WikiLeaks has provided the critical climate for political reform: Assange

I am very encouraged by what is happening in India. It has terrible corruption but it’s encouraging to hear that so many people are pushing strongly against it; India accounts for some of the highest deposits in Swiss banks; It is a fascinating story, the extraordinary spring MENA countries have been going through

April 12, 2011 01:43 am | Updated November 26, 2021 10:29 pm IST

N. Ram, Editor-in-Chief of “The Hindu”, interviewed Julian Assange, Editor-in-Chief of WikiLeaks, at Ellingham Hall, Norfolk, U.K. The stately country house, owned by Vaughan Smith, a former British Army officer and journalist, is Mr. Assange's temporary home while he awaits the hearing of his appeal against a legal decision to extradite him to Sweden.

N. Ram, Editor-in-Chief of “The Hindu”, interviewed Julian Assange, Editor-in-Chief of WikiLeaks, at Ellingham Hall, Norfolk, U.K. The stately country house, owned by Vaughan Smith, a former British Army officer and journalist, is Mr. Assange's temporary home while he awaits the hearing of his appeal against a legal decision to extradite him to Sweden.

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, the brilliant and articulate Editor-in-Chief of WikiLeaks, gave a one-hour interview at Ellingham Hall in the county of Norfolk to N. Ram, The Hindu ’s Editor-in-Chief, who was accompanied by Hasan Suroor, the newspaper’s U.K. Correspondent. The interview covered a broad range of issues relating to India, the world, political economy, journalism, the goals and methods of WikiLeaks, and the theoretical framework worked out by its chief. Here is Part One of the interview:

Mr. Assange, the publication in March-April 2011 of the India Cables accessed by The Hindu through an agreement with WikiLeaks — and thank you very much for that — has made a dramatic impact on politics and public opinion in India. As you know, it rocked Parliament and put the Manmohan Singh Government on the back foot, at the same time not sparing the Opposition. The Indian news media, newspapers as well as television, have picked up the continuing story in a big way and, I think, WikiLeaks has become a household name in India. Not that you were not known before but now it has great relevance in India, as Bofors did in the late 1980s and early 1990s. How do you think this compares with the impact Cablegate had when it first broke in November of 2010 through The Guardian and four other western newspapers?

I am very encouraged by what s happened in India – for The Hindu that s 21 front pages and there s a spectrum of publishing in India which I think eclipses that of TheGuardian , Le Monde , Der Spiegel and TheNew York Times , and El Pais , which were our original partners, although some of them had also done some very fine work. This is something we have seen with some of our other regional partners in Latin America, like Peru and Costa Rica coming up before elections — that the local focus is able to really burrow into important details. I am tempted to say, based upon my reading of The Hindu that it is in a position to report more freely than these other papers are in their respective countries. That may be, I suspect, not just as a result of the strength of The Hindu but as a result of the weakness of the Indian federal government as a structure that is able to pull together patronage networks and suppress journalism as a whole in India. While it s certainly true that each one of the factions involved in Indian national politics is able to exert pressures, I think it is encouraging that India as a whole has not turned into one central pyramid of patronage, which is something we do see a bit in other countries like the United States.

Thank you. India and its 1.2 billion people — that s the latest figure from the new census, the Census of 2011 — are emerging as a rising economic and political power on the world stage. The cables we have worked on so far expose the venal and sordid underbelly of India, which is corrupt, non-transparent, and vulnerable to manipulation by the big powers, in particular the United States. But first on the issue of corruption: you have cash-for-votes as a way of political life in South Indian elections, you have cash-for-votes in a parliamentary confidence vote in 2008, you have sops and cash for chemicals — the manoeuvres of Dow Chemical Company, heir to Union Carbide s Bhopal liabilities, to get its plants cleared. And you have the contradictory and, in fact, to some extent corrupt responses from powerful politicians on this issue too. What does this say about corruption, which I think has emerged as the Number One issue for rising India right now?

It says that at least you ve been able to talk about it. Of course India has terrible corruption and something must be done about it and it s encouraging to hear that so many people are now pushing strongly against it, including the Gandhi-ist who is on a fast…

Anna Hazare.

Yes, Anna Hazare. We saw, for instance in Tunisia, that publication of cables in early December last year produced a very critical political climate against Ben Ali. But then it did take a courageous individual to go and take a personal physical action to really trigger things off. So, perhaps, that s a method that will provide widespread will to battle against corruption. I must say that India is not alone. I mean in our work we have exposed billions of dollars of corruption all over the world. And the First World is also not at all immune from it. Frequently we see the developing world corruption being facilitated by First World banks, which suck the money offshore and so on. And, in fact, India accounts for some of the highest amounts of deposits in Swiss banks, which must be questioned as to what that money is doing there.

Yes. You are working on the Rudolf Elmer material. What s the state of play there?

The state of play there is Rudolf Elmer has been put in prison and he has been there for some eight, ten weeks now. But he s not been charged with anything; there s no evidence against him. He is in a position where he has severely embarrassed the Swiss state, which gains nearly 50 per cent of its GDP from Swiss banking — and Switzerland holds nearly one-third of all the world s private wealth. So we of course are not in a position to be able to talk about the material in any direct way that he is alleged to have given us.

The impact of the publication of these cables on African countries — some African countries. Tunisia, perhaps Egypt. How much can you attribute what s happened there, the revolutions that have taken place, to WikiLeaks?

It is a fascinating story, what we know so far. The MENA [Middle East and North Africa] countries that have been going through an extraordinary spring in the last few months; not just Tunisia and Egypt and parts of Libya but rather really the whole region. Kings who have not been deposed or Presidents and dictators who have not been deposed have been handing out tremendous concessions in order to stay in power.

This is a result, I believe, of two matters.

One is, we can think of the region as like wood that is drying; and it has been drying for over the past five years and has become more and more susceptible to a sudden reform. And the factors going into that are, firstly, increasing use of satellite dishes. That has pulled Al-Jazeera into the region, the decision by Al-Jazeera to actually report protests outside of Saudi Arabia and Bahrain, which they are not reporting — and Qatar — which is a problem. The increasing Internet connectivity in the region, the increasing numbers of mobile phones, youth demographics, increasing education, travel between North African states.

So that produced a situation whereby if there was a sudden push, a strong push for reform, the fire would catch. The question is why did it catch at this moment?

Cablegate and Tunisia

So we, working together with Al-Akhbar , a Lebanese newspaper, and Almasry Alyoum in Cairo in early December, started publishing many cables from around this region. Al-Akhbar was then immediately attacked and had its entire domain name taken down and redirected to a Saudi site, received denial service attacks, and then very sophisticated computer hackers came in and took out all of Al-Akhbar . The Tunisian Government banned WikiLeaks and Al-Akhbar . Computer hackers loyal to us went into Tunisian government websites and redirected them to WikiLeaks. On December 16, a young computer technician who was working in the market place trying to sell fruit and had been denied a licence because of corruption set himself on fire. And, on January 4, he died in hospital. That event took the political revelations and the geo-political revelations from the cables and the protests associated with that into the physical realm and really pushed the ground protest.

The cables themselves for Tunisia, yes they revealed corruption and opulence and decadence within the Ben Ali family. Which was not something that was that unknown to Tunisians but it was outside proof of it. Further, it showed that the U.S. diplomatic position was such that they would probably support the army over Ben Ali if it came to a struggle between the two. That gave activists and the army in Tunisia great hope and it also sent a warning to Saudi Arabia and other countries in the region that they should not interfere to support Ben Ali or they might end up on the wrong side of the equation with the West. Similarly, the Tunisian cables revealing that the State Department had been speaking of the abuses of the Ben Ali regime and its corruption — and human rights abuses — prevented the United States, prevented Hillary Clinton from coming out and saying, Ben Ali is a great guy, he should stay, he should be supported, etc. Similarly, the allies of the United States in Western Europe such as France and the U.K. also could not say frankly that they supported the regime when U.S. Ambassadors were making such critical comments.

Soccer club revolution

When it spread to Egypt, we had the soccer clubs in Egypt form the central organising role for the young revolutionaries. So it was not the Muslim Brotherhood, as Mubarak and people in the United States and all the others who were trying to support that regime suggested it would be. Rather the revolution came from the average man and the average man as a young man was engaged in soccer clubs. They produced a revolutionary manual of some 40 pages. On the first page of the manual, it says, do not use Facebook and Twitter and the last page of the manual says, do not use Facebook and Twitter. Later on we saw Hillary Clinton and others trying to claim that the U.S. had supported this revolution all along and it was a result of good American companies like Facebook and Twitter. But the guide that the revolutionaries used said to avoid that. Rather, Facebook and Twitter were used by people in the West and by the expat community to spread information about what was happening in Egypt.

You may remember what happened in Iran with the so-called Twitter revolution. The Twitter revolution never happened. It was all a sort of figment of western imagination.

WikiLeaks oil on Egyptian fire

Well, the same thing happened in Egypt. But there was actually a revolution. The revolution in Egypt occurred as a result predominantly of these young people being organised. We did feed in very specific cables into the situation and poured as much oil on to this fire as we could by releasing hundreds of cables about the Egyptian regime and specifically about Mubarak s abuses and [Omar] Suleiman.

Now there was a ploy to put Suleiman in power when Mubarak started to be questioned. Suleiman was the intelligence head, hated by human rights activists within Egypt but supported by United States and Israel. Suleiman had been their man on the ground in dealing with the Gaza issue. And we released cable after cable showing how the U.S. ambassadors had said that Suleiman takes care of suppression of various groups in Egypt and Mubarak is happy to turn a blind eye to his methods. Other cables came out suggesting that Suleiman had personally been involved in supervising the torture of one or two Canadian men who had been renditioned to Egypt. That statement made it impossible for the U.S. to support Suleiman aggressively and publicly.

High-tech terrorist

We had had the case just before those cables were released that Joseph Biden, the Vice President of the United States, had called me — called me personally — on the one hand a high-tech terrorist, and then on the other Mubarak not a dictator and someone who should not resign from power. After the release of that material, statements like that from Biden became completely impossible. So the western support for Mubarak was reduced and support from the region also reduced.

Another aspect is that we can look at a lot of these Arab spring revolutions as pan-African phenomena or pan-Arab phenomena. Saudi Arabia supports a lot of dictatorships in that region — intelligence sharing, gives them money, arms, etc. So that includes Bahrain, which it has just invaded at the behest of the Bahrainian King; it included Mubarak and a number of other influences. Similarly, Israel props up a number of these governments because Israel fears that if there is a democratic government elected, then it would be more hostile towards Israel and that was their big fear in relation to Egypt as well. And the United States is involved in that equation for many different reasons, but including to support Israel and what its view of the region is.

Forced to look inwards

When we released cables about the region as a whole, including Saudi Arabia, those countries were forced to turn inwards and look at their own domestic political concerns. Saudi Arabia, for instance, started out handing concession after concession to its own domestic Shia population.

That means the ability of these countries to prop up a dictator who is at risk of being overthrown by his people was reduced because they had to redirect their efforts and attentions to their own domestic political concerns. So I think that is really the way we and the activists that are operating within this region are trying to conduct these reform operations. It is to treat the region as a whole as opposed to just one country.

Think that was a full answer, right? (laughs)

Then there is this second overarching theme placed on the national agenda by the India Cables. Pro-US tilt in Cabinet shuffle (confidential cable 51088); U.S. presses a sceptical India for a vote against Iran at the IAEA and the Manmohan Singh government surrenders (several confidential and secret cables); Hillary checks out Pranab [Mukherjee] and the competition ; he s now Finance Minister, earlier was Minister for External Affairs, Foreign Minister. Various things like this come on, including American prescription for ending Naxalite menace. But very serious is the military angle — not only intelligence-sharing but the Defence Framework, where India has moved towards a much closer military collaboration with the United States. It s not a complete project yet but there s a movement. And here s the paradox, it seems to me. When India was less developed and more dependent on foreign aid, it seems to have had a more independent foreign and domestic policy. Whereas now, with India called a Rising Power along with China, foreign policy seems to be a lot less independent. Can you provide any insights into this from your knowledge of the world?

That s very interesting. The behaviour of the U.S. government through its Embassies in trying to collect political intelligence and influence democracies is something we see throughout these cables. The situation in India mirrors that of other countries, which does not mean it s right.

For example, in Australia, which is meant to be a very close ally of the United States, there were secret reports by a Minister of Cabinet. He was going into the U.S. Embassy and giving political intelligence on what the considerations were of the Australian Parliament and the ruling party in Cabinet. Similarly, that happened in Germany and an individual was discovered and fired as a result. The description of the Australian U.S. spy was that he had been a contact of the United States Embassy, trusted throughout his political rise. So they had really gotten in there very early on in a left-wing Australian Labor Party and cultivated people on the way up. And that s what has been done in nearly every country. To that extent, we can see these operations as fulfilling the caricature that South American Marxists gave of the State Department in the 1960s.

Cold War throwback

We also see many reports from these U.S. Embassies about unions. Are unions growing or shrinking in the various countries where U.S. Embassies are operating? And always couched in a negative sense, so if there is more union membership, this is a bad thing! And that appears to be some kind of institutional throwback to the 1960s, to the Cold War where the United States political view was that unions were more opposed to the United States and closer to the Soviet Union. It s now re-engineered in relation to foreign investment; or another big U.S. firm wants to invest somewhere but doesn t want unions to be interfering with its ability to get the lowest wages possible.

This contradiction that you bring up, that as time goes by India has become more economically powerful and its population more numerous, has a bigger military, and has more people, and yet has a less independent foreign policy is very interesting. I think that is true for other countries as well. It seems to do with the rapidity with which groups in different areas can interchange power with each other.

So how do groups interchange power? Will they do it through cash transfers? They do it through information transfers. And they do it through the provision of military hardware or other valuable assets. And because the world has become more globalised, which means all those things can be done faster, I think there is a blurring out of the differences between one nation and another. Sometimes that s very good, when the nations are small. Other times, when there s a superpower involved and it is blurring the boundaries between it and other nations, then you must question whether the superpower is getting too much power.

There is a basic structure to geopolitics, which is not often mentioned. One way to think about it is that every country that is not very isolated has to sign up to one provider of intelligence or another. And there are a number of providers in the market. The U.S. is the market leader. And then you have really Russia and China and the U.K. providing a little bit. If you don t sign up to one of these, then you can t see what s happening around you in your borders — because you don t have geo-spatial intelligence. Information about individuals who may be coming into your territory or conspiring, you do not have; and that s something that military groups and intelligence groups in various countries want to have. It increases their relative power within their own nations.

That doesn t mean the nation needs it but rather that, for Indian intelligence, they can, for example, tremendously increase their influence within India by being signed up to all that intelligence product that the United States produces. Similarly, the Indian military can increase its power by having all these relationships with the U.S. military. And those relationships are not just pushed by the U.S. military or by the U.S. intelligence services. Nowadays, most of the economic activity involving intelligence and military in the United States occurs in private companies.

So there s a blurring out in the United States between what is part of government and what is part of private industry. And these private industry groups, Lockheed Martin, Boeing, and so on, and many thousands of smaller companies, lobby and push the U.S. State Department, Congress, and other countries directly to sign up as part of this system — so they can get more power and influence within the United States and have a greater ability to suck money out of the U.S. tax base and out of the tax bases of other countries.

Rising military expenditure

A way to see if that is happening — a clear way to see it — is that U.S. tax revenues since the last financial crisis have declined approximately 25 per cent. At the same time, within the first year of [Barack] Obama being in office, the amount of money going into the intelligence and military sector increased 6 per cent. So if you look at the U.S. as an organism, you have an organism that s getting weaker, by 25 per cent, and yet some part of that organism — the kidney, we talk about the military and intelligence as the kidney — has gotten bigger and has sucked up more of the energy and resources and is disproportionate. Given that the military and intelligence sector doesn t make anything directly — it s not pulling oil out of the ground or producing any energy itself — what that means is its political influence, versus, say, the Department of Health, is increasing. So it s able to get a bigger share of the U.S. tax base. And that seems to be something that s happening in other countries as well.

I think this has to do with the secrecy that surrounds these institutions. So if we look at, say, in U.S. context the Department of Health and the CIA as two government departments competing for money politically, and for prestige and power and connections, when the U.S. Department of the Health makes a mistake, the media can expose it. And people become very critical of it and say, Well, why should we put good money after bad? You misspent this money we gave you. If the CIA makes a mistake, what the CIA says is, You can t know anything about the mistake. You can t report on the mistake. We re not going to tell you anything about the mistake. So as a result, it is able to say, Look, if you do not give us money, you will all die. Doesn t reveal how it is spending money or what sort of mistake it is making. So it is free from proper democratic oversight and this is why it is expanding more and more.

(To be continued)

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