the value of the organization. We say the way to get justice is through the Fourth Estate in general, to give democracy the lifeblood that it needs.
So we look for and prioritize acts of injustice that expose abuse within the material we have, because we have limited resources. So we publish them first. And there are also other time factors. Clearly if there’s a document about an upcoming election or players in an upcoming election, that’s got to go first. And we have done that with some of our cable-publishing efforts.
For example, we rushed for publication of material about Uganda and the abuse of certain peoples in Uganda, because the Ugandan election was coming up. We’ve done that with Peru, with the Peruvian election. So there’s a lot of work to do, more work than we have resources for. So we must select those parts which are going to have the biggest possible impact, because that is the promise we make to our sources, and it is the promise that we make to the public as an organization.
We are not in this to make money. We are not in this for political reasons. We are in this for the cause and pursuit of justice, and [we are] using a tried and true technique of getting justice, which is to expose injustice.
What is the biggest mistake that you as head of WikiLeaks have made?
Let me think about that for a minute. …
So in thinking about mistakes, there are those mistakes which are as a result of the difficulties of a situation. To some degree they are forced moves, where one has to compromise, because of lack of resources, because of the realpolitik nature of the situation, in order to get the job done. Those are situations where if you had to go back and do it again, given the same resources and the same basic restraints, you would actually be forced to do it just the same way. There are others where, given a key insight or given a reflection about what you have done, you could see a different way to do this.
But is there one mistake that you’ve made that you’d like to really go back and redo right now?
There’s not one obvious mistake that stands out among others. As an organization that’s done a lot, clearly we’ve made a lot of mistakes. That is inevitable. The only way not to make mistakes is to not do anything. There is perhaps certain individuals that we — an individual that we employed that perhaps we should not have employed.
You’re talking about Domscheit-Berg.
And I would say that’s probably the greatest mistake.
Yeah, I’d say that’s — I have to be — not sure whether this is really a mistake to the degree that we were low on capital so we were reliant on volunteer labor, including by people who in that in that particular case had a different agenda or were a bit unstable.
You’re saying he was unstable?
We have said this in the past, yes.
That Daniel was unstable?
Yes. That he became unstable. And we saw that. And he was isolated as a result. But many, many complications arose from that situation. Fortunately, he was completely removed from dealing with material coming from sources. He was removed from classified information, etc., because we saw these tendencies. So we did act early to try and minimize any negative effects, and perhaps did not act soon enough.
How hard is this job for you?
Well, it’s the easiest job in the world because it is the most satisfying job in the world.
But you’re tied up here in this house. You can’t go freely anywhere. You have to be back at 10:00 at night. You’re under a lot of pressure. And you’ve offended a lot of people, and a lot of people rail against you.
Yeah, but history is on our side. And we can see the way that things are moving, even the last three months. We have never been scared of — at least I have never been scared of suffering difficulties given a longer understanding about what the course of events are. Most good journalists have that instinct, that when you expose powerful organizations, there will be ad hominem attacks, and there will be all sorts of attacks.
And yes, my personal case, they’ve been rather hard, but it’s not an unusual circumstance. I mean, friends I was working with in Kenya, every time they publish a serious story, they go to Tanzania and sit it out, because they don’t know what form the revenge is going to take. But I can see that our popularity in the United States has been increasing over the three months and that there’s a certain view that is developing in the White House, what I call the Wall Street part of the White House, those people that Obama brought in with him that is at least neutral toward us, in some cases positive —
Because you represent a free market of some kind?
We represent certain values about freedom of speech. We also represent a tendency to keep the national security sector, in every country but especially United States, in check. And that sector is becoming such a bloated part of U.S. society that it is making it difficult for Obama and other parts of the White House to implement policy.
And in order to keep it in check, there needs to be proper investigative journalism done on it. It needs to be held accountable to the people, by the press, like every other organization must be held accountable. And it is trying to build a shield around its activities, a secrecy shield to make it completely unaccountable and therefore to take it outside the usual ebb and flow of the political process that results in it getting more tax money or less.
So the U.S. Department of Health has to compete and justify all tax money that it gets. And it says, “We treated a certain number of people this year, and this is how we did it; and there are all these complaints and investigations, and we handled them this way, etc., etc.; and health is a really important thing, and this is why it’s important,” whereas this sector, the trick it has used to grow so fat is to say, “If you don’t give us money, you’re all going to die, but we won’t tell you exactly why; we won’t justify exactly why.”
And all the squandering of the money and the abuse of this position of power, well, it’s all got to be kept completely secret. And as a result of keeping it secret, the public can’t oppose effectively its demands to have an ever greater share of the U.S. tax take. And that is something that the Obama White House has to deal with, a realpolitik that it needs to deal with and has difficulty dealing with.
Obama doesn’t have any legs in this. He comes from connections in two parts. One is from his Harvard academic connections, and the other is from his financial broad powerbase, which you could loosely call Wall Street. He doesn’t have relatives, a father, a business partner that he trusts that comes from the national security sector.
So on the one hand you think, well, this means he’s not corrupted by it, because he doesn’t have personal connections to it, which may be true. On the other hand, he’s completely unable to understand and control it. And he’s trying to administer policy such as changes in Guantanamo Bay, such as [drone] strikes, etc. He is sliding all over this because he cannot —
He’s groping for the exits in Afghanistan.
Right. And he’s not able to maneuver this incredible lobby into the position that he wants, because he’s not connected intimately to it in the way, say, that [former Vice President] Dick Cheney was connected to it or [former Treasury Secretary] Donald Rumsfeld was connected to it. And that’s a difficulty for Obama, and it’s a difficulty for the United States. And preserving our ability, which preserves all the press’ ability to hold this sector to account, is something that the White House needs if it’s able itself to govern effectively.
One possible outcome of your leaks is that … [the state] will respond in kind, limit the number of people that have access to the kind of information that they do have now, and you will have effectively vaccinated the system to grow antibodies and be stronger.
I don’t believe that’s going to happen. I think the general shift in technology is such that it allows increased openness. But we can’t be complacent. We can see, in a way, that this national security sector grew so corpulent, so fat, as a result of increasing efficiency of one intelligence agency spreading information to another intelligence agency, of the Pentagon spreading information within itself and all over the world, as a system —
It’s hard to call the organization “efficient.” There is waste of money of all kinds in the Pentagon, in the national security establishment, and the fact is that on 9/11, they missed key signals that allowed the attacks to go forward.
I don’t mean efficient in giving the American people what they need. Of course not. By efficient, I mean efficient at keeping control and influence for that organization. That’s what I mean by efficient. So it is able to pass information around itself very, very fast and quickly and to U.S. military contractors that are interconnecting now with the system.
So it is able to spread and think and adapt, according to its own self-deceived interest, faster than ever before. And that is why it is taking up an increasingly larger share of the U.S. tax base, because as a system of patronage and economy, it is faster than the competing organization.
So you’ve come along with WikiLeaks to try to address the balance, right? That’s what you’re trying to do?
The Pentagon is caught on the horns of a dilemma. And the horns of the dilemma is this: Either it can internally balkanize, and so cover up, it has a greater chance of covering up something that the public detests, because everything’s compartmentalized and [has] become a very inefficient and difficult-to-maneuver —
— organization, or it can conduct its affairs, it can keep the efficiency that it has, and conduct its affairs in such a way that the public is not outraged about it. That’s the horns of its dilemma. Which one is it going to do?
And that’s what you’re trying to accomplish, the latter?
What we’re trying to do is make the systems just, to provide incentives to make them just, because the injustice will be exposed. Or if they’re foolish, they can go down this path. If they go down this path, they will cease to be an effective organization. By effective, I don’t mean giving the American people what they want; I mean able to fight for influence, the share of the tax base and so on.
And they will cripple themselves, in your view?
They will cripple themselves in the process, yeah.
As is usual with interview bids we entered into correspondence about the nature of this documentary before accepting. A source within PBS told us that Frontline would attempt to embroil Julian Assange and Bradley Manning in an espionage context. Frontline assured us this was not what the documentary would show and that the two men’s stories would not be connected.
Below are the emails sent from and to us on this subject. Despite their assurances shown below the documentary intertwines Mr Assange and Mr Manning and although in the email they admit they have not found conclusive evidence against Bradley Manning the word ’alleged’ was barely used.
Email sent on the 4th March 2011 in reply to a letter received by post:
Many thanks for the letter that you sent to Mr Assange and many apologies for taking so long to respond, we have been rather busy.
However, I am writing to let you know that Mr Assange is considering your documentary, but there are a few questions/concerns we would like to put to you at this stage.
1. In your letter you refer to ’interweaving both the chain of events that led to Manning’s arrest and your efforts to publish and disseminate the largest set of confidential documents to the public.” This causes us a concern as to how it will be done – if Mr Assange and Mr Manning are connected in certain ways then this can have an effect on the US case against both – both in the courts and public opinion. This is obviously of grave concern when we are referring to the lives and freedom of two men and WikiLeaks must be careful about the position it puts any of its people in relation to any alleged sources. If you could clarify and expand on this idea it would be much appreciated.
2. In your third paragraph you list the areas of questioning you would like to put to Mr Assange. You mention that you will not focus on the Swedish case. This implies that you will still ask about it. Could you please confirm this and also tell us how much time/how many questions and type of questions on this topic you are expecting to put to Mr Assange. As I am sure you can appreciate whilst this case is on going he is very limited in what he can say on the issue.
3. You mention that you will be able to approach an interview with Mr Assange in better ways than others have. Could you please elaborate on this with specifics as to how you feel you would interview him as opposed to how others have, then that would be much appreciated.
4. You talk about how other programmes have interviewed the ’usual suspects’ and you will do better. However, you do not say whether you will not interview them, or if you will interview someone else altogether, though you do allude to ’key participants’. Please could you inform us as to who else will be in this documentary, including the high ranking officials.
5. You refer to the documentary as a ’full-hour-long investigation’. This also concerns us slightly as from the way you initially introduce the programme it is connecting Mr Assange and Mr Manning. If this ’investigation’ is to attempt to discover whether Mr Manning is or is not the source of some of the leaks we have published then this too is a potentially very damaging to both parties. Please can you confirm the precise nature of your ’investigation’.
6. You mention that you will have a permanent website for this programme. Please let us know what will be on this – out takes etc?
7. Many thanks for the DVDs you sent. After opening them the one that we were most interested in seeing was ’Obama’s War’. However, this was empty. If there is anyway to send this then it would be most appreciated.
8. Many thanks for sending yours and Mr Smith’s bio. Please could you also inform us as to who else is on the team and in addition who has editorial control. Do we retain any control over Mr Assange’s segment – ie if something needs to be retaken can we ensure you do not use the scene that is incorrect. Also, people we have previously worked with have been pressured by their partners/wives/husbands to manipulate interviews in certain ways making them very biased. If you could expand on the explanation of your team to include the key members’ closest business and personal connections this would be much appreciated.
9. Mr Assange is also working on much revenue raising at the moment. Please can you confirm if there is an interview fee.
Many thanks for all your assistance in answering these questions we have and I very much look forward to receiving your response.
Email in response to the above, sent later that day:
Dear Sarah, Thanks for your very thoughtful response to our request to interview Mr. Assange dated February 24, 2011. I am pleased to know that he is considering our invitation. I hope the following answers your questions and concerns.
1. In my letter I said that we intend to “interweave both the chain of events that led to Manning’s arrest and your efforts to publish and disseminate the largest set of confidential documents to the public.” What I meant by that is that any documentary film relies on a narrative arc. In this case, we plan on interweaving two timelines: that of Bradley Manning’s time in the military, from 2007 till the time of his arrest; and that of WikiLeak’s rise, from its inception in 2006, to the publication of the diplomatic cables in November 2010. The film will conclude with both central figures in our documentary, Bradley Manning and Julian Assange, deprived of their freedom. This dual narrative will be placed in context by exploring the larger issues at hand. What is the value of full transparency in government actions? What is the impact of the leaks on national security? What is the government doing to prevent future disclosures?
2. We have little to no interest in the Swedish case. We have not been reporting on it, we have no plans to film interviews that relate to the case, nor have we asked any questions relating to the case in any of the interviews we have so far conducted. While we obviously have to mention the case to describe Mr. Assange’s current legal problems, our film is interested in exploring the story of the leaks themselves, not issues peripheral to that inquiry. The Swedish case is simply not something we will spend time on.
3. I mentioned that I felt the coverage of WikiLeaks in the US media and the documentaries produced on the subject so far are “unsatisfactory and uneven”. While I acknowledge that my competitors have produced some solid films in a very short period of time, I am confident that our production and journalistic standards will surpass what is already out there. You should know that Martin Smith, who will conduct the interview, does not write down questions in advance of an interview. The format of all his interviews is conversational. He uses a chronology of events to guide his interview, but nobody, not even his producer, knows exactly what will be asked. Mr. Smith listens and then asks a question based on the previous answer.
4. It is not our policy to reveal names of individual interviews prior to a film’s release, but I can reveal we have interviewed participants related to the chain of events that led to the arrest of Bradley Manning. And we have advanced the Manning story considerably with exclusive access to members of Manning’s family. We ask that you keep this in confidence. We have also interviewed a string of former officials from DoD, DoS, and DNI and we have scheduled several high-ranking U.S. officials in late March and early April. 5. Our hour will investigate the events that transpired in the run up to Manning’s arrest. We will try to establish the facts and will only report what we know to be true. We have not been able to conclusively establish if Private Manning is the source of the leak, but will of course want to ask that of Mr. Assange, and understand that his answer will likely be consistent to previous answers he’s given.
6. Every hour that airs on FRONTLINE has a companion website, that includes transcripts of key interviews. No other journalistic organization is as transparent in the publication of their source materials. Apart from the actual program, the website also includes additional reading materials, web exclusive videos, and documents that back up our reporting. For more on our website please see www.frontline.org.
7. A DVD of Obama’s War has been sent. It will arrive at Ellingham Hall by March 6th, 2011. You may also stream it online by going to FRONTLINE’s website.
8. We are a small production team, led by Martin Smith, the correspondent and producer, and myself. Our team also includes an associate producer, an archival researcher, and an editor. The latter have no editorial control over the content of the film. FRONTLINE has a rigorous editorial process that oversees all FRONTLINE broadcasts. Editorial control rests with the producers, Marcela Gaviria and Martin Smith, and ultimately, with the Executive Producer at FRONTLINE, David Fanning. None of us have ever been manipulated or been pressured by anyone in our family to alter the content of our documentaries, nor the content of our reporting. We do not share rough cuts or scripts with anyone outside our internal circle and Frontline’s editorial team, which includes Senior Producer Raney Aronson and Michael Sullivan, the Executive Producer for Special Projects. Here is a link to their bios: http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/front… We will retain control over all aspects of production, including the conduct of the interview. However, if Mr. Assange objects to something during the course of filming, he can gracefully opt not to answer. If you ask us not to use a certain response, after the question has been asked and answered, we can discuss this during the course of the interview. Should we agree, at the time, not to publish, then you can rely on our word. Once we have left the premises of the interview we will have control over what we use, but we can, at your request, call you prior to broadcast to run quotes by you for accuracy or clarification. We understand the concern of potential interviewees about how their interview will be edited and in what context it will be used. In our view, nothing destroys the trust of the viewer more quickly than the impression that the content of the film has been shaped, not by an independent journalistic eye, but by the people who appear in our reports. I’m sure you understand. You may certainly record your own version of the interview, if that is helpful.
9. Our editorial standards do not permit the payment of fees for appearances or interviews. For more on our journalistic guidelines, please see: http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/front… I am more than happy to discuss this over the phone or if need be, in person.
Thanks again for your consideration.