A Conversation With Julian Assange

We've called him a "seed-spilling sex creep," a "pale nerd king," and "a real-life The Matrix extra," so we figured it was about time to talk to Wikileaks founder and megalomaniacal Bond villain Julian Assange. In order to promote his new book, Cypherpunks: Freedom and the Future of the Internet, Assange agreed to a phone interview on the condition that we speak only about the book. I agreed, which was a lie.

Cypherpunks is simply the book-length transcript of a conversation between Assange, Wikileaks activist Jacob Appelbaum, cryptography expert Andy Müller-Maguhn, and French activist Jérémie Zimmermann that took place in March 2012 (with subsequent additions and emendations). The central argument is that a new age of total electronic surveillance is dawning, which is leading us toward a "new transnational dystopia." As data storage becomes cheaper, nations are routinely vacuuming up all communication that transpires over the internet—and increasingly, all communication does transpire over the internet—for retrieval later if need be. Assange and his cohorts call this "strategic surveillance," to be distinguished from "tactical surveillance," which is the traditional let's-get-a-warrant-for-this-guy's-phone sort of spying that we're used to.

Assange, who describes himself as the "visionary behind Wikileaks" in the book's forematter, contends that he and his co-authors are at the vanguard of people who have tangled with this new surveillance regime, despite the fact that his well-publicized run-ins with the United States authorities involve a grand jury (an 846-year-old institution) issuing subpoenas (a common legal instrument) while investigating alleged violations of the Espionage Act of 1917.

Assange talked about the similarities between his own situation and that of former CIA director David Petraeus, why the New York Times and Guardian are "bootlicking" cowards, and his efforts to get a copy of his FBI file before blowing me off after about 15 minutes. He also claimed that Wikileaks, which currently offers no way for whistleblowers to securely and anonymously leak information to it—you can try "the mail," Assange told me—and has been therefore rather moribund, is releasing an average of "several thousand" documents every day.

Below is the full transcript of our conversation.

Julian Assange: Good day, John.

John Cook: Hello, Mr. Assange. Pleased to talk to you.

JA: You too.

JC: How are you doing today?

JA: I'm alright. It's been a pretty busy day as far as the book has been concerned.

JC: I can imagine. Congratulations on the book. Let me start with a question about the distinction you make between strategic and tactical surveillance. I think the grander point of the book is that we're entering an age where there's sort of the capacity for total surveillance of communications conducted through the internet, which you call strategic surveillance. But to the extent that you claim you and your co-authors are sort of representative victims of that process—do you have any evidence that this strategic surveillance, as opposed to the routine tactical surveillance you discuss, has actually been deployed against you?

JA: I mean it's—there's—the issue with strategic surveillance, and that's the new game in town, is that it's cheaper to intercept everyone and store that information and then search it than it is to work out who you want to intercept and start following them around. So the evidence for that comes out of several National Security Agency whistleblowing cases in the United States, and lawsuits surrounding that. Plus, information coming from the contracting industry worldwide, which is building mass surveillance devices, and with those devices it produces pamphlets and prospectuses that it goes to intelligence agencies with. We released, together with Privacy International and the Bureau of Investigative Journalism, several hundred of those earlier this year and they speak extensively about strategic interception and describe it in the way that I've done— intercept the whole country and store the information.

JC: I gather that, but your book presents you and your co-writers as a sort of vanguard of people who are running up against this brave new world. And its seems to me that what has happened to you is that age-old, centuries-old mechanisms have been used against you. There's nothing new about subpoenas, there's nothing new about stopping people at the border and inspecting their belongings—

JA: Personally, yeah, sort of what's been happening to us personally is what happened to Petraeus personally. But that's the reason that it's easy to talk about it, is because there is some quasi-judicial process, or at least an administrative process, so there is a paper trail. For strategic interception, there is no individualized paper trail, the only paper trail that is there is on the sale of this equipment, and the funding to giant data warehouses in Utah, and statements by National Security Agency whistleblowers, and enabling legislation that has been put through in several countries. There is no individualized paper trail, because it is strategic interception—it's everyone. That's the whole idea, is you don't need to get a warrant to go after a specific person because you're after them all.

There is actually a connection that we do have, in relation to strategic interception. Amesys is a French corporation closely associated with French intelligence. But it sells to the world, like most of the corporations do, and it sold a system called 'The Eagle,' which it termed a nationwide interception system, back in 2009. And we got hold of the internal manuals for that system, and in the examples that were sent to Gadhafi, there is a redacted portion. You can unredact the portion because they did the redaction poorly, and there appear several email addresses that they've been intercepting. And that includes one of the lawyers for the Bureau of Investigative Journalists, and our partner in the very project to expose this stuff.

JC: If I wanted to leak classified information to WikiLeaks right now, how would I do it?

JA: Right now we don't have the public gateway, but we have various private gateways. WikiLeaks has been a—

JC: If they're surveilling your lawyer why would I take the risk of submitting anything through email?

JA: I see what you're speaking about. Yeah. No. Of course if you have information that's of interest to the national security state you have to be extremely careful, because they're intercepting all these communications and keeping records on which computers are communicating with what. Which is why we have always had a variety of ways of getting information, from in-person, through the mail, to anonymity mechanisms like Tor and so on.

JC: But that's not quite what the initial promise of WikiLeaks was, right? I mean, the idea was that it would be this mechanism for anonymously submitting documents and data online and then making those available to anyone who was interested in them. It seems that as a going concern WikiLeaks hasn't really existed since the release of the cables. I mean there's not—

JA: No, that's quite untrue, we published nearly a million documents last year. This year, we have probably published around a million as well. We've been averaging several thousand a day.

JC: Several thousand documents a day you've been publishing?

JA: Yeah. And we're set to publish more next year.

JC: Are they on your website? I mean the last thing I see you publishing is the detainee policies in October, they're certainly aren't several thousand of them.

JA: They've been publishing every day, and Spy Files and so on. You can go in and look at those. But anyway, back to the book, what is your question about the book?

JC: Well the book is about the efforts to target Wikileaks, and it just seems that as a going concern there's not much of a threat of restricted data being published by your website, or acquired by your website, since there's no way to submit to it.

JA: That's completely untrue, you can go and see that we publish, on average, several thousand files everyday.

JC: Why did you…

JA: Yesterday we just published information to the European Commission about the Lieberman-King blockade of WikiLeaks by U.S. financials institutions

JC: I don't see that on your front page, but I'll look for it. Why did you...

JA: It's on the left hand column.

JC: Why did you draw out the release of the State Department cables over such a long period of time? In the end, it wasn't even you that actually made the decision to publish the entire body of cables. That happened because a copy had been inadvertently released...

JA: Off-topic question.

JC: The book is about WikiLeaks, is it not? I mean you mention the cables.

JA: No the book is about how all societies are merging with the internet as the internet becomes an integral part of societal infrastructure. And it has connected societies across the world, and now we have a situation where an illness that befalls the internet, befalls all societies. William Binney, the former National Security Agency chief researcher for signals intelligence automation, describes the present state of play as "turn-key totalitarianism"—that we have all the essential ingredients for a totalitarian society that puts the Stasi to shame, and actually this key is starting to turn in the lock. That's why the problem is so urgent, and people must understand it. Addressing it is a more complex issue, but the first step is to understand the threat that we all face.

JC: In the book, you rightly criticize the New York Times and other newspapers for over-redacting the cables that they released in order to protect certain interests. But the cables that you released—the cables that WikiLeaks released on its website—were heavily redacted in many cases. I remember there was a reference to an energy drink that sponsored a lavish party, I believe in Saudi Arabia, that was mentioned in a cable, and you guys redacted the name of that energy drink company. Why, are you criticizing the Times and these other outlets for over-redacting those cables when you did the same thing, and why did you take the steps to redact them so heavily?

JA: Media is a big problem around the world, it's powerful and can abuse its power — the agreement that we had with various media organizations was that they would redact the cables and then send them to us. Now we published those redacted cables that were fed to us by the New York Times

JC: Why did you submit to that—

JA: The agreement was that they would be redacted for human rights reasons. And they simply abused those agreements, and it's one of the reasons that we refused to continue working with them. There's a great analysis on those redactions on Cable Drum, also we had provided tools where you can very easily look at cablegatesearch.wikileaks.org—to search the differences between what's in the material and what the media redacted. Even Gawker did some good work on showing redactions that the New York Times applied.

JC: Right, but you applied them too. Bradley Manning reportedly said in chats before he was arrested—

JA: It was an automated process. There was an agreement between WikiLeaks and the media. Part of the deal was that they had to do that work. They had the local knowledge to do it. But they simply abused that part of the deal for their own particular political or legal concerns.

JC: You mentioned Petraeus, I'm curious to get your thoughts on what's become of him. There are some curious parallels between what's happened to you and what's happened to him, how personal lives and sexual behavior — and misbehavior — got wrapped up in surveillance and counterespionage. What do you make of that story?

JA: For Petraeus, what is fascinating is that the surveillance state has now become so out of control that it's starting even to eat its own young. Ultimate insiders like Petraeus have always felt protected from it, and that really the surveillance state was something that affected us—civilians and activists. But it is now so secretive, so sprawling that even the head of the CIA can be taken down by it.

JC: Do you think that given what your current situation—you're holed up in an embassy seeking asylum, you can't leave, you've become something of an international anti-celebrity, partially through your own efforts, agreeing to go on The Simpsons and that sort of thing. Do you think that WikiLeaks was best served with you being the face of it? Do you think that maybe things would have turned out a little bit differently for the organization—for its effectiveness as a tool for disseminating information, which it is not right now, or is certainly not at full capacity—if you had taken a lower profile or if you had not been its public face?

JA: I don't think it's a very interesting question. Any organization like WikiLeaks that exposes very powerful players receives backlash, and the attacks against us are across the board, they are economic attacks — the extrajudicial banking blockade, an extraordinary thing, the grand jury and other investigations in the Pentagon, CIA, publicly declared attacks by members of Congress, attacks by right-wing shock jocks, attacks by even jealous journalists, that's not surprising. It happens to all organizations that are involved in some sort of combative process like WikiLeaks that are trying to achieve justice from players much bigger than they are.

JC: So you think the various people who've worked with you and ended up in conflict with you—the Times, the Guardian, your former spokesperson Daniel Domscheit-Berg, Wikileaks activist Birgitta Jonsdottir—those people are all just jealous?

JA: That's off-topic, but we are proud of the many hundreds of relationships that we have had that have been strong. We're a large organization, span many continents and have many agreements and we're also proud that when people break their agreements, as in the case of the New York Times, they are—we don't work with them again. Or in the case of employees who need to be suspended, we've only suspended one person in our history, but of course others may try and reinterpret those events in order to draw attention away from their own behavior.

JC: What does the fact that the way that the cables were eventually released in full—

JA: WikiLeaks is really a litmus test for those people who walk the talk in the media. How much will they really follow their protestations to be brave publishers, and how much do they really want to lick the boots of power? Well, you can tell by their engagement with us and what they do.

JC: So the Times and the Guardian lick the boots of power?

JA: Absolutely. It happens everyday.

JC: The way the cables eventually came to be released in full—

JA: I've got to go now. I would like to speak more, but I've got a bunch of calls lined up.

JC: One last question for you, will you sign a Privacy Act waiver that would allow me to file a FOIA request with the FBI and the State Department seeking records about you?

JA: Well, we've already tried with the FBI and they refuse to release any documents on the basis of an ongoing investigation.

JC: You got a full denial from the FBI?

JA: That's right.

JC: Okay. Thanks for your time.

[Image via AP]