The behaviour of guilty men: Julian Assange

‘We are working with The Hindu because we have seen its good work. What we have seen in India is ‘an attempt to distort the record and fool the public about the nature of the material…If this cable on bribery is incorrect, the U.S. Ambassador in India has a lot to answer for. '‘There is no doubt whatsoever that the cables are authentic'

Updated - November 17, 2021 03:56 am IST

Published - March 22, 2011 02:31 am IST

WikiLeaks Editor-in-Chief Julian Assange speaks to NDTV Chairman Prannoy Roy on the impact of WikiLeaks worldwide, the consequences, the challenges the network faces, the significance of the India Cables, the partnership with The Hindu , freedom of speech versus privacy, and why governments should be more open. Excerpts from the extended interview telecast on NDTV 24X7on March 21; this is published with permission from NDTV. The interview was conducted over a satellite link.

You are under global attack... Your home country, Australia, accuses you of treason. America wants to arrest you... In Sweden you have been accused of rape. The West prides itself on the rule of law and its institutions of justice. Are you shocked by the ferocity, and the illegalities, of the attacks on you?

I'm disappointed that the U.S. administration has decided to betray the traditions of the founding fathers, and those great traditions of Franklin and Madison. Now the Codified Bill of Rights has within it important protection for freedom… in the First Amendment. So that's depressing. I would like to say that it is not shocking. We have been following the U.S. military for four, five years now, in this process of WikiLeaks. And in other countries. But we can see that there is a burgeoning security state that has spread out not just for Washington, because the centre of gravity is around there. It goes into all the Western countries, and there is a Western alliance that responds very aggressively. Previous publications have received some of that response. But it is really the size and the scale of the publication which has received [such a response], and been stimulating such aggressive attack.

Egypt, Tunisia, safest

Now, with so many countries hunting you down, where can Julian Assange live safely…? In the end, do you think going to jail is inevitable for you?

Right now, it is not clear if there is any country that is safe for [us]... But we do have the will of the majority of the people. My friends in Egypt and Tunisia say that these two countries perhaps would be the safest for us now because of the revolution…

You have got the U.S. Vice President, Joe Biden, calling you a high-tech terrorist, a former Speaker saying you should be treated as an enemy combatant. Have you been threatened privately?

We do receive threats from time to time; there are many of them. But we do not take those threats too seriously. It is the people who are not making the threats and are concerned for us that are important.

You mentioned that the U.S. President is like the super-president of us all. In the recent leaks about India, the diplomatic cables released by WikiLeaks, the overriding feature is America's efforts to influence policies in India. Are you surprised at that, or was it expected?

Looking at what the U.S. has done with other countries, which we have revealed though these cables, it's not at all a surprise, and it is their modus operandi . When I first started reading this material I thought, my god, everything those South American Marxists in the 1960s were complaining about in relation with the State Department, it's actually true. It is not just that they are making political rhetoric. Actually it does appear that the State Department is an instrument of U.S. industry of all types, and it goes around the world clicking political intelligence, interfering in unions and all. We even saw this in Australia where the Australian Cabinet Minister from the Labor government was a confidential source for the U.S. Embassy, going there frequently. [He] said he has been that way throughout his political rise.

There is of course an alternative point of view that what you revealed in these cables is a set of opinions and assessments made by some American diplomats in the U.S. Embassy. And you were just saying that my task ends there in revealing these secret cables. But there are other points of view that… it leaves a lot of collateral damage where opinions and assessments by these officials are taken as facts to embarrass and weaken their states. And people ask you, was that a fair thing to do, just leave this out and wash your hands of it?

Absolutely not. It is not correct to say that all these cables are mere opinions by U.S. diplomats; that's not true. These are [part of] official correspondence sent by Ambassadors, sent in their official capacity back to Washington. Their motivations are to improve their career prospects, generally. So they want Washington to understand that they are engaged in the country. They are getting good sources of information and they are reporting back. This seems to be the predominant thing. But they report what they say are facts, and they also present opinions. It is important to keep these two different. In the case of these Indian cables, which are causing such a furore about bribery… such an interesting case.

It is very hard to understand why U.S. Embassy officials would lie about that to Washington. What is more interesting is: under what basis was he told that information?

But when we look at the cables in other contexts, they have been used and accepted as evidence in the [Charles] Taylor case in The Hague; they have been using quotes in Spain to reopen a rendition case. They have been used in a number of places; they have been accepted as quotes, as probative evidence, as genuine official documents. Of course, what the officials say, and how they gain their knowledge, too must be investigated and interrogated. But the comment I have been hearing from Prime Minister [Manmohan] Singh — these, to me, seem like a deliberate attempt to mislead the public by suggesting that governments around the world do not accept the material and it is not verified ...absolutely false! Hillary Clinton last year in December spoke to the Indian government, perhaps to Prime Minister Singh or at that level, to forewarn that this material would be coming out. There is no doubt that these are bona fide reports sent by an American Ambassador back to Washington, and these should be seen in that context. That does not mean every fact in them is correct: you have to look at their sources and how they gave this information.

They’re official reports

But when the cables come from the Secretary of State, millions of them, it is not actually her writing

That is absolutely correct, there is no doubt whatsoever that the cables are authentic. That is why we are being so heavily attacked by the Pentagon. That is why young intelligence officer Bradley Manning has been imprisoned in the United States for 299 days now. There is absolutely no doubt. The content, of course, varies on a cable by cable basis. It is wrong to suggest that these are just opinions, these are official reports made by U.S. Ambassadors. Sometimes it is opinion, sometimes not. It is done in a serious capacity. For example, if this cable on bribery is incorrect, then the U.S. Ambassador in India has a lot to answer for because he has been sending back very serious reports to Washington about senior politicians and behaviour in Indian Parliament, which casts it in very negative light. It would affect the relationship between India and the United States, So either he has committed a grave error that would damage Indian and American relations…or the material was correct and he was reporting correctly and he had checked his fact before reporting back to Washington.

We have actually heard from our senior former diplomats [that] all cables from India, no matter what, from a junior, go in the name of the Ambassador, and all the cables from Washington to India go in the name of the Secretary of State. The Ambassador and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton may not read every single cable, it just all goes in their name. This could have actually been a more junior person than the Ambassador .

They don't tend to be too much junior. It depends on the seriousness of the issue. You would find probably a Political Officer or an Ambassador who usually clears it. By reading the content you will see that PolOff — that's the Political Officer — was told that. The content of the cable does not fabricate the Ambassador's name. For example, suppose when there is a meeting between the Embassy official or employee or Political Officer or Ambassador, they are named as that. What is written at the bottom of the cable, going back, is frequently the Ambassador or the Political Officer that wrote most of the material, but there is a reason for that: the Ambassador is made to read the cable and sign it off …

On Bradley Manning

You talked about Bradley Manning. Now he is in jail and is being treated terribly, is being kept naked for hours, but the U.S. media and society do not seem to be doing anything about it. Why do you think there has been no angry reactions to what has been happening?

Bradley Manning is America's foremost political prisoner. The allegations against him, whether they are true or not, are of a political nature and he has been kept in solitary confinement for 299 days. As a result of the political allegations that he has revealed, information like this for political reasons demonstrate the inequities and abuses that were happening. There are people in the United States who are angry about this. The State Department spokesperson resigned over this issue. However it is not getting any big media is bubbling there but is not being aggressively picked up, and that is the nature of the mainstream press of the United States. It is a very destructive thing for all of us. When dealing with The New York Times over Afghanistan, I discovered Task Force 373, [on] the Russian side. Task Force 373 is an assassination squad working on a list of 2,000 people in Afghanistan and assassinating them. [There is] no judicial mechanism to get on the list or to review the list. I discovered that this group had killed seven children and tried to cover it up. It became the front cover of Der Spiegel . The New York Times also wrote about it. Similarly, with the cables, The New York Times went to the White House and went and showed them everything long before anything was published. That is [the] fact about the United States, and the security sector has grown so fat and so influential that its tendrils merge into most big companies and big media companies. That is the reality of the U.S. economy and the U.S. media.

Unfortunately, the U.S. media is so strong, [an] aggressive and sophisticated mechanism, that the bias is pushed down in the English language all over the world and to the other English speakers in the world, like the Australian Indians, the Canadians and the British to somehow develop their own media infrastructure and to be able to resist the propaganda.

The Hindupraised

I hate to be, and it is slightly immodest, but the Indian media as a whole has been pretty uncompromising and brave in reporting and everything quite openly. I mean, that is the aggression of the Indian media... would you agree?

Yes, that is one of the reasons we are speaking right now. That is also one of the reasons we are working with The Hindu because we have seen its good work in the past and also the times India has done some fine stories.

With these attacks are your colleagues at WikiLeaks scared? Are many leaving WikiLeaks? Is recruiting a problem?

My colleagues are brave; recruiting members is difficult for a variety of reasons. First of all, in this situation we have the FBI trying to bribe a number of people, bribe even volunteers who work with Bradley Manning support groups. Manning himself, his condition is getting worse and worse. Most people believe that it is a result of them trying to crack him open. He is not speaking to interrogators and they are trying to establish a link between Bradley Manning and myself and a few other individuals in WikiLeaks too, and try and embroil us in our journalistic work as people [who] engage in espionage, a dangerous thing. The new interpretation is that the only original kind of journalism is where you are [a] completely passive recipient of information, you never speak to the sources, ask questions or ask them, can you prove it and send me documents...That I would rather have you completely passive. That will be the end of investigative journalism in the United States. As for people leaving WikiLeaks, we have crossed two, that is not many. It is quite heartening. There are security concerns we have. Obviously this situation is difficult and adverse... we have had in the past four years. In 2008, we had two people working with us who got assassinated by the Kenyan police trying to cover up the matter. There are serious threats against us, just like there are against all journalists who try and hold powerful organisations to account. Our situation is a bit more unusual as we have the full brunt of the superpower and any ally can pool in as well.

So do you believe in the concept of official secrecy at all, or is secrecy and privacy for individuals only?

Well, privacy is for individuals, the governments try and use secrecy sometimes for legitimate reasons, sometimes for legitimate periods of time and, most often, for illegitimate reasons. The problem with secrecy is that how do you know that it is not being abused? So if somebody can put a stamp on internal correspondence, every time it's embarrassing because they are engaged in some sort of correspondence on abuse, then I can put a stamp ‘secret' on it. No one can review to see whether that stamp is being correctly applied or not because in order to review it, you have to read the material. Of course it is a system that instantly escalates, [the] stamp starts getting on everything, confidentiality is extremely controlled. You end [up] with [a] corrupt, inefficient and abusive organisation. I say, of course there is [a] time where secrecy is legitimate, but organisations and individuals must fight for it. …there is a public appetite to know about particular abuses and scandals, and there are people inside the organisation who are unhappy about the situation. The information will flow out and that is not something individuals or CEOs or Parliamentarians jumping up and down complaining about it are going to be able to do something about.

To my mind, it is a good thing. I see the rule of law as something very important and something that has broken down, in relation to how the United States, for example, has been dealing with us. However, the law follows practice; the law is a codification of practice and standardisation of practice. If enough people want something to happen and act in a way that should happen, then that creates the new standard and new laws are applied to codify it. So I believe there should be a new standard and the new standard should be the historical record, and everything that has been published is sacrosanct and pages should never be ripped from historical records. By historical record I don't mean what happened 100 years ago but what happened yesterday. Historical record is that on which we base all our political decision-making, and much of our personal decision-making as well.

If we want a rich, complex and civil civilisation then we need to have this robust intellectual ingredient, which is the historical record. And we want as much in the historical record about how governments and organisations actually behave. So we can use it to understand our world, adapt it and adjust to it and to engage in the democratic process. Without that we are sailing in the dark; all of us are sailing in the dark without that basic intellectual ingredient civilisations are built on.

But it is possible that people will see some money and they would not put it down in writing, they could just talk over the phone. So they could just shift from recorded to a non-recorded form of history…

This is something I looked into in 2006, wrote a small discussion paper for internal use, but it became public because of a conspiracy in governance. What happens if a large organisation decides to go off the record, decides to stop putting everything on paper? We need to ask why do they put everything down on paper in the first know I dealt with a case in Gitmo, where we got hold of the manual used in Guantanamo Bay and I discovered in that manual there was an instruction on how to falsify records in relation to the Red Cross, to hide and conceal prisoners from the Red Cross. I was astounded to see that there was an official manual on how to run Gitmo.

Why would officials do that? The reason they do that is because it guards the grants, and the policy set in the centre sends them to a high level and it is then distributed to the periphery to the hundreds and thousands of people to get them to carry it out. To prevent the policy from decaying into a Chinese permit the centre to control the whole organisation, you have to put things in writing. And that is how big organisations are controlled by their executive: by putting things in writing and having people to check the writings, having to centralise repository information, centralised email records that are hard to be stored… otherwise it can't be controlled.

Yes, you could have an organisation in reversible form working on the spoken word, but I say if that happens, an organisation can no longer be efficient in carrying out that work....orders will gradually decay with Chinese whispers. While for a small organisation that is completely possible because everyone can meet in the room, the boss can give verbal instructions to people while they are in the room. In larger organisations there has to be a paper trail just to carry it out. For systemic abuses, for abuses that affect a lot of people based on central policy, there has to be writing. Abuse is not going to affect a lot of people. So if everyone goes to non-written form then we will see a situation where, yes there will be some abuses but it is not going to affect a lot of people. To affect a lot of people you need writing or recording that doesn't change when it goes from one person to another.

Personal vs political

Coming back to the cables in India, the previous set of cables, especially the Afghanistan cables, expose the extent of Pakistan's role in terror against India. Does this new material substantiate that role further, you think?

There are some 6,000 cables from the U.S. Embassy; they have been tagged by the State Department about India. We have only seen the first part of that now being published by our partner The Hindu . I am sure some of the materials will be seen in the coming weeks. We will go into some of the Pakistani relationships but what we are looking at more carefully is the cables from Pakistan and those are something that are yet to be published. We are working to have those published and I am sure Indians and Pakistanis will be interested to know their reviews. Well, I wouldn't like to pre-judge them before the close analysis.

I know you really do not like to talk about what you have not released yet, but you know in India corruption is the biggest issue currently, stashing of money in foreign bank accounts. The CD handed over to you by the Julius guy, I know it is a difficult one, but are there any Indian names in them? You do not have to actually name them before it is released, but are there any Indian names?

I can't discuss that particular case, I believe. I could be wrong since it's been three years. Material from Julius did have Indian names in them.

What do you find most crucial in the expose of the WikiLeaks on India? You had a look at some others? Do you think there is more still to come? So far what's been your main point?

Often in these cases, it is not just the text in the Embassy cable which is most revealing; it can be the response. In response to our publishing, the U.S. government has taken certain steps, like pressuring banks to cut financial transactions to us. That is very revealing about the power connections between high finance and U.S. State Department. Similarly, in the response to the cables alleging that the U.S. State Embassy was shown cash boxes for bribing Parliamentarians, we saw something rather disturbing. We saw an immediate rush, not to deny that allegations in these facts were not true, we want to investigate properly to make sure everything is clear, that we are innocent. Rather what we saw was an attempt to distort the record and fool the public about the nature of the material. First to say they refused to comment at all, to suggest that the materials are not verified and that no other government accepted it. Absolutely false...that is actually the behaviour of guilty men. A man who is innocent doesn't tend to behave like that. That doesn't mean people making those statements, like Prime Minister Singh and so on are guilty of this particular crime. It suggests something: how Indian Parliamentarians and politicians respond to very serious allegations. They respond through indirection and attempting to cover up the issue for the public rather than address it fully and frankly. The most serious issue in the cable, I suspect, is yet to be revealed. Just looking at what happened with other countries, that doesn't mean The Hindu is necessarily holding back what it thinks to be most important for Indians to the last. In other countries they have dealt with ... you know an issue can catch fire, the imagination of the public may not be the one you first think. There is quite a bit of time to go through the material...the material from Pakistan, from China. It is likely to be of interest to the Indian population.

Coming back to the impact of WikiLeaks, you have heard of the criticism that often loose conversations are released in WikiLeaks, and some people who are named may be doing good work covertly or working underground, infiltrating and fighting against terrorism. Once their names are public, they are in danger. What do you do about that?

This is something the Pentagon has tried to do, throughout. Every time it has been criticised by the press. Back to the 1950s… There is no allegation by the Pentagon, by the State Department or by any American official that anything we have ever published, in our entire history, has resulted in a single individual [suffering] personal or physical harm. Something that is repeatedly asserted without evidence can be dismissed without argument. We have a process which has been 100 per cent effective till date. No organisation is free from making mistakes when you deal with things on this scale, with this seriousness. Today we have two perfect records: we have the record of never having been fooled by information sent to us and we have a perfect record of not having caused any physical harm as a result of anything that has been published.

Not anti-U.S.

WikiLeaks has generally focussed on the United States. Is Julian Assange anti-United States?

Not at all. We are an organisation. Through our work we aim to protect the press and publishing, carrying on the tradition of Madison and Jefferson. We are actually upholding the founding values of the United States. We have published materials for 120 different countries, exposed the assassination in Kenya to East Timor, billions of dollars worth of corruption in Africa. So we are not at all particularly focussed at the United States. Rather we have to publish our material in order of significance and simply cannot turn the U.S. away because it comes to the United States. The reality of the United States now is that about 30 to 40 per cent of the economy is, directly or indirectly, bound up to the security sector. So it has a lot of secrets, a lot of computers, and it has a lot of people within its State Department, within the government, with the military. We are very unhappy about the way they are conducting themselves in Iraq and Afghanistan, that leads to those brave people stepping forward to give us material. We can try and do something about it.

Data has just come out that the people of India have been among the largest donors of Wikipedia, maybe even WikiLeaks. That data has not leaked yet. Does that surprise you?

It is very gratifying to hear. We don't know where they are from. It is for their protection, so we cannot be influenced by people, except of course to keep us going. But I am heartened to hear India is supporting something like Wikipedia that has goals which are not too dissimilar from us. That is why we want to collect important information and present it to the public. We are trying to go after the hardest case, that is the information of spy agencies and states that are trying to restrict. And when it is published they will go after the publisher.

His heroes

In the life of Julian Assange, do you have heroes?

Well, I think Daniel Ellsberg, the Pentagon Papers whistle-blower, he has become a friend over the past couple of years, fairly described as a hero. There are others in different fields (it takes several names). It is better to say there are people who engage in heroic acts. Every individual is of course human. One must be careful with the hero label. Many people call me, for example, a hero, but I am a man and a human being, just like all of us.

One person who is a great influence in your life is your mom, and listening to you saying all this in the position you are in, the stands you take, she must be a very worried woman today. How do you make her feel less frightened?

She is also concerned. However, she is also a fighter. She has been very effective politically in calling attention to my plight and the plight of my organisation, more broadly in Australia. And she also came to London in December [2010], and was a very effective spokesperson. The way she has dealt with the stress of the situation is by firing and engaging with the situation. That helped actually. Everyone should deal with a difficult situation and get on to the job.

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