WikiLeaks Founder Julian Assange: 'Transparent Government Tends to Produce Just Government'

By Democracy Now · 30 Jul 2010

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Picture: Democracy Now
Picture: Democracy Now

Amy Goodman of Democracy Now speaks with with Julian Assange, the founder and editor-in-chief of WikiLeaks, about the biggest leak in US history: the release of more than 91,000 classified military records on the war in Afghanistan. As the Pentagon announces it is launching a criminal probe into who leaked the documents, Assange asks what about investigating the "war crimes" revealed in the leaked military records? Assange also talks about the media, why he won't be going to the US anytime soon, and what gives him hope.

Editor's Note: You may also be interested in Democracy Now's intriguing interview with David Leigh, the Guardian editor in charge of the Afghan War Logs. The Guardian is one of three news publications, along with the New York Times and Der Spiegel of Germany, that WikiLeaks gave the Afghanistan war documents to in a unique collaboration that saw all three publications break the story simultaneously.


AMY GOODMAN: On Capitol Hill, the House has voted to approve an additional $37 billion to fund the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. The measure passed by a vote of 308 to 114. A hundred two Democrats joined twelve Republicans in opposing the bill. Last year, only thirty-two Democrats voted against the war funding. A number of Democrats voting against said they were influenced by the revelations in the massive archive of the leaked military records published by the whistleblower website WikiLeaks Sunday. The more than 91,000 classified military records paint a devastating picture of the war in Afghanistan, revealing how coalition forces have killed hundreds of civilians in unreported incidents, how a black ops special forces unit hunts down targets for assassination or detention without trial, and how Pakistan is fueling the insurgency. The war spending now goes to President Obama for his signature.

On Tuesday, Obama made his first public comment on the leaks. The President spoke at the Rose Garden after a meeting with congressional leaders to discuss the war funding.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: I also urged the House leaders to pass the necessary funding to support our efforts in Afghanistan and Pakistan. I know much has been written about this in recent days as a result of the substantial leak of documents from Afghanistan covering a period from 2004 to 2009. While I’m concerned about the disclosure of sensitive information from the battlefield that could potentially jeopardize individuals or operations, the fact is these documents don’t reveal any issues that haven’t already informed our public debate on Afghanistan. Indeed, they point to the same challenges that led me to conduct an extensive review of our policy last fall.

So let me underscore what I’ve said many times: for seven years, we failed to implement a strategy adequate to the challenge in this region, the region from which the 9/11 attacks were waged and other attacks against the United States and our friends and allies have been planned. That’s why we’ve substantially increased our commitment there, insisted upon greater accountability from our partners in Afghanistan and Pakistan, developed a new strategy that can work, and put in place a team, including one of our finest generals, to execute that plan. Now we have to see that strategy through.

And as I told the leaders, I hope the House will act today to join the Senate, which voted unanimously in favor of this funding, to ensure that our troops have the resources they need and that we’re able to do what’s necessary for our national security.

AMY GOODMAN: Meanwhile on Capitol Hill, the man President Obama tapped to head US Central Command and oversee the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan also denounced the leaks. General James Mattis was nominated to replace General David Petraeus. At his confirmation hearing before the Senate Armed Services Committee, General Mattis was questioned by Arizona Republican John McCain.

SEN. JOHN McCAIN: What effect does this publication of these top-secret communications—what effect does that have on the degree of candor that military officers and senior NCOs in the field, who are doing their best to report, the best of their ability, what effect does this have on them?

GEN. JAMES MATTIS: Sir, I would speculate that due to the urgency of the operations in a combat zone, it probably won’t have much, because at the moment they’re actually reporting, they’re probably more eager to get the truth up the chain of command. That said, I just thought it was a—just an appallingly irresponsible act to release this information. It didn’t tell us anything, that I’ve seen so far, that we weren’t already aware of. I’ve seen no big revelations. One of the newspaper headlines was that it’s a—the war is a tense and dangerous thing. Well, if that is news, I don’t know who it’s news to that’s on this planet.

SEN. JOHN McCAIN: But there is also reports that certain elements of ISI are at least cooperating to some extent with the Taliban. Is that correct?

GEN. JAMES MATTIS: That’s correct, yes, sir.

SEN. JOHN McCAIN: And could that be because they’re hedging their bets as to whether the United States is going to remain or not?

GEN. JAMES MATTIS: Sir, I need to get more current. However, history didn’t start at 2001, and some of those same groups we had a relationship with back when we were fighting the Soviets. So it’s no surprise to me that there may be some continued relationship there, but whether or not it’s because they’re working with them, they’re trying to infiltrate them, there’s any number of motives, and I’m just not current enough to say why. I think, though, that it’s hard to wipe the slate clean and just start over at any one point. And clearly, the offensive against many of the people they allegedly used to work with is showing they’re no longer friends with most of them.

SEN. JOHN McCAIN: And let me just be clear again. You said that you were appalled at the publication of these—that the WikiLeaks—that just happened?

GEN. JAMES MATTIS: Yes, sir. I thought it was grossly irresponsible.

AMY GOODMAN: General James Mattis speaking at his confirmation hearing to head US Central Command.

Meanwhile, the Pentagon has announced it’s launching a criminal investigation into the source of the leak. Private Bradley Manning is a person of interest in the probe. He’s the Army intelligence analyst arrested last month on charges of leaking a military video of the helicopter gunship attack in Baghdad that killed twelve people. He was charged this month with downloading more than 150,000 classified diplomatic cables.

Well, today we spend the hour with the founder and editor-in-chief of WikiLeaks, Julian Assange. He says it’s the crimes documented in the records that should be investigated. He joined us yesterday from London for an extended interview about leaking the Afghan war logs, the media, why he isn’t coming to the United States anytime soon, and what gives him hope.

I began by asking Julian Assange what he thought of the most important revelations in the 91,000 documents he published on Sunday, the biggest leak in US history.

JULIAN ASSANGE: So, everyone’s asking for a specific revelation that is the most important—you know, a massacre of 500 people at one point in time. But, to me, what is most important is the vast sweep of abuses that have occurred during the past six years, the vast sweep of sort of the everyday squalor and carnage of war. If we add all that up, we see that in fact most civilian casualties occur in incidences where one, two, ten or twenty people are killed. And they really numerically dominate the list of events, so it’s, of course, hard for us to imagine that. It’s so much material. But that is the way to really understand this war, is by seeing that there is one sort of kill after another every day going on and on and on in all sorts of different circumstances.

AMY GOODMAN: You have said you feel there is evidence of war crimes here. Can you talk about that? And specifically, what are the examples that you feel are the most important?

JULIAN ASSANGE: Yeah. Yeah, well, these reports can be quite terse, so I wouldn’t want to prejudge the issue and say for sure that a war crime has committed—been committed. But some are deeply suspicious, and there are examples which have been not mentioned in the Western press but, as we’ve discovered, have been mentioned elsewhere that are almost surely war crimes.

As an example, in the material, there’s a Polish My Lai. Polish troops were hit by an IED and the next day went to the closest village, which I guess they felt had supported the IED attack, and shelled the village. Similarly, we see something like Task Force 373, a special forces assassination squad so secretive that it changes its military code name every six months, working its way down the JPEL, Joint Priority Effects List, kill or capture list, usually a kill list. And we have seen events where it has performed secret missile strikes on a house, from within close proximity, and ended up killing at least seven children, and a number of other incidences. The report itself about that says at the beginning that the information about 373 being involved in that event, together with the use of the HIMARS missile system, this ground-to-ground missile attack, is to be kept secret even from other people in the coalition of forces which equal ISAF, I-S-A-F.

AMY GOODMAN: Do you feel you have accomplished what you wanted to with the release of these documents?

JULIAN ASSANGE: Not yet. We’ve made a good initial forray: fourteen pages in The Guardian on Monday, seventeen pages in Der Spiegel, front page of the New York Times, together with underlying support. But altogether, the journalistic coalition that we put around this material to try and bring it out to the public and get impact for it has read about 2,000 of these reports in detail. There’s 91,000 reports. We really need the public, other journalists and especially former soldiers to go through this material and say, "Look, this connects to that," or "I was there. Let me tell you what really happened. Let me tell you the rest of the detail." And over the next few days, we’ll be putting up easier- and easier-to-use search interfaces, the same ones that our journalistic teams use to extract this data. Already if you go to war diaries—, you’ll see several different ways of browsing through this. You can look through some 200 different categories that the US military applied to these reports. As an example, there’s 2,200 escalation of force events self-described by the US military.

You have to be careful when reading the material. Reports that are made by military units that were involved in an attack or a counterattack are often biased, just like we know that when a police officer is involved in a shooting and creates the report about that shooting, the facts are likely to be distorted or twisted. Similarly, when a military unit is involved in killing someone who turns out to be a civilian, we see lots of exculpatory language or hiding of facts. And where we know an additional sort of public record or a full investigation has occurred, as an example Kunduz, the bombing that occurred in 2005 which especially the German press investigated in great detail, we can go back and see the initial report that the troops filed about what they did, and we see, instead of civilian kills, no mentions of civilians at all. Instead of over a hundred people killed, we just see fifty-six. And we can see that in report after report. So the sort of corrupt reporting starts on the ground and then moves its way up through the Pentagon and the press relations people and is then put into a politically sort of digestible form. But what you don’t see straightaway is a sort of contradiction by the base material and what is put out in public, although we are starting to see that in different events. But because this internal military reporting specifies where an event happened, which units were involved and when, and were done sort of on the same day, why there is simple cover-ups. They cannot be complex cover-ups in this material. So, by joining together several of these reports together with the public record, we’ve been able to discover the material of the sort of civilian casualty cover-ups or the involvement with the ISI and the Taliban that the New York Times published. We’ve been able to bring this material out, even though any individual report can’t be strictly trusted.

AMY GOODMAN: The New York Times says it consulted with the White House, showed them the documents to, oh, redact whatever would endanger people, sources on the ground. How have you—or I should say, Julian Assange, have you communicated with the White House at this point?

JULIAN ASSANGE: Well, there’s quite some disingenuous messages coming out of the White House in relation to the lead-up to publication. Our media team didn’t want to all be stepping on each other’s toes, so we selected the New York Times to be the group that would approach the White House and try and get what their statement was on the matter. That said, you know, there is a bit of a difference between how the Times and the Washington Post was involved in this issue. But how the American press tends to deal with government agencies prior to publication and the standards that we have and the standards the European press has, we don’t see that an organization that is—we don’t see, in the case of a story where an organization has engaged in some kind of abusive conduct and that story is being revealed, that it has a right to know the story before the public, a right to know the story before the victims, because we know that what happens in practice is that that is just extra lead time to spin the story. And we see some sort of pathetic attempts by the White House to engage in a bit of spin about whether we contacted them or not. In fact, we did contact them through the New York Times as a coalition.

AMY GOODMAN: And they praised the New York Times.

JULIAN ASSANGE: Yes, they praised the New York Times. I mean, you have to understand, the New York Times is a mainstream organization, and it does work within a particular milieu and particular constraints that appear to be present. But we aren’t totally happy about the way that the Times has sort of defensively written. That does seem a little bit unprofessional. So, as an example, the New York Times stated that it chose not to link to our website. I mean, it is just ridiculous. The public can see that and Google it, if they want. If the New York Times, for whatever reason, wants to not link to WikiLeaks for its own defensive politics, then it can do that, and it’s perfectly entitled to. But to deliberately say that that is being avoided smacks of unprofessional conduct, to me. Now, that doesn’t mean it’s been approved by the editor to do that, but it does seem to be quite pusillanimous to be engaging in that kind of defensive conduct, instead of pursuing the real meat of the story.

AMY GOODMAN: But it is WikiLeaks that reached out to these three news organizations—Guardian, Der Spiegel and the New York Times—to release simultaneously on Sunday these secret documents, is that ri

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29 Jul

Wikileaks and Whistleblowers

This story reads like a movie plot! It's frightening to think that the whistle blowers are being hunted down and posed as a threat to 'national security'. Equally appalling the fact that Bradley Manning might well be treated unfairly.
As a South African I have experienced an apartheid government that hides information in order to maintain its authority. Documents such as the ones Wikileaks releases expose the high level of collusion and cover up that occurs in hallowed government halls. What a coup for us all.
Viva Julian!

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30 Jul

What about SA?

I concur with Gureillanomics comments and response.

My question is: are comparable actions being taken to force governmental transparency in this country? I receive a regular newsletter from the National Taxpayers Union which is very effective in exposing all the corruption going on in municipalities. But that is small fry. We need something much bigger. Fast.

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Rory Short
30 Jul

Immoral Practices

Any person or institution that is deliberately following an immoral policy is going to do their best to hide what they are doing. Congrats Wikki-leaks.

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