06.21.10

WikiLeaks' Founder Speaks

Julian Assange, who the feds fear may publish State Dept. secrets, talked to Philip Shenon about his outreach to Washington, his fear of criminal charges—and why Bradley Manning is a “national hero.”

The elusive founder of WikiLeaks came out of hiding in Europe Monday.

Julian Assange told The Daily Beast in an interview that while he will remain outside the U.S. indefinitely, his lawyers have opened a line of communication in Washington with the Obama administration in recent days about the website’s plans to release a leaked Pentagon video of the “carnage” of an American airstrike in Afghanistan last year.

The lawyers reached out, Assange said, in the wake of statements from American officials and news reports that the U.S. was desperate to track him down and prevent WikiLeaks from posting the video and other classified material reportedly leaked to the site by a 22-year-old American intelligence analyst now in custody in Kuwait.

“The law can be used in a number of ways if there is the political will to,” Assange said. “There is a history of abusing the legal process.”

Assange said that, whatever the public expressions of outrage in Washington about the leaks, the Obama administration had so far not attempted in any formal way to block WikiLeaks from posting additional classified material. The State Department and Pentagon raised no formal protest to site’s lawyers, he said. Nor has there been any formal threat that he faces arrest.

Assange said a separate team of WikiLeaks lawyers had been rebuffed by the Pentagon last week in an effort to represent the young soldier, Bradley Manning of Potomac, Maryland.

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“I’m in good health and good spirits,” Assange said in the telephone interview from Brussels, where he appeared Monday at an anti-censorship conference sponsored by European lawmakers. It was his first in-person appearance at a public event since the disclosure of Manning’s arrest. “I have not been concerned for my safety or the safety of our volunteers.”

While refusing again to say if Manning was a source for WikiLeaks, Assange said today that he is far more concerned about Manning’s security than his own.

“One of our alleged sources is apparently detained in Kuwait, and that’s a serious situation,” Assange said.

He said Manning should be labeled “a national hero” if he indeed proved to be the whistleblower who was the site’s source of the 2009 combat video from Afghanistan, as well as 2007 video already posted online by WikiLeaks of a deadly American airstrike in Baghdad. “He would be no ordinary hero,” Assange said of Manning.

Assange said he feared Manning was being denied adequate legal representation by the Defense Department. The Pentagon has said little about Manning, except that he is being held on unspecified charges and has been assigned a military defense lawyer.

Manning has not been heard from publicly since last month, and his military lawyer has declined to respond to questions about the criminal investigation.

The Pentagon and State Department had no immediate response to Assange’s new comments.

In Internet chat logs revealed by Wired, Manning appears to brag of having leaked the two combat videos, as well as 260,000 classified State Department cables, to WikiLeaks.

As mysterious as ever, the Australian-born Assange, who first gained international notoriety as a computer hacker, refused Monday to say where he has been in the two weeks since he canceled an appearance at an Investigative Reporters and Editors’ conference in Las Vegas, citing unspecified security concerns.

He did reveal in Brussels Monday that it had taken him “33-and-a-half hours” to fly to Belgium for the conference, which appeared to suggest that he may have come from his native Australia, where he was known to have been earlier in the month.

His lawyers, he said today, had urged him to stay outside the United States for the time being, suggesting that he might be targeted for some sort of criminal charge if he crossed American borders.

"The law can be used in a number of ways if there is the political will to,” Assange said. “There is a history of abusing the legal process.” He said he expected to return to the U.S. someday.

He was secretive on other issues—declining, for example, to give the names of the lawyers who, he said, are representing WikiLeaks before the State Department and the Pentagon, saying he considered the information privileged.

What are the lawyers doing in Washington? Assange would say only that they had opened “a line of communication” with the Obama administration last week about WikiLeaks’ plans to release more classified information.

He also would not identify the three private criminal-defense lawyers hired by WikiLeaks to represent Manning, saying their identities would remain secret until they had been formally retained by the young soldier.

In the interview, Assange said he has been hard at work in recent days preparing the release of the Pentagon video that depicts the “carnage” of a May 2009 American airstrike on the Afghan village of Garani, where a reported 140 civilians were killed, many of them children and teenagers; it is believed to have been, in terms of civilian deaths, the most lethal U.S. airstrike in Afghanistan since the American invasion of the country in 2001.

Assange said the “immediate visual impact” of the video may not be as great as that of the video posted by WikiLeaks in April that depicted the 2007 attack in Baghdad. The graphic 2007 video captured the moment of death for many of the Iraqi victims, including two employees of the news agency Reuters who were gunned down by American forces.

Still, Assange suggested that the Afghan video would still prove to be horrifying, because a viewer will watch it in the knowledge that the “casualty figure there is much higher” than in the attack two years earlier in Baghdad.

Assange said WikiLeaks had been provided an encrypted version of the Afghan video, about an hour in length. He said it had proved difficult to decrypt the video and that, once decrypted, the site needed more time to “analyze and assess it” in anticipation of posting it online.

He said that the site intended to release the video along with U.S. government documents and other materials that would put the video into context. The documents might be put online as early as next week, with the video to follow several days later, he said.

Assange said that, so far, WikiLeaks had been unable to locate the 260,000 State Department cables that Manning was reported to have turned over to the site.

A spokeswoman for the WikiLeaks said last weekend that the cables may be buried in a flood of other leaked material that is now sitting in the website’s electronic in-baskets. But Assange said he doubted it. He said the cables, if they were ever actually downloaded, apparently never reached WikiLeaks.

Philip Shenon, a former investigative reporter at The New York Times, is the author of The Commission: The Uncensored History of the 9/11 Investigation.