In a SPIEGEL interview, WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, 39, discusses his decision to publish the Afghanistan war logs, the difficult balance between the public interest and the need for state secrets and why he believes people who wage war are more dangerous than him.
SPIEGEL: You are about to publish a vast amount of classified data on the war in Afghanistan. What is your motivation?
Assange: These files are the most comprehensive description of a war to be published during the course of a war -- in other words, at a time when they still have a chance of doing some good. They cover more than 90,000 different incidents, together with precise geographical locations. They cover the small and the large. A single body of information, they eclipse all that has been previously said about Afghanistan. They will change our perspective on not only the war in Afghanistan, but on all modern wars.
SPIEGEL: Do you think that the publication of this data will influence political decision-makers?
Assange: Yes. This material shines light on the everyday brutality and squalor of war. The archive will change public opinion and it will change the opinion of people in positions of political and diplomatic influence.
SPIEGEL: Aren't you expecting a little too much?
Assange: There is a mood to end the war in Afghanistan. This information won't do it alone, but it will shift political will in a significant manner.
SPIEGEL: The material contains military secrets and names of sources. By publishing it, aren't you endangering the lives of international troops and their informants in Afghanistan?
Assange: The Kabul files contain no information related to current troop movements. The source went through their own harm minimization process, and instructed us to conduct our usual review to make sure there was not a significant chance of innocents being negatively affected. We understand the importance of protecting confidential sources, and we understand why it is important to protect certain US and ISAF sources.
SPIEGEL: So what, specifically, did you do to minimize any possible harm?
Assange: We identified cases where there may be a reasonable chance of harm occurring to the innocent. Those records were identified and edited accordingly.
SPIEGEL: Is there anything that you consider to be a legitimate state secret?
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Assange: There is a legitimate role for secrecy, and there is a legitimate role for openness. Unfortunately, those who commit abuses against humanity or against the law find abusing legitimate secrecy to conceal their abuse all too easy. People of good conscience have always revealed abuses by ignoring abusive strictures. It is not WikiLeaks that decides to reveal something. It is a whistleblower or a dissident who decides to reveal it. Our job is to make sure that these individuals are protected, the public is informed and the historical record is not denied.
SPIEGEL: But in the end somebody has to decide whether you publish or not. Who determines the criteria? WikiLeaks considers itself to be a trailblazer when it comes to freedom of information, but it lacks transparency in its own publishing decisions.
Assange: This is ridiculous. We are clear about what we will publish and what we will not. We do not have ad-hoc editorial decisions. We always release the full primary sources to our articles. What other press organization has such exacting standards? Everyone should try to follow our lead.
SPIEGEL: The problem is that it is difficult to hold WikiLeaks accountable. You operate your servers in countries that offer you broad protection. Does WikiLeaks consider itself to be above the law?
Assange: WikiLeaks does not exist in outer space. We are people who exist on Earth, in particular nations, each of which have a particular set of laws. We have been legally challenged in various countries. We have won every challenge. It is courts that decide the law, not corporations or generals. The law, as expressed by constitutions and courts, has been on our side.
SPIEGEL: You have said that there is a correlation between the transparency for which you are fighting and a just society. What do you mean by that?
Assange: Reform can only come about when injustice is exposed. To oppose an unjust plan before it reaches implementation is to stop injustice.
SPIEGEL: During the Vietnam War, US President Richard Nixon once called Daniel Elsberg, the leaker of the Pentagon Papers, the most dangerous man in America. Are you today's most dangerous man or the most endangered?
Assange: The most dangerous men are those who are in charge of war. And they need to be stopped. If that makes me dangerous in their eyes, so be it.
SPIEGEL: You could have started a company in Silicon Valley and lived in a home in Palo Alto with a swimming pool. Why did you decide to do the WikiLeaks project instead?
Assange: We all only live once. So we are obligated to make good use of the time that we have, and to do something that is meaningful and satisfying. This is something that I find meaningful and satisfying. That is my temperament. I enjoy creating systems on a grand scale, and I enjoy helping people who are vulnerable. And I enjoy crushing bastards. So it is enjoyable work.
Interview conducted by John Goetz and Marcel Rosenbach