New Delhi: In an exclusive interview to NDTV's Prannoy Roy, Julian Assange talks about the WikiLeaks storm that has erupted in India. This is the transcript of the interview.
NDTV: Julian Assange, you are under global attack. Now, the West normally prides itself on the rule of law and its institutions of justice. Are you kind of shocked by the ferocity and illegalities of the attacks against you?
Assange: I am disappointed that the US Administration has decided to betray the traditions of the founding fathers and those great traditions of Franklin and Madison. Now the codified Bill of Rights within important protection for freedom is in the first amendment......so that is disappointing. I would like to say that it is not shocking. We have been following the US military, US Intelligence for 4-5 years now in this process of WikiLeaks and in other countries... but we can see that there is a burgeoning security state that spreads out not just from Washington because the center of gravity is around there, and goes into all Western countries. And there is a Western alliance that responds very aggressively. And previous publications have received some of that response, but it is really the size and the scale of the publication which has received a stimulating and such an aggressive attack.
NDTV: With this kind of a relentless attack against you Julian Assange.. Where can you live safely in the world now? It's a ruthless attack. Is there any place, any country that is safe for you?
Assange: The question about the countries is interesting. You know in December last year, the Australian government - my home government - stated that it had started a whole government investigation into us on behalf of the United States including (its) domestic intelligence agency, foreign intelligence agency, department of defence, parts of Cabinet, and the Attorney General etc. So that country does not seem to be a safe home for me. In the political sense the Australian people are very supportive.
Similarly one might think that Sweden having a reputation built up in 1970s for neutrality will be a safe country. But that is not true because of its proximity to Russia, and closer partnership with NATO...it is no longer possible. So there are perhaps other countries, perhaps Brazil or maybe even India, big enough countries to be able to stand up to that sort of the US interference, if they chose to do so. But right now it is not clear if there is any country that is safe for our publication. But we do have the will of the majority of people. My friends in Egypt and Tunisia say that these two countries perhaps would be the safest for us now because of the revolution of the governments that is bringing up...
NDTV: Many of us feel that you are a true new-world journalist, I mean you are fighting for freedom of information... but now you have got the US Vice President Joe Biden calling you a high-tech terrorist, the former Speaker Newt Gingrich saying you should be treated as an enemy combatant. Now enemies in America are normally killed as you know. These are their public statements. I just wonder what happens privately. Do you get threats privately, covertly? Are you threatened privately?
Assange: We do receive threats from time to time, there are many of them. But we do not take those threats too seriously... it is the people who are not making the threats that are a concern for us. There is a bill going through the US Senate to declare us a transnational threat and therefore treat us in a legal sense.. the same way as Al-Qaida...as enemy combatants. Hopefully we will work it through. The feeling in the United States is getting better...there are a number of academics and journalists in US that have come forward to announce those sort of moves. We just saw the State Department spokesperson Crowley resign over the treatment of Bradley Manning, one of our alleged sources. So it is not correct to say that the US is of one voice to destroy us. There are still good people in US, still good people within the US administration, within the intelligence agencies, even in the Pentagon. And it is now bit of a fight between them to see that which way the US going to go.. is it going to be completely taken over by its security sector and throw all its good traditions out the window? Or are those reformists or we could even say the conservative forces actually that will want to conserve some of the good values of the United States, are they going to win? And that is why this is such an interesting period for us, and of course for everyone else, because after all the United States is everyone's superpower. And the US President is our President, my President and he is also India's President in the sense that the US is able to dispense its power and interfere in many other countries. So which way it goes, that is very important. So it is quite an interesting time to be in. It is possible that after the end of this process, we will actually see something better than we had in the beginning. Yes, at the moment there is incredible abusive overreach of power by the US administration. On the other hand, it is drawing a lot of attention to that power and abuse by the burgeoning security state in the United States. And it may have struck too hard and as a result people will strike back...
NDTV: When you talk about striking back and America striking at you, you do say that you get private threats and some of these are worrying.
Assange: There are security concerns we have but to some degree these are not new. Why this situation is the most difficult and adverse we have had in the past 4 years - In 2008, we had 2 people that we were working with in Kenya assassinated by the Kenyan police, trying to cover up a matter and two of their colleagues were also killed over that. Iraq - Serious threats against us just like there are against all journalists who try and hold very powerful organizations to account out the situations, a bit more unusual. You seem to have full brunt of the Superpower... and anyhow I can pull into the equation as well.
NDTV: But you earlier mentioned that the US President is like the Super-President of us all. In the recent leaks about India, the diplomatic cables released by WikiLeaks, the overriding feature is the extent of America's efforts in influencing policies in India. Are you surprised at the extent of that attempt to influence policies or is that expected?
Assange: Looking at what the US has done with other countries, which we have revealed through these cables, it's not at all a surprise, it is their modus operandi. When I first started reading this material I thought my God everything those South American Marxists in the 1960s were complaining about in relation with the state department, it is actually true. It is not just that they are making a political rhetoric, actually it does appear that state department is simply an instrument of US industry of particular types and it goes around the world collecting political intelligence, interfering in unions and all. We even saw this in Australia where the Australian Cabinet Minister, one of the chief power brokers of the Australian Labour government was a confidential source for US Embassy, going there frequently and the Embassy said he being that way thru out his political rise.
NDTV: There is this alternative point of view that what you've essentially done is leaked out cables which are just assessments made by people or observations made by them. They are not really facts and as a result what is happening is that people are treating these as facts and using them to embarrass states- may be India, may be other countries but you just have washed your hands off it. You say my job is to reveal these cables after that it is for the rest of the world to decide. So that leaves a lot of collateral damage where opinions and assessments by these officials are taken as gospel truth. People want to ask you, Is that a fair thing to do? Just leave out any assessment and wash your hands off the whole thing once you have released them?
Assange: Absolutely not....it is not correct to say that all these cables are mere opinions by US diplomats...that is not true. These are official correspondence sent by Ambassadors, sent in their official capacity back to Washington. Their motivations are to improve their career prospects generally. So they want Washington to understand that they are engaged in the country. They are getting good sources of information and they are reporting back. This seems to be the predominant thing. But they report what they say are facts and they also present opinions........it is important to keep these two different. In the cases of these Indian cables which are causing such a furor about bribery...such an interesting case...it is very hard to understand why the US Embassy official would lie about that to Washington. What is more interesting is under what basis was he told that information? That the US Embassy official was shown that cash? Could it have been...because this was a US issue.. to demonstrate how compliant certain parts of Indian Parliament work with US interest? Or could it have been to set up or frame another group. It is hard to see what benefit there would be in framing another group to Washington through that method. It is not clear what benefit it would be. But when we look at the cables in other contexts, they have been used and accepted as evidence in the Taylor case in Hague, they have been used in courts in Spain to reopen a rendition case involving the CIA. They have been used in a number of places, they have been accepted as quotes, as probative evidence, as genuine official documents. Of course what the officials say and how they gain their knowledge too must be investigated and interrogated.
NDTV: You seem to agree that the content of these tapes still needs to be investigated. They may or may not be correct.
Assange: The comments I have been hearing from Prime Minister Singh....these, to me, seem like a deliberate attempt to mislead the public by suggesting that governments around the world do not accept the material and it is not verified ...absolutely false! Hillary Clinton in December last year spoke to the Indian government, perhaps to Prime Minister Singh directly or that level to forewarn that this material would be coming out. There is no doubt that these are bonafide reports sent by the American Ambassador back to Washington and these should be seen in that context. That does not mean every fact in them is correct, you have to look at their sources and how they gave this information.
NDTV: Just to absolutely clarify - The defence of the Indian government is that a) authenticity of these cables cannot be verified. They may not be correct bits of evidence at all. B) Contents of cables are just views of people and could be factually wrong or at worst just gossip. Are you absolutely confirming that the cables are at least genuine and that the government is wrong in saying that they cannot be verified?
Assange: That is absolutely correct. There is no doubt, whatsoever, that the cables are authentic. That is why we are being so heavily attacked by the Pentagon. That is why young intelligence officer Bradley Manning has been imprisoned in United States for 299 days now. There is absolutely no doubt. The content, of course, varies on a cable by cable basis. It is wrong to suggest that these are just opinions, these are official reports made by US Ambassadors, sometime it is opinion...sometimes not. It is done in a serious capacity. For example, if this cable on bribery is incorrect then the US Ambassador to India has a lot to answer for because he has been sending back very serious reports to Washington about senior politicians and behaviour in Indian Parliament, which casts it in a very negative light. It would affect the relationship between India and United States. So either he has committed a grave error that would damage Indian and American relations and should resign over that - or the material was correct and he was reporting correctly and had checked his facts before reporting back to Washington.
NDTV: Now, you actually mentioned the US ambassador but we heard from our senior former diplomats that all cables from India, from the US embassy, no matter who they are from, whether it's a junior in the embassy or not - go in the name of the Ambassador and that he may not have seen them even. It is just a tradition that goes on. In fact all the cables from Washington that come to India, come in the name of the Secretary of State, that's Hillary Clinton. She of course, doesn't see all these things. It is just the format. So obviously Hillary Clinton does not read every cable, the Ambassador doesn't read every cable. These could be just juniors in the Embassy and in Washington and it just goes in the name of the ambassador or Hillary Clinton.
Assange: They don't tend to be too much more junior...it depends on the seriousness of the issue. You would probably find a political officer or an ambassador who usually clears it. By reading the content of the cable, you will see that Pauloff - that's the political officer - was told that. The content of the cable does not fabricate the Ambassador's name. For example, suppose when there is a meeting between the Embassy official or employee or political officer or Ambassador, they are named as that. What is written at the bottom of the cable going back is frequently the Ambassador or the political officer that wrote most of the material. But there is a reason for that. The Ambassador is made to read the cable and sign it off and send it out in his writing that he has approved.
NDTV: So the cables which state Hillary Clinton, Secretary of State, are actually not from her at all, they cud be from anyone in her office, in fact unlikely to be her, it could be a junior officer but all the mails, no matter who they are from in her office go in the name of the Secretary of State. Right?
Assange: Yes, that is her office as opposed to her personally.
NDTV: Right. So I agree. It is wrong to attribute all those mails to Hillary Clinton herself because it is just the format or the norm that attributes it to her office but it could be anybody in her office. But still to come, remember there are 6000 cables about India. Have we just seen the tip of the iceberg? That's in a moment from now.
NDTV: What about America's reaction to WikiLeaks. The person who is said to have leaked those diplomatic cables-- Bradley Manning is currently in jail, has been there nearly 300 days and is being treated terribly in America, is being kept naked for hours... but the US media and society do not seem to be doing anything about it. Why do you think there has been no angry reaction in that country? No reaction at all actually.
Assange: Bradley Manning is America's foremost political prisoner. The allegations against him, whether they are true or not, are of a political nature and he has been kept in solitary confinement for 299 days as a result of those political allegations that he has revealed - information like this for political reasons - to demonstrate the inequities and abuses that were occurring. There are people in the United States who are angry about this. The state department spokesperson resigned over this issue. However, it is not getting any big media play...it is bubbling there but is not being aggressively picked up and that is the nature of the mainstream press of the United States. It is a very destructive thing for all of us. That is a fact about the United States and the security sector has grown so fast and so influential that its tendrils merge into most big companies and most big media companies. That is the reality of the US economy and the reality of the US media. Unfortunately the US media is so strong, aggressive and has such sophisticated distribution mechanism that that bias then pushed down in English language all over the world and to the other English speakers in the world, like the Australians, Indians, the Canadians and the British to somehow develop their own media infrastructure and to be able to resist the propaganda.
NDTV: The WikiLeaks cables on India have created a storm in Parliament. The response has been for the Opposition to accept it without question and the response of the government has been to live in denial. Two totally opposing and different responses. Is this normal behaviour to politicise your material?
Assange: In response to our publishing, the US government has taken certain steps, like to pressure banks to cut off financial transactions to us. That is very revealing about the power connections between high finance and the US State department. Similarly, in the response to the cables alleging that that US Embassy officials were shown cash boxes for bribing Parliamentarians, we saw something rather disturbing. We saw an immediate rush, not to deny that allegations in these facts were not true...we want to investigate properly to make sure everything is clear.. that we are innocent. Rather what we saw was an attempt to distort the record and fool the public about the nature of the material. First to say, they refused to comment at all, then to suggest that the materials are not verified and that no other government accepted it. Absolutely false...and so that is actually the behaviour of guilty men. Man who is innocent doesn't tend to behave like that. That doesn't mean, people making those statements like Prime Minister Singh and so on are guilty of this particular crime, it suggests something that how Indian Parliamentarians and Indian politicians respond to very serious allegations. They respond through indirection, by lying and attempting to cover up the issue for the public rather than address it fully and frankly. The most serious issue in the cable, I suspect, is yet to be revealed. Just looking at what happened with other countries, that doesn't mean The Hindu is necessarily holding back what it thinks to be most important for Indians to last. In other countries they have dealt with ...you know an issue can catch fire, imagination of the public may not be the one you first think. There is quite a bit of time to get through the material...the material from Pakistan, from China.....it is likely to be interest to the Indian population.
NDTV: So there is lots more to come on China as well. Yes, that would be of interest here. And you say that our Parliament is trying to, at least the government is trying to say that these cables a figment of your imagination and that is not a way to react they should investigate it more. Let me ask you a completely different issue Julian Assange, while WikiLeaks and you are fighting for the freedom of thought and of expression and you are putting your life in danger fighting for it - isn't there a danger that if everyone from now is terrified or worried about their writings becoming public through WikLeaks, they are going to be constrained and inhibited in what they write. Therefore ironically could WikiLeaks make everyone so cautious that they would not put anything down in writing and it could be the end of free and fearless expression, just the opposite of what u want.
Assange: It depends on what are you trying to express....should there be an end to frank and fearless expression of how to conduct a conspiracy which is against the public interest? Of course there should, we want to make it very hard for government officials to speak to each other in a free and frank way.
NDTV: But isn't it a possibility that instead of putting things down in writing, am just asking you of a possibility, because of WikiLeaks people will be scared or just talk over the phone or have face to face conversations like you see in a movie, go out in the garden and say the most critical issues. Isn't there a danger that we will move in a world from recorded to non-recorded forms of history?
Assange: To prevent the policy from decaying into Chinese Whispers, to permit the Centre to control the whole organization you have to put things in writing n that is how big organizations are controlled by their executives - is by putting things in writing, having people checking your writing . Having centralized repositories, information, centralized e-mails, recording that is hard to distort Otherwise they can't control it. So, yes you can have an organization just on verbal form, spoken word - but I say if that happens, an organization can no longer be efficient in carrying out that order, that order will gradually decay through Chinese Whispers. While of course for small organisations it is perfectly possible, because everyone can meet in a room, the boss can give out his verbal instructions to people while they are in a room. For large organizations there has to be a paper trial just to carry it out. So, for systemic abuses, for abuses that affect a lot of people based in a central policy there has to be writing, otherwise the abuse is not going to affect a lot of people.
So if everyone goes to a non-written form, we will see a situation where yes, there will still be some abuses; yes, some will be concealed but they are not going to affect a lot of people. To affect a lot of people, you need writing or a recording or something that doesn't change as it goes from one person to another.
NDTV: Is there any situation where it is valid to have official secrecy or is privacy only valid for individuals? What is your view on that?
Assange: Well, there is a difference between the two. Privacy is for individuals, the governments, particular parts of government try and use secrecy...sometimes for legitimate reasons, sometimes for a legitimate period of time... but most often, for illegitimate reasons. The big problem with secrecy is how do you know that it is not being abused? So, if someone can just put a stamp on their internal correspondence every time it's embarrassing or because they are engaged in some sort of corruption or abuse... then they can just put a stamp 'secret' on it... and then no one can review to see whether that stamp is being correctly applied or not because in order to review it, you have to read the material. Of course, it is a system that instantly escalates, the stamp starts getting on everything, confidentiality explodes out of control and then you end up with corrupt, inefficient and abusive organizations. I say, of course there are times where secrecy is legitimate, but organizations and individuals must fight for it. They must really fight for it and prove it is legitimate and there shouldn't be a default assumption that it is only legitimate for a small amount of time...and after that time elapses and things cease to become secret. That way the burden of truth is on those people who are trying to conceal things from the public.
NDTV: So, would you at WikiLeaks ever publish private secrets of leaders' personal lives? Would you ever do that?
Assange: For saying in figures, the personal and political is all mixed up - who their friends are, who their relatives are is all factored in into their business and political decision- making. You can see, for example, in these cables, there is personal character, details revealed. Certainly, we think that there are many cases where personal information is not just personal, it enters into alliances and decision- making and who is someone's opponent or enemy. But as an organization, we have a very simple standard which is, we accept information of political, ethical, historical or diplomatic importance that is significant and has not been published before and is trying to be suppressed. We are not interested in people's love letters.
NDTV: How do you react to the many who accuse you of being secretive about yourself? Is that a conflict? How do you resolve that?
Assange: We are an organisation that is being harassed and attacked by a super power and of course, that requires certain defensive measures and has since 2008 at least where we had people affiliated with us being assassinated. So, that is not a matter of hypocrisy. It's a matter of a small organisation doing its best to continue carrying out its work and that includes defending us from state surveillance.
NDTV: Coming back to the cables in India, the previous set of cables, especially the ones on Afghanistan exposed the extent of Pakistan's role in terror against India. I am looking ahead at the new material that's about to come. Does it substantiate that role a little more? The Hindu newspaper has already done an excellent job in analysing all the stuff that has come out of WikiLeaks. Now, is there more big stuff to come?
Assange: There are some 6000 cables from the US embassies that have been tagged by the State Department about India. We have only just seen the first part of that now being published by our partner, The Hindu. I am sure that some of that material that we will see in the coming weeks will go into some of the Pakistani relationships. But, what we are really looking at more closely is the cables from Pakistan and those are something that are yet to be published. We are working to have those published and I am sure Indians and Pakistanis will be very interested to see what they reveal. Well, I wouldn't want to pre- judge them before they are published.
NDTV: Coming back to the impact of WikiLeaks, you have heard of widespread criticism that often loose conversations are released in WikiLeaks and some people are named who may be doing good work covertly or working underground, infiltrating and fighting against terrorism and once their names are public, their lives are in danger. What do you do about that?
Assange: This is something the Pentagon has tried to throw out every time it has been criticized by the Press, back to the 1950s. There is no allegation even by the Pentagon, even by the state department or by any American official that anything we have ever published in our entire history, has resulted to a single individual coming to personal or physical harm. Something that is repeatedly asserted without evidence can be dismissed without argument. We have a harm-minimisation process and clearly it has been 100% effective till date. While no organization is free from making mistakes when you deal with things of this scale and with this level of seriousness, today we have two perfect records: we have a perfect record of never having been fooled by information sent to us and we have a perfect record in having no one come to physical harm as a direct result of anything being published.
NDTV: That is a remarkable record. Now WikiLeaks has tended to focus on the United States of America. So the question that everyone asks - Is Julian Assange anti-United States? Are you?
Assange: Not at all. We are an organization that through our attempts are trying to protect the Press and publishing... carrying on the tradition of Madison and Jefferson. We are actually upholding the founding values of the United States. We have published materials for over 120 different countries, exposed the assassination from Kenya to East Timor, billions of dollars of corruption in Africa. So we are not at all particularly focused on the United States. Rather, we have to publish our material in order of its significance, and simply cannot turn it away because it comes to United States. The reality of the United States now is that some 30-40 per cent of its economy, directly or indirectly, is bound up to the security sector. So it has a lot of secrets, a lot of computers and it has a lot of people within its state department, within the government, with the military who are very unhappy about the way it is conducting itself in Iraq and Afghanistan, that leads those brave people stepping forward to give us material...we can try and do something about it.
NDTV: That is amazing, as you described the spreading tentacles of the security systems in United States. But finally just tell us a little bit about yourself Julian Assange. In the life of Mr. Assange, do you have heroes or a hero? Could you name some of them?
Assange: Well, I think Daniel Ellsberg, the Pentagon paper whistleblower, he has become a friend over the past couple of years and can fairly be described as a hero. There are others in different fields such as Voltaire in Physics and Heisenberg and Bohr. I have some, but knowing some heroes, I think it is better to say that there are people who get engaged in heroic acts. Every individual is of course a human, one must be careful with the hero label. Many people call me, for example, a hero but I am a man and a human being, just like all of us.
NDTV: Well, Julian Assange all I can say is that you are a hero to many of us. Thank you very much for spending all this time with us during one of the most tense periods in your life. All we can say is look after yourself and most of all, be safe.