Imagine being asked if the Director of the CIA has a personal vendetta against you. Few could contemplate being in that boat. Yet it’s just another day in Julian Assange’s remarkable existence.
Assange answered that question and many more, in a live Periscope audio press conference last Thursday.
“The answer is I don’t know. Normally, as an analyst of political affairs we don’t look at things in terms of personal grudges, we think it has usually poor explanatory power… But John Brennan, in his testimony before Congress Thursday before last, at the John McCain put together in the Senate, he does act a little unusually when he is asked the question about me personally. In fact, he almost spits. It’s possibly related to, that we published materials allegedly from a 16-year-old hacker, up in the North Midlands of England, which was his private security clearance application form and a review from the CIA and the Auditor-General… if you’re hacked by a 16-year-old kid and you’re the head of the CIA and what is published is quite embarrassing to your prestige then perhaps you take it personally.” – Julian Assange
The size and significance of the US Department of Justice investigation into WikiLeaks is without precedent. No one really knows how many WikiLeaks journalists, supporters, funders and partners are also on the line.
Well-known WikiLeaks associate Renata Avila, a Human Rights lawyer from Guatemala, submitted a question about exactly that via social media on the hashtag #AskWL.
She asked: “How many journalists are under investigation for their collaboration in Cablegate publications and spheres?”
“It’s a very interesting question. The answer is unknown. That is part of the problem with the U.S. case against WikiLeaks and me which was erected by the Department of Justice. With the Grand Jury being in Alexandria, Virginia. The National Security Division of the Department of Justice and the Criminal Division have been running that case since the middle of 2010. They maintain, as of this year, that it continues. It’s something that has affected many people… around half a dozen individuals have gone into exile… There has been many attempts by the press in the United States and our lawyers and Chelsea Manning’s lawyers and EPIC – the Electronic Privacy and Information Centre – and EFF, to get hold of some of the status of that investigation, who its affected, what possibly illegal investigative techniques have been used… They maintain, in court filings this year, that to reveal any substantial information about that case would be to negatively effect the pending prosecution. What we have as a result is, process as punishment… It really is a large case. There’s not only that we can see this by people being pulled into the Grand Jury and so on and those other activities, but statements made by the US government officially to Australian diplomats who reported those cables back to the Australian government maintained that the United States government said that it was of unprecedented scale and nature.” – Julian Assange
Since Assange first made the public offer last November to accept extradition to the United States if Chelsea Manning received clemency, there has been a huge amount of speculation in the press on whether this would go ahead. What is stopping this occurring? Well, it turns out that the United States and the United Kingdom refuse to own up to whether or not there even is an extradition request.
“This is exactly the problem… As of this year, 2017, they maintain, the DOJ Criminal Division, National Security Division, that the case proceeds, but what is the purpose of it? It doesn’t make sense to keep it going for 7 years unless you have a sealed indictment that you’re waiting to serve on people. Now, our lawyers have asked the United Kingdom, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, to tell us, have they received a US extradition request for me yet and the response by the Foreign and Commonwealth Office is that they refuse to confirm or deny whether they have received such a request… just today, the L’Espresso reporter Stefania Maurizi has got a response back from the UK Crown Prosecution Service saying once again, that it refuses to confirm or deny whether there is an extradition request live in the United Kingdom from the United States.” – Julian Assange
Understandably, Assange expressed great satisfaction with the clemency of Manning and deferred to the Obama administration’s claim that they had not made the decision to free Manning based on Assange’s offer.
“We are very, very happy that Manning has received clemency. It is a major strategic victory to have achieved that, both for Chelsea Manning and everything that she has had to suffer over the last 7 years. It was a terrible case, Barack Obama should have granted her clemency at the least in his first term, there was no need to wait for such a long period to do it… Now, interestingly, the Obama White House in order to, well maybe it’s the truth but perhaps in order to look tough, has distanced itself and it says that they didn’t give Chelsea Manning clemency because of my offer in September and later on. So it’s not something that can be taken away, the clemency, politically at least, because the Obama administration says it is not dependent on anything that I do. But I’ve always been willing to go to the United States provided that my rights are respected because this is a case that should never have occurred. It is fundamentally unjust in relation to my staff, in relation to WikiLeaks as a publisher, in relation to the terrible precedents that it will set under the 1st Amendment.” – Julian Assange
Assange’s remarks on the current state of journalism and of public information systems as a whole, were enlightening. He spoke first to mass media censorship and shortsightedness, and later to the present outlook for journalism as a whole. He warned the establishment press that if they cheer his downfall, that they would inevitably be empowering or emboldening political enemies of transparency to make other journalists the targets of the future.
“In some ways right now is a golden age of journalism in English. Because it’s becoming so cheap to become a publisher so there’s a lot more variety in publishers that are cropping up. Each one has their different interests and different angles, each one has their different loyalties and this clash of voices is more likely to reveal the truth… there is a lot of bad journalists, it’s true. Not accurate and who are not loyal to protecting the basic interests of the press, the American people and people globally which is the right to speak and to publish and to communicate to each other… There’s been a type of frankly disturbing glee trying to decontextualise some of my remarks, hoping or lusting it even seems, for my extradition to the United States for an entirely bogus case which would set a very deleterious precedent for people’s rights to publish across the board. So, come on guys, what are you doing? You’re going to take yourselves out just like that if you keep carrying on jumping after every ball the administration throws.” – Julian Assange
Of course, one of the questions on everyone’s lips is whether WikiLeaks will be as critical of Trump’s administration.
“Yes! It’s a very interesting time… From a security publisher point of view who specialises a lot in national security issues, this conflict which has developed between the embryonic Trump administration and the Central Intelligence Agency… we think will lead to dissidents and sources in both camps coming forward. We’ve already seen that on the CIA side from the Obama administration… so, you know, we’re looking forward to that conflict and other conflicts to occur among this new administration. There has been Cabinet members amongst this new administration which have said appalling things in the past about the rights of the press, the bona fide rights of the press and WikiLeaks and myself personally so we are under no illusions that there are people in that Cabinet that are of significant concern to WikiLeaks and should be of significant concern to those concerned with press freedoms in general.” – Julian Assange
Apparently the DOJ persecution of WikiLeaks includes warrants for charges that effectively equate publishing with terrorism.
“There has been a 7-year long attempt to build a prosecution against WikiLeaks and… it’s active and ongoing. Now the warrants have five charge types. They have the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act Section 1A which was defined by the Patriot Act as electronic terrorism. What the hell is going on trying to say that publishing is electronic terrorism?” – Julian Assange
The misnomer that WikiLeaks goes after the United States specifically was raised, and quickly debunked.
“It doesn’t. It’s absolute nonsense. In the last months we have published hundreds of thousands of documents about other countries, Germany and Turkey included, in fact in total volume, way more than we published during the US election cycle. People of a particular culture, or of a particular language group, they are interested in their culture and their language group so there is a selection bias that people read about things that are connected to them and when we publish in a different language or about a different culture, people are not aware of it.” – Julian Assange
WikiLeaks has enjoyed massive growth in reach and popularity as a result of the DNC and Podesta emails, particularly among US citizens. In response to a query about how people could contribute or assist with future releases, Assange gave fans some advice for how they can assist WikiLeaks and step up for freedom of information in general.
“Go to WikiLeaks.org and make sure we’re really cashed up for the conflict ahead… Either you have time or you have a skill or financial resources. If you have financial resources then you should give them to those organisations which seem to be quite efficient in what they are doing in promoting the freedom of the press. Obviously that’s WikiLeaks, organizations like Courage, Freedom of the Press Foundation, Electronic Frontier Foundation in the United States, Wau Holland Foundation in Germany, Amnesty International Spain has done a really good job with the Manning case, with the Manning clemency, or if you have a skill then you can… use that skill directly to volunteer for some of these organisations or do something on your own, start your own thing. If you just have time and no skills and no money then use that time in the public debate to correct factual inaccuracies for example, or to amplify those people who are doing good work.” – Julian Assange
One person wanted to know how WikiLeaks staff keep motivated under the massive pressures on them and the trials and tribulations that they face. The answer? Empathy.
“That’s an interesting question. At different times of the year there might be different views on what the morale is like… I guess part of how I maintain morale is everyone goes well, goddamnit, if Julian can do it in that situation, then I can do it in the situation that I’m in. For myself, well I love what we’re doing. I like to think—well who wouldn’t like to do the sort of stuff that WikiLeaks does? We help understand the world in a way which was never done before, we have published more than 10 million documents that never appeared in the public record before. That’s a kind of rebel library of Alexandria, a great intellectual fruit that has contributed to justice all around the world, releasing innocent people from prison, taking their place in a variety of elections, leading to all sorts of reforms… we’re involved in the conflict of defending it, defending our rights to publish and encompassing within that the rights of others to also publish and secure information in the way that we do.” – Julian Assange
RiseUp.net, a popular ISP/email provider for activists and dissidents around the world, may have been served with a gag order by US federal authorities. Assange explained in some depth what the implications of RiseUp possibly having received such an order are and what a “warrant canary” is—the method by which organizations at risk of receiving one can get around the requirement to not disclose it.
“This concerns something interesting which is a technique developed in response to gag orders principally in the United States but also extending to other countries as well… a technique was developed called a canary which is to say, every three months, you say that you haven’t received a gag order and handed over information. That’s the normal course of business. Then if you don’t do that one month, then the effective statement is that you have received a gag order… there’s a quite well-known organisation called Rise Up… It was perhaps late with its warranted canary statement… WikiLeaks doesn’t use any particular email provider and we assume that email itself is compromised. So it’s not something that affects us. Rise Up on their behalf have said none of their information is affected. There’s clearly something like an attempted subpoena or something like that for Rise Up which is why they’re saying that they needed legal advice but can’t talk about it…” – Julian Assange
WikiLeaks have stated several times that 2017 is going to be an absolutely huge year for them, which is almost unfathomable considering the astronomical significance and impact they had in both the political and media spheres in 2016. Assange dished a few more details on what is yet to come.
“We have a lot of material to get through, it takes time… We do have a perfect record for accurate vetting of what we’ve published, going back for 10 years… But I’m very excited, it’s, you know, information that concerns everyone. Some information for some countries, big corporations, government behaviour etcetera. You know, I like doing this, I’m in love with the publications that we have coming.” – Julian Assange
There was a query about whether WikiLeaks would be doing any releases related to the upcoming 2017 election in Germany. Assange pointed out that WikiLeaks have already been pretty consistently releasing information of importance to German citizens. He also pointed out that allegations of Russian hacking had also been made by Germany in response to WikiLeaks publications, and had been disproven.
“We have published more than 60,000 pages of material about the BND NSA inquiry in the German parliament. So after the Snowden revelations in 2013 the Bundestag set up an inquiry panel to look into whether the BND had been illicitly passing information to the National Security Agency and there’s several findings out already which, the answer is yes they had. They were also engaged in a number of unlawful domestic programs, at least a dozen… So we published those and the response was interesting. The first response was that it was thought that this was probably a Parliamentary insider. The second response came out through Focus magazine and Focus magazine is a magazine that is notorious at least within WikiLeaks as having a very close relationship with the BND. In fact, we exposed them in 2009 as having met more than 54 times, just one of their journalists, with a BND handler and they were involved in hunting down the sources of other journalists. So Focus magazine put out a statement from a government security official, pretty clearly a BND official, claiming that it was likely or that they assessed that it was likely that this material that we had published from the German Parliament actually came from Russian hackers. Now, so clearly resonating with certain attacks on us by some members of the US press. And just two weeks later, the Commission of Inquiry into the leak, a formal prosecutor was appointed by the Parliament to investigate. They came out and said no, actually we think this must have come from the German Parliament. They gave a simple argument for example, they say that some Russian hack they had had back in 2015 had taken 30 megabytes or 50 megabytes of data but we had published 90. So it was literally impossible that it could have been the Russians. But there is that environment now where you can see the incentives. So whatever propaganda Russia may be putting out through RT or elsewhere, and it certainly has its angle on things, you can see the incentive for incumbents like Merkel, just as we could see with Clinton, to try and hype up an issue about potential Russian involvement… that’s something we’re going to see I assume in the German election and in the French election regardless of what the Russians are doing or not doing.” – Julian Assange
Assange was also asked if he had any insight into Obama’s high approval rating and respectively, Trump’s low one.
“Trump is not a politician. He’s a beginning politician. So he says things that are confrontational or easy to take out of context, or offend people. So that would be a prime reason and Obama’s rather slick. But similarly, it’s true that the majority of the media, perhaps with the exception of Fox News, was fully in the tank for Clinton during this election cycle and kind of whipped up a class hysteria about what they were saying was effectively that the leader of the white trash was going to take over and it would all be a terrible disaster and that everyone in their class had to rally together to prevent this from happening. I’m not defending Trump or his policies… but by the same token I don’t think I’m saying anything new by saying that there was a deeply partisinised atmosphere in this election… the behaviour in the press on both sides but the majority was on the Clinton side, was terrible, in terms of accuracy, absolutely terrible… respect for the press is at a record low in the United States.” – Julian Assange
Yet another question about the matter of extradition was raised – that of whether he should simply go to Sweden, where there is an outstanding arrest warrant, although there are still no charges.
“…I was granted asylum at this Embassy because of the persecution involved in the US case… a lot has happened in this case in the United States, with people being hauled into the Grand Jury, forced to testify, warrants being spewed out all over the place for information, planeloads of FBI agents illicitly engaged in activities, interrogating people in other countries etcetera so there’s a lot going on. In relation to Sweden, let’s be clear, I have never been charged at any stage, I have already been previously cleared by the Chief Prosecutor in Stockholm in relation to exactly the same allegation and the United Nations twice last year has formally found that I am being illegally detained in relation to it. Despite all that, I have asked and my lawyers have asked and the state of Ecuador have asked that Sweden simply give a guarantee that I will not be extradited to the United States and they refuse to do so, absolutely refuse and instead this enormous fuss and expense and diplomatic costs.” – Julian Assange
Another predictable question was asked by a viewer, that has been the subject of much speculation. Will Trump go any easier on WikiLeaks than his predecessors?
“It remains to be seen… A publisher has the duty to publish. That’s its number one duty. That’s what its function is in society… and I’m an Australian citizen publishing from Europe. What the hell is going on with this jurisdictional overreach, trying to apply US law, which shouldn’t be applied to publishers even in the United States because of the First Amendment… This is an absurd overreach which chills the climates for publishers to scrutinise and help the public understand what is going on with the most powerful organizations in our state and why is it important for the most powerful organisations to be scrutinised? Well, because when they get it wrong, when they act badly or incompetently, it is that power, that military intelligence or governmental of the enormous corporation like Google, it is that power that can cause widespread systematic damage and loss of life, as it has done, as we have seen in Syria and Iraq and in Libya.” – Julian Assange
The Podesta emails revealed that Obama’s Cabinet was already picked prior to his inauguration and that corporate interests were right in the thick of making those decisions. Assange was asked if we can expect the same thing from Trump.
“One of my favourite emails from the Podesta emails that we published is correspondence with John Podesta and a Citibank official. Now that Citibank official seemed to be the primary person putting together the Obama cabinet back in 2008. Now, those people who remember that period will remember that Obama was big with the banks. He got a lot of cash from the banks and it seems to have translated into this senior Citibank executive being absolutely central… more than 50 percent of the people [appointed] according to an article in the New Republic which analyzed it, were on the Citibank list. It would be interesting to think what the equivalent is in the Trump Cabinet selection… we do see three ex-Goldman Sachs people in the Trump Cabinet.” – Julian Assange
One really smart question was about why none of WikiLeaks partners in printing the Afghan and Iraq War Logs and Cablegate appear to be being equally persecuted as WikiLeaks is. Assange shed a lot of light on this—it seems to be the result of a strategic decision by the DOJ.
“I’d just say that of course the DOJ has a political technique, it has a theory, about how its going to separate the herd, to take WikiLeaks off to the side for a beating and perhaps leave the New York Times and the other partners alone… It’s theory seems to be, based on the warrants and some statements that it has made, that WikiLeaks is different. Why is WikiLeaks different? Because WikiLeaks dealt with the source. WikiLeaks, if you like, brought in the fish that we then published and we shared with others in the media in order to get more eyeballs and better analysis and therefore WikiLeaks is different in this way. While that may be of some salve to The Guardian and Le Monde and more than 100 other publishing partners that we have, it shouldn’t be, because it’s not just about who is swept up into this particular prosecution. This prosecution will set precedents. It will set precedents about what is tolerable behaviour by the DOJ and if it is tolerable behaviour in law and politically for the administration to go after publishers and go after their sources and say that every interaction between a national security journalist and their source is a conspiracy, in general, and a conspiracy to commit espionage, and the passing of electronic information falls under the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act Section 1A, electronic terrorism, if national security journalism is electronic terrorism and espionage then that is the end of national security journalism in the United States and we like to joke that if that happens, well all sources will just have to come to WikiLeaks.” – Julian Assange
There has been both curiosity and conjecture about what WikiLeaks publications for 2017 contain. Assange had previously mentioned that Google was at least one subject on which new revelations would be coming. As usual, Assange deftly avoided giving too much away. However, he did make the point that he isn’t actually in charge of the scheduling of what comes out when.
“You can expect a nice publication on Google in 2017. We have a lot of upcoming publications, I don’t want to say which one’s first. Actually, it might surprise some of you but even I don’t know which one we’re going to do first. It does depend on what’s in the news and what’s taking up the news cycle or is there a company or government department prominent for some other reason.” – Julian Assange
Some speculate that there is a growing hostility between the European Union and Trump. It is true that, like most of the world, the EU was prepared for a Clinton victory. Trump’s installation as President of the United States was, to put it mildly, a surprise.
Assange did not give a particular position on whether conflict between the parties was likely, but did point out that the intensity of the current geopolitical situation was fascinating from WikiLeaks’ perspective.
“I think, from a journalistic perspective, its very interesting. Because those kinds of conflicts, say between Merkel and Trump, allow you to examine, they create a market, they create an audience that is receptive for information about Merkel in the United States and an audience in Germany that is receptive to information about Trump. The general phenomena is quite, I’m not saying it’s good government or good diplomacy but from WikiLeaks perspective we like to see this kind of churn and invigoration and everything being reconsidered.” – Julian Assange
There has been an infinite number of breaches of due process in the handling of Assange’s case, by a variety of state parties, tracking back years. Assange gave a very enlightening description of how and why the rule of law is suspended in high profile political situations like his.
“There was a very unusual statement by the Crown Prosecution Service in 2011, to their counterparts in Sweden, which was ‘don’t worry, we’re not treating his extradition like a normal extradition case.’ Well there’s quite a lot of material actually, you should go to Justice4Assange.com, and you can read all about that. When you’re involved in a situation like this yourself, what you see is that when the politics becomes significant enough then everything becomes political. In terms of political philosophy, it makes perfect sense. Which is that various institutions within a state such as the judiciary, are functions of the state and the state is the result of two things, a political process and a security process. That is what constructs and maintains the state in the first place. So if the security aspect becomes too high or the political aspect becomes too high then the rule of law starts to become too rubbery and can eventually be swept aside. Now that’s I suppose, in a positive sense, with the Chelsea Manning clemency. But it does happen frequently in the negative sense and that’s the case for me.” – Julian Assange
Unfortunately, like many exiles, Assange has been all but outright abandoned by his own government, who have refused to advocate on his behalf or to aid him in seeking redress for the breaches of his rights under international law. In fact, they have gone so far as to openly collaborate with his persecutors. Assange was philosophical about this but also hopeful that there may be some change to their stance in the future.
“Australia is… a colonial country, population just over 20 million, speaks English and is in the middle of nowhere. So the result is that it’s not near its close friends culturally. It’s in the Five Eyes alliance with the UK, Australia, New Zealand, the white, English-speaking countries and unfortunately it doesn’t have an independent foreign policy. Its foreign policy cues are taken from the United States and from the United Kingdom with which it is deeply integrated in terms of its military and intelligence services. Anyway, it’s something that’s affected not just me, it’s affected a number of Australians who have been imprisoned overseas in say the United States but also in other states that the Australian government wants to have a security relationship with. It essentially abandons them. It has done so in this case. In fact, the Australian intelligence services gave information to the United States, they looked into cancelling my passport, the then-Prime Minister said that I was engaged in illegal acts, and all of that was found to be untrue. So the Australian investigation found that I had broken no Australian law and I have won the peak journalism prize in Australia which is the Walkley. Although there’s popular support in Australia and support in the press and a lot of support in the legal community the government so far has done nothing. But there might be some change. There’s a little bit of talk in Parliament that perhaps things should change.” – Julian Assange
A question about Facebook’s involvement in creating systems to supposedly fight fake news saw Assange really open up. He talked about how the ways we share information are changing and the impacts of that, specifically from the perspective of governments and the ruling elites, who traditionally rely on the ability to control the ways in which information is communicated in order to control their populaces.
For me, this was by far the most intriguing portion of the press conference and a great note to finish on.
“You know they’re talking about the ecosystem of information flow in a modern civilisation that Facebook forms an important part of and Facebook as it became rich has integrated… with the US establishment, so other large companies who are dealing with the State Department etcetera… I guess Peter Thiel is an exception on the Facebook board, but it was more or less in the tank for Clinton, as far as Facebook ownership and management was concerned. So of course they didn’t like to see that Facebook was spreading a lot of stories critical of the candidate that they had backed. Now some of those were genuinely fake stories… but I assume the majority was true, then there was our information which was definitely true. So there’s a breaking of one of the most important control structures in a democracy and that is who controls the media and the effects that the media has on people reading it… if you don’t want to use a truncheon to keep people in line, you need to use their perceptions to keep them in line. So what is involved in managing people’s perceptions? Well, traditionally that’s who controls publishing and broadcasts and now organizations like Facebook are permitting many, many people to publish, billions, at the click of a button. So that is obviously breaking down the control structure. Now the control structure is there for bad reasons and it is there for good reasons. The bad reasons are principally to keep whatever the ruling class in any particular country in rule and the good reasons are well maybe some of those rules are for good reasons. So the control structure is breaking down and Facebook’s traditional position is of being quite frightened of being accused of manipulating the priorities of what you see for reasons other than you paying the money, has resulted in… more or less fair distribution of what people think, to each other. But when you have more or less fair distribution of what people think to each other, that is a new circumstance in a democracy. So something else must change because the structures of a democracy, the relative powers of different institutions and cultural norms exist in an equilibrium which is mediated by information flow structures. So when the information flow structures change, the other parts of society must also change to enter into a new equilibrium. But before the new equilibrium is established, there is a disequilibrium and part of the election of Donald Trump is that phenomena taking place.” – Julian Assange
The aware and the learned will find the above to be brilliant. But there are some people who fail to grasp philosophy or reason, who don’t care to analyze or aspire to influence great power, who can’t be reached through education or through history, or sociopolitical and geopolitical narrative.
But all is not lost. Because we can always get to them through pictures of cats!
The living proof of this is Julian Assange’s pet kitten, @EmbassyCat, who became an instant viral hit in 2016.
But there has been a “paws” in Embassy Cat’s publishing schedule.
“I’m not going to lie, it’s a tough situation to be illegally kept in an Embassy for four and a half years despite the UN saying that you’re unlawfully detained, it’s tough on me, it’s tough on my young children, I have a family under the age of 10, and so they were concerned about me and so they got me a cat. It’s a bit pathetic, it’s not a replacement for your family but interestingly, psychologically, actually it’s quite good. It’s why you give long-term prisoners cats. If they’re lifers for example and all the staff that come in the Embassy in the day, they all dote on the cat etcetera. But we have a Twitter account for the cat. With, ah, kind of publication intensity over the last few months, Ecuador cutting off the internet briefly, etcetera, there’s a lot of other stuff going on so we haven’t had the time to take and publish as many cat photos as we’d like.” – Julian Assange
We live in remarkable times of deep fluctuating change. Few could imagine what the last 10 years would have been like without WikiLeaks, Julian Assange and EmbassyCat!
If the world’s citizenry continues to unite around them, we won’t have to.
It has been said that all wars end. Even the Hundred Years War, came to its inevitable conclusion.
The sooner the War on Whistleblowers and the War on Journalism ends, the better. For all of us.