“The cables are the most significant encyclopaedia of recent political historyAuthenticated by State Department's aggressive action against us”
Starting March 15, 2011, The Hindu became the first Indian newspaper to offer readers a broad spectrum of articles and reports based on a first selection from 5,100 India Cables, aggregating six million words, made available to it by WikiLeaks. On April 8, Julian Assange, Editor-in-Chief of WikiLeaks, gave a one hour interview at Ellingham Hall in the county of Norfolk to N. Ram, Editor-in-Chief of The Hindu, who was accompanied by Hasan Suroor, the newspaper's U.K. Correspondent. The first part of the interview was published on April 12, 2011. In this concluding part, the WikiLeaks chief responds to questions on the government and political reactions in India; the scale and accuracy of the WikiLeaks releases and the care taken not to harm vulnerable and innocent people; the nexus between the policies of the U.S. and other governments and the interests of big business; WikiLeaks as journalism; the distinction between cable reporting and cable journalism; the goal and method of WikiLeaks and the theoretical framework within which it plays its role on the world stage; and what motivates and moves Julian Assange.
In India, after the initial stunned reaction, the tone of the official response to our publication of the India Cables was set by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh questioning or disputing in Parliament the authenticity of the cables and what the U.S. Embassy and consulates were reporting back to the State Department. Here's what he actually said in the Lok Sabha, our House of Commons, on March 18. He said the government “cannot confirm the veracity, contents or even the existence of such communication.” This seems to have set the Indian government apart from the rest of the governments, the rest of the world, at the receiving end, doesn't it?
Yes, it does.
Have you come across this reaction anywhere else?
We have not come across this reaction and that reaction disturbed me. Because Hillary Clinton had been involved in informing the Indian government, in December , as well as many other governments, that this was coming. There has been no question as to the credibility of any document we have ever published in the last four years, let alone the [U.S. Embassy] cables — which have been authenticated by the very aggressive action of the State Department towards us and by hundreds of journalists from the most reputable institutions across the world.
That is why I said I find that statement a deliberate, knowing attempt to mislead the Indian population. And that is something which is quite concerning. Because that is not just an allegation, it is directly from Prime Minister Singh's mouth and he knows better than to do that. While I have heard — I have no proof but the consensus seems to be that — he is not personally corrupt, here's a clear attempt to cover up for the possible corruption of other people. Rather than simply playing it straight, which he should have done, and say, ‘Look, there are allegations. They are serious and we will investigate them and come to the truth of the matter and give a full report to the Parliament.'
‘Covering up is a habit’
I think if he had taken that approach, he would have been served a lot better. So he has acted against his own interests and acted against the interests of his party, which is odd. So I would suggest it means that he has a habit that he was following rather than thinking things through — and a habit of reactively covering up allegations of corruption.
However, a senior Opposition figure, L.K. Advani, former Deputy Prime Minister and BJP leader — he was in a “Meet the Press' programme in Mumbai where I was on the panel [of editors asking him questions] — he said these [cables] are true. He praised WikiLeaks and us for getting it. But basically he said that a cable can be divided into three parts. I think you've said something like that in interviews but he had come to his own conclusions. One is the fact element, based on facts. He said, ‘So far as I'm concerned, they're true. Because they're not meant for anyone other than their headquarters and it's true.' Then, he said, there's interpretation and the third component is advice provided by the Embassy.
Similarly, other BJP leaders have used it when Congress is at the receiving end. And interestingly, in a recent election campaign, Sonia Gandhi, president of the Congress, used WikiLeaks because one of the BJP leaders said, ‘ Hindu nationalism is an opportunistic issue.'
Yes, I saw that. Fascinating.
And she used it. They're tying themselves up in knots. I thought I'd get your insight on it. But you have said your score on two issues is perfect. One is, not a single item that you have put on WikiLeaks has been shown to be anything other than accurate. Secondly, there's not an instance where it has harmed any innocent person.
Well, well not physically harmed. Not physically harmed. And I don't know a case where it has harmed any innocent person either, in a non-physical way. Many politicians have had to resign or ambassadors that have had to leave their countries because their relationships became unworkable as a result of the lies they were telling their counterparts, and governments have lost elections and dictators like Mubarak had been expelled. But we know of no instance — and neither is one alleged by any official in the United States or another country — where an individual has come to harm as a result of our publishing.
Accuracy and care
Obviously, that record can't hold for ever, to the degree that any organisation involved in industrial-scale publishing must, through the interactions of the world and their work, have been involved in one tragedy or another. But we do take care and so far we are in the enviable position where we have a perfect record on both accuracy and care.
The India Cables have shown a nexus, sometimes unholy or dubious, between U.S. international policy and the interests of its big businesses, for example the Dow Chemical Company, or Boeing, or nuclear reactor suppliers. This nexus seems to be very evident in India as well. Do you think the publication of these cables will make a difference? Or is it something we have to live with, this nexus between powerful government policy and the interests of big business, in controversial areas? Not all business is bad, obviously.
Yes, I think big businesses are powerful and they are able to throw their weight around, in terms of the United States context funnelling money to congressional campaigns. The statistic for Washington is 50 lobbyists per Congressman. So that's an enormous amount of intellectual power being placed on each individual to manipulate them. Similar activities take place in other parts of the world where big companies, not just from the United States but from Russia and China and the United Kingdom specially, do try and manipulate and get inside levers of government.
What these cables do is not stop that situation directly but make it absolutely clear that that is going on. One way to look at them is, if we put them all in book form, there will be 3,000 volumes! At this end 1966 and this end 2010. Together they comprise the most significant encyclopaedia of political history to have ever been written, and it is recent political history. So that gives us a constant way to understand the world and the structure of geopolitical relations, including interactions between big companies and nation states. That understanding, I see, is feeding in — in a more general way, not just news stories. Now it is the case that the cables are cited as historical documents, as facts of history (even though it's very recent history), and that is moving into academic papers and it is moving into position papers by political parties, and so on.
I think what will come out of this is a much more nuanced understanding and practice within government, within academia, within the media, of how the world actually works. And as a result of that, we can get good and just policy, not all the time but much more frequently than we have been able to do previously.
WikiLeaks vs authoritarianism
Your work, “State and Terrorist Conspiracies' [written in November 2006]...I found this quite interesting online discussion of a theoretical framework attributed to you. Basically on authoritarianism and conspiracy and how a powerful system operates, it needs to put things on record, it needs to communicate internally…
…and the role of leaks in this. Is there an update on your theorising on this?
Yes, I have. That was a small discussion paper for some friends who were involved in talking…instead of game playing, what would happen when WikiLeaks really went into action? Would it be the case that powerful organisations that were exposed would simply take everything off paper? We've just incentivised taking them off paper, so we might have a win for a little while for justice but then ultimately the system would restructure itself so that we would not continue having successes with that sort of approach.
Giveaway paper trail
What I found was that that was very unlikely, and that large centralised institutions are that way because they have developed an internal system, which is able to come to central policy decisions and spread it within the network or within the institution and then have it implemented. To do that properly, there needs to be rapid and accurate internal communication. And that means having things on paper or having things on email. Otherwise, there exists simply a sort of Chinese whispers within the institution and the institution itself falls apart. It's not able to carry out its policies.
So you can have small oral conspiracies where things are not put down on paper. But because they're small, by definition the amount of injustice that they can inflict is relatively low. For wide-scale injustice, you need systematisation of unjust policies and to systematise unjust policies, you have to have a paper trail.
I saw that in practice with Guantanamo Bay. We got hold of the two main manuals for Guantanamo Bay and released both of these. What we discovered amongst many types of abuses is instructions to falsify records for the Red Cross, which has an international mandate to come and visit prisoners of war.
I was shocked at this. This was a policy manual for Guantanamo Bay, professionally produced by the military like all their other manuals. Why would they put such egregious conduct down on paper as policy? Well, it's because what sort of people want to work in Guantanamo Bay? What sort of person wants to be a prison officer in Guantanamo Bay? These are really grunts at the coal base. While Donald Rumsfeld and Dick Cheney may be able to have an oral conspiracy and [U.S. Army Major General] Geoffrey [D.] Miller, the head of Guantanamo Bay, you can't get soldiers to accurately carry it out unless you put it down on paper. So they had to put it down on paper and so we discovered it.
After a number of these discoveries, conditions in Guantanamo Bay have substantially improved.
So in a regime of free transfer of information and robust press publishing rights — and abilities, I have to say; really, it is the ability to robustly publish by having a transnational operation like we do or very fast publishing because of the Internet or cheap publishing that creates the ability of a publisher to go on — that sort of regime means that organisations engaging in plans for unjust conduct or to cover up conduct they have been engaged in that has been unjust are caught on the horns of a dilemma.
Two win-win outcomes
On the one hand, they can take everything off paper or most things off paper or some things off paper, or lock things down in expensive security protocols, in safes, and encrypted transmissions, and as a result be very inefficient — and hence contract their power. And reduce their competitiveness, both at a commercial level and at an intergovernmental level. Or they can be more open and simply do things that are less embarrassing. Do things that don't outrage people when they are exposed. So I think that either of these two outcomes is good. Organisations can reform themselves to be more just — and we have more just organisations — and reveal any unjust actions that they have done very quickly to the public. Or they can lose their importance and influence as institutions.
That's quite a good choice. Of course we're still a long way from that being an enforced, mandatory choice for everyone. But that's the way we are trying to push things and we are succeeding in some areas.
What moves Julian Assange?
So justice is what moves Julian Assange and WikiLeaks. That's your lodestar, your conception of justice.
Yes. We have a method and a goal. Our goal is justice and WikiLeaks and its various publishing activities and sourcing activities is the method that we use to try and head towards this goal to have a more just society. And if you ask why am I interested in that, well there's a lot of things I can do. I'm in a fortunate position where I am able to do many things and have done many things. But I see that the world is my world and I am unhappy that my world has injustice in it. I think it is less of a world and it makes me sad to see those things in it. I want to be happy, so I want to make the world more just.
And finally, your latest article in the New Statesman (April 11, 2011), “Of the people and for the people,” where you connect with journalism, mainstream journalism, as Editor-in-Chief of WikiLeaks. You place yourself in the long tradition of radical journalism, of publishers who are courageous, and the long tradition of elites versus the general population. To quote from your article, “In the long view of history, WikiLeaks is part of an honourable tradition that expands the scope of freedom by trying to lay ‘all the mysteries and secrets of government' before the public. We are, in a sense, a pure expression of what the media should be: an intelligence agency of the people, casting pearls before swine” (that of course being an allusion to a statement by a 17th century writer on how radical publishers were setting up the ‘ vulgar' and so on, so that's the allusion). Are you satisfied with the response of WikiLeaks to the big challenges placed in your path today, the fierce attacks and so on, given this conception?
Are we satisfied with our response?
Of your supporters, of the network?
They have been tremendous. Overwhelmingly, we have the support of the people and that is deeply encouraging. And that is true throughout the world. It is especially true of the parts of the world that are not connected to the primary power institutions that we have exposed, such as the United States.
Friends and enemies
But even within the United States, there is tremendous support from young people and from people who were radicalised in the 1960s and 1970s. I also have to say, just from the average man and woman who are not political, there is this cultural tradition in the United States that free speech is important. It is one that has been eroded substantially after the end of the Cold War. During the Cold War, you had liberal intelligentsia and people following Enlightenment and Jeffersonian traditions pushing for free speech and the media as an industrial body pushing for free speech. And you had the military-industrial complex pushing for free speech outside the United States, using it as a moral stick [with which] to beat the Soviet Union. So you had a very interesting combination of two forces that are normally opposed to each other that set up a certain cultural inertia within the United States that unfortunately has been decaying since the early 1990s when the military-industrial complex broke off from this coalition.
But what we find is that the further people are removed from proximity to state power, the more supportive they are. That in itself is very interesting. Amongst the press, that press which is close to U.S., Washingtonian power we see campaigning against freedom of speech in relation to us. That was really an extraordinary thing to see, as was Visa, Mastercard, Western Union, Bank of America, and other finance institutions engaging in extra-judicial economic blockade against our institution and me personally to prevent this goodwill of the people of the world translating into cash support to keep us afloat.
Those reactions to our publishing, in a way, almost reveal something as important as what we have published. They reveal the compromise of the Fourth Estate in the United States, in the U.K., and some other countries. They reveal that financial institutions, including ones in London, are so connected to Washington that they will conduct extra-judicial blockades as a result of a sort of McCarthyist fear of what Washington wants. That mirrors a Soviet sort of repression where there is censorship as a result of a belief about what political power groups in the Politburo want. Similarly, we have suffered censorship as a result of a belief about what power groups within Washington want, not as a result of a proper administrative or judicial process.
About cable journalism
You spoke to me earlier about cable reporting and cable journalism. Could you give us some insight into that difference?
Most of the early reporting on cables that have released, by our media partners and others, is what I call cable reporting. It is to read a cable, to pick out a few quotes, to say who the principal characters are, and then to publish that story. It is not cable journalism. Cable journalism is to read the cables, correlate them with other cables, with interviews of people, with archive searches, with record searches, and investigate the whole situation. And produce something that is more complex, describes a more complex situation. It takes longer but ultimately is the only way to really get at complex situations or situations that occur multiple times in the cable history.
Thank you very much. May I also, on behalf of our newspaper — it's 132 years old — and our readers, over five million of them, thank you very much for enabling us to publish these India Cables. And I look forward to a deepening of this partnership, doing more work on this.
There's one thing I would like to say to The Hindu and to Indian people in general. Which is, as an Australian, thank you for speaking English better than the English.