"Collateral Murder" – the video you released in April 2010 showing a U.S. helicopter gunship firing on a group of Iraqi civilians, including two Reuters journalists and two children – was the first scoop that got you major media attention. You learned that The Washington Post actually had the video and had been sitting on it.
A Post reporter named David Finkel had the video. We had sources who explained that he had even shown them the video in his home. Yet he concealed it.
Finkel's response was, "There were a lot of bad days in Iraq."
He had been embedded with ground troops in that area for some nine months on the ground. He had clearly developed too close an affinity for the people he was embedded with and came out essentially campaigning on their behalf after the release of the video.
Were those kinds of failings by the mainstream media what inspired you to start WikiLeaks?
The things that informed me most were my experiences in fighting for freedom of the press, freedom to communicate knowledge – which, in the end, is freedom from ignorance. Secondly, my experiences in understanding how the military-intelligence complex works at a practical level. I saw that publishing all over the world was deeply constrained by self-censorship, economics and political censorship, while the military-industrial complex was growing at a tremendous rate, and the amount of information that it was collecting about all of us vastly exceeded the public imagination.
You first registered the domain name for leaks.org back in 1999, when you were working on encryption technology for dissidents and human rights workers. That was before the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon enabled the government to dramatically expand its power to keep information secret and spy on its own citizens.
Yes. On September 11th, I was on the phone with a friend, discussing encryption algorithms. Very quickly, within an hour, I saw what the counter-reaction would be, and that all the proposals that the military-industrial complex had to spy on everyone, to remove probable cause, to increase its funding, would be rushed forward again. That's precisely what happened.
Then, two years later, the U.S. invaded Iraq.
The creation of WikiLeaks was, in part, a response to Iraq. There were a number of whistle-blowers who came out in relation to Iraq, and it was clear to me that what the world was missing in the days of Iraq propaganda was a way for inside sources who knew what was really going on to communicate that information to the public. Quite a few who did ended up in very dire circumstances, including David Kelly, the British scientist who either committed suicide or was murdered over his revelations about weapons of mass destruction. The Iraq War was the biggest issue for people of my generation in the West. It was also the clearest case, in my living memory, of media manipulation and the creation of a war through ignorance.
Before the scoops that centered on the U.S. government – the logs and cables regarding Afghanistan and Iraq – your focus was on other countries.
Initially we thought that our greatest role would be in China and some former Soviet states and in Africa. We did have early successes in Africa. I lived in Kenya in 2007, and we were able to source a document that exposed billions of dollars of corruption by the former president Daniel arap Moi and his cronies. The evidence ended up swinging the vote by 10 percent and changing the Kenyan election. But Moi's corruption didn't exist in Kenya alone. The money looted from Kenya was deposited into London banks, properties and businesses, into New York properties. There is no large-scale corruption in the developing world without Western corruption. That was an important lesson to me.
Another important lesson was that, very quickly, we started receiving information from what we presumed to be disaffected U.S. government employees about the actions of the U.S. military. The United States has historically been a relatively open society. But within the United States, there is a shadow state, and that is the U.S. military, which, as of September, held 4.3 million security clearances. That is equal to the population of New Zealand. That is a closed, totalitarian society that gathers and stores more information than any other society in the world.
WikiLeaks has been credited, even by its critics, with fueling the Arab Spring, and even Occupy Wall Street. Was this your plan? Did you imagine you could have this kind of impact?
We planned for most of what has occurred over the past 12 months. It is fair to say we're unexpectedly delighted that those plans came to fruition.
In relation to the Arab Spring, the way I looked at this back in October of 2010 is that the power structures in the Middle East are interdependent, they support each other. If we could release enough information fast enough about many of these powerful individuals and organizations, their ability to support each other would be diminished. They'd have to fight their own local battles – they'd have to turn inward to deal with the domestic political fallout from the information. And therefore they would not have the resources to prop up surrounding countries.
Would you like to see those regimes fall? What's the end result you're looking for?
When you shake something up, you have a chance to rebuild. But we're not interested in shaking something up just for the hell of it. I believe that if we look at what makes a civilization civilized, it is people understanding what is really going on. When Gutenberg invented the printing press, the end result was that people who knew something of what was going on could convey that information to others. And as a result of the Internet, we are now living in a time where it's a lot easier to convey what we know about our corner of the world and share it with others.
Do you think governments should be allowed to keep some secrets?
This is a question that is much more interesting than the answer. In some cases – tracking down organized crime, say – government officials have an obligation to keep their investigations secret at the moment that they are performing them. Similarly, a doctor has an obligation to keep information about your medical records secret under most circumstances. This is a question about obligations. It is absurd to suggest that simply because a police officer may have the obligation to keep secret certain information relating to an investigation, that the entire world also must be subject to a coercive force.
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