Nobody knows where Julian Assange is, but several people have managed to find him.
Since the embassy cables began trickling out of WikiLeaks this Sunday, the organization’s at-large chief has granted at least two long interviews to the press. Assange has discussed the media, his own role as his organization’s face, American democracy and exceptionalism, and, in what amounts to a bit of an aside, called for Secretary of State Clinton’s resignation.
The first interview was an “exclusive” to Time magazine—an online Q&A via Skype with Richard Stengel available here in audio with a full transcript. And today, The Guardian has published Assange’s answers to reader questions. (An interview with Forbes’s Andy Greenberg published after the release was conducted weeks before.) Here are some highlights from Assange’s reflections on his latest, and ongoing, “megaleak.”
On the impact of the embassy cable leaks:
At this stage, we can only have a feeling for what the effect is based upon just looking at what the tips of the wave are doing, moving currents under the surface. There is simply too much volume for us to even be able to see. But I can see that there is a tremendous rearrangement of viewings about many different countries . And we can see the Israeli Prime Minister [Benjamin] Netanyahu coming out with a very interesting statement that leaders should speak in public like they do in private whenever they can. He believes that the result of this publication, which makes the sentiments of many privately held beliefs public, are promising a pretty good [indecipherable] will lead to some kind of increase in the peace process in the Middle East and particularly in relation to Iran.
We keep secret the identity of our sources and take great pains to do it. So secrecy is important for many things but shouldn’t be used to cover up abuses, which leads us to the question of who decides and who is responsible. It shouldn’t really be that people are thinking about, Should something be secret? I would rather it be thought, Who has a responsibility to keep certain things secret? And, Who has a responsibility to bring matters to the public? And those responsibilities fall on different players. And it is our responsibility to bring matters to the public.
In response to accusations that WikiLeaks’s releases endanger lives:
this sort of nonsense about lives being put in jeopardy is trotted out every time a big military or intelligence organization is exposed by the press. It’s nothing new, and it’s not an exclusively American phenomenon by any means. It goes back at least 50 years, and in extremely different forms hundreds of years before that, so that sort of reactionary sentiment is equally expected. We get that on nearly every post that we do. However, this organization in its four years of publishing history—we don’t need to speculate, it has a history—has never caused an individual, as far as we can determine or as far anyone else can determine, to come to any sort of physical harm or to be wrongly imprisoned and so on.
On what WikiLeaks is and does:
This organization practices civil obedience, that is, we are an organization that tries to make the world more civil and act against abusive organizations that are pushing it in the opposite direction. As for the law, we have now in our four-year history had over 100 legal attacks of various kinds and have been victorious in all of those matters.
One of the most interesting sections of the Time interview, from a media perspective, is this, in which Assange details how his view of collaborating with mainstream media and less mainstream, smaller media, has evolved.
For the rise of social media, it’s quite interesting. When we first started, we thought we would have the analytical work done by bloggers and people who wrote Wikipedia articles and so on. And we thought that was a natural, given that we had lots of quality, important content. Surely it’s more interesting to write an article about top-secret Chinese [inaudible] or an internal document from Somalia or secret documents revealing what happened in [inaudible], all of which we published, than it is to simply write a blog about what’s on the front page of the New York Times, or about your cat or something. But actually it turns out that that is not at all true. The bulk of the heavy lifting—heavy analytical lifting—that is done with our materials is done by us, and is done by professional journalists we work with and by professional human-rights activists. It is not done by the broader community. However, once the initial lifting is done, once a story becomes a story, becomes a news article, then we start to see community involvement, which digs deeper and provides more perspective. So the social networks tend to be, for us, an amplifier of what we are doing. And also a supply of sources for us.
You can’t expect to get news-style articles out of people that are not funded after a career structure in the same way that news organizations are. You will get a different sort of form, and that form may be commentary, which sometimes is very good and sometimes there are very senior people providing commentary that is within their media experience, or we get sources who hand over material, because once again, within their media experience, it is an important issue to them. But what we don’t get from the [inaudible] community is people writing articles about an issue that they didn’t have an intimate involvement with in the first place. And of course, if you think about it, that’s natural—why would they be? The incentive’s not there. When people write political commentary on blogs or other social media, it is my experience that it is not—with some exceptions—their goal to expose the truth. Rather, it is their goal to position themselves among their peers on whatever the issue of the day is. The most effective, the most economical way to do that is simply to take the story that’s going around—it has already created a marketable audience for itself—and say whether they’re in favor of that interpretation or not.
From The Guardian:
On whether he would return to Australia:
I am an Australian citizen and I miss my country a great deal. However, during the last weeks the Australian prime minister, Julia Gillard, and the attorney general, Robert McClelland, have made it clear that not only is my return is impossible but that they are actively working to assist the United States government in its attacks on myself and our people. This brings into question what does it mean to be an Australian citizen—does that mean anything at all? Or are we all to be treated like David Hicks at the first possible opportunity merely so that Australian politicians and diplomats can be invited to the best US embassy cocktail parties.
On whether he is a “journalist”:
I coauthored my first nonfiction book by the time I was 25. I have been involved in nonfiction documentaries, newspapers, TV and internet since that time. However, it is not necessary to debate whether I am a journalist, or how our people mysteriously are alleged to cease to be journalists when they start writing for our organisaiton. Although I still write, research and investigate my role is primarily that of a publisher and editor-in-chief who organises and directs other journalists.
Something crop-circle enthusiasts have to look forward to:
it is worth noting that in yet-to-be-published parts of the cablegate archive there are indeed references to UFOs.
On WikiLeaks’s handling of redactions:
The cables we have released [sic] correspond to stories released by our main stream media partners and ourselves. They have been redacted by the journalists working on the stories, as these people must know the material well in order to write about it. The redactions are then reviewed by at least one other journalist or editor, and we review samples supplied by the other organisations to make sure the process is working.
A reflection on his decision to become the organization’s public face:
I originally tried hard for the organisation to have no face, because I wanted egos to play no part in our activities. This followed the tradition of the French anonymous pure mathematians, who wrote under the collective allonym, “The Bourbaki”. However this quickly led to tremendous distracting curiosity about who and random individuals claiming to represent us. In the end, someone must be responsible to the public and only a leadership that is willing to be publicly courageous can genuinely suggest that sources take risks for the greater good. In that process, I have become the lightening rod. I get undue attacks on every aspect of my life, but then I also get undue credit as some kind of balancing force.
For my mind, one of the more interesting exchanges was this between a former diplomat and Assange, in which the latter refuses to answer what is a pretty fair, if loaded, question.
I am a former British diplomat. In the course of my former duties I helped to coordinate multilateral action against a brutal regime in the Balkans, impose sanctions on a renegade state threatening ethnic cleansing, and negotiate a debt relief programme for an impoverished nation. None of this would have been possible without the security and secrecy of diplomatic correspondence, and the protection of that correspondence from publication under the laws of the UK and many other liberal and democratic states. An embassy which cannot securely offer advice or pass messages back to London is an embassy which cannot operate. Diplomacy cannot operate without discretion and the protection of sources. This applies to the UK and the UN as much as the US.
In publishing this massive volume of correspondence, Wikileaks is not highlighting specific cases of wrongdoing but undermining the entire process of diplomacy. If you can publish US cables then you can publish UK telegrams and UN emails.
My question to you is: why should we not hold you personally responsible when next an international crisis goes unresolved because diplomats cannot function.
If you trim the vast editorial letter to the singular question actually asked, I would be happy to give it my attention.