Introduced as “a trailblazer who has led the fight against censorship,” the White Stallion of WikiLeaks, Julian Assange, was beamed into a packed hall of journalists and concerned citizens from the Ecuadorian Embassy in London where he has been staying in asylum from an extradition order for over a year, for a Skype chat with Benjamin Palmer of The Barbarian Group, an interactive marketing firm based in Boston.
And the dapper Assange, who’s been in exile for 650 days, had some harsh words for President Obama on the National Security Agency revelations brought forth by Edward Snowden.
“There is a question whether the Barack Obama administration is at all serious and who really wears the pants in the administration,” said Assange. “Is it the intelligence agencies, or is it the civilian part of that administration?”
He continued: “We know what happens when a government gets serious: someone is fired, someone is forced to resign, someone is prosecuted, a big criminal investigation is launched, or budgets are cut, and none of those five things have happened in the last eight months since the Edward Snowden revelations. That means the Obama administration isn’t serious.”
Assange did, however, admit that Obama had his hands tied thanks to NSA spying, saying that if Obama decided to disband the NSA, he “would be rolled” and “people would come up with some type of dirt. The National Security Agency, having intercepted all this information, has dirt on everyone. Congress would impeach him for some act or another, or he would have been found to have committed some criminal act.”
The SXSW keynote discussion was plagued by several glitches, and basically forced the Aussie hacker to go rogue and respond to questions sent in online—which, he joked, was because of the NSA crowding the airwaves. But it wasn’t all about the NSA. Assange also spent a portion of the chat giving his two cents on Ukraine—a country he described as “very dear to my heart.”
“I’ve spent time in the Ukraine and have extremely good friends there,” he said. “I’m familiar with the Western Ukrainian sentiment and their desire for independence—which all people of one language group or another tend to have. Those desires were betrayed in the Orange Revolution and that’s their feeling as well. The quest for dominance of the Ukraine, either by Russia or NATO has been going on for a long time now. And the Ukraine is a bridge between parts of Western Europe and Russia…The proper strategy, in my mind, has always been to milk concessions from Europe and Russia. At the same time, you’ve had the United States—along with its partners—spending billions over the last ten years in trying to pull the Ukraine into its sphere, or orbit.”
He also criticized the United States for its “militarization,” and claimed that the current “tussles” between the U.S. and Russia over the conflict in Ukraine probably won’t lead to a new Cold War, since the U.S. trumps Russia when it comes to military spending.
“The developments that have happened with the United States and its allies over the last twenty years, since the fall of the Soviet Union, is a really serious issue,” said Assange. “There is now 75 percent of global military expenditure in one power bloc, and when you accrue U.S. allies, it’s 85 percent. When you talk about these tussles with Russia, Russia is four percent of military expenditure. It’s 20-1 so it’s practically insignificant.”
The conversation veered in several different directions, with Assange admitting to working on a project with Alice Walker, the author of The Color Purple and an activist, and complaining about his Embassy confines, which he called “a bit like prison.”
But the discussion, naturally, returned to the NSA and privacy concerns, and Assange, who’s currently dodging an arrest warrant in Sweden over allegations of sexual assault made against him, called the “penetration of the Internet by the National Security Agency and GCHQ” a “military occupation of the Internet,” and painted a bleak portrait of our future right out of 1984.
“[The NSA] has grown to be a rogue agency,” he said. “Their ability to store all that information has been doubling about every 18 months, and the amount of information to be transmitted has been doubling every 18 months, whereas the human population has been increasing at a relatively shallow level. It’s going to be another twenty years before we get another 1.5 billion people. So, the ability to surveil everyone on the planet is almost there, and arguably will be there within a few years. That’s led to a huge transfer of power from the people who are surveilled upon, to those who perform the surveillance.”
Assange further warned against NSA spying, dubbing it “surveillance totalitarianism,” and remarked, “If history is any guide, you’ll then get the other forms of totalitarianism as well.”