ASSANGE: 'THEY WANT TO DESTROY US'
by Stefania Maurizi
Originally published in l'Espresso, 1 March 2012
Freedom seems to be just a happy memory for Julian Assange, who used to disappear into thin air, flying from one country to another and living a life out of a backpack. He spent the last fifteen months wearing an electronic bracelet tracking all his movements: indeed an ironic turn for a man who became a world icon for his fight against the Orwellian dystopia.
Now he seems to have his back against the wall: he risks to be extradited to Sweden in a matter of days, his organisation has powerful enemies and is suffering as a result of a serious banking blockade unleashed by credit cards. But when you look Mr. WikiLeaks in the eyes, you understand he has no intention of giving up. He keep planning his 'media insurgency', a kind of guerrilla based on the sudden release of millions of files. He is calm, very focused on his goals and obsessions, but he can be passionate and indignant, he has an acute sense of humor and a strong sense of justice. Nonetheless the man who shook the White House is neither a hard man nor the autistic Peter Pan depicted by newspapers. "He is a charismatic figure precisely because of his contradictions" and because of "the romantic view that he holds of the world", as recently wrote the New Yorker. He is almost a sort of revolutionary of the 19th century. He meets 'l'Espresso' in a club at the center of London, to talk about his life and his creature while enjoying a cappuccino. "WikiLeaks will continue", he tells in a confident tone of voice, "when I was in prison before, WikiLeaks continued publishing, to that degree the organization is robust at least in the medium term. Of course to remove the founder and the most visible public person would damage the organization in a number of ways, but its practical components is now strong enough to survive at least for a couples of years, without me, not to the same degree of vigour perhaps, nonetheless it is robust institution.
In a recent conversation with the "Rolling Stone", you were depicted as 'an embattled commander', a description which seems to hint to a sort of Che Guevara under siege. Do you feel so?
"The organization has a list of very powerful groups that are unhappy with the exposure that we have given to them in the past two years and those groups have set in motion various attempts to take us down, they are in the legal process through political mechanisms, through the media, through a financial blockade. All those need to be individually addressed. It is a lot of work. So far we are winning in the sense that our ability to publish the majority of our material has been unbroken, our promise to our sources to publish the most significant material in relation to the US government have been kept, but that said the attacks are serious and ongoing".
Behind the success of WikiLeaks there is your idea for an internet platform allowing whistleblowers to submit anonymous leaks of very sensitive files. That platform is currently not available and due to its work WikiLeaks is likely to be the target of intelligence agencies and security firms all around the world. Don't you think that these problems could discourage whistleblowers to the extent that high profile leaks could be less and less likely?
"We have all sorts of platforms: it has been an oversimplification of the way this organisation work to describe it as a platform. The technological method the problem for us and for the rest of the world has become more difficult, for us it is because of the incredible surveillance around us, for everyone it is because of the increased deployment of spy technologies around the world. That makes protecting whistleblowers more difficult. We have been working on many different ways of doing that and on a number of other supporting networks, such as Friends of WikiLeaks".
WikiLeaks is seriously hit by the financial blockade. How are you fighting against this embargo?
"It has been some seven months since the formal complaint was submitted by us to the European Commission: they say that they are still investigating, that they have not forgotten about the matter, they are overdue to announce a formal investigation, so we have currently moved into other areas, we have filed a lawsuit against Visa intermediary in Iceland this month. Some lawsuits also have been taken by credit card holders on their own, for example in Colombia, because they perceive their rights had been violated by credit card companies as they cannot associate with the organization of their choice".
You conceived WikiLeaks as a 'media insurgency', a sort of information guerrilla. Some of the problems experienced by WikiLeaks come from this aggressive and revolutionary approach. Did you ever think it was the wrong choice?
"If we were to become a mainstream media organisation, then we would have all the limitations of such organisations and one of those limitations is a limit on the ability to communicate the truth. If such organisations didn't have a limit in their ability to communicate the truth, there would be no need for WikiLeaks. We are in this business, because existing organisations have failed and that is not necessarily to blame for their failures but it is for various historical reasons they have come to that juncture and they cannot be easily reformed. We want to do one very simple thing: we want to collect, publish and defend information about the world that it is of significance that helps people to live their lives. You would not think it is so hard, but it is, because there are many powerful institutions and individuals who derive their power from keeping other people ignorant about their activities".
It is a matter of fact that the 'Pentagon Papers' were leaked to the New York Times, whereas 30 years after cables were leaked to WikiLeaks....
"If you are a source and really want to make sure that material go out, why would you go out to the New York Times? You are absolutely crazy, if you knew journalists well and you knew that that particular journalist would fight your corner, then perhaps you would, but just the institution, it would be crazy. We see what their behaviour is: they suppress stories and sell out sources".
Many criticise you for your secretive style. Do you need a secretive organisation to fight secrecy?
"I don't think it is true that many people criticize that at all. One of the primary functions of WikiLeaks is to protect the secrecy of its whistleblowers and sources. We are not the Cia. As an organisation that takes no money from the public purse, does not kill people and does not deploy coercive forces, we have the moral luxury of being able to engage in activities that are necessarily secret".
The most serious legal threat against WikiLeaks, which could hit you personally, comes from the case against Bradley Manning, the young soldier who allegedly leaked the most sensitive documents to your organisation. During the pretrial hearings, US prosecutors said they have evidences that you helped Manning to penetrate military networks...
"Bradley Manning lawyers at this hearing said that- in the beginning of the hearing and in the end- the Department of Justice of the United States together with the military who's prosecuting him was applying pressure to him in order to get him implicate WikiLeaks and me personally. It is also the view of the Bradley Manning support network and people who have visited Bradley Manning in his extreme hostile condition at Quantico, Virginia, that those conditions were an attempt to psychologically torture him into a confession. Now that entire prison complex had been shut down as a result in part of the lobbying efforts by Bradley Manning supporters and by WikiLeaks".
Do you think there is still room for justice or do you think that the United States want to make the Bradley Manning case an exemplary one to send a message to future whistleblowers ready to help you?
"Like all systems of coercive authorities, they rely on setting examples. So Bradley Manning is an example. What is interesting, however, is that the United States under Obama has now prosecuted more alleged whistleblowers than all other previous US presidents combined. Why? Is this because the US Administration is becoming totalitarian in its structure, and it feels it is now able to do that where it was unable to do previously, or it is because of their fear of whistleblowers is increasing? I'm not sure about the answer, but it is worth pondering".
Due to the antiterror laws approved after the 9/11, Bush could have done much worse...
"No, just the opposite. The Bush Administration would have been much more restrained than the Obama Administration. The Bush Administration took prisoners and kept captives without trial in Guantanamo Bay and elsewhere. The Obama Administration doesn't even bother with that, it simply assassinates people with drone strikes and other methods including its own citizens. The Obama position is much more severe than Bush ever was. Why is that? Perhaps it is a tendency in the government, or perhaps in the United States it is because the Democrats are now in power and the Republicans are in the opposition, so there is no effective restraining force on the government in relations to the civil liberties. If the Democrats were in the opposition, they would have be using the abuse of the Administration for political gain".
Did you expect this from Obama? Actually he is one of the very few US presidents not coming from the CIA, the intelligence community and the military industrial complex.
"Yes, I expected this attitude, I didn't expect they would developed that to that speed, but we could see, before Obama was elected with his shifting positions on the immunity of telecommunications firms like AT&T in the United States in relation to mass State spying, this was a politician who was not a man of principle. If you read the Obama books, you see that he only has two values, the primary value is the value of compromise, he believes compromise is a virtue and the other value seems to be about the poor black working class and their economic conditions, but it doesn't seems to be concerned about any other matter. So as a politician who has developed a system of compromise, when he is in the White House he compromises the forces around him and the strongest forces around him are those forces in the military-industrial complex. He's certainly not leading it, if he had come from that complex, he might have had a better understanding of it. He might have a handle on it, whereas he doesn't have deep connections to that complex, he doesn't understand it and he cannot control it".
Financial power is also a power that controls the world. You announced the release of documents about a major bank, but those files never materialised. Where did they end up?
"One you are probably referring to is documents about the Bank of America".
So you confirm it was Bank of America.
Were those documents relevant?
"We had done only a preliminary review, they included all the things that were being discussed in the executive level within the Bank of America. Material was from an executive member of the Bank of America. A former WikiLeaks volunteer, Daniel Domscheit Berg, was entrusted to look after the Bank of America material and he appears to have destroyed that material. We engaged in a year long legal negotiation to attempt to get it back with the intermediaries and unfortunately we were not successul, we can only hope now that the original source do has some material and release it".
You are a talented geek who could have started a company in the Silicon Valley, but as you told to the 'Der Spiegel' you opted for the WikiLeaks project as you enjoy 'helping people who are vulnerable' and 'enjoy crushing bastards'. Is this still true?
"Oh, very much! Of course the past year had been very trying in many ways, but on the other hand, we are deeply satisfied: the principal things we promised to do we did and our battle with the Pentagon and the State Department we had been victorious in the main part of that battle, which was to publish the information and give it to the public, and subsequent work is a pleasure. Crushing bastards, as I put it, is deeply satisfying".
It has been reported that you recently asked an intelligence source about whether you will be a free man again. Apparently you were told by that intel source: 'you are fucked'. Is this true?
"Yes. The assessment is that the United States has a secret Grand Jury indictment that now appears to end out to be true.We already had three sources of information before the information coming from the Stratfor emails".
So you have three different assessments from three different sources all going to the same direction that you are fucked up..
"Yes [he smiles a bit nervously], but on the other hand historically has not proven to be so easy to win against WikiLeaks".