WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange sits patiently studying notes, absorbing facts. His biographer has just left and now it’s our turn.
He bounds over to be interviewed; the impressive structure of Ellingham Hall towering behind.
Initially, the Norfolk setting of this 18 th century Georgian country house appears an incongruous place to meet Assange, the editor of Wikileaks, the whistle-blowing website that went from niche to global fame in 12 months thanks to the Afghan and Iraq war logs and the US embassy cables.
The man himself seems mildly embarrassed at his ‘mansion arrest’ – his bail terms stipulate he must live at a fixed address and Ellingham Hall was offered up by UK supporter Vaughan Smith, the ex-army officer and journalist.
Logistically however, the hall, although 120 miles north east of London, is an effective choice – large enough to accommodate Assange and visiting Wikileakers, and the comings and goings of various media types, but with enough space to keep out of the way of the Smith family as they go about their normal lives. (With 600 acres, it’s a working farm, too.)
At this our second meeting, everyone is more relaxed, despite the presence of a Belfast Telegraph video camera to record an interview.
Tall, thin and white-haired despite his 39 years, he is pensive yet friendly; natural when relaxed yet intellectually engaging at the same time. His musings are complex –but there is no doubting the remorselessness of his logic.
At times Assange seems, almost, to defy description. As a journalist he has already facilitated more scoops than any other in history. But he is also a political ideologist, internet campaigner, erstwhile ethical hacker, self-taught mathematician and more.
Julian Assange is also political chess player – a master strategist and internet visionary who has managed so far to outwit the combined ranks of the world’s power elites, notably (but not only) the United States. That’s not to say he hasn’t made mistakes, but his disclosures have exposed shortcomings and corruption in diplomacy, conflict, politics, banking and much more, and led Wikileaks to a 2011 Nobel Peace Prize nomination.
He has a steely personality, doesn’t suffer fools gladly and, if his detractors are to be believed, can be autocratic, ruthless and difficult, to say the least. But there is no doubting his personal courage. If this all goes as sour as many in power hope, Julian Assange will spend a very long time indeed as a guest of the American penal system. The brutality of the treatment endured by alleged Wikileaks source Bradley Manning provides a chilling foretaste. Rather than retire and lick his wounds after the Swedish sexual abuse allegations, however, Assange continues to orchestrate agenda-changing disclosures around the world.
The US would dearly love to charge him with espionage. Earlier in the year, some shriller voices in North America were calling for his execution, “by drone or something” according to one (the thought of which adds extra spice to sitting beside him). The FBI is investigating Wikileaks, and Attorney General Eric Holder has authorised a secret Grand Jury in Virginia to assess whether there is enough evidence for a trial.
But the public ferocity of verbal attacks has receded. “The US has had to tone down its attack, at least publicly,” says Assange, “because this was receiving too much attention and was perceived as disproportionate and aggressive both within the US and internationally, both by Wikileaks supporters and by those who simply believe in protecting whistleblowers.”
He adds: “The US is displaying its entire arsenal – both within the law and outside of the law – to strangle Wikileaks economically, to persecute me individually and to criminalise the organisation.
“It has chosen to take the view that the leak of diplomatic cables, as well as of Afghanistan, Iraq and Guantanamo is a criminal act, rather than recognise that this was an instance in which one act of whistle-blowing and one secure platform have had a great impact in bringing transparency and accountability around the world.”
There is a view in some quarters that all this is boiling down to Wikileaks v the United States, which is unfortunate because Wikileaks is about transparency and the right of citizens to know what is being done in their name. The power structures of Russia, Kenya and a host of other countries have felt the searing heat of Wikileaks’ disclosures. If China were a proper democracy, it would have been scorched by now too. It will, in time, for the nature of accountability is changing and the internet is a key driver of that change.
The perception of an Assange v US government battle is perhaps a tactical error on Wikileaks’ part; for it was not pre-ordained to be so. The first big expose was of corruption in Kenya. It’s a shame also, because, viewed in the round and not through narrow national security concerns, the First Amendment protections of the United States constitution are profoundly progressive (although serious concerns are emerging about the US media’s determination to scrutinise America’s giant “military-intelligence complex”).
It is perhaps a contradiction that a nation perceived as a champion of freedoms should be in the forefront of the attack on WikiLeaks. Assange, though, concedes that America does not always act selfishly and does not challenge, for example, the Belfast Telegraph’s assessment that the Ireland cables show the US role as ‘honest broker’ in the Northern Ireland peace process. Of course, a stable and equitable settlement in Northern Ireland suits America’s geopolitical interest, he says.
We ask about the latest impact that the releases of the cables are having worldwide (so far only a few thousand of 250,000 cables have been publicly released). He immediately cites the narcotics war in Central America “because it maps in detail corruption within the justice system and the police.
“For example, a cable from 2009 claimed that 60% of Guatemala was controlled by Mexican cartels and that if Guatemala became a narco state, Honduras and El Salvador would follow. A Mexican drug cartel (Los Zetas) are buying up land forming a corridor through Guatemala to Mexico...”
The Zetas are the most dangerous of the Mexican cartels. Formed by ex-special forces soldiers with tentacles inside the judicial, police and military structures, they are so feared the US has devised a national border security contingency plan to combat any further escalation in Zetas aggression. Disclosures of this magnitude deserve publication. What is to be gained by keeping this assessment secret?
The disinfectant of sunlight could play a key role in stopping the cartels amassing a vast narco-hinterland that will degenerate into failed states.
But how far does the right of citizens to know extend? There are some indications that WikiLeaks philosophy in this regard is changing. (as, it appears, with harm minimisation redactions in leaked documents, too).
In the early days, many WikiLeaks activists seemed to harbour the opinion that all secrecy is an evil that needs to be opposed. If they did, it would appear this assessment is changing. Contrary to public impressions, Assange does not regard all secrecy as evil. The Northern Ireland peace process cables are a case in point. I ask Assange of their importance regarding the public’s right to know.
His answer was illuminating, insisting that whilst the public have a right to know now, he can understand the necessity of keeping things out of the public domain during the actual negotiations. But not for years afterwards, he says, citing the absurdity of keeping the Bay of Pigs details secret after half a century.
Later that day, we meet Assange and his team over a beer in a quaint old English pub near Ellingham Hall. Representatives of Wikileaks, the Belfast Telegraph and the Irish Independent discuss issues arising from the cables including the case for transparency and for freedom of expression and indulge in some friendly craic .
As we speak, sunlight streams in through the window and cascades over the table, framing everything in a brilliant light. It seemed an appropriate sort of metaphor, even if the real world is rather more difficult to illuminate.