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Julian Assange on Aiding Snowden, Tiff w/ The Intercept & Whether He’ll Ever Leave Embassy Refuge

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WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange sits down with Democracy Now! inside the Ecuadorean Embassy in London, where he has been living in political asylum for over two years. Assange explains his critique of First Look Media and The Intercept for agreeing not to name a country targeted by bulk National Security Agency spying, following U.S. government concerns that doing so could lead to increased violence. Assange and WikiLeaks went on to reveal the targeted country, Afghanistan, which along with the Bahamas had all of its cellphone calls recorded. “That is as great an assault to sovereignty as you can imagine, other than completely militarily occupying a country, to record the intimate phone calls of every single Afghan citizen,” Assange says. “My perspective is, [this is] up to the Afghan people.” Assange also gives an overview of the close to eight million documents WikiLeaks has released since 2007 about nearly every country in the world; details how WikiLeaks helped Edward Snowden evade U.S. arrest and find political asylum in Russia; and addresses his prospects for ever being able to leave the Ecuadorean Embassy without fear of arrest.

Click here to watch part one of this interview.

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StorySep 30, 2019Snowden Reveals How He Secretly Exposed NSA Criminal Wrongdoing Without Getting Arrested
This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: We return to our interview with WikiLeaks founder and publisher Julian Assange from inside Ecuador’s Embassy in London, where he has political asylum and has been living for more than two years.

AMY GOODMAN: In a nutshell, Julian, if you would, can you summarize the releases of documents since the “Collateral Murder” video was released in the spring of 2010? For people who aren’t keeping up on things, and even if you are an avid viewer of the media or reader of the media, especially in the United States, they may know who Julian Assange is, the publisher of WikiLeaks, but actually what it is you have released, the substance of these documents, could you just go through them?

JULIAN ASSANGE: WikiLeaks has been publishing since 2007. We have published material from every country—almost every country in the world and about every country in the world. We are now up to just over eight million individual documents that we have released during that period. Now, the heat in the debate with the United States arose in 2010. We have had heated debates with other countries, and we’ve had major court cases in the United States in relation to our fight with Swiss banks and so on. In 2010, the number of documents and publications that we were releasing, each one after another, ended up erecting a grand jury against us by the DOJ, National Security Division. And so, we entered into a major media conflict with the U.S. government.

So, going in order, they are “Collateral Murder,” a documentary that we produced based on the tape from an Apache helicopter mowing down 12 to 18 people in Baghdad, including two Reuters journalists, and very clearly engaged in the murder. And the murder was an unarmed man, wounded, crawling in the gutter, and good Samaritans came to rescue him, and all of them were killed, and two children came away with serious injuries.

Then the Afghanistan War Logs, now, these came at a very important moment in 2010, where Michael Hastings had just—the late Michael Hastings had just released a report on McChrystal, and these publications came not long after that.

AMY GOODMAN: This is the Rolling Stone journalist who died in a car crash.

JULIAN ASSANGE: Rolling Stone journalist who died in a car crash. And that shifted the debate about Afghanistan. Early in 2010, it was: What can we do to win in Afghanistan? After the Hastings article about McChrystal and WikiLeaks’ war logs, the result was: There was no longer a debate about can we win in Afghanistan; it is how were we going to get out of Afghanistan. So it was quite an important shift.

Then, with the Iraq War Logs, which were published in October 2010, which in some ways has been one of our best analytical works, we worked together with not just other media organizations, but a number of statistical organizations to work out what the kill count was for Iraq, and combining with other figures, and we ended up with more than 100,000 civilian casualties—in fact, 15,000 new, completely undocumented civilian kills—and documenting U.S. involvement and approval of Iraqi torture centers within the police and many killings of civilians at checkpoints and some political issues and so on. And that produced a number of inquiries and has fed into cases that have been taken by Iraqis, and that has now ended up with an ICC filing, International Criminal Court filing, against the British military.

If we then move on, in December of that year, we started the release of Cablegate, the more than 251,000 U.S. diplomatic cables from all around the world from 1966 to 2010. And that is the largest compendium of diplomacy that has ever been released. It’s about 3,000 volumes of material. As a sort of history of how the modern world behaves in practice, it’s extremely important, and it fed into the Tunisian revolution quite directly. In fact, Ben Ali’s propaganda minister, after the government fell, said that the WikiLeaks releases about Tunisia is what broke the back of the Ben Ali system.


JULIAN ASSANGE: Well, because it exposed the corruption that many Tunisians knew about, but in a much more flagrant form of what money had gone where and people keeping pet tigers and so on, but also that there was various kinds of debates about it, and within the United States and from others, and that when push came to shove the U.S. would probably back the military and not Ben Ali. And it was undeniable. So it wasn’t just the Tunisian activists alleging this; it was a U.S. ambassador writing back to Washington, for several years, you know, that the U.S. had kind of let it gone on, but documenting what had gone on. And that then made its way into Europe and affected the French support for Ben Ali, and the Tunisians became—Tunisian activists again confident. And then, two weeks—20 days later, Mohamed Bouazizi set himself on fire, and then he became the personified symbol of all the problems, and then it properly kicked off. But anyway, the propaganda minister and some others say this is what broke the back of the Ben Ali system.

And those cables are really quite incredibly important. They have gone into literally dozens of court cases. They have released people from prison. People have been released from prison holding these cables above their head as the reason that they had been released from prison. The El-Masri case, where the CIA kidnapped a German citizen unlawfully, renditioned him and kept him in a CIA black site for four months, it was a case of mistaken identity. He wasn’t even an alleged terrorist. He just happened to have the same name. And they then dumped him in eastern Europe, later on, on the side of the road, no explanation given, to try and make it look—you know, to give him no evidence to take a case. And he did try and take cases in the United States. And this is something relevant, perhaps, what would happen to Edward Snowden in the United States. He was not able to get anywhere because the U.S. government activated state secrets privilege, said all the things that the CIA had done to him were secrets, and they would not be revealing anything at all. He met a complete dead end. Then, as a result of the release of the diplomatic cables, which spoke about what the United States had done with Macedonia, where he was taken from when he tried to enter into Macedonia, he was able to take a case against Macedonia at the—within Europe and to the European Court of Human Rights, and eventually won. And there were six cables cited in the judgment, you know, showing that it actually happened.

Similar cases in Spain, and an important precedent was set about the use of our materials in court cases generally, specifically cables. So, this relates to Chagos islands. So there’s an island group called Diego Garcia in the Indian Ocean. It’s owned by the British. It is very important strategically because it’s sort of on the way between things. Now, the British handed over, rent-free, one of these islands, Chagos, to the United States military.


JULIAN ASSANGE: Yeah, to the United States military. And it has been now turned into a base, and rendition flights go through there and so on. But there was original inhabitants. At the time it was handed over to the United States in the '60s, the original inhabitants were pushed off. And they were all pushed off to Mauritius and Madagascar, and they had been trying to fight a court case to come back. And some cables revealed that in fact the British government had told the U.S. it was setting up a secret plan to make it very difficult or impossible for them to come back. It was going to declare—you know, it was going to suck in the Liberal Left. And here's how it was going to do it. Create a marine park. It’s a coral atoll, the Chagos islands. Going to create a marine park. Well, what was the economy of the Chagos islands? It was fishing. So this is explicitly that they’re going to prevent the Chagos islanders having any meaningful economic return to the island by creating this marine park, which all the Liberals will love. And that way, you know, these islanders won’t be able to interfere or spy on the U.S. base.

Anyway, that provoked new litigation by the Chagos islanders in the British courts. And ultimately, the lower courts found that the cables were inadmissible, because they had come from embassies, and there’s a Vienna Convention, the same thing that is protecting me here that protects diplomatic correspondence. But in a higher court, it was appealed, and it was found that’s not true. Actually, diplomatic cables published by WikiLeaks are not protected by the Vienna Convention. They’re already public. It’s the first instance of getting them out that’s protected, not what happens to them subsequently. So that’s quite an important precedent within the common law world, because it means these cables can be used in many more court cases.

AMY GOODMAN: The charge, Julian Assange, that you endanger lives when you release the unredacted documents that you do?

JULIAN ASSANGE: Completely false. And it’s not just me who’s saying that. It’s Associated Press, who did an extensive review. It is the U.S. government itself, in the Bradley Manning case, under oath. Under oath, the head of the person who was responsible for investigating whether anyone had come to physical harm said under oath that they couldn’t find a single person who had been killed or physically harmed as a result.

AMY GOODMAN: You’re talking about retired Brigadier General Robert Carr. He had a kind of war room dealing with the release of the WikiLeaks documents, is that right, back to 2010?

JULIAN ASSANGE: That’s right. Robert Carr in the Pentagon started up what they called a WikiLeaks war room, which had more than 150 people in it—DIA, Defense Intelligence Agency, and FBI and others—involved in trying to understand what we were going to publish, what we had and what the effects were. And a lot of money was spent trying to check us in different ways. And the result of all that expenditure and understanding, and then the attempt to build up the Bradley Manning prosecution and to denounce our publishing efforts, which we had revealed that the U.S. military—documenting the deaths of more than 100,000 people in Iraq and Afghanistan, they found that zero people had been physically harmed by our publication.

AMY GOODMAN: Julian Assange, you just recently had a Twitter battle with Glenn Greenwald. It might have surprised some. You know, the whole Intercept, the new online publication, releasing information based on Edward Snowden’s documents around the NSA spying on whole countries. You felt that they should name the countries, not withhold any names. Explain what that was about.

JULIAN ASSANGE: Well, I have a lot of respect for Glenn. Glenn has defended WikiLeaks from the attack by the U.S. grand jury over a long period of time. And he’s been very brave in the Edward Snowden publications, and, you know, quite forthright. He left The Guardian, in part because of that reason, because The Guardian was censoring the material that he was trying to publish. But he entered into First Look. And unfortunately, First Look is not just Glenn. First Look is actually the big power. All the money and organization comes from Pierre Omidyar. And Pierre Omidyar is one of the founders—is the founder of eBay and owns PayPal and goes to the White House several times each year, has extensive connections with Soros, and can broadly be described as an extreme liberal centrist. So, he has quite a different view about what journalism entails. For example, he has said this year, and also in 2009, that if someone gave him a leak from a commercial organization, not from the government, then he would feel it was his duty to tell the police. So that’s a very different type of journalism standard that comes from Pierre Omidyar. And unfortunately, some of that, or perhaps a significant amount of it, has gone into First Look and created some constraints there.

And that was seen most—seen most disturbingly when First Look knew from the Edward Snowden documents that all of Afghanistan was having its telephone calls recorded. The National Security Agency had corruptly installed mass surveillance inside Afghan telcos, saying to the Afghan government that they were doing—installing this monitoring just going after drug dealers, not mass surveillance but targeted surveillance after Afghan opium dealers, and in fact they were recording the phone calls of every single Afghan. And that’s as great an assault to sovereignty as you can imagine, other than completely militarily occupying a country, to record the intimate phone calls of every single Afghan citizen. And Afghanistan, as a country, and its people have the right to choose their own destiny, knowing what is actually happening to them. And First Look decided that they would censor the fact that Afghanistan was having all its telephone calls recorded.

AMY GOODMAN: They did say that the Bahamas were.


AMY GOODMAN: But they said that they feared—they accepted the argument of the U.S. government that people could die as a result of revealing what was happening, or would be threatened as a result of what happened, as what’s happening in Afghanistan.

JULIAN ASSANGE: Well, they were a bit mealymouthed with the original disclosure. Initially, they just said, “We’re not revealing it, and the reason we’re not revealing it is credible reports that it could lead to an increase of violence.” So, structured as a kind of political statement that, well, if Afghanis found out about this, maybe they would riot or something.

But we can take this from a number of different lines. My perspective is, that’s up to the Afghan people, just like it was in relation to the Arab Spring. If, knowing their environment and what is happening to their environment, they want to elect a new government, they want to roll the government, they want to expel people, that is a matter for that culture. It’s a matter of sovereignty of how that country chooses to manage it itself. It’s not a matter for other people to prevent a country from managing itself.

But we can also look at just what is the reality. The U.S. government always says this kind of thing. We have seen it for years and years, and it’s always been baloney. Let’s look at it. They have known for a year that Snowden has had that material. They have known specifically in relation to the country X was Afghanistan—they’ve known that for several weeks, because First Look had in fact had contacted the U.S. government and were dealing with them. So, if they had specific concerns about people in the U.S. Embassy or something like that, there’s plenty of time to have them removed. And then we also gave 72 hours’ warning that we would be publishing it.

AMY GOODMAN: That’s WikiLeaks founder and editor Julian Assange. We’ll be back to our conversation in the Ecuadorean Embassy in London in a minute.


AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman, as we return to our interview inside Ecuador’s Embassy in London with WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, where he has political asylum and has been living for more than two years.

AMY GOODMAN: I still want to get back to the issue of how it is that you, who are wanted by the most powerful country on Earth, the United States, are able, inside this embassy, under total global surveillance, to help the other most hunted person in the world, Edward Snowden, to get beyond the grasp of the United States.

JULIAN ASSANGE: It’s a bit absurd, if we pull back and try and look at it objectively. Where were all the other organizations? All these human rights groups, legal organizations, where were they in the—even refugee organizations—in this difficult situation that had to be done in Hong Kong? Very many meaning—you know, well-meaning organizations, certainly more well funded, The Guardian newspaper and The Washington Post were meant to be, you know, helping Snowden as a source, having an obligation to do that, and yet all of them felt, for one reason or another—fear, lack of ability—that they couldn’t do it, and we were forced into a position that we had to do it.

And, OK, so, yes, we do have some specific experience. So, we have specific experience in dealing with sources who are under very adverse situations trying to communicate securely. And I think that is an important lesson, that, actually, the organization—an organization that specializes in defeating surveillance for national security cases was the organization that was able to do this. Yes, we had some diplomatic contacts, and we certainly had the will and the desire to not see another Chelsea Manning. But I think a lot of it—we couldn’t have done that if we hadn’t specialized in these secure communications techniques for so long. How could we possibly coordinate as an organization, when the other organization, the opposing organization, was the National Security Agency, without—with about a thousand times more employees and a budget 10,000 times the size? I think it’s because we had specialized in communicating in a secure manner.

AMY GOODMAN: And so, how do you give—

JULIAN ASSANGE: So that tells you about, what about all those people who—which is nearly everyone—who don’t specialize in communicating in a secure manner? They can’t do that. Aha! Now you see the problem with mass surveillance. Now you see that there’s all sorts of things that can’t be done anymore because of mass surveillance. And, OK, we’re able to do it because we’re specialists, but only because we’re specialists.

AMY GOODMAN: So how do people protect themselves?

JULIAN ASSANGE: Well, you can’t become a specialist unless you want to do that full-time and spend years and years doing it. That is the reality that we’re in right now. Fortunately, the National Security Agency stories have produced an understanding in people that they are being surveilled, and that’s created a demand, and as a result of that demand, various nonprofit organizations and commercial organizations are starting up to create technology that people can communicate with securely. But it’s still very hard to understand this technology. So, who’s actually behind the company? What jurisdiction is it? Are they—can they be bribed? The National Security Agency spends $350 million per year bribing manufacturers of cryptography or otherwise compromising through direct interaction their cryptography. So, I think it is quite difficult.

And in some ways, until new technology is more developed—there’s some good things like Tor and Telegram Messenger, perhaps, but until it is more developed and better understood, then people need to go back to the old ways. And, you know, I joke that, suddenly, Cuban intelligence, which a lot of people in the intelligence industry had considered like stuck in the '60s and hadn't made any real advances in a long time—suddenly, that’s a great thing. You know, like how is it that Cuba has survived even though you’ve got this mass surveillance and so on? Well, because they are stuck in these old ways of writing codes on paper and so on.

But we also do that. We use a collection of very old techniques that are completely non-electronic, as well as, you know, some sort of sophisticated, modern electronic techniques, because the reality is that a lot of the electronic communication—electronic communication revolves on so many elements—so, the people who manufacture the chips for the computers that you’re using, the radiation that’s being given off by the computers, the security programs that are installed, the operating system. There are so many different elements. And you only need to compromise one. So, in order to communicate securely for an organization like WikiLeaks, one needs to have many different systems that are independent and won’t fail just because one failed.

But the question, not for individuals, but for society, is not about can I, as an individual, protect myself if the National Security Agency is after me and wants to spend a serious amount of money; the question, as a society, is how to stop society being dominated by a faction that already has very significant power and its allies. That’s the question for a society, including international society. And the answer to that is that one simply has to increase the cost of each—of surveilling each person. At the moment, it’s something like—it’s under 20 cents per person per day at the moment to surveil each person. You think, surely, that’s a lot of money, like if you add up billions of people. Yeah, it is a lot of money. And in fact, that lot of money is spent. There’s $50 [million], $60 million a year is actually spent doing that. And if you think about—there’s about 1.6 billion people who have access to the Internet and operate and communicate across it, OK, National Security Agency and its allies can encompass those people for under 20 cents a day. But if we are able to introduce standards—and nations can do this. Brazil could mandate that all communications with Germany are mandated to use a certain cryptographic standard, so they would only flow to the United States from South America, up to the United States, across to Asia and so on, to get to Europe. Brazil could mandate that there must be securing of those cables and those communications flows. So if we can increase the cost of mass surveillance to where it’s something like $3,000 per person, when you want to go after them, you can only go after individuals, you can’t go after entire continents. Then we will be back to a more healthier situation, something like we were in maybe in the 1970s in terms of mass surveillance.

AMY GOODMAN: As we are here holed up in the Ecuadorean Embassy in London, and I was just thinking, as we heard a siren outside, are you concerned about your own personal safety here? I mean, you’ve been here for two years. Your both personal physical safety and your mental health, being holed up here?

JULIAN ASSANGE: It’s a difficult physical environment. The U.N. minimum standard for prisoners is one hour outside of work or exercise per day. There is no outside. There is no sun. It is a difficult physical environment. On the other hand, I do have good friends and good staff and the staff of the embassy. So, yeah, so I continue on. There is a question, I suppose, how long can one do this sort of thing. And I think the answer is, well, you can do it for quite a long time. It just means you’ve got to be more diligent about what you’re going through. Let’s not forget that Bradley Manning was even in an even worse situation for a period of time in Quantico, Virginia. He managed to get through it. And I will also manage to get through this.

AMY GOODMAN: Do you think you’re ever going to get out of here?

JULIAN ASSANGE: I think so. I think if we look at the political trajectory here in the U.K., where they’ve realized extradition without charge is a dangerous thing to expose the population to, and they’ve changed the law; in the United States, we see this call by 54 different groups, including conservative groups like Human Rights Watch, calling for the U.S. pending prosecution to be dropped; and that we see 59 human rights groups complaining and legal groups complaining to the U.N. in a formal way about Sweden’s involvement in this case; and debates in Sweden saying—you know, questioning what has gone on. So, I’m quite confident, bar some—bar a strange war appearing somewhere, that the political progress is positive and even inevitable. The U.K. government has now spent 6.7 million pounds, nearly $11 million, just on the police encirclement alone over two years. People in the U.K. also are looking at that and going, “How can this be? This is completely, utterly strange and disproportionate to spend that amount of money on someone who hasn’t even been charged.”

AMY GOODMAN: That’s in the case of Sweden. But even if that inquiry goes away, if Sweden decides to end their investigation of you, you’ve got the U.S. government in this ongoing investigation. And if you’re charged there, even if you leave here, the possibility that you’ll never know freedom again.

JULIAN ASSANGE: The particular legal circumstance is that the U.S. government can issue a sealed extradition request, which the British government will keep sealed, so we won’t necessarily know when that happens or if it has happened. They can also phone in a preliminary extradition demand and send the paperwork within 40 days. So, it is necessary to deal with the U.S. case before I can leave the embassy, and also the counterterrorism investigation here and the Snowden grand jury. There’s quite a lot of different things to deal with. But I think we have to remember, in the end, all these cases are political, right? There’s geopolitical forces pushing them to continue and inflaming them and bringing prestige into the equation. And so, because the political situation is changing in a favorable manner, I think the legal situation, which we’re OK on in terms of the actual law, will start to crystallize in a way that’s favorable.

AMY GOODMAN: Julian Assange, you mentioned the toll this has taken on your family. What has been the cost to your family, to your parents, to your children?

JULIAN ASSANGE: The security situation has been difficult for my family. I am used to dealing with difficult security situations, but my family is not used to dealing with difficult security situations. And various groups in the United States made threats towards my family, including one threat publicly calling for the killing of some of my children in order to get at me.

AMY GOODMAN: You have how many children?

JULIAN ASSANGE: I don’t want to say precisely, because of that risk. So my children have had to move; in one case, change the name that they were using, the same as my mother, etc. So that’s a result of the security situation. And then there’s also—there’s an issue as to whether I can be pressured in certain ways as a result of my family. So can people pressure you. So, that produces a situation where it is quite difficult to see your family, if they’re trying to be undercover and there is surveillance all around the embassy and there’s press all around the embassy.

AMY GOODMAN: You entered the embassy when you were 40 years old. On July 3rd, just a few days ago, you celebrated your 43rd birthday, your third birthday inside the embassy. Where will you be for your next birthday?

JULIAN ASSANGE: That’s a good question. I could still be here. I think the developments are such that if you look at kind of the direction of the—direction of how the politics is going, the U.S. primaries will start in about a year’s time. The Obama administration is starting to consider what its legacy is going to be in the liberal Democrat area of things. There’s an election next year here in the United Kingdom. There’s an election in September in Sweden, which will take their country from center-right to center-left, may not improve things much, in the same way that going from—well, I’m not sure what you call the Obama administration, but going from Democrat to Democrat, if Hillary gets in, may not change things very much in the United States. But this political trajectory, I think, is creating a situation where we can more effectively use the law, you know, that there’s not so much pressures on—not so much pressure on the courts to find one way—not so much pressure on the court system. And so I think it’s getting to a stage where it’s able to act in a more neutral manner.

AMY GOODMAN: If the Swedish government guaranteed that you would not be extradited to the United States, would you agree to go to Sweden for questioning?

JULIAN ASSANGE: That’s what we’ve been asking for four years now. But it’s not just me that’s been asking for it. The Ecuadorean government, as a state, it has obligations to protect someone that they’ve formally granted asylum, has asked the U.K., “Can you guarantee Mr. Assange will not be extradited to the United States?” And it’s also asked Sweden, “Can you guarantee Mr. Assange will not be extradited to the United States?” Not for anything, not a blanket guarantee, but in relation to our publications. And both governments have said no, that they refuse to do that.

AMY GOODMAN: Julian Assange, thanks so much for agreeing to this interview.

JULIAN ASSANGE: You’re most welcome, Amy. Thank you.

AMY GOODMAN: WikiLeaks founder and editor Julian Assange. I interviewed him inside the Ecuadorean Embassy in London this past weekend. To see the first hour of our TV/radio global exclusive, go to democracynow.org. Special thanks to Mike Burke, John Hamilton and Denis Moynihan.

I’ll be speaking in Hartford, Connecticut, July 21st at the Mark Twain House & Museum at 7:00 p.m., and on July 26th in Martha’s Vineyard. Check democracynow.org for details.

A fond farewell to our treasured fellows, Charina Nadura and Cassandra Lizaire. We wish you the very best for your oh-so-promising futures.

Democracy Now! is hiring. We have openings for administrative director and fall internships. Check our website.

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