In 2013, Julian Assange of WikiLeaks played a pivotal role in helping National Security Agency whistleblower Edward Snowden leave Hong Kong for Russia. During the U.S. hunt for Snowden, Bolivian President Evo Morales’ plane was forced to land in Austria for 14 hours after Spain, France, Portugal and Italy closed their airspace under pressure from the United States over false rumors Snowden was on board. Assange gives the inside story on why that plane was targeted.
AMY GOODMAN: We return to our exclusive interview with WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange. I spoke to him inside the Ecuadorean Embassy in London, where he has taken refuge for nearly three years. In 2013, Assange played a pivotal role in helping National Security Agency whistleblower Edward Snowden leave Hong Kong for Russia. During the U.S. hunt for Snowden, Bolivian President Evo Morales’s plan was forced to land in Austria for 14 hours after Spain, France, Portugal and Italy closed their airspace under pressure from the United States over false rumors Snowden was on board. I asked WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange to talk about what he knew about the incident.
JULIAN ASSANGE: Let’s go back to 2013. There was a worldwide manhunt for Edward Snowden—at a particular moment in time, the largest manhunt the world has ever seen, more resources put into it over that two-week period than any other manhunt. The manhunt for Osama bin Laden over an expanded period is, of course, larger, but over that short period, because of the abilities now of the National Security Agency and the incredible paranoia by the U.S. deep state, the general intelligence community, which is about 100,000 strong, vast resources were put into trying to grab Edward Snowden or work out where he might go, if he was leaving Hong Kong, and grab him there.
So we worked against that, and we got him out of Hong Kong and got him to Russia, and we were going to transit through Russia to get him to Latin America. Now, the U.S. government canceled his passport as he was en route, it seems, to Moscow, meaning that he then couldn’t take his next flight, which had been booked through Cuba. And at that point, there became a question of, well, how else can he proceed? If he can’t proceed by a commercial airline, are there other alternatives? And so, we looked into private flights, private jets, other unusual routes for commercial jets, and presidential jets. Now, we managed to get some intelligence on the U.S. government thinking of the different types of jets and that they were concerned that the presidential jets might be difficult for them, from a legal perspective. In fact, from a legal perspective, they are flying embassies. They’re protected under the Vienna Convention. And no one has a right to go into the presidential jet. So, in assessing these options, President Maduro, for example, had already made an offer of asylum. I’m not sure if it was public by that stage, but it became public shortly after. And yeah, so we thought that and a few other presidential jets were a possibility, but we—particularly concentrating on—I don’t want to mention all the nations involved, but Latin American nations who were not Bolivia. There was an oil conference on in—there was an international oil conference in Moscow that week. Edward Snowden and our journalist, Sarah Harrison, still in the Moscow airport in the transit lounge, and so we thought, well, this is an opportunity, actually, to send Edward Snowden to Latin America on one of these jets.
Now, I thought and, in fact, advised Edward Snowden that he would be safest in Russia, that the ability to protect the borders of Russia was significantly stronger than Venezuela’s abilities, for example, to protect its borders or Brazil’s ability to protect their borders or Ecuador’s ability to protect their borders. But he was very worried about the optics. He didn’t want to be accused of being some kind of Russian spy, so he really didn’t want to be in Russia, because he didn’t want that kind of propaganda attack to distract from the revelations, even though it would place him at some increased risk.
So it’s the week of the oil conference. A number of presidential jets are flying back, and we are considering one of these. And so, we then—our code language that we used deliberately swapped the presidential jet that we were considering for the Bolivian jet. And so we just spoke about Bolivia in order to distract from the actual candidate jet. And in some of our communications, we deliberately spoke about that on open lines to lawyers in the United States. And we didn’t think much more of it. We had engaged in a number of these distraction operations in the asylum maneuver from Hong Kong, for example, booking him on flights to India through Beijing and other forms of distraction, like Iceland, for example. We didn’t think this was anything more than just distracting.
But the U.S. picked up a statement, a supportive statement made in Moscow by President Evo Morales, and appears to have picked up our codeword for the actual operation, and put two and two together and made 22, and then pressured France—successfully pressured France, Portugal and Spain to close their airspace to President Evo Morales’s jet in its flight from Moscow to the Canary Islands for refueling and then back to Bolivia. And as a result, it was forced to land in Vienna. And then, once in Vienna, there was pressure to search the plane.
So, it’s really a quite extraordinary situation that reveals the true nature of the relationship between Western Europe and the United States and what it claims are its values of human rights and asylum and the rights to asylum and so, and respecting the rule of law, the Vienna Convention. Just a phone call from U.S. intelligence was enough to close the airspace to a booked presidential flight, which has immunity. And they got it wrong. They spent all that political capital in demanding this urgent favor to close the airspace, which was humiliating to those Western European countries, and they got it wrong.
AMY GOODMAN: Have you spoken to President Morales about what happened?
JULIAN ASSANGE: I’ve spoken to his ambassador and conveyed what had happened. Interestingly, the ambassador to the United Kingdom was involved in Portugal, so he was actually—at that time, in 2013, he was involved in the whole incident.
AMY GOODMAN: Because Portugal closed its airspace, too.
JULIAN ASSANGE: Portugal, Spain and France closed their airspace. Some other things happened. Some preemptive extradition requests were sent out, for example, to Iceland, which we got hold of and published. So there was—the U.S. was pressuring countries where flights might go through or land or refuel. And as a result of that operation, then it became clear that in fact it was too dangerous to—at that moment, at least, to take any flight out of Moscow. And this is what then led to his eventual asylum. It wasn’t just the removal of the passport, which removed his ability to use commercial flights. It was that the U.S. was closing airspace and acting in a manner where you would have to assume that they—you know, if a flight went past the United States—not over U.S. territory, but past the United States—there might be some kind of interdiction.
AMY GOODMAN: This is an odd situation. The U.S. is spying on your conversations. They pick up information from your conversations with lawyers, and then they force a president’s plane down on the ground.
JULIAN ASSANGE: Well, the U.S. should apologize to Evo Morales, to Portugal, to Spain, to France. Portugal, Spain and France should apologize to Evo Morales for not following the law. But we can’t predict when other countries won’t follow the law. We can’t predict that other countries engage in some criminal operation, unprecedented criminal operation. But in some ways, while it was unfortunate for President Morales, it was also a very good thing to have seen, because it revealed the arrogance of Western Europe towards Latin America. It revealed the arrogance and hypocrisy of the United States in pressuring Western Europe in that way. It revealed the nature of the relationship between Western Europe and the United States.
And this became the key ingredient in Edward Snowden’s asylum application, because, you know, you could debate about, well, will he receive a fair process in the United States? You know, there’s no system of law there, and will he receive a fair process or not? But after that happened, at a legal level, in terms of asylum law, it was very clear that there could not be a fair process. It was very clear he could not receive asylum in Western Europe. That was meaningless. And at a political level, the Russian government had to react. And it didn’t have any—it couldn’t react by handing him over. It would look weak and unprincipled. It only had one other card it could play, which is to accept his asylum.
AMY GOODMAN: Were you shocked when the U.S. forced down President Evo Morales’s plane?
JULIAN ASSANGE: Yes and no. I didn’t—we didn’t expect that they would do that. But we had seen from what they—Snowden was shocked—that we had seen in our battles over the past few years that similarly illegal conduct occurred. For example, they flew a private jet with six FBI agents and two prosecutors illegally into Iceland to interrogate people and commission them to try and steal information from us. So, we had seen this type of illegality before.
AMY GOODMAN: On that point, very quickly, on Iceland, the FBI flew into Iceland without asking the government’s permission?
JULIAN ASSANGE: The U.S. flew a private jet with six FBI officers and two prosecutors—one from New York and the other one, we believe, from Alexandria, Virginia, where the ongoing WikiLeaks grand jury is taking place—into Iceland under false pretenses, pretending that they were investigating a hacking threat to the Icelandic government. Once there, they then started interrogating an informant. Now, this informant had approached the U.S. Embassy with information. Now, it’s interesting to speculate exactly why the approach was made, whether it was because of a fear of threatened prosecution or a desire for financial reward, but then started interrogating them, taking them around hotel rooms in Iceland.
The interior minister of Iceland found out about what was going on and ordered that the FBI leave. They said they would. They didn’t. And then a second order was put in. And then they fled Iceland under fear of arrest and, at that point, then got the informant to fly to Washington, D.C., where they interrogated them for another five days and then tried to use them to infiltrate a part of WikiLeaks. And they then met in Denmark on two occasions, and money was handed over in exchange for information, $5,000.
Now, subsequently, that informant has confessed doing that, has been prosecuted in Iceland for fraud, embezzlement and other crimes, being pursued by us and by some other Icelandic businesses where this person was involved in embezzlement. Now, importantly, this is the FBI’s star witness in the case against WikiLeaks. So their star witness has gone from just being a witness to being someone who’s now in prison, who has confessed to fabricating letters for me—from me as part of a fraudulent operation, and other businesses in Iceland, and is convicted of other crimes and has additional crimes that are outstanding.
AMY GOODMAN: And he is in prison currently in Iceland?
JULIAN ASSANGE: Yes.
AMY GOODMAN: And this is the star witness against you in the espionage case in the United States?
JULIAN ASSANGE: In the espionage case.
AMY GOODMAN: How do you know he’s the star witness?
JULIAN ASSANGE: Well, it seems, from other records where the U.S. government speaks obliquely about that operation and how valuable it was to them, that it was, you know, of extreme value to them.
AMY GOODMAN: As we wrap up, I want to end where we started, and that’s you right here in the Ecuadorean Embassy. You have been here now for years. Do you expect ever to leave?
JULIAN ASSANGE: It’s, you know, a geopolitical situation. It will depend on the geopolitics. There’s a number of nations involved who have relationships with each other. U.K. has a relationship with the United States. There’s domestic things happening here in the United Kingdom which are concerning, on the one hand. The U.K. says it will arrest me regardless. It refuses to reveal whether U.S. has already put in an extradition request. It says it will pull out of the European Court of Human Rights within a hundred days. I think it’s going to find it harder than what it is saying politically. It is engaged in this crazy adventurism in Libya.
It is introducing new legislation to say that it’s not enough anymore to follow the law. This is the incredible rhetoric coming out of the prime minister’s mouth, and the home secretary, who’s responsible for policing, police, that it’s not enough anymore to follow the law, it’s not a matter of introducing new laws to make new crimes, but people who make statements, which are perfectly lawful, need to be stopped; otherwise, criticism against the U.K.'s foreign policy could lead people into—it's a stepping stone to domestic extremism. And so, once people are named as someone who is leading to domestic extremism, a gag can be put on them, where everything they say has to have pre-publication review by the government. Meetings and meeting places can similarly be banned. You have to submit your agenda to what you’re going to do at that meeting and so on. This is not a matter of incitement. There’s already laws about incitement: You can incite one—someone to commit murder, incite someone to commit terrorism—these are already offenses. But it’s speaking about matters which are not offenses, and they have no intention to make offenses, so that’s a very strange thing. That is—you know, it’s not rhetoric that we expect to hear post-World War II in northern Europe. But we’re hearing it now.
AMY GOODMAN: WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, speaking inside the Ecuadorean Embassy in London, where he has taken refuge for the past three years. If he steps outside the embassy, he’ll be arrested. To watch part one of our exclusive interview, visit democracynow.org, where he talks about leaked drafts of the TPP—that’s the Trans-Pacific Partnership—the recent disclosures of a British nuclear submarine whistleblower, who says it’s harder to get through airport security than to get onto a Trident nuclear weapons submarine, and Assange talks about secret details of a European Union plan to use military force—in other words, blowing ships up—to curb the influx of migrants from Libya.