JULIAN ASSANGE: WIKILEAKS WILL GO AHEAD
by Stefania Maurizi
Originally published in l'Espresso, 29 November 2012
In the glittering Knightsbridge district, in the heart of London, just behind the famous Harrods department store, there is a red-brick building guarded day and night by Scotland Yard agents and by one or two large police vans equipped with cameras keeping a watchful eye. Refuge has been taken here at the Ecuadorian Embassy by the man who infuriated the White House and diplomats all around the world, by exposing war crimes and secret deals: Julian Assange. It is in this embassy that l'Espresso met the founder of WikiLeaks, who has been holed up in this building since the 19th of June. A hundred and sixty-five days, in addition to the eighteen months he spent under house arrest forced to wear an electronic manacle around his ankle.
In the last two years, Assange has been living as a prisoner. Although Ecuador has granted him asylum, no one knows if he will ever be able to leave this embassy as a free man and how this incredible story is going to end up. A 41-year-old man who used to travel around the world, rootless and free as the air, he is now buried inside a roughly 20 square meter room, under heavy surveillance. Following the release of the US diplomacy cables, the Gitmo files, the Afghan and Iraq War Logs, Julian Assange and WikiLeaks experienced virulent attacks. He was branded "a hi-tech terrorist" by the US vice president Joe Biden and "a criminal" by George W. Bush's top advisor, Karl Rove. Over the last two years, his organisation has experienced an extra-judicial banking blockade, which should be a wake up call for media outlets and NGOs, as it sets a very dangerous precedent. Nonetheless, WikiLeaks has been left totally alone to try to beat this financial blockade, selling t-shirts and stickers for a few dollars each. Attacks did not come only from hostile US politicians and financial giants, but also from first-hour media collaborators like the Guardian and the New York Times, which even portrayed Assange as 'a nut job' and commented on his personal hygiene habits. Few people seem really interested in what he and his organisation actually represent: the main characters of the First World InfoWar. And Assange is "a charismatic figure precisely because of the way his contradictions magically seem to hold together," as the American magazine 'The New Yorker' wrote.
We meet him in the room of the embassy where he lives and works. He is paler than usual, looks like he has lost almost ten kilos since the last time we met in February and he has a persistent cough, as if something is wrong with his lungs. But as he speaks, he is the Julian Assange we know: strong as usual and very focused on his work. Physically affected by the long confinement, but in good mental shape. The Ecuadorian Embassy is in one of the most exclusive areas of London, however it is just a small apartment with no garden or even a courtyard where one can enjoy some fresh air. A red Lilliputian kitchen: one meter and a half by one meter and a half. A small bathroom and a larger one, the diplomatic staff offices and Julian Assange's room: roughly 20 square meters. There is just one large window with heavy curtains shielding London's grey sky and preempting people from looking inside.The room is partitioned by a bookshelf where Assange puts books, notes and small suitcases. Behind the bookshelf there is just enough room for his bed, which is under the only available window. Access to this small bedroom is almost blocked by a running machine put at the end of the bookshelf: that treadmill is indeed the only way Assange can do any physical exercise. In the portion of the room where Assange works, there is a small round table with black leatherette chairs, a wall full of post-it notes about the WikiLeaks' strategy in the next few months, and a fireplace topped by a large TV. There is so much stuff. And the only light available in this area is artificial. The lack of sunlight and fresh air in this room is a bit shocking. The Embassy staff members seem to do all they can to make Assange's life as tolerable as possible. As we speak, a woman knocks on the door, delivering a list and asking him what he would like to have in the fridge. Basil and mozzarella cheese are two of his choices. However, how long can Assange live in these conditions? Leaning against the bookshelf is a small whiteboard outlining a medical protocol.
As we have dinner he opts for a healthy choice of fish and fresh vegetables, enjoying a glass of red wine from Argentina. He tells us he is confident that the Swedish case against him will collapse and he seems a bit unhappy about the DreamWorks' film apparently in the pipeline. The script is kept away from computers, he tells us with a smile, explaining that the DreamWorks drama could unleash a new smearing campaign against him and his organisation which, apparently, would be depicted as an obscure sect the former WikiLeaks' spokesman, Daniel Domscheit Berg, was able to escape from thanks to the help of his wife. However, it is not the DreamWorks fiction what worries Assange most: his first concern is the Grand Jury investigation in the United States which could bring him and some other members of WikiLeaks to be charged with espionage for publishing US classified documents. This is the reason why he took refuge in the Ecuadorian Embassy, as he is concerned that the extradition to Sweden could pave the way for one to the United States. Early in November, the American magazine 'Wired' revealed that the Grand Jury investigation is still ongoing, quoting U.S. District Judge Liam O'Grady of Alexandria, Virginia.
We leave the embassy at midnight, while he remains vigil and lucid in front of his computer. When we first entered into the room, we had noticed five small laptops scattered between the table and the seats.It looks like outside the building there is just a Scotland Yard agent, but as Assange accompanies us on a small embassy tour, we can see another agent below the window of the bathroom and, as he opens the heavy curtains of his tiny bedroom, we notice another one in the building next door, who can be seen through a glass window. He is surrounded day and night. There is no way he can escape from this embassy. The day after, when we meet him again in his room, the number of laptops on the table have increased to seven. Julian Assange turns away from those machines that keep him in contact with his armies in Cyberspace and starts giving this interview.
Yesterday you mentioned that you are confident the Swedish case will collapse. How?
«These last few months we have seen the unfolding of the most significant judicial scandal in Sweden since the end of the Cold War. The central participant in that scandal is the Social Democrat politician Claes Borgstrom. Borgstrom is also the lawyer who reactivated the Swedish investigation after it was dismissed by the chief prosecutor of Stockholm».
Why do you call him a politician? He established a law firm in partnership with the former Social Democratic Minister of Justice.
«He is a politician for the Social Democratic party. He was the gender equality spokesperson for the Democrats. He is a senior figure in political circles. He is now under trial by the Swedish bar council for his role in the false conviction of a man, Thomas Quick. This is another event that will occur in the new year I believe would result in greater scrutiny of what happened in Sweden and the investigation should be quickly dismissed».[Thomas Quick hit the headlines as one of the most notorious Swedish serial killers. Convincted of 8 murders, he was sentenced to psychiatric confinement and confessed 30 murders, revealing shocking details, like how he ate the remains of his victims. In 2008 he withdrew his confessions, which were given under heavy medication. He has now been acquitted of 5 of the 8 murders. His case is currently under review and last August, victims' families asked for an independent investigation in this justice scandal. Thomas Quick's lawyer was Claes Borgstrom, who is currently the lawyer of the two Swedish women accusing Assange of rape].
In the United States you have the Grand Jury investigation...
«In the US we have the Grand Jury, actions we have been taking against the Grand Jury, we have the Manning case, actions we have been taking in relation to rights violations in the Manning case, separetely actions which the Manning lawyers are taking against those rights violations, plus actions against the banking blockade».
Apparently, during the Manning hearings journalists are not allowed to bring computers, is this true?
«The US military has tried many different tecniques to hamper the public understanding of that case and also to hamper our understanding of that case. Reporters who have reported on both cases, the Guantanamo case and the Manning case, say that the secrecy and military control to prevent public understanding of what is going on is worse than in Guantanamo. So there are secret arguments, secret judgements, none of the submissions or judgements are made public, are withheld».
In any case you did apply for a copy of the entire file, which is more than 40,000 pages.
«No, the FBI file is, as of December 2011, 42,135 pages, according to testimony by US government officials in court. Of that, less than 9,000 pages relates to the investigation into Bradley Manning, the rest relates to Wikileaks. We applied for a copy of this Fbi file some time ago through the Freedom of Information Act and it was rejected under the basis that there was an ongoing investigation».
This investigation is totally shrouded in secrecy.
«Although the US investigation against us is formally secret, quite a lot of information has come out in unexpected ways. For example, the Department of Justice this year put out a tender for a computer system to manage the documents from that investigation. That tender was for a value of 1 to 2 million dollars».
In some sense they seem quite desperate: they have subpoenaed the WikiLeaks Twitter account. How can they imagine that you used Twitter to communicate with your staff and sources while leaking very sensitive files, like the 'Collateral Murder' video?
«They have subpoenaed all the records of the Wikileaks twitter account, those include what times particular tweets were sent and location.Through this method we believe they wish to try and establish who sent what, who sent the public tweets and establish that I or some other members of WikiLeaks had certain knowledge at particular times. And also some parts of the Espionage Act requires intent to do something, it is not enough to throw over a box of classified documents in the street, that's not espionage, one must intend to do such a thing. So certain attitudes which could be displayed by the WikiLeaks Twitter account in relation to war crimes committed by the United States may be used to establish intent that is critical of the United States military».
The strange thing is that Daniel Domscheit Berg is not among the people listed in that subpoena: at that time he was the only public face of WikiLeaks, a part from you. How do you interpret this? Of course we are speaking about opinions. Maybe there are secrets facts we don't know yet...
«Other sources say that he has provided information to the Fbi, however not during his time with the organisation, as far as I am aware. I suspended him in August 2010 for a variety of reasons».
Another strange story is that one concerning the documents which Domscheit Berg took with himself, roughly 3,000 files. Do you know whether it was valuable material? «Yes, it is our greatest loss. Fortunately, the way we were structured technically very deliberately, now the organisation is structured in a more robust manner, but even then rogue insiders, like Domscheit Berg and his German friend, were not able to access to source identity, where the material came from».
Last time we spoke you mentioned that among those files there were even the bank documents... «The bank documents were in a different storage system. So this story is a bit different. The most significant was documentation, video documentation, of serious war crimes in Afghanistan where around 100 people were killed».
So a great damage for WikiLeaks.
«That is correct, but it is the conflict with the United States that created intense pressure and a space for opportunists. Such a high intensity conflict: at a state level, intelligence level, political level, legal level, financial level and in the media. So it is an experience that it is impossible to learn in any other way than going through it. But now the organisation support is extremely robust as a result of having survived to this. Our people have survived all this: difficult financial circumstances, smear campaign, arrest, imprisonment».
What about very adversarial statements against WikiLeaks by AnonymousIRC? Is there a group of Anonymous which is still close to WikiLeaks?
«We can see from public comments that there are many sympathetic. The suspicions about the AnonymousIRC account exist across the Anonymous community for a long time now».
How do you plan to develop WikiLeaks now that you are inside this Embassy?
«I never developed WikiLeaks by walking into the forest and jumping down trees. It's intellectual work, a work of communities and engineering: all these things I can do in this embassy, but WikiLeaks is far more than just me, there are people involved in nearly every country».
So is there a network still working with you?
«Yes. There has been an interesting phenomenon over the past year and a half. The supporter individuals have started to find each other and take the interactions offline to make them personal».
So you don't feel alone, even if you are here confined in this embassy.
«Not in that sense, of course I feel alone in other ways»
In what ways?
«They are not interesting»
But do you feel supported by this community?
Do you feel betrayed by someone?
«There are quite many betrayers, but they are also not interesting. What it is interesting is the nature of the conflict we are involved in that leads to opportunistic behaviour».
«Well, these twenty opportunistic journalists. This is a fact of the world that is important to know and to defend against».
Did you feel betrayed by the New York Times?
«As a matter of fact we were betrayed by the New York Times. More interesting was that the New York Times betrayed itself, betrayed its reputation, betrayed its position and dimished its power by acting in the way they did. That shows you the extraordinary constraints they are operating in, that is the difficult reality of operating in the powerful position the New York Times does in the US: on the one end extremely subservient to the US intelligence complex, on the other end it also sees itself as part of that establishment».
Did you expect a different approach?
«I expected a smarter approach. I understand the constraints they are operating under within the United States, but they behaved foolishly in smearing Bradley Manning and in refusing to use the word 'torture' in relation of the tortures revealed in Iraq, as the other media of the world did. Even the US military records were using the word 'torture'».
Did you get support from people you would have never expected?
«Let's say that I did expect it, but nonetheless it was heartening to receive support from libertarian Republicans of the United States. It is not limited to Ron Paul, it extends significantly beyond that».
Some people think it is very unlikely that WikiLeaks will get a new bombshell like the US diplomacy cables, because the way Bradley Manning was jailed and tortured for months sent a very clear message to future leakers: if you dare to leak very important documents, your life will be destroyed...
« So are you saying that because one soldier has died in a war, there will never be another soldier who die in a war? Our sources are highly committed. What the Cablegate and other revelations show is that through courage, intelligence and diligence you can change the world as a source for WikiLeaks».
So you are confident in humankind.
Going back to your last six years, is there anything you would change?
«Of course, many little things I would do better. It is hard to refer to any specific decision, because most of them go down in the light of the strategic realities of the moment. There are some, for example the decision to come to the United Kingdom. We didn't expect the Guardian newspaper to swap sides. We expected that if we had the Guardian on our side, which they promised to be, and we had an extradition case from here or some other kind of attacks, we would do very well because of the existing treaties between the US and the UK plus the support of our English partner, the Guardian. But in the end I believe we charted this very difficult course rather well: the Pentagon and White House multiple times made public demands of us to destroy everything. We published everything successfully. We faced down the threats made by the Pentagon, we took the heat and we won».
You declared: 'If you believe something, you have to pay the price. And that is ok. My greatest regret is that it is a cost my children didn't agree to pay'.
«That is true». [He speaks quietly]
When did you meet your children last time?
«I do not comment details of my family for security reasons».