The iconoclastic and controversial Australian’s technology platform WikiLeaks shot to prominence in 2010 with the diplomatic cables, widely viewed as a watershed for accountability and human rights. More recently, Hillary Clinton described Assange as ‘a tool of Russian intelligence’ following her 2016 electoral defeat to Donald Trump. In conversation with the IBA’s Executive Director, Mark Ellis, he rebuts suggestions he did Vladimir Putin’s dirty work and explains why all judicial systems have their breaking point.
Mark Ellis: Let me start with a general question about WikiLeaks and your approach to the issue of good versus harm and whether or not you think that there is a balance as to what is presented to the public through WikiLeaks. Obviously, one of the highlights came from the records that were released from Private Chelsea Manning. This showed... not only from your work, but Mr Snowden’s work, some kind of massive government surveillance operation, torture, deaths of civilians at the hands of international forces in Iraq and Afghanistan. I think many viewed that as simply being a whistleblower to information that was certainly a surprise and probably offensive to many.
But, on the other hand, you have, through WikiLeaks, published millions of documents that deal with hacked emails of corporations, public figures, international trade agreements, and they have, at times, damaged individual privacy – some would argue without public benefit. How do you go about, or do you at all go about, making some distinction between what you think needs to be known and what might be harmful?
Julian Assange: Every law, every Constitution, every regulation, is formed as a result of human beings communicating what they know. That is a process that exists above and beyond he law because it is the process that forms the very bedrock from which laws are made, regulated and so on. And so then the question becomes, ‘What does WikiLeaks decide to spend its energies on?’ Well, we have a taxi rank principle. If someone comes to us with information that hasn’t been public or is of diplomatic, political or historical significance, and under some kind of suppression or that person themselves is under some kind of threat – you know, they can’t publish it themselves – then we will publish it. We may occasionally redact some information for some limited period of time if there’s an arguable case that it could lead to very direct forms of retribution against individuals who don’t go through a formal justice process – assassination, for example – as opposed to revealing information that does lead to retribution that is through a fair judicial process.
ME: Getting back to the initial leaks, where people found out about government mass-surveillance, I think many people felt ‘That’s something I didn’t know and I wanted to know. I’m glad you presented that.’ Obviously, there are many who would disagree with that. But, if you turn to a situation – and one example is what came out this past year on the United States presidential elections – WikiLeaks made a decision to publish thousands of emails just before the election. And I suspect that, in doing so, there had to be some recognition that this was going to have an impact; consequences were going to occur. Hillary Clinton has said the WikiLeaks documents contributed significantly to her defeat. Donald Trump’s tweeted ‘I love WikiLeaks’. So, was there any assessment on what those consequences would be in putting those leaked emails out at that particular moment? It looks to some as just an agenda that maybe you dislike Clinton, you wanted to move in a different direction. How do you respond to that kind of review and decision-making?
JA: WikiLeaks is an organisation committed to being the most aggressive publisher in the world, the strongest defender of press freedoms, that has never been accused of censoring one of its sources and has obeyed, scrupulously, its reputation for accuracy and boldness in publishing and having never not published something. We’re not in the business of censoring information. If we get information about an election before an election, we will do everything possible to publish it at the moment when the public is most interested in it. Which is before an election, rather than after. It would be a betrayal of our role before the public to suppress information to the benefit of one candidate or another.
“WikiLeaks is committed to being the most aggressive publisher in the world, the strongest defender of press freedoms, that has never been accused of censoring one of its sources
ME: But you recognise, then, that there were consequences in this particular election?
JA: No, not really. We looked at the polling like everyone else did. And, essentially, the whole establishment of the US, except for FOX News, perhaps, was united behind Clinton. So those factors led us to the conclusion that Clinton would win, and our publications wouldn’t make a significant difference... they could well discolour her as she was forming her administration and, of course, she would be likely to take significant extra revenge on us as an organisation for publishing that material in the election campaign. My position and the position of our staff is that, actually, this was a rigorous commitment to principle and that we were entering into a position of danger and significant self-sacrifice by infuriating the person who opinion polls told us had a 90–98 per cent chance of becoming President. Even if we had known that Trump would be elected, as he in the end was, it wouldn’t have changed that at all. If you have principles, you have to live by them. Otherwise they’re not principles. You can’t decide you’re not going to have a principle, just because the situation mildly changes. I disagree with your analysis of the hysteria about the US President and, frankly, the power of presidents in general.
ME: Getting back to that point though – in a sense, the perception that there might be an agenda – it was known that you didn’t have a real like of Clinton. I think that was common knowledge.
JA: I think that was akin to about 50 per cent of the American population, probably the majority of the rest of the world’s population, actually. I don’t know the woman; I’m not in high school; I don’t have dislikes of people that I haven’t met. It’s more... I don’t like their policies, that they might lead to wars, for example.
ME: On those leaks and the sense of an objective process for sourcing information, if it meets the criteria that WikiLeaks has set out, then you publish it. I want to ask you about the leaks on the Democratic National Committee (DNC). At least now the US has a fairly consistent position from the National Security Agency (NSA), the Federal Bureau of Invesitgation (FBI), the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), that the information leaked was actually sourced by Russian military intelligence. They are adamant that’s where the information came from. You have said that’s not the case. How do you know the leaks were not from Russian military intelligence when it seems that everybody looking at this right now suggests it was? Is there a sense that WikiLeaks could be an unwilling, or willing, agent of a government, in this case, Russia?
JA: You’re sort of suggesting that a public service like the postal system might be an unwitting agent of all sorts of people transmitting the post. It doesn’t mean you close down the postal service. In relation to our sourcing, on this particular issue, our source is not a member of any state or those various publications related to the election.
There has been intentional conflation between a variety of other publications and leaks that appeared in the US press with material we published. But, the formal position of US intelligence, as stated by President Barack Obama and the head of the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, etc... is that they believe with high confidence, that Russian actors hacked the DNC. And, with slightly less confidence, that, through some circuitous chain of intermediaries, the information was given to us. That’s what they claim.
ME: The New Yorker article in which you’re interviewed said ‘Whatever one thinks of Assange’s election disclosures, accepting his contention that they shared no ties with two Russian fronts, requires willful blindness’. We now have Robert Mueller investigating; undoubtedly he will be looking at this as well. Are you confident this will not lead to a scenario where the evidence is overwhelming that, in fact, those leaked emails came from Russian military sources?
“We published proof showing the CIA was tasked to hack the French elections… That’s absolutely normal; every major political party of a major country has hackers from a variety of countries
JA: The emails that we published? I’m confident that our sources will never be shown to be [from the Russian military]. Enormous energy has been put into the alleged Russia-gate investigation in the US. Vast resources across the FBI, CIA, NSA, the Democratic Party and the democratically-aligned press, which has the best investigative capacity, with extremely little to show for it... over the course of a year. I’m speaking more broadly now about the attempts to tie the Trump campaign team to Russia in some way. Maybe the campaign has a relationship with the Russian government in other respects. I don’t know.
It’s a little bit like the situation with weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. Before the war, and before they discovered that there were no weapons of mass destruction, my analysis was that vast resources were being put into trying to find any at all, or any evidence, and to amplify whatever could look like something. And that there hadn’t been anything of substance and, therefore, my view was that, perhaps Iraq had some chemical weapons but these were not of strategic significance. Otherwise, these vast resources would have turned up something. This would be my guess about the Trump administration’s contact with Russia. Maybe there’s something there but, if so, it’s not of significance because, if it was of significance, these vast resources put into it would have turned up more than they have.
ME: That may very well be the case. But what I’m suggesting is that there seems to be consistency now emerging, at least in the US, from all of these agencies, that there is little doubt that those e-mails and the hacking of the DNC was, in fact, done through Russian military intelligence.
JA: Where are the leaks? Washington is leaking like a sieve these days... I’m proud of having contributed to that dynamic! Where are the leaks on that? We see leaks on everything else. They don’t even know about our communications with our sources, when they happened, and so on. If you go back and look at last year, you’ll see that, prior to the Russian hysteria, the US government came out and said that five or six different states or organisations were involved in hacking. We published proof showing that the CIA was tasked to hack the French elections, the one before Macron, and in a very invasive way. So that’s absolutely normal; every major political party of a major country has hackers from a variety of countries and private organisations contracted by them.
I think, on the one hand, there is perhaps some forensic trail showing one state or another in these organisations. On the other hand, WikiLeaks is publishing things. What I don’t think exists is a proper connection between these two.
ME: But, hypothetically, if you had a sense, an awareness, that the information passed to WikiLeaks was not coming from an individual hacker, but from the military intelligence of a government that clearly had its objective to sway the US elections – which seems to be a fairly objective position right now from all sources – would you still publish it? Or would you say, ‘I’m not going to become an agent to the influence of this party or this government state in trying to interfere with the elections of another country’?
JA: I don’t know. We haven’t been in that position. It’s an interesting hypothetical question. I think about it in a different way, which is: what if we perceived that a large state, say China, gave us information to publish about Taiwan, a much smaller state. Would we have a problem with that? Maybe. We don’t have a rule for that. We’d have to think about what that rule is. If we don’t publish something it doesn’t disappear. When we publish it, it gets properly assessed, analysed and so on. If we don’t publish it, it will appear somewhere else. We’re not actually contributing to a problem; we’re contributing to an understanding of what information actually is available in such a case.
ME: You’ve talked about journalism: you said in The New Yorker interview, ‘We come not to save journalism but to destroy it. Journalism doesn’t deserve to live. It has to be ground down into the ashes before a new structure can be formed.’ I am curious about that because you rely on journalists. Part of WikiLeaks staff, its whole process, are journalists. So is it mainstream media that you’re criticising?
“ I would say, in the big Western countries, something like two per cent of journalists are credible in terms of accuracy
JA: Somewhere in that quote I say there’s a fundamental information asymmetry between the journalist and the reader. And this information asymmetry is exploited. If the reader wasn’t ignorant, they wouldn’t read to gain knowledge. Do you see? Therefore, because the reader is by definition ignorant – otherwise they’d have no interest in reading – this then causes a knowledge gap, which can be exploited and which is exploited all the time. I’m very familiar with that.
I would say that, in the big Western countries, something like two per cent of journalists are credible in terms of accuracy. That very article is an example of that.
It’s a quite interesting syndrome, which is: you’re involved in something, you see it reported in the press, and you go, ‘it’s nothing like that’. I know that from personal experience. It’s largely fabricated. Sometimes quotes are completely fabricated, otherwise chronologies are reversed for some particular reason, etc. What people then do – and I even catch myself falling for this – is look at a story without direct knowledge of its truthfulness, because we’re not direct participants, and assume it’s accurate.
I believe that, as human beings, we can only rise to the heights that the knowledge scaffold we have can reach. If this scaffold is actually made out of supports that seem strong, but actually create fiction, then you can’t reach very high. We see this all the time, the corrosive effects of selective news reporting, complete fabrications, hype, hysteria. I think the press is, in general, very toxic and extremely corrosive. When it does its job right, and it does do its job right sometimes as a result of a few good journalists, it’s a remarkable thing. But, the gap between its potential achievements and actual record is so immense, you really have to question whether the world would be better off without it...
WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange is seen on the balcony of the Ecuadorian Embassy in London, UK, May 2017. REUTERS/Peter Nicholls
ME: That’s a fairly strong indictment on mainstream media.
JA: I don’t think the alternative media is any better. In fact, it’s frequently worse.
ME: We’re with an international audience of lawyers and law plays an important platform for the International Bar Association and for lawyers in general. We know that, this past year, Sweden dropped the arrest warrant, which was part of a European arrest warrant that came out in 2010. They’ve dropped that arrest warrant but, during this time, you were very critical of Sweden, suggesting that it has a poor judicial system. I think many people thought that was a bit harsh. Fundamentally, was your failure or desire not to engage with the issues of that arrest warrant on the alleged attempted rape primarily because of your concerns about extradition, or did you just have a complete lack of faith in the judicial legal system to provide you a fair hearing and process on that issue?
“ Every state has a level at which its judicial system breaks down
JA: Sweden would not guarantee that I would not be onwards extradited to the US. I had a complete lack of faith in Sweden’s ability, of its judicial system’s ability, and I guess more broadly as a political society, its ability to fairly carry out a hearing in relation to the US extradition. There’s obviously various hooks that one could use in Swedish law or pulldowns from European law to try and resist onwards extradition to the US. My experience in Sweden and how it was dealing with the other case – not even ‘case’ but preliminary investigation, I was never even charged – that made me very concerned about its resilience as a judicial system.
My philosophical take-away from that experience and others is that every state has a level at which its judicial system breaks down. There is no exemption. It is the same everywhere. Really, the only question is: ‘Where is this level and where are you as a defendant on that level?’
ME: Certainly there are countries in the world that one would question the integrity, the ability, of the judicial system.
JA: All of them – there is no exception.
This is an abridged version of an interview with Julian Assange at the IBA Annual Conference in October 2017 in Sydney.
View the filmed interview