New Internationalist

‘I was the fall guy’: Julian Assange in his own words

Web exclusive

The Wikileaks founder talks to Jamie Kelsey-Fry about state surveillance, media scrutiny and the Cablegate affair.

Is the digital activist world robust enough to survive legislation attacks by the world’s superpowers?

Photo by: Espen Moe under a CC Licence
Julian Assange Photo by: Espen Moe under a CC Licence

The legislative attacks are not the big problem, either for the internet or for the communications revolution – which has given us such ability to understand the world by learning through the experiences of other people. Rather, the problem is the huge expansion by state intelligence agencies, which are now monitoring nearly every border and nearly every internet traffic flow.

For example, companies around the world are selling equipment to states for $10 million per year, to record every single telephone call, email and SMS going in and out of a country. Billions of hours of telephone calls – and not to just look at them and then perhaps discard them, but to record that information permanently.

And that’s part of the marketing literature to state intelligence organizations: there’s no longer a need to select who you intercept – you intercept everyone and you permanently record the whole thing, and then if sometime in the future you become interested in someone, you have the whole archive of all their communications and you understand who they are and who their friends are. You don’t even need intelligence agents to do this – there are algorithms that fan out and look at the network of people and how they’re connected together. It’s a kind of coming totalitarian surveillance state.

There is very little that any individual can do to protect themselves from bulk surveillance now

For example, the FRA [Försvarets Radioanstalt], which is the big spy agency in Sweden, intercepts 80 per cent of Russian internet traffic and they sell it on to the national security agency in the US. And every major interchange point for telecommunications data has a similar set-up. To a degree it’s not new; for example, all microwave telephone traffic between England and Ireland was intercepted during the time of the Troubles with the IRA. Eventually, microwaves stopped being used, because undersea cables were better, and so a different sort of surveillance technology has probably been deployed. We don’t have the evidence for that yet, but we have evidence in many other domains of this bulk interception occurring.

What can we do about it?

The answer is: very little. There is actually very little that any individual can do to protect themselves from bulk surveillance now. We take the inner core of our personal life and we put it on the internet – in our ‘real time’ chats with each other, in our emails with each other, in Facebook profiles – we pull in our entire friendship network and family and business networks and we make all that information available to be intercepted by those who have control either of those corporations or of the border points through which communications traffic flows.

There are certain cryptographic technologies that one can use to try to get some anonymity or privacy, but they’re pretty complex and unless you’re a technical person you can basically give up hope.

The only people who really have the motivation to install anonymization software like Tor are either people who are working for intelligence agencies themselves, or those working for organizations like Wikileaks. Everyone else should be doing it, but the burden – the logistical burden, the time burden – of doing it is so high it can’t be done.

So, are we all doomed? No. On the one hand, we have this extraordinary development in surveillance technology of the last 10 years, and the decreasing cost of deployment. There are some groups, crypto-anarchists, developing programmes to encrypt communications and to make communications anonymous. Wikileaks is part of that community of people that have tried to protect individuals and small groups from state surveillance – not just by the US but in many countries.

Wikileaks is a first in terms of digital technology undermining state control. How else might digital innovation take back power from the few and return it to the many?

It’s all about the crypto-anarchist project. I wouldn’t describe myself as an anarchist, but we can liberate the individual against the coercive power of the state using cryptography, using mathematics. And there is education – and I don’t mean formal education, I mean all of us educating one another. We are denying the manufacturing of consent by routing around the mainstream media. When one of us observes something somewhere in the world, or one of us has an insight, we can communicate that to people internationally. And that is unprecedented. Not since the Gutenberg printing press has there been such a force for education. And when we understand the world that we have to deal with, we are able to deal with the world – the world of concrete, physical reality, on which political systems sit. So I see this as the great leap forward for freedom. Even though most communication is surveilled, it is happening very quickly, in many cases so quickly that even though states can see our online communications, they can’t necessarily stop it. By the time that they see that some spread of knowledge has produced a particular action, a demonstration, a belief in the legitimacy or the illegitimacy of certain groups or organizations, it is too late to actually stop the action that occurs out of that understanding.

If we look at where most revolutions take place, they take place in squares, and when people come together into a square they are being their own media, they demonstrate to each other with their own eyes that they have the numbers and that other people agree with them, that they’re in the majority. And finally we have an ability to do this outside the square. We can see a consensus position based upon facts about the world, as a result of individuals and groups communicating with each other on the internet.

Every little NGO, every little radical group and every individual is able to project forth their view of the world, their understanding of the world – and their political position in relation to other groups. If we go back just 20 years, that was very hard for people to do.

Young people now live in an age where they can swap ideas at high speed. What effects do you see this having?

The chance to debate is now opened to everyone who can communicate on the internet. Which is not everyone, but it’s a sizeable chunk of people. More importantly, the people now actually have some power. People who have absolutely no power cannot do anything politically, they cannot have an effect.

We can look at the House of Commons, or Congress, and look at the debates that occur there, and say: ‘That’s the seat for political debate.’ But now, the seat for political debate is also on the internet.

When one of us observes something somewhere in the world, we can communicate that to people internationally. And that is unprecedented

I recall seeing this phenomenon three or four years ago when I saw a completely technical discussion on the internet suddenly turn to a political matter. A taboo was broken at that point: the taboo that technical discussions couldn’t step over into the political and that the proper place for political discussions wasn’t on the internet, but in the mainstream press. Only once something appeared in the mainstream press did it truly have political importance.

But those ground rules were broken and those technical individuals started to lose their political apathy. I believe that people are apathetic because they are powerless, not powerless because they are apathetic. So this new way of communicating was actually giving them power, and they then started to consider political matters.

They’re being educated, as a result of the internet, about how the world really works in terms of economic flows and political flows and hypocrisy, and they are also being given a power to express their opinions to a potentially very large audience, billions of people.

People outside the media and political sectors never used to have this, but now we all have it, and that’s such an empowering understanding.

So people are losing their political apathy, not just because they’re being educated and radicalized by examples like Wikileaks’ battle with the Pentagon or the Arab Spring, but because they actually have a power that they didn’t have before. And they’re starting to understand that.

Does Wikileaks aim for some kind of global balance of the countries whose secrets they release? Or is there a policy of focusing on some countries and states in particular?

Wikileaks is entirely source-driven – sources come to us with their material, and we publish. And we promise to publish everything that is given to us, provided it meets our editorial criteria: that the material is of diplomatic, political, ethical or historic significance, has not been published before, and there is some kind of force preventing its publication: a physical or legal threat, or it has been censored recently – it might have been published but then it was unpublished.

Provided it meets these criteria, we will publish it for sure, no matter what country it comes from. When we are in a situation where we have a lot of submissions and we have limited capacity, which we do, then of course we must make a judgment decision about what needs to be published first. That judgment decision is based on what will have the most impact towards justice.

Justice is the basic sense of fairness; human beings have these instincts. It varies a little bit from culture to culture, but we all basically have the same understanding that when someone is physically brutalized and they haven’t done anything, that’s unfair. We all have this instinctual feeling for justice. Wikileaks is an organization to bring about justice, and the particular method that we have been using is working well –looking for information that has been concealed from the public.

I believe that people are apathetic because they are powerless, not powerless because they are apathetic

Now of course, we’re not fools; sometimes there are perfectly good reasons for withholding information from the public. For example, with an investigation into the Mafia, it’s obvious what the legitimacy is in the police themselves engaging in protective measures to keep information not just from the public, but from the Mafia. Similarly, Wikileaks is engaged in all sorts of protective measures to keep the identities of our sources secret. Half the organization’s work is put into protection of our sources and our ability to publish in the face of threats.

But this is not the same thing as saying that simply because sometimes there are legitimate reasons for concealing information, everyone in the world is obligated to do that. For example, take our battle with the [US] State Department. In some instances, the State Department has a role or an obligation to keep private the information it has collected. Our role, as a vanguard publisher pushing for freedom of speech and to educate people and to reveal injustices, is to get hold of information like that and to publish it.

Newtown Grafitti under a CC Licence

These are different roles, and just as it is not correct for us to deploy coercive force on the State Department, for example using a bulldozer to smash through their building and take their secret vaults of information (although I must say that sounds rather attractive!) so it is not the correct role of the US State Department to go around the world threatening coercive force on Wikileaks, its people, its supporters, or banks. There is an economic blockade against Wikileaks – an extrajudicial economic blockade. There was no administrative process, no legal process. The only administrative process was the one conducted by the US Treasury Secretary at the beginning of 2011, and they found that there was no legal reason why we should be subject to an economic blockade, and yet it continues.

One can’t simply say that just because sometimes there are good reasons that information should be concealed, that everyone must be forced to shut up about it at the barrel of a gun.

What did it feel like when you, rather than Wikileaks’ revelations, became ‘the media story’?

A very interesting phenomenon. We played it in different ways as time went by. In the beginning, for our own protection, I made myself just a member of the advisory board, so the internal structure of Wikileaks could not be seen. But as Wikileaks grew in influence and popularity, a market developed for information about the organization in the mainstream press market.

That I was the founder of the organization simply came out as a result of various people being contacted by the mainstream press; my friends unfortunately gave me credit, which I didn’t want them to do. I’d rather they had said: ‘I don’t know who’s the founder.’

So then, in 2009, the ad hominem attacks started. It was necessary to defend against them, and the way you defend against ad hominem attacks occurring in a vacuum of information is to supply more information. If someone attacks your personality, you have to reveal good sides of your personality; if someone attacks your finances, you have to reveal some of your finances, and so on.

Then, in 2010, I was in hiding, moving around the world knowing that US intelligence knew that I had 260,000 US diplomatic cables in my back pocket. Our organization was in a ‘publish or perish’ situation, because our big leaks of 2010 hadn’t been published yet. That was our big challenge: to publish our information, and then to survive the publication. And for the organization to survive, there had to be a fall guy, and the fall guy needed to be protected. So the fall guy was me.

I was the most visible person already, so I was going to be the person that the political fire came in on. And because of that, I needed to be even more publicly visible, so that if I was locked up, if I suddenly disappeared, people would miss me. We worked on elevating my profile in order to gain the protection that public visibility would give.

For Wikileaks to survive, there had to be a fall guy – and the fall guy was me

Our technical guys didn’t have that protection at all, and they were in a very dangerous position – they didn’t have any of the protection of having a public profile. So we kept them underground through secret communications methods and were very careful to make sure their identities never came out, so they could not be silently ‘disappeared’.

So we had all the ad hominem attacks because I had a public profile, but on the other hand, the public profile has prevented me, so far, from being shipped off to the US. We will see what happens over the next few weeks, but so far, it has protected me. I mean, there were calls for my assassination and I haven’t been assassinated, I haven’t been kidnapped, I haven’t been extradited to the United States, although there are moves afoot to try to do that.

As to the media attention on my personal plight, we have some statistics that are quite interesting: there are 39 million web pages, according to Google, that mention the name Julian Assange. There are hundreds of millions that mention the word Wikileaks. Within the United Kingdom, there’s a five to one ratio of web pages on Wikileaks vs Julian Assange. For the Associated Press, the ratio is four to one. So AP is slightly more personalized than web pages in the UK – it concentrates slightly more on the personal. For the New York Times, it’s 2.5 to one in favour of Wikileaks. But for the Guardian, which we have had an active, ongoing legal dispute with since November 2010 as a result of their breaking all three points in our Cablegate contract, the ratio is three to two in favour of me.

Because we have a legal, an ethical, confrontation with them, the Guardian has decided to go into the personal in a way that Associated Press hasn’t. And this is despite the fact that the Guardian was a Cablegate partner and was given all the Cablegate material. That says something about the mainstream press and the media climate in London.

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