Julian Assange (right) speaks to SPIEGEL journalist Michael Sontheimer inside the Ecuadorian Embassy in London.
In an interview, Julian Assange, 44, talks about the comeback of the WikiLeaks whistleblowing platform and his desire to provide assistance to a German parliamentary committee that is investigating mass NSA spying.
Interview Conducted By Michael Sontheimer
SPIEGEL: Mr. Assange, WikiLeaks is back — releasing documents proving United States surveillance of the French government, publishing Saudi diplomatic cables and posting evidence of the massive surveillance of the German government by US secret services. What are the reasons for this comeback?
Assange: Yes, WikiLeaks has been publishing a lot of material in the last few months. We have been publishing right through, but sometimes it has been material which does not concern the West and the Western media — documents about Syria, for example. But you have to consider that there was, and still is, a conflict with the United States government which started in earnest in 2010 after we began publishing a variety of classified US documents.
SPIEGEL: What did this mean for you and for WikiLeaks?
Assange: The result was a series of legal cases, blockades, PR attacks and so on. With a banking blockade, WikiLeaks had been cut off from more than 90 percent of its finances. The blockade happened in a completely extrajudicial manner. We took legal measures against the blockade and we have been victorious in the courts, so people can send us donations again.
SPIEGEL: What difficulties did you have to overcome?
Assange: There had been attacks on our technical infrastructure. And our staff had to take a 40 percent pay cut, but we have been able to keep things together without having to fire anybody, which I am quite proud of. We became a bit like Cuba, working out ways around this blockade. Various groups like Germany’s Wau Holland Foundation collected donations for us during the blockade.
SPIEGEL: What did you do with the donations you got?
Assange: They enabled us to pay for new infrastructure, which was needed. I have been publishing about the NSA for almost 20 years now, so I was aware of the NSA and GCHQ mass surveillance. We required a next-generation submission system in order to protect our sources.
SPIEGEL: And is it in place now?
Assange: Yes, a few months back we launched a next-generation submission system and also integrated it with our publications.
SPIEGEL: So we can expect new publications?
Assange: We are drowning in material now. Economically, the challenge for WikiLeaks is whether we can scale up our income in proportion to the amount of material we have to process.
SPIEGEL: Nine years ago, when WikiLeaks was founded, you could read on its website: “The goal is justice. The method is transparency.” This is the old idea of Enlightenment born in the 18th century. But if you look at brutal political regimes and ruthless big corporations, isn’t that slogan too idealistic? Is transparency enough?
Assange: To be honest, I don’t like the word transparency; cold dead glass is transparent. I prefer education or understanding, which are more human.
SPIEGEL: The work of WikiLeaks seems to have changed. In the beginning it just published secret documents. More recently, you have also been providing context for the documents.
Assange: We have always done this. I have personally written thousands of pages of analysis. WikiLeaks is a giant library of the world’s most persecuted documents. We give asylum to these documents, analyze them, promote them and obtain more. WikiLeaks has more than 10 million documents and associated analyses now.
SPIEGEL: Are the personnel of the US government and the US Army still technically blocked from using your library?
Assange: WikiLeaks is still a taboo object for some parts of the government. Firewalls were set up. Every federal government employee and every contractor received an e-mail stating that if they read something from WikiLeaks including through the New York Times website, they have to remove this from their computer immediately and self-report. They had to cleanse and confess. That’s a new McCarthy hysteria.
SPIEGEL: Do you know something about your readers?
Assange: Not much, we don’t spy on them. But what we do know is that most of our readers come from India, closely followed by the United States. We also have quite a number of readers who search for persons. The sister is getting married and someone wants to check the groom. Or someone is negotiating a business deal and wants to know something about his potential partner or a bureaucrat he has to talk to.
SPIEGEL: Did WikiLeaks change its ways of cooperating with journalists and the media over the years?
Assange: We use a lot more contracts now.
Assange: That’s due to a few bad experiences, principally in London. We have contracts now with more than a hundred media organizations all around the world. We have a unique perspective on the global media. We put together various consortiums of journalists and media organizations on different levels and try to maximize the impact of our sources. We now have six years of experience with Western European media, American media, Indian media, Arab media and seeing what they do with the same material. Their results are unbelievably different.
SPIEGEL: Edward Snowden said that many journalists got interesting stories from his documents, but the only organization that really cared about him and helped him to escape from Hong Kong was WikiLeaks.
Assange: Most of the media organizations do burn sources. Edward Snowden was abandoned in Hong Kong, especially by the Guardian, which had run his stories exclusively. But we thought that it was very important that a star source like Edward Snowden was not put in prison. Because that would have created a tremendous chilling effect on other sources coming forward.
SPIEGEL: It would surely have been a deterrence for other sources. But most of the journalists insist on being independent and objective. They also like to stress that they are not political activists.
Assange: All they show is that they are activists for the way things are.
SPIEGEL: Haven’t you also met journalists who dig deep into complex issues and work hard to deliver a proper analysis?
Assange: In the United Kingdom at various stages, journalism has been the profession of gentlemen amateurs. And some of them even pride themselves on being amateurs. Their quality is not comparable with the quality of intelligence services even if most of them harbor a remarkable degree of corruption and incompetence. But they still have a certain ideal of professionalism. In order to protect sources now, extreme diligence and professionalism is required.
SPIEGEL: In October, a book will be published called “The WikiLeaks Files. The World According to the US Empire” for which you wrote the foreword. Do you try to develop the contextualization, the analysis and the counter-narrative which the documents provided by WikiLeaks need?
Assange: Generally there is not enough systematic understanding. This has to do with media economics, the short-term news cycles, but actually I don’t blame the media for that failure. There is a terrible failing in academia in understanding current geopolitical and technical developments and the intersection between these two areas. WikiLeaks has a very public conflict with the United States, which is still ongoing and in which many young people have gotten involved. They suddenly saw the Internet as a place where politics and geopolitics happen. It’s not just a place where you gossip about what happened at school. But where were the young professors stepping forward trying to make sense of it all? Where is the new Michel Foucault who tries to explain how modern power is exercised? Absurdly, Noam Chomski was making some of the best comments and he is now 86.
SPIEGEL: Maybe young professors presume it might not be very helpful for their careers to address this subject because it is highly controversial.
Assange: Exactly. It is inherently controversial. At the same time, the relationships of the major intelligence agencies is a one of the great structuring factors of the modern world. It is the core of non-economic relationships between states. I worry most about academia and the particular part of academia that is dealing with international relations. WikiLeaks has published over 2 million diplomatic cables. It is the single largest repository for international relations of primary source materials, all searchable. It is the cannon for international relations. It is the biggest dog in the room. There has been some research published in Spanish and in Asian languages. But where are the American and English journals? There is a concrete explanation: They act as feeder schools for the US State Department. The US association that controls the big five international relations journals, the ISA, has a quiet, official policy of not accepting any paper that is derived from WikiLeaks’ materials.
SPIEGEL: Let’s talk about politicians. Why have politicians — who had to learn, thanks to WikiLeaks and Edward Snowden, that their phones are tapped and their emails are read by English-speaking spies — reacted in such a timid, slow and lame way to these revelations?
Assange: Why are they playing it down? Angela Merkel had to look tough because she didn’t want to be seen as a weak leader, but I reckon she came to the conclusion the Americans aren’t going to change. All that US intelligence information is very valuable for the German foreign intelligence agency, the Bundesnachrichtendienst. Please imagine for a moment the German government complains about being spied on and the Americans just say: Okay, we will give you more stuff, which they have stolen from France. When the French complain, they get more stuff, which was stolen from Germany. The NSA spends a lot of resources obtaining information, but throwing a few crumbs to France and Germany when they start whining about being victims costs nothing, digital copies cost nothing.
SPIEGEL: If it worked like that, it would be utterly embarrassing for the German and the French governments.
Assange: It’s sad. It seems like German politicians think this debate makes us look weak and creates conflict with the Americans. So we better play the surveillance issue down. If you knew as a German politician that American intelligence agencies have been collecting intensively on 125 top-level politicians and officials over decades, you would recall some of the conversations you had in all these years and you would then understand that the United States has all those conversations, and that it could take down the Merkel cabinet any time it feels like it, by simply leaking portions of those conversations to journalists.
SPIEGEL: Do you see a potential blackmail situation?
Assange: They wouldn’t leak transcripts of tapped phone calls as that would draw focus to the spying itself. The way intelligence services launder intercepts is to extract the facts expressed during conversations; for example to say to their contacts in the media, “I think you should look into this connection between this politician and that person, what they did on that particular day.”
SPIEGEL: Have you got a documented example in which this sort of tactic has been used?
Assange: We haven’t published one yet about a German politician, but there are examples of prominent Muslims in different countries about whom it was leaked that they had been browsing porn. Blackmail or representational destruction from intercepts is part of the repertoire used.
SPIEGEL: Who uses these methods?
Assange: The British GCHQ has its own department for such methods called JTRIG. They include blackmail, fabricating videos, fabricating SMS texts in bulk, even creating fake businesses with the same names as real businesses the United Kingdom wants to marginalize in some region of the world, and encouraging people to order from the fake business and selling them inferior products, so that the business gets a bad reputation. That sounds like a lunatic conspiracy theory, but it is concretely documented in the GCHQ material allegedly provided by Edward Snowden.
SPIEGEL: Snowden is trapped in Moscow, Chelsea Manning, formerly known as Bradley Manning, was sentenced to 35 years in prison for submitting classified documents to WikiLeaks. Did this not deter other potential whistleblowers?
Assange: It was designed to be a very strong deterrent. However, a number of people have come forward subsequent to that and these acts of repression have a mixed effect. Obviously, sentencing someone to 35 years in prison does have some deterrent effect. But it also erodes the perception of the US Government as a legitimate authority. Being perceived as a just authority is the key to legitimacy. Edward Snowden told me they had abused Manning in a way that contributed to his decision to become a whistleblower, because it shows the system is incapable of reforming itself.
SPIEGEL: Did you get more cautious?
Assange: The US government is pursuing five different types of charges against me. I don’t know how many charges altogether, but five types of charges: espionage, conspiracy to commit espionage, computer fraud and abuse, theft of secrets and general conspiracy. Even if there were only one charge of each type, which there wouldn’t be, that would be 45 years, and the Espionage Act has life imprisonment and death penalty provisions as well. So it would be absurd for me to worry about the consequences of our next publication. Saudi officials came out after we started publishing the Saudi cables and said that spreading and publishing government information carries a penalty of 20 years in prison. Only 20 years! So if it’s a choice between being extradited to Saudi Arabia or the US, then I should go to Saudi Arabia, a land famous for its judicial moderation.
SPIEGEL: When you started WikiLeaks in 2006, did you ever expect to end up in the kind of situation you are in now?
Assange: Not this precise situation. But I did expect significant difficulties, of this type. Of course I did.
SPIEGEL : On the other hand, WikiLeaks has become a global brand within less than nine years, a household name even. Does this compensate for the substantial problems you are having?
Assange: No. But other things do. The conflict has made us much tougher, producing the WikiLeaks you see today. This great library built from the courage and sweat of many has had a five-year confrontation with a superpower without losing a single “book.” At the same time, these “books” have educated many, and in some cases, in a literal sense, let the innocent go free.
SPIEGEL : That’s not a bad conclusion. Especially given that you chose to go up against the most powerful enemies available on Earth. Or what is more powerful than the US government and its military and secret services?
Assange: Physics. Mathematics. The underpinnings of physical reality are harsh and could do with adjustment but it is not clear how.
SPIEGEL: You mentioned the US investigations. A Swedish state prosecutor is also investigating you for the alleged lesser-degree rape and sexual molestation of two Swedish women. And the British would like to lock you up because they say you breached your bail conditions by applying for asylum in the Ecuadorian Embassy. Are there any other investigations against you and WikiLeaks?
Assange: The US is still proceeding against me and WikiLeaks more broadly according to a court filing by the US government this year. A “WikiLeaks War Room” was erected by the Pentagon and staffed with an admitted 120 US Intelligence and FBI officers. The center of it has moved from the Pentagon to the Justice Department, with the FBI continuing to provide “boots on the ground.” In their communications with Australian diplomats, US officials have said that it was an investigation of “unprecedented scale and nature” — over a dozen different US agencies ranging from the US State Department to the NSA have been involved.
SPIEGEL: What do you regard as the most threatening case of all?
Assange: We have a dozen different legal proceedings. From a journalistic point of view, as the largest international espionage case against a publisher in history, it is a very sexy case, which the media has reasons to protest every day. But there is one thing that is still sexier than an espionage case and that’s a sex case no matter how bogus. There is another investigation, which has to do with the role of WikiLeaks in Edward Snowden’s asylum. And there is the Anti-Terror Act in Great Britain, which is the reason that Sarah Harrison, our investigations editor, has to be based in Berlin. Australia, my home country, has also announced a criminal investigation against us this week for revealing a gag order used to cover up a major international bribery case involving heads of state.
SPIEGEL: In March, the Swedish prosecutor announced that she would finally come to London to interview you in the embassy, but this ultimately didn’t happen.
Assange: The Swedish “preliminary investigation,” which arose during the heat of the US conflict, has been dormant for almost five years now. There are no charges. In 40 other cases, Swedish prosecutors have interviewed people in Britain during those five years. They have not done that in my case and they placed me under a grueling bail situation.
SPIEGEL: You had to pay £200,000 (€290,000) and report to the police every day.
Assange: Yes, for almost 600 days. And I had to wear a monitoring unit around my ankle. Alleged war criminals from the former Yugoslavia being held on bail here in Britain don’t have such conditions.
SPIEGEL: How many lawyers do you employ?
Assange: WikiLeaks has received legal advice from about 150 lawyers across all these cases.
SPIEGEL: Are you experiencing greater support or solidarity as a result of the continuing persecution against you?
Assange: The persecution was used to create desolidarization. Partly it had the opposite effect but partly in the Western countries it made the rhetorical attacks on us easier. But the climate has shifted positively. It never affected the majority of the Spanish-, French- or Italian-speaking worlds and obviously not the Russian-speaking world. Even in the United States we have support from the majority of people under 35 now.
SPIEGEL: What is your impression of the reputation of WikiLeaks in Germany?
Assange: The transition of the German public opinion is interesting. A study in 2010 found that 88 percent of Germans appreciate the US government; after the disclosure about the NSA, the rate dropped to 43 percent. That is a healthy shift in the German view of the United States, which has been starry-eyed. Japan suffered the same problem. At the same time, German public support for WikiLeaks is significant and even quite mainstream.
SPIEGEL: Does that have something to do with the fact that Sarah Harrison, your investigations editor, is working in Berlin and sometimes makes public appearances there?
Assange: Sarah has had an impact, but it is more the other way around. Sarah is staying in Berlin because it’s a friendly environment. And a number of other people connected with WikLeaks are there for the same reason.
SPIEGEL: You yourself visited Berlin in 2009. You visited the annual hacker congress of the Chaos Computer Club.
Assange: The CCC is a unique phenomenon. There are some big American conferences, but they are almost entirely depoliticized.
SPIEGEL: Already back in the 1980s, Dr. Wau, the founder of the Chaos Computer Club, came up with the slogan: Protect private data, use public data. That has been quite farsighted. Back then Wau and CCC members were consultants to the parliamentary group of the Greens in the German parliament, the Bundestag. Today, Green Party member of parliament Christian Ströbele and other MPs with the Greens and the Left Party are working hard in a committee of inquiry to reveal the truth about the nature and scope of the US surveillance in Germany. What do you think about this committee?
Assange: As an analyst, I tend to be cynical about such committees because they are normally set up to bury rather than open debate. However, the Bundestag’s committee of inquiry is foraging out some interesting facts and there are members like Hans-Christian Ströbele and other members of the Green and Left parties who definitely want to find out the truth about US surveillance in Germany.
SPIEGEL: Would you be willing to support them?
Assange: Yes. If they need a witness I would be happy if they would come here and ask me their questions.
SPIEGEL: What issues could you talk about with members of the of inquiry committee?
Assange: We have documents about US surveillance of top German politicians including the chancellor and the foreign minister. We can’t reveal our sources but we can state the reasons we believe the documents are authentic and assist with interpretation.
SPIEGEL: You only published the list with the last four digits on the numbers redacted. Would you provide the German MPs with the full numbers?
Assange: Yes. Legally, that table we have published with the 125 phone numbers of politicians and officials is great. The German federal prosecutor dropped his investigation because he claimed not to have found evidence of actual surveillance that would stand up in court. We also published memos written on the basis of intercepts of Merkel and a number of others, precisely to provide this evidence.
SPIEGEL: Who put the German politicians on the list?
Assange: James Clapper, the director of national intelligence, formally approved the policy to target the German government. There were three areas that were targeted in the material we have published so far: German political affairs, Eurpoean policies and economic affairs. That is explicitly listed in the table. None of the 125 number we released is listed as being targeted for “terrorism” or military affairs. The US is in the business of managing an extended empire. The ability to prevent Merkel from constructing a BRICS bailout fund for the euro zone by intercepting the idea at an early stage is an example.
SPIEGEL : Erich Mielke, the infamous head of East Germany’s Stasi secret police, liked to say, “We have to know everything.” The US spies, for their part, appeared to focus on specific areas.
Assange: The intercepts that we published were from the Global Signals Intelligence Highlights (Executive Edition). That’s the executive version; it’s not the lower-level boring stuff. It’s the Academy Awards. When something is said that is in some way “interesting,” it starts passing up through the intelligence food chain. If it is very “interesting,” it gets into the Global SIGINT Highlights. When it is so “interesting” that it helps a Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama, the head of the DNI, the head of the Department of Commerce or Trade make a decision, then it gets into the executive version.
SPIEGEL: So you think you can learn something about the political priorities of the US government?
Assange: Yes, you can observe real policies — that the United States government was very interested in the idea that Germany would propose a greater role for China in the International Monetary Fund, for example. An executive decision can be taken: Kill that idea of Merkel’s before it learns to crawl, because the US sees China helping Europe as a threat to its dominance.
SPIEGEL: Well, we’ve talked about politicians. And about secret services. We didn’t talk about the big private corporations. You met Eric Schmidt, the CEO of Google. Do you think he is a dangerous man?
Assange: If you ask “Does Google collect more information than the National Security Agency?” the answer is “no,” because NSA also collects information from Google. The same applies to Facebook and other Silicon Valley-based companies. They still collect a lot of information and they are using a new economic model which academics call “surveillance capitalism.” General information about individuals is worth little, but when you group together a billion individuals, it becomes strategic like an oil or gas pipeline.
SPIEGEL : Secret services are perceived as potential criminals but the big IT corporations are perceived at least in an ambiguous way. Apple produces beautiful computers. Google is a useful search engine.
Assange: Until the 1980s, computers were big machines designed for the military or scientists, but then the personal computers were developed and companies had to start rebranding them as machines that were helpful for individual human beings. Organizations like Google, whose business model is “voluntary” mass surveillance, appear to be giving it away for free. Free e-mail, free search, etc. Therefore it seems that they’re not a corporation, because corporations don’t do things for free. It falsely seems like they are part of civil society.
SPIEGEL : And they shape the thinking of billions of users?
Assange: They are also exporting a specific mindset of culture. You can use the old term of “cultural imperialism” or call it the “Disneylandization” of the Internet. Maybe “digital colonization” is the best terminology.
SPIEGEL: What does this “colonization” look like?
Assange: These corporations establish new societal rules about what activities are permitted and what information can be transmitted. Right down to how much nipple you can show. Down to really basic matters, which are normally a function of public debate and parliaments making laws. Once something becomes sufficiently controversial, it’s banned by these organizations. Or, even if it is not so controversial, but it affects the interests that they’re close to, then it’s banned or partially banned or just not promoted.
SPIEGEL: So in the long run, cultural diversity is endangered?
Assange: The long-term effect is a tendency towards conformity, because controversy is eliminated. An American mindset is being fostered and spread to the rest of the world because they find this mindset to be uncontroversial among themselves. That is literally a type of digital colonialism; non-US cultures are being colonized by a mindset of what is tolerable to the staff and investors of a few Silicon Valley companies. The cultural standard of what is a taboo and what is not becomes a US standard, where US exceptionalism is uncontroversial.
SPIEGEL: Cultural politics is not the core business of WikiLeaks. Which issues will you focus on in the future?
Assange: Over the last two years, we already have become specialists for the three extremely important trade agreements, the Trans-Atlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP), the Trade in Services Agreement (TISA) and the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TP). WikiLeaks has become the place to go to leak parts of these agreements that are now under negotiation. These agreements are a package that the US is using to reposition itself in the world against China by constructing a new grand enclosure. We are seeing something that would result in a tighter economic and legal integration with the United States, which draws Western Europe’s center of gravity away from Eurasia and towards the United States, when the greatest chance for long-term peace in Eurasia is its economic intergration.
SPIEGEL: If you look at yourself, you have paid a high price for what you did. And you’re still paying; you have been sitting here in this embassy for more than three years now and you have lost your freedom of movement. Did these experiences change your attitude, your political points of view or your readiness to act politically?
Assange: It is said that you get less radical as you get older. I just have turned 44 now, but I feel I have not become less radical.
SPIEGEL: Mr. Assange, we thank you for this interview.