Julian Assange, the founder of the whistle-blower website WikiLeaks, says his work is based on the "ancient vision" of uncovering the truth. And he says sources would rather turn over their information to him than to traditional news outlets because he can protect them better. Assange spoke with RFE/RL's Ron Synovitz and Christopher Schwartz on July 27 by phone from London.
RFE/RL: What is your response to those in Pakistan who doubt the veracity of WikiLeaks' "Afghan War Diary?" In particular, Hamid Gul, the former chief of Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) agency, has said he thinks the reports are fabrications.
Julian Assange: We need to look at these reports in a subtle way. A lot of material is included there. There are 91,000 reports from units in the field, from embassies in relation to Afghanistan, intelligence officers, and from informers. The informers make their reports for money. They are paid by the United States government for making serious allegations. They make reports to knock out a competitor -- a detested neighbor or family enemy -- and they make reports for legitimate reasons.
In looking at the ISI material by informers, we see that the U.S. military puts a sort of label on each informer as to how reliable they believe they are. If we just look [at these], we do see an extensive number of reports about the ISI. Now, any one of them may be incorrect, any two of them may be correct. It's really in the such large numbers and figures involving so many different circumstances and/or involving the ISI that we start to become very suspicious of the ISI [in Afghanistan].
RFE/RL: There's a rumor circulating in Pakistan -- one that's being encouraged by some Pakistani officials -- that this leak was actually orchestrated by the U.S. government to justify an increased military presence in, or even invasion of, Pakistan.
Assange: Well, it's simply not true, and people can read the individual reports and individual details and make connections about each one of those circumstances. Though we had a previous rumor that we were the CIA, [WikiLeaks] has put out information from the main manuals of Guantanamo Bay, [former U.S. vice-presidential candidate] Sarah Palin's e-mails, secret Chinese censorship briefs, official assassinations in Kenya and East Timor. It is clear that we are strictly impartial and we do take all comers from across the world who have material that is difficult for them to get out to the public.
RFE/RL: A lot of comparisons are being made between Wikileaks' "Afghan War Diary" and Daniel Ellsberg's leaking in 1971 of the U.S. Department of Defense's classified report on the Vietnam War, known as the "Pentagon Papers." Do you see a parallel?
Assange: We have great respect for Dan Ellsberg and the work that he has done and continues to do in promoting the importance of whistle-blowers and their role in society. As a comparison, this has been -- this is the Pentagon Papers -- it was the nearest analogy to what we were doing. and Dan Ellsberg says that he sees this being in the same way.
RFE/RL: Have you or WikiLeaks received any threats of violence or legal action, as Ellsberg did?
Assange: In relation to this particular event, we have received no court order or legal action, and as far as I'm aware, none of our legal partners have either.
You know, as a serious organization we sometimes take serious threats. In relation to this issue, there has been no physical threats. Now, there has been spying, some disturbing sounds coming out of the U.S. administration about a month ago in private. Those seem to have stopped, although it is too early to see what the reaction will be in relation to this publication.
RFE/RL: Why did you select "The New York Times," "The Guardian," and "Der Spiegel" as the media outlets to share the leak with?
Assange: We make a promise to our sources: one, that we will do everything in our power technically and legally to protect them; two, that we are going to maximize the impact of the submissions that they make to us, and we believe in this case that that was the way to maximize the impact.
RFE/RL: Why do you think so many important sources have chosen to give their information to WikiLeaks instead of traditional media outlets?
Assange: Because we are specialists. We specialize in protecting sources. We specialize in getting the full material out to the public. Now, mainstream media, through internal concentrations in countries where there's really only sort of one or two dominant media organizations in a town, has had a sort of perverse effect where sources are treated as something to be kept at bay rather than something to treasure. That has resulted in organizations such as "The [New York] Times" sitting on significant disclosures for a year, not releasing them, or only picking a few cherries from a whistle-blower's disclosure, instead of all the material that they submit in their documents.
Sources understand that we are the most reliable, from a safety point of view and from a publishing point of view, organization to deal with.
RFE/RL: How do you see WikiLeaks -- is it journalism, activism, or some new kind of intermediary between sources and journalists?
Assange: The vision behind it is really quite ancient: in order to make any sensible decision you need to know what's really going on, and in order to make any just decision you need to know and understand what abuses or plans for abuses are occurring. As technologists, we can see that big reforms come when the public and decision makers can see what's really going on.