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Is WikiLeaks’ Julian Assange a Hero? Glenn Greenwald Debates Steven Aftergood of Secrecy News

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WikiLeaks is coming under attack from all sides. The U.S. government and embassies around the world are criticizing the whistleblowing group for releasing a massive trove of secret State Department cables. The WikiLeaks website is struggling to stay online just days after Amazon pulled the site from its servers following political pressure. The U.S. State Department has blocked all its employees from accessing the site and is warning all government employees not to read the cables, even at home. “These attacks will not stop our mission, but should be setting off alarm bells about the rule of law in the United States,” said WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange. We host a debate between Steven Aftergood, a transparency advocate who has become a leading critic of WikiLeaks, and Glenn Greenwald, a constitutional law attorney and legal blogger for [includes rush transcript]

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

JUAN GONZALEZ: WikiLeaks is under attack. The whistelblowing group’s website has effectively been killed just days after Amazon pulled the site from its servers following political pressure. went offline this morning for the third time this week in what the Guardian newspaper is calling “the biggest threat to its online presence yet.”

A California-based internet hosting provider called EveryDNS dropped WikiLeaks last night, late last night. The company says it did so to prevent its other 500,000 customers from being affected by the intense cyber attacks targeted at WikiLeaks.

This morning, WikiLeaks — and the massive trove of secret diplomatic cables it has been publishing since Sunday — was only accessible online through a string of digits known as a DNS address.

Earlier this week, Joe Lieberman, the chair of the Senate committee on Homeland Security, called for any organization helping to sustain WikiLeaks to immediately terminate its relationship with them.

Meanwhile, the State Department has blocked all its employees from accessing the site and is warning all government workers not to read the cables, even at home.

WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange told The Guardian the developments are an example of the, quote, “privatization of state censorship.” Assange said, quote, “These attacks will not stop our mission, but should be setting off alarm bells about the rule of law in the United States.”

AMY GOODMAN: Just what is WikiLeaks’ mission? On its website, the group says, quote, “WikiLeaks is a non-profit media organization dedicated to bringing important news and information to the public.” The website goes on, “We publish material of ethical, political and historical significance while keeping the identity of our sources anonymous, thus providing a universal way for the revealing of suppressed and censored injustices,” unquote.

But not all transparency advocates support what WikiLeaks is doing. Today we’ll host a debate. Steven Aftergood is one of the most prominent critics of WikiLeaks and one of the most prominent transparency advocates. He’s the director of the government secrecy project at the Federation of American Scientists. He runs the Secrecy News project, which routinely posts non-public documents. He is joining us from Washington, D.C. We’re also joined by Glenn Greenwald. He’s a constitutional law attorney and political and legal blogger for who’s supportive of WikiLeaks. He’s joining us from Rio de Janeiro in Brazil.

We welcome you both to Democracy Now! Why don’t we begin with Steven Aftergood? You have been a fierce proponent of transparency, yet you are a critic of WikiLeaks. Why?

STEVEN AFTERGOOD: I’m all for the exposure of corruption, including classified corruption. And to the extent that WikiLeaks has done that, I support its actions. The problem is, it has done a lot more than that, much of which is problematic. It has invaded personal privacy. It has published libelous material. It has violated intellectual property rights. And above all, it has launched a sweeping attack not simply on corruption, but on secrecy itself. And I think that’s both a strategic and a tactical error. It’s a strategic error because some secrecy is perfectly legitimate and desirable. It’s a tactical error because it has unleashed a furious response from the U.S. government and other governments that I fear is likely to harm the interests of a lot of other people besides WikiLeaks who are concerned with open government.

JUAN GONZALEZ: And when you say — when you list some of the main errors that the organization has made, could you give some examples of what to you are most troubling, when you talk about the invasion of privacy rights and other — and the others that you’ve listed?

STEVEN AFTERGOOD: Last year, WikiLeaks published a thousand-page raw police investigative file from Belgium, investigating a case of child abuse and murder. And as one would expect, the police file included lots of unsubstantiated allegations that later turned out to be false. But by publishing the raw allegations in their original state, WikiLeaks brought embarrassment and disgrace to people who were in fact innocent. It got to the point where the Belgium government was looking into the possibility of blocking access to WikiLeaks, not as an act of censorship, but as an act of protection against libel.

WikiLeaks has also published what I think is probably the only actual blueprint of a nuclear fission device that has been made available online. It’s not an artist’s concept, but it’s an actual blueprint of a real nuclear weapon that they posted online. I think from a proliferation point of view, that was a terrible mistake.

AMY GOODMAN: Glenn Greenwald, we want to bring you in before the break with a response.

GLENN GREENWALD: Right. Well, it’s interesting because we led off the segment with you, Amy, detailing a whole variety of repressive actions that are being taken against WikiLeaks. And one of the reasons for that is because people like Steven Aftergood have volunteered themselves and thrust themselves into the spotlight to stand up and say, “I’m a transparency advocate, but I think that what WikiLeaks is doing in so many instances is terrible.”

If you look at the overall record of WikiLeaks — and let me just stipulate right upfront that WikiLeaks is a four-year-old organization, four years old. They’re operating completely unchartered territory. Have they made some mistakes and taken some missteps? Absolutely. They’re an imperfect organization. But on the whole, the amount of corruption and injustice in the world that WikiLeaks is exposing, not only in the United States, but around the world, in Peru, in Australia, in Kenya and in West Africa and in Iceland, much — incidents that are not very well known in the United States, but where WikiLeaks single-handedly uncovered very pervasive and systematic improprieties that would not have otherwise been uncovered, on top of all of the grave crimes committed by the United States. There is nobody close to that organization in terms of shining light of what the world’s most powerful factions are doing and in subverting the secrecy regime that is used to spawn all sorts of evils.

And I think the big difference between myself and Steven Aftergood is it is true that WikiLeaks is somewhat of a severe response, but that’s because the problem that we’re confronting is quite severe, as well, this pervasive secrecy regime that the world’s powerful factions use to perpetrate all kinds of wrongdoing. And the types of solutions that Mr. Aftergood has been pursuing in his career, while commendable and nice and achieving very isolated successes here and there, is basically the equivalent of putting little nicks and scratches on an enormous monster. And WikiLeaks is really one of the very few, if not the only group, effectively putting fear into the hearts of the world’s most powerful and corrupt people, and that’s why they deserve, I think, enthusiastic support from anyone who truly believes in transparency, notwithstanding what might be valid, though relatively trivial, criticisms that Mr. Aftergood and a couple of others have been voicing.

AMY GOODMAN: [inaudible] to break, and then we’re going to come back to this discussion. We’ve just gotten word from a tweet that the WikiLeaks website is now being hosted in Switzerland, again taken down over the last hours. We are seeing here the WikiLeaks tweet says, “WikiLeaks moves to Switzerland,” We’ll bring you the latest as we go through this broadcast. We’re speaking with Glenn Greenwald of and Steven Aftergood of the Federation of American Scientists. Back with them in a minute.


AMY GOODMAN: Our guests are Glenn Greenwald of — he’s joining us from Rio de Janeiro in Brazil — and Steven Aftergood, the Federation of American Scientists, joining us from Washington, D.C., debating WikiLeaks and the trove of cables they’ve released. It ultimately will be the largest trove of U.S. diplomatic cables ever leaked in U.S. history, following the largest trove of government documents ever released in the Iraq war cables, close to 400,000 of those documents. Juan?

JUAN GONZALEZ: Well, Steven Aftergood, I’d like to get your response to Glenn Greenwald just before our break and this issue of the fundamental challenge that he believes they are providing to elites all around the world.

STEVEN AFTERGOOD: You know, maybe he’s right, but I don’t think so. I think their theory of political action is extremely primitive. It’s basically throw a lot of stuff out there, and then good things will happen to good people and bad things will happen to bad people. They made a tremendous splash with their Apache helicopter video, showing the killing of people in Baghdad in 2007. But did it lead to a change in the rules of engagement that would prevent a similar event from happening in the future? No. Did it lead to compensation for or reparations for the people who were wounded there? No. It made a big splash, and then we went on to the next big splash. And, you know, again, I could easily be wrong; I often am. Maybe WikiLeaks is going to lead to an avalanche of openness and good government. My concern, though, is the opposite, that it’s going to lead to a new clampdown, new restrictions, more secrecy.

AMY GOODMAN: Glenn Greenwald, your response?

GLENN GREENWALD: I mean, I find that standard that he just articulated to be unbelievable and absurd. The idea that WikiLeaks hasn’t single-handedly reformed the United States military’s rule of engagement, and that’s supposed to be some sort of criticism of what it does? I mean, Mr. Aftergood created a big splash back in June after Wikileaks released the Afghanistan war documents, and he made that same argument in response to something I had written when I praised Wikileaks, and he said, “Well, how many wars have WikiLeaks stopped?” How many wars has Mr. Aftergood stopped? How many rules of engagement has he caused to be changed? I mean, it’s not WikiLeaks’s fault or its responsibility that when they show grave injustices to the American people that the citizenry is either indifferent towards those injustices or apathetic towards them. WikiLeaks is devoted to shedding light on what these injustices are, and it’s then our responsibility to go about and do something about them.

Again, they’re a four-year-old organization. And they have led to all sorts of important reforms. I mean, in Iceland, WikiLeaks was basically the single-handed cause of a new law that is designed to protect whistleblowing and whistleblowing sites like WikiLeaks beyond anything else that exists in the world. Their exposure of corruption on the part of a Iceland’s biggest banks, that led to the financial meltdown, led to investigations and prosecutions. The same thing happened to exposure of injustices and corruption on the part of oil magnates in Peru. They exposed the Australian government’s efforts to target websites to be shut down under a program designed to target child pornography, when in reality the sites that were targeted were political sites. And in Spain this week, the headlines are dominated by documents that WikiLeaks released that you, Amy, covered two days ago with Harper’s Scott Horton about the fact of the Spanish government’s succumb to pressure by the American State Department not to investigate the torture of its own citizens and the death of a Spanish photojournalist in Iraq, because WikiLeaks exposed that. And so you see all over the world, in just a short history of four years, immense amounts of reforms and greater awareness of what political and financial elites are doing around the world. I think he’s imposing on them an absurd and unreasonable standard that he, himself, and essentially nobody else is able to meet, either.

AMY GOODMAN: Steven Aftergood, how would you — what would you say the difference is between WikiLeaks and your own newsletter, Secrecy News?

STEVEN AFTERGOOD: I mean, there are several obvious differences in scope and scale and distribution. From my point of view, WikiLeaks is poorly focused in order to achieve its objective. And let me say, of course, I supported the release of the Apache helicopter video. I started out by saying that I favor the unauthorized disclosure of classified information that reveals corruption. It’s very hard, evidently, to say both good and bad things about WikiLeaks. People want you to say only one or the other.

But yesterday, Der Spiegel reported that a member, an official from the Free Democratic Party, had been relieved of his duties after he was identified as one of the persons who provided documents to the U.S. government in one of the WikiLeaks cables. Does that advance the public interest? WikiLeaks might call that a victory for open government, but I think it’s regrettable. I think if it’s multiplied dozens or hundreds of thousands of times over, it does real damage to the conduct of American diplomacy and to the national interest. So, just on principle, I oppose that kind of cavalier approach to disclosure.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Glenn Greenwald, your response?

GLENN GREENWALD: Right. Well, actually, WikiLeaks does not have a cavalier or indiscriminate approach to disclosure, contrary to accusations often made against it. They’ve certainly made mistakes in the past. I criticize them, for instance, for exercising insufficient care in redacting the names of various Afghan citizens who cooperated with the United States military. They accepted responsibility for that, and in subsequent releases, including in the Iraq document disclosures, they were very careful about redacting those names. And in the current diplomatic cable disclosure, thus far on their website, the only documents that have been posted were cables that were already published by their newspaper partners such as The Guardian and the New York Times and Der Spiegel, which included the redactions that those newspapers applied to those documents to protect the names of various people who are innocent and otherwise might be harmed in an inadvertent way. So they are constantly increasing their safeguards and their scrutiny. They’re perfecting their procedures. They acknowledge the responsibility that they have.

But what they — what I think is the crucial point is, is that, again, I mean, you know, what I hear from him speaking, it’s sort of like if you had a surgeon who had a cancer patient riddled with tumors and was removing huge tumors, this complaint, “Well, there was an ingrown toenail that he left and didn’t extract that very well.” And just the more — no matter what you say, they just keep focusing on those relatively trivial flaws. I think that, you know, in order to criticize WikiLeaks — and it’s legitimate to do so — if you don’t think that their approach to bringing transparency and subverting the secrecy regime is an effective one or a commendable or noble one, you’re obligated to say what the alternative is, not in some fantasy world, but in the real world. And I don’t see one.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Well, Glenn, I’d like to ask you, because the focus of so much of this is in killing the messenger and not dealing with the messages that are being released here. First of all, the comment on just the fact that as the internet and computerization of information has grown, it has made it easier for folks to download troves of information about an institution or a government, so that our societies have not dealt with this other side of the internet and computerization. And also, if this information was so secret, why did the government do such an amateurish job of protecting supposedly vital information that a — supposedly a PFC, as they suspect, downloaded so much of this critical information about Afghanistan, Iraq and even diplomatic cables?

GLENN GREENWALD: Well, I think that’s really — that last point is one of the critical issues, which is, the reality is that of all the hundreds of thousands upon hundreds of thousands of pages that WikiLeaks has released just in the last six months alone, a tiny portion of it is even interesting, let alone legitimately secret. And that underscores one of the real problems, is that the secrecy regime that we’re talking about is just — is not just a little bit excessive on the margins. What it means is that the government, the United States government, and all of its permanent national security state institutions reflexively do virtually everything behind a shield of secrecy. Essentially, the presumption is that whatever the government does in our name is secret, when the presumption is supposed to be the opposite. And you see that as clearly as you possibly can in these leaks, how much innocuous information is simply marked and stamped “secret.”

And the reason that there’s not many safeguards placed on it is because what WikiLeaks is releasing — and I think this is so important — is that, you know, despite how much corruption and wrongdoing and impropriety and criminality it has revealed, this is really the lowest level of secrecy that the United States government has. The truly awful things exist on a far higher level of secrecy, at the top-secret level or even above. And it is true that if the United States government’s claim is correct, that what WikiLeaks has done has jeopardized so much that’s good and important in the world, a lot of the blame lies with the United States and the government and the military for not having safeguarded it more securely.

And the first question that you asked is, I think, critical, too, which is, we can debate WikiLeaks all we want, but at the end of the day, it doesn’t really matter, because the technology that exists is inevitably going to subvert these institutions’ secrecy regimes. It’s too easy to take massive amounts of secret and dump it on the internet. You know longer need the New York Times or the network news to agree. And I think that what we’re talking about is inevitable, whether people like Steven Aftergood or Joe Lieberman or others like it or not.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to get Steven Aftergood’s response, but first, here on Democracy Now!, we’ve conducted three extensive interviews with WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange. The archives of the interview are on our website. But I wanted to play for you part of what he told us in transparentgovernment”>July on government transparency.

JULIAN ASSANGE: We have clearly stated motives, but they are not antiwar motives. We are not pacifists. We are transparency activists who understand that transparent government tends to produce just government. And that is our sort of modus operandi behind our whole organization, is to get out suppressed information into the public, where the press and the public and our nation’s politics can work on it to produce better outcomes.

AMY GOODMAN: That’s Julian Assange on Democracy Now! Yesterday, NBC News highlighted Democracy Now!’s julianassange”>interview yesterday with his attorney. And we are linking to all of this on our website. She says that Julian Assange is not in hiding from the authorities — they are contacting him through his lawyers — but in hiding from harm, that this character assassination, the possibility that could lead to an actual real one. Steven Aftergood, your response to what Assange said and Glenn Greenwald before that?

STEVEN AFTERGOOD: Well, I actually agree with everything that Assange said in that statement. What I don’t agree with is that it’s an accurate characterization of what WikiLeaks has done.

Glenn Greenwald had a lot to say. Let me just mention a couple of things. I don’t believe that it’s a choice between the WikiLeaks approach and giving up. This year, for the first time, the United States declassified and disclosed the size of its nuclear weapons arsenal. This year, for the first time, the U.S. government issued its first unclassified Nuclear Posture Review Report, the basic statement of nuclear weapons employment policy. This year, for the first time, the U.S. government disclosed the total intelligence budget, including both its civilian and military components. There is an alternative mechanism for progress. In today’s paper, there’s a story about ACLU having uncovered reports of violations of the Freedom — the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act amendments. So it’s really not a question of WikiLeaks or nothing. It’s a question of a smart, well-targeted approach or a — you know, a reckless shotgun approach.

My concern about where we — you know, going forward, I basically have two agenda items. In the security review process, I want to try and inject the idea, as Glenn Greenwald said, that overclassification is a problem here and that as we fix the other security measures, we also need to focus on fixing the classification system, reducing the scope of classification sharply. The other agenda item, which WikiLeaks has made more difficult, is to prevent a rewriting of the Espionage Act statutes in order to make them more versatile and useful against both those who disclose classified information and those who publish such information. That is now building up steam, and I think we’re likely to see efforts in that direction in the next Congress.

AMY GOODMAN: Glenn Greenwald?

GLENN GREENWALD: Yeah, I mean, let me just say, I mean, you know, I have respect for the work that Steven Aftergood and other transparency activists do in Washington, working within the Congress and other American political institutions to try and bring about incremental reform. I think he’s well intentioned. I think we probably share the same values. The problem is that I just don’t think that his perspective is, A, realistic or, B, sufficiently urgent. I don’t think it’s realistic that the Congress of the United States, now dominated by the Republican Party in the House of Representatives and an extremely conservative Democratic Party in the Senate and led by an administration, the Obama administration, that has actually increased secrecy weapons, including the state secrecy privilege and other forms of immunity designed to shield high-level executive power wrongdoing and lawbreaking from all forms of accountability or judicial review, I think it’s incredibly unrealistic to take an optimistic view that that political system, dominated by those factions, is somehow on the verge of starting to bring about meaningful increases in transparency.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to —

GLENN GREENWALD: And I think it’s insufficiently — go ahead, I’m sorry.

AMY GOODMAN: I’m going to interrupt, because I want to get to some memos that we’ve been getting from around the country that are very important and interesting. University students are being warned about WikiLeaks. An email from Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs, that we read in headlines, reads — I want to do it again — quote, “Hi students,

“We received a call today from a SIPA alumnus who is working at the State Department. He asked us to pass along the following information to anyone who will be applying for jobs in the federal government, since all would require a background investigation and in some instances a security clearance.

“The documents released during the past few months through Wikileaks are still considered classified documents. He recommends that you DO NOT post links to these documents nor make comments on social media sites such as Facebook or through Twitter. Engaging in these activities would call into question your ability to deal with confidential information, which is part of most positions with the federal government.

“Regards, Office of Career Services.”

That’s the email to Columbia University students at the School of International and Public Affairs.

Now, I want to go on to another memo. Democracy Now! has obtained the text of a memo that’s been sent to employees at USAID. This is to thousands of employees, about reading the recently released WikiLeaks documents, and it comes from the Department of State. They have also warned their own employees. This memo reads, quote, “Any classified information that may have been unlawfully disclosed and released on the Wikileaks web site was not 'declassified' by an appopriate authority and therefore requires continued classification and protection as such from government personnel… Accessing the Wikileaks web site from any computer may be viewed as a violation of the SF-312 agreement… Any discussions concerning the legitimacy of any documents or whether or not they are classified must be conducted within controlled access areas (overseas) or within restricted areas (USAID/Washington)… The documents should not be viewed, downloaded, or stored on your USAID unclassified network computer or home computer; they should not be printed or retransmitted in any fashion.”

That was the memo that went out to thousands of employees at USAID. The State Department has warned all their employees, you are not to access WikiLeaks, not only at the State Department, which they’ve blocked, by the way, WikiLeaks, but even on your home computers. Even if you’ve written a cable yourself, one of these cables that are in the trove of the documents, you cannot put your name in to see if that is one of the cables that has been released. This warning is going out throughout not only the government, as we see, but to prospective employees all over the country, even on their home computers. Steven Aftergood, your response?

STEVEN AFTERGOOD: It’s obviously insane. I mean, if they’re not allowed to read the cables on WikiLeaks, they shouldn’t be allowed to read the cables on the New York Times or other sites. It’s obviously ridiculous. You know, this whole “cablegate” was intended as a provocation. Bradley Manning said it would give thousands of diplomats heart attacks. The system has been provoked. It is — you know, it is outrageous. It’s kind of disgusting. The question is, is it good politics? I don’t think so.

AMY GOODMAN: Finally, Glenn Greenwald, your final response?

GLENN GREENWALD: I think that that response is not one caused by WikiLeaks. I think that response is reflective of what our government is and the egos that prevails. And it’s every bit as severe as it was before WikiLeaks existed. And it’s WikiLeaks that is devoted to subverting it. And I think those memos, those disgustingly repressive and authoritarian memos, and the mindset in them, shows why WikiLeaks is so needed.

AMY GOODMAN: We want to leave it there, and we want to thank Glenn Greenwald, speaking to us from Rio de Janeiro in Brazil, a legal blogger at, and Steven Aftergood of the Federation for American Scientists, for engaging in this debate.

The response on our website has been just overwhelming. We’ve got the highest number of viewers online right now than we’ve had since the beginning of this. The interview we did with Daniel Ellsberg on October 22, Juan, the day that he was flying off to London to have the news conference with Julian Assange announcing the latest trove of documents — they’re releasing something like a quarter of a million documents — has now been hit close to 2.8 million times, and it is just soaring every day. The hunger for this information has been astounding. You can go to our website to see all the different coverage, as well as our interview with Noam Chomsky responding to the specific cables that have been released. Our website is

And we also just got this information: economy adds 39,000 jobs in November, far fewer than expected. Unemployment rate up to 9.8 percent.

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