You turn to us for voices you won't hear anywhere else.

Sign up for Democracy Now!'s Daily Digest to get our latest headlines and stories delivered to your inbox every day.

“Governments Are Trying to Frighten Journalists”: Fmr. Guardian Head Alan Rusbridger on Assange Case

Media Options

Image Credit: Henry Nicholls / Reuters

As Julian Assange awaits a decision from a British court on his possible extradition to the United States, Democracy Now! speaks with Alan Rusbridger, former editor-in-chief of The Guardian, who worked with Assange to publish hundreds of thousands of classified records from the U.S. acquired by WikiLeaks that document war crimes in the Middle East. “What the governments are now trying to do is to frighten journalists off,” says Rusbridger. “I think the world should wake up as to what the nature of the threat is going to be to mainstream journalism if this extradition is successful.”

Related Story

StoryFeb 23, 2024Press Freedom on Trial: Julian Assange’s Lawyer on Extradition Case & Criminalizing Journalism
This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!,, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman.

On Monday, April 5th, 2010, Julian Assange released a shocking video at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C. The now-infamous tape, which WikiLeaks titled “Collateral Murder,” was shot in 2007 from a U.S. military Apache helicopter flying over New Baghdad, Iraq. It shows U.S. forces killing 12 people, including two Reuters employees: Saeed Chmagh, 40 years old, and Namir Noor-Eldeen. He was an up-and-coming Reuters videographer. The video comes from the Apache Helicopter.

U.S. SOLDIER 1: Let me know when you’ve got them.

U.S. SOLDIER 2: Let’s shoot. Light ’em all up.

U.S. SOLDIER 3: Come on, fire!

U.S. SOLDIER 2: Keep shootin’. Keep shootin’. Keep shootin’. Keep shootin’.

U.S. SOLDIER 4: Hotel, Bushmaster two-six, Bushmaster two-six, we need to move, time now!

U.S. SOLDIER 2: All right, we just engaged all eight individuals.

AMY GOODMAN: Reuters driver Saeed Chmagh survived the initial attack. He’s seen trying to crawl away as the U.S. Apache helicopter flies overhead. U.S. forces then open fire again when they see a van pulling up to evacuate the wounded Chmagh.

U.S. SOLDIER 3: Where’s that van at?

U.S. SOLDIER 2: Right down there by the bodies.

U.S. SOLDIER 3: OK, yeah.

U.S. SOLDIER 2: Bushmaster, Crazy Horse. We have individuals going to the scene, looks like possibly picking up bodies and weapons.

U.S. SOLDIER 3: Let me engage. Can I shoot?

U.S. SOLDIER 2: Roger. Break. Crazy Horse one-eight, request permission to engage.

U.S. SOLDIER 5: Picking up the wounded?

U.S. SOLDIER 3: Yeah, we’re trying to get permission to engage. Come on, let us shoot!

U.S. SOLDIER 2: Bushmaster, Crazy Horse one-eight.

U.S. SOLDIER 3: They’re taking him.

U.S. SOLDIER 2: Bushmaster, Crazy Horse one-eight.

U.S. SOLDIER 6: This is Bushmaster seven, go ahead.

U.S. SOLDIER 2: Roger. We have a black SUV — or Bongo truck picking up the bodies. Request permission to engage.

U.S. SOLDIER 6: Bushmaster seven, roger. This is Bushmaster seven, roger. Engage.

U.S. SOLDIER 2: One-eight, engage. Clear.

U.S. SOLDIER 3: Come on!

U.S. SOLDIER 2: Clear. Clear.

U.S. SOLDIER 3: We’re engaging.

U.S. SOLDIER 2: Coming around. Clear.

U.S. SOLDIER 3: Roger. Trying to—

U.S. SOLDIER 2: Clear.

U.S. SOLDIER 3: I hear ’em — I lost ’em in the dust.

U.S. SOLDIER 5: I got ’em.

U.S. SOLDIER 2: Should have a van in the middle of the road with about 12 to 15 bodies.

U.S. SOLDIER 3: Oh, yeah, look at that. Right through the windshield! Ha ha!

AMY GOODMAN: That clip from the “Collateral Murder” video released by WikiLeaks in April 2010. The van that had come to help the wounded was a father taking his two children to school. They were critically wounded in the attack, as well. The video’s release was followed by the publication of hundreds of thousands of digital records from the U.S. military dubbed the Iraq War Logs and the Afghan War Diary.

In November 2022, five major newspapers that worked with WikiLeaks — The New York Times, The Guardian, Le Monde, El País and Der Spiegel — released a joint letter calling for an end to Julian Assange’s prosecution. They write, quote, “Obtaining and disclosing sensitive information when necessary in the public interest is a core part of the daily work of journalists. If that work is criminalised, our public discourse and our democracies are made significantly weaker,” unquote.

For more, we stay in London with Alan Rusbridger. He was the editor-in-chief of The Guardian for 20 years. He’s now the editor of Prospect magazine. He recently wrote a piece that was headlined “Enough is enough — it’s time to set Julian Assange free.”

Alan, welcome back to Democracy Now! That video that we just saw, Reuters had attempted to get the video released because it showed the death of their two employees, Namir Noor-Eldeen and Saeed Chmagh, and they couldn’t get it released. It was only when WikiLeaks released it that they were able to see the evidence of what happened, not to mention of the Iraqis on the ground. Can you talk about why you’re getting involved with this case, why you think it’s so significant?

ALAN RUSBRIDGER: Well, that video and the battle to have it released is at the heart of what WikiLeaks was doing. You have to remember that, initially, the U.S. government lied about what happened there, in addition to refusing Reuters access to the video for three years. They, first of all, claimed that the helicopter had come under attack from insurgents. And their second line of defense was that all the people who were killed were in fact terrorists or insurgents. Neither of those was true.

And that is why you need national security reporting and the ability to sometimes delve into matters that are considered secret by governments. And that’s why I’m so concerned about the attempt to use this really heavy legislation, the Espionage Act, which has no defense, to prosecute Julian.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you talk about the argument that we hear, and the corporate media certainly in the United States repeated over and over, that he is not like newspapers like yours — you were the editor of The Guardian — or The New York Times, though he worked with all of you, because he released names, he endangered people? Can you respond to that?

ALAN RUSBRIDGER: I certainly can. He wasn’t the first person to do that. There was another website that released material. And it’s now become apparent that he actually went to some attempts certainly to tip the U.S. government off, before he felt the necessity to release them. Now, I mean, we had disagreements about that at the time. We weren’t in touch. And I don’t think the five newspapers knew of his attempts to alert the authorities.

But I think it’s really a smokescreen for the way that, certainly since the Edward Snowden revelations —  which I was also involved in — the U.S. government, the Australian government, the U.K. government have all tried to tighten up the laws and their punitive behavior towards journalists to try and create a situation where no one will ever do that kind of reporting again. And that video that you kicked this interview off with is one illustration of why that shouldn’t be allowed to happen.

AMY GOODMAN: You write, Alan Rusbridger, “Why should we care? There is no shortage of people who don’t, much.” They don’t like Julian Assange. “[I]t has to be conceded that he has a unique ability to lose friends and alienate people. Many in the media don’t believe he’s a 'proper' journalist, and therefore won’t lift a finger to defend him.” It’s not like you’re a friend of his, Alan.

ALAN RUSBRIDGER: No, we’ve had well-publicized fallings out. But I think, in the current situation, you have to look beyond the person. Assange has famously fallen out with many people who have tried to work with him. But that’s not the point. The point is what is happening in the legal sphere.

I mean, the way I like to think about it is to reverse the situation. Imagine that you had an American journalist in London who had been working on, say — I don’t know — the Indian nuclear program. We know there is one, but it’s secret. And suppose they published something. Imagine the Indian government saying to the British government, “We need to extradite this American journalist, to put them in jail in India for breaking our official secrets laws.” Can you imagine the American government would allow that to happen? Can you imagine that extradition going ahead?

So, as Jen Robinson was just saying, it’s all very well for people who think of themselves as proper journalists to sit this one out, but the precedent that is going to be set by this case if he is extradited should worry everybody.

AMY GOODMAN: Do you think it’s valid to make a comparison, for example, with Evan Gershkovich, The Wall Street Journal reporter, who has been imprisoned by Putin in Russia? They said he was trying to get military secrets, something a lot of journalists do try to do. What about the U.S. trying to extradite and imprison Julian Assange, if found guilty, for 175 years? What did he do? Tried to release military secrets — he actually did — of the U.S. government.

ALAN RUSBRIDGER: Well, Russia is an entirely different kind of state, so I wouldn’t want to make a direct comparison. But I think there is this problem about official secrecy and the nature of the ability, that Edward Snowden revealed, of now complete control and surveillance and monitoring of populations. And somebody has to keep these people accountable. They have the power of life and death over us. They have the power of captivity and freedom. And anyone who’s read George Orwell can see that the state that has that power needs to be monitored.

And I’m afraid what the governments are now trying to do is to frighten journalists off. In Britain, you can now go to jail for 14 years as an editor to do what I did with Edward Snowden. And they’ve explicitly refused to allow any editor the right to a defense. So you can’t even explain why you thought this might have been in the public interest. So, the danger is that people like Assange, like Chelsea Manning, like The New York Times, are going to be so discouraged from doing what they should be doing, that this kind of activity will be completely blind to us in future.

AMY GOODMAN: Very quickly, Alan Rusbridger, if you can explain what exactly you did related to Edward Snowden and that hard drive? And let’s remember that it was WikiLeaks that helped Ed Snowden, when the authorities were moving in on him in Hong Kong, to get out of Hong Kong. He ultimately ended up in Russia and couldn’t leave the airport, because the U.S. pulled his passport. But it was WikiLeaks and Julian Assange who helped him get out. And talk about what you did in the basement of The Guardian.

ALAN RUSBRIDGER: The British government eventually came to us and said, “If you don’t agree to stop publishing, we will stop you.” And so, it was plain there. They were either going to injunct us, or they were going to send the police in. So, I told them that we would go on reporting from New York, because the First Amendment is a very powerful instrument to defend the press, which is what we did. And the quid pro quo was that we would destroy the computers that we had been using in London. I think that was just a piece of theater. But it reminds us about why the First Amendment is so important and why we mustn’t allow people to chip away at these protections that journalists have.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to end with a Meet the Press interview with Joe Biden, then-vice president, in 2010. ABC host David Gregory questioned Biden about Assange.

DAVID GREGORY: Should the United States do something to stop Mr. Assange?

VICE PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: We’re looking at that right now. The Justice Department is taking a look at that. And I’m not going to comment on that process.

DAVID GREGORY: Do you think he’s a criminal?

VICE PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: If he conspired to get these classified documents with a member of the U.S. military, that’s fundamentally different than if somebody drops on your lap — “Here, David, you’re a press person. Here is classified material.”

DAVID GREGORY: Mitch McConnell says he’s a high-tech terrorist. Others say this is akin to the Pentagon Papers. Where do you come down?

VICE PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: I would argue that it’s closer to being a high-tech terrorist.

AMY GOODMAN: He would argue that it is closest that Julian Assange is being a high-tech terrorist. Alan Rusbridger, your final comment and what you’re calling for now?

ALAN RUSBRIDGER: I remember a time when Julian Assange was first working in Kenya releasing documents, when even Hillary Clinton was making speeches about how this was the new form of samizdat publishing, and was in favor of dissidents using the internet to release material. That’s all changed now. But I think the world should wake up as to what the nature of the threat is going to be to mainstream journalism, if this extradition is successful.

AMY GOODMAN: Alan Rusbridger was the editor-in-chief of The Guardian for more than 20 years, now the editor of Prospect magazine. We’ll link to his piece headlined “Enough is enough — it’s time to set Julian Assange free.”

When we come back, Haitian asylum seekers go to court over federal agents abusing them at the U.S.-Mexico border. Stay with us.


AMY GOODMAN: “My Creole Belle” by the legendary blues singer and guitarist Mississippi John Hurt. Earlier this week, a fire destroyed the Mississippi John Hurt Museum in his hometown of Avalon, Mississippi, just hours after it received landmark status. The museum was built inside of John Hurt’s home, a humble three-room shack with a tin roof that was about 200 years old.

The original content of this program is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License. Please attribute legal copies of this work to Some of the work(s) that this program incorporates, however, may be separately licensed. For further information or additional permissions, contact us.

Next story from this daily show

Haitian Asylum Seekers Take Biden Admin to Court for Racial Discrimination, Rights Violations

Non-commercial news needs your support

We rely on contributions from our viewers and listeners to do our work.
Please do your part today.
Make a donation