22 December, 2010 — BBC News Website
The founder of Wikileaks, Julian Assange, has been holed up in a mansion in East Anglia since he was released from prison last week. He is under strict bail conditions while he fights extradition to Sweden where he is wanted for questioning about claims of sexual assault. Today programme presenter John Humphrys went to meet him for what is Mr Assange’s first face-to-face broadcast interview since his release.
Q: Why won’t you go back to Sweden?
JA: I have been back. I was there for some five weeks after these initial allegations were made. They were dropped within 24 hours of them first being made. The most senior prosecutor in Stockholm reviewed them and they were dropped. Then politician Claes Borgstrom became involved, other forces became involved and the case, the investigative part of the case, was taken up again. We waited some four/five weeks to be interviewed, so I could put my side of this case forward, and that did not happen.
Q: But it has now.
JA: It did not happen, and then I asked: ‘OK, I have things to do, I had only planned to be in Sweden for one week, it’s time to leave. Is there any problem with that?’ For the first three weeks, the Swedish prosecution refused to answer whether it was ok to leave or not. So caught there in limbo. Finally, grudgingly admitted that there was no reason to keep me there. And at that stage I went about my normal course of work. And then they say they want another interview, fine. There’s plenty ways to do that. So why can’t those things be done?
Q: Why can’t you go back to Sweden?
JA: I don’t need to go back to Sweden.
Q: You do because the law says you must.
JA: Well no, the law says that I also have certain rights. I do not need to go and speak to random prosecutors around the world who simply want to have a chat and won’t do it in any other standard way.
Q: But they don’t just want to have a chat, do they?
JA: No, they do.
Q: That rather belittles what this is all about. Very serious allegations have been made. It puzzles a lot of people that you’re not saying: ‘Yes, I want to go to deal with these serious allegations, I will go anywhere they want me to go.’
JA: I have already spoken to them.
Q: But they want to talk to you again. That’s not uncommon in these cases.
JA: If they want to charge me, they can charge me. They have decided not to charge me.
JA: Or they can come to Sweden (or they can come here – JH corrects) or we can do a video link up, or they can accept a statement of mine. They have rejected all of that. And they have asked, as part of their application that, if I go to Sweden and am arrested, that I am to be held incommunicado. Entirely incommunicado. They have asked that my Swedish lawyer be gagged from talking about the evidence to the public.
Q: Everything you say may be true. I’ve no way of judging that. But, surely you can see how very, very damaging, at the very least, it is to somebody like you, somebody who has spent a large part of his life saying: ‘People are accountable. We must have systems that do transparency. We must have systems under which the public knows what’s going on and people can be held to account.’ And here you are facing, possibly facing, very, very serious charges indeed, double rape even, is a possibility – and you are saying: ‘I will not go back to the country where those offences are alleged to have been carried out to face the music.’
JA: No, I have never said that.
Q: In that case you can catch the next plane back to Sweden.
JA: No, I do things according to proper process. I stayed in Sweden for five weeks to enable that proper process to occur. Proper process did not occur. I left as part of, you know, just my normal course of activity – no complaints from the Swedish government. I have an organisation to run. I have my people to defend. There are other things at stake here… There are other things at stake here. I have a serious brewing extradition case in relation to the United States. I have a serious organisation to run. People affiliated with our organisation have already been assassinated. My work is serious. I do not have to run off to random states simply because some prosecutor is abusing a process in those states.
Q: No. It is happening because a couple of women have alleged that you seriously assaulted them, sexually assaulted them.
JA: No. One of the witnesses. One of the friends of one of those women, she says that one of the women states that she was bamboozled into this by police and others. These women may be victims in this process.
Q: Or they may not be. We can’t try the case here, can we? We don’t. I don’t know enough. I do know what I’ve read in the newspapers. You know what has been printed in the newspapers. Serious allegations have been made against you.
JA: Most of what we know is, in fact, from the newspapers because somehow the Swedish prosecution has been, deliberately and illegally, selectively taking bits of its material and giving them to newspapers.
Q: Can’t you see that it’s a bit rum for you to be sitting there under these circumstances. You, Julian Assange, the Wikileaks man, who’s become terribly famous, as has your organisation, for leaking material that other people didn’t want to see published and here you are saying: ‘They’ve leaked something about me.’
JA: Not at all. We are an organisation that does not promote leaking. We’re an organisation that promotes justice…
Q: You hardly discourage it when you print a couple of million private cables.
JA: … that promotes justice through the mechanism of transparency and journalism.
Q: Based on leaks.
JA: When a powerful organisation that has internal policies, that is meant to be creating and following the law, i.e. Swedish prosecution’s judicial system, abuses its own regulation and its own position to attack an individual, that is an abuse of power.
Q: The idea that you have to be dragged back to another country, a civilised country not a banana republic, a civilised country…
JA: A bit more of a banana republic…
Q: It’s a country that is respected around the world for its social-democratic system and its rule of law…
JA: That was.
Q: All right, your view no longer is that… that you will be dragged back to this country, possibly in handcuffs, to face charges of serious assault, sexual assault, against a couple of women. What impact so you think that will have on your organisation and what sort of figure do you think you, Julian Assange, cut in the face of all this. How will you be regarded? What will it do to you?
JA: I think it will be quite helpful for our organisation.
Q: Really? You see yourself as a martyr then?
JA: I think it will focus an incredible attention on the details of this case and then when the details of this case come out and people look to see what the actions are compared to the reality of the facts, other than that, it will expose a tremendous abuse of power. And that will, in fact, be helpful to this organisation. And, in fact, the extra focus that has occurred over the last two weeks has been very helpful to this organisation.
Q: You don’t think it’s damaged you at all?
JA: Two days ago I did a search on Google for my name, some 40 million web pages have my name in it. Now, searching for my name and the word ‘rape’, there is some 30 mil web pages. So this has been a very successful smear.
Q: Well, is it the smear and if it is, who is responsible for it?
JA: But when this is undone, that will also be immunising. People will start to see what is really going on.
Q: Just to answer that question then. You think this will be good for you and good for Wikileaks?
JA: I’ve had to suffer and we’ve had incredible disruptions.
Q: You do see yourself as a martyr here.
JA: Well, you know, in a very beneficial position, if you can be martyred without dying. And we’ve had a little bit of that over the past ten days. And if this case goes on, we will have more.
Q: If all you have is accusation and denial – which is what we have here. We know what the women, you were alleged to have assaulted, have said because we’ve read it in the newspapers….
JA: Well, they have never said the word ‘rape’. And that is something that is being adduced by other parties.
Q: None the less, people know what they are reported to have said in various forums and that is that you assaulted them in ways that they did not want to be assaulted. That is to say, in one case the woman agreed to have sex with you, apparently she insisted you use a condom, the condom got ripped. In another case the woman said she went to sleep, she woke up and you were trying to have… you were having sex with her without a condom. These are serious allegations. Some people regard them, that second one in particular, as rape. Is there any truth in any of those stories?
Q: No? You deny them completely? But did have sex with the women?
JA: We know there is all sorts of nonsense in the tabloid press and all sorts of spin conducted for all sorts of reasons.
Q: But you haven’t denied having sex with those women?
JA: No, I haven’t denied that.
Q: So you did have sex with those women?
JA: I have always tried in this case and in my other dealings to be a private person and to not speak about matters that are private.
Q: This is now public. So I’m asking you the question. Did you have sex with those women?
JA: It’s a matter of public record as far as the courts are concerned but I am not going to be exposing other people’s private lives or my own more than is absolutely necessary. That is not what a gentleman does, that why I have also never criticised these women. We don’t know precisely what pressures they have been under, exactly. There are powerful interests that have incentives to promote these smears. That doesn’t mean that they got in there in the very beginning and fabricated them.
Q: So you’re not suggesting that this was a honey-trap? That you were somehow set up by the Americans, by the CIA? You don’t buy into that idea because your lawyer’s suggested that that’s the case.
JA: He says that he was misquoted. I have never said that this is a honey-trap.
Q: You don’t believe it?
JA: I have never said that this is not a honey-trap. I’m not accusing anyone until I have proof.
Q: Do you believe it is possible?
JA: That’s not how I operate as a journalist because almost everything is possible. I talk about what is probable.
Q: All right, what do you think is probable here?
JA: What is probable? It is less probable that there was that type of involvement at the very beginning. That kind of classic Russian-Moscow thing. That is not probable.
Q: That leaves us with the fact, because you accept this, that one of those women at least did make a complaint against you.
JA: Not even a complaint. It appears, from the records that we do have, the suggestion is that they went to the police for advice and they did not want to make a complaint. What they say is that they found out that they were mutual lovers of mine and they had undertaken sex and they got into a tizzy about whether there was a possibility of sexually transmitted diseases. They went to the police to…
Q: They wanted you to have a test as well.
JA: …to have a test.
Q: Did you have a test?
JA: Ridiculous thing to go to the police about.
Q: The allegation against you, the very broad allegation that’s been made over and over again in the media over recent days is that you’re some sort of sexual predator who has sex with a large number of young women, ideally without a condom, and that you do it because you can, effectively, because in some cases they’re groupies or they’re enthralled to your fame or whatever it is. Are you a sexual predator?
JA: That’s ridiculous. Of course not.
Q: How many women have you slept with?
JA: That’s a private business. Not only does a gentleman not tell, not only does a gentleman like to talk about his private life, a gentleman certainly doesn’t count.
Q: Many, without being specific?
JA: I’ve never had a problem before with women. Women have been extremely helpful and generous.
Q: Not quite the question I asked you.
JA: No, women have been extremely helpful and generous and put up with me. But…
Q: Does put up with you mean having you in their beds?
JA: Of course on occasion, I mean I’m an adult man, but women have been generous to me over many years.
Q: In what sense?
JA: You know, in a sense of assisting me with my work, caring for me, loving me and so on. That is what I am used to. So this particular episode in Sweden came as a great shock. The personal shock of having people you’re close to doing that, actually much harder to deal with, in a much greater feeling of betrayal than all of these political disputes I have with United States and being sued by banks and so on. Much harder to handle.
Q: What has the Wikileaks leaks achieved, in your view?
JA: Already we see that we have changed governance, we have certainly changed many political figures within governments, we have caused new law reform efforts, we have caused police investigations into the abuses we expose, UN investigations, investigations here in the UK especially in relation to our revelation of the circumstances of the deaths of 109,000 people in Iraq. Before Cablegate, the change is so vast that I cannot, and my whole team cannot, even keep track of it.
Q: Isn’t there a danger in the long term that we will know less about the way governments, authorities, various institutions run, because of what you call Cablegate, this release of millions of documents, millions of cables? Because in truth… what people in organisations like MI5 and MI6 will say is: ‘If we were doing bad things, we won’t stop doing bad things, we just won’t write them down.’
JA: That’s something that I thought of before we ever launched this project. It’s not so easy. There is a reason why people write things down. Yes, you can organise a small group of people to do something with just word of mouth. But if you want to enact policy, for example, to get Guantanamo Bay guards to do something, get the grunts to do something, you’ve got to write it down or it will not be followed.
Q: But you do see the difference between transparency, which may or may not be desirable, and accountability, which is always desirable?
JA: Yes of course. I have always said that we are an organisation which is designed to promote justice, through the method of transparency. But we do not put the cart before the horse. We know what is leading this, justice is leading this.
Q: You will have released, by the time it’s all over – Cablegate – maybe a quarter of a million documents… A lot of it’s fascinating. A lot of it’s intriguing. But it’s tittle-tattle. It’s the kind of thing an ambassador would tell his boss at home just because it’s something he’s found out. In whose interest is it that we should all of this stuff?
JA: With respect it is not tittle-tattle. There’s is very, very serious matters in there. When the head of the state or an ambassador is reporting what you call tittle-tattle, it is no longer tittle-tattle. It is either very dangerous poisonous political gossip, or it is the truth.
Q: But do you really believe you can stop people gossiping? Gossip is what makes the world go round? You do it. I do it. Everybody does it.
JA: We try and do it less than other people.
Q: But in whose interest is it that diplomats can no longer speak freely to their own foreign office or whoever it happens to be?
JA: They can speak freely… They just have to start committing things to paper that they are proud of.
Q: This is very different from releasing, for instance, the kind of information that was released relating to sensitive sites, in some cases important security sites. In whose interest was it to do that, apart from people who might potentially benefit, like terrorists?
JA: Your suggestion was that it is tittle-tattle. Now you are saying that this is something that is serious.
Q: I said the vast majority of it was tittle-tattle but I would also suggest to you that some of it was dangerous.
JA: I believe none of it is dangerous. Vastly more detailed things have been released by the United States government itself, by Congress. For example, a year-and-a-half ago it released a list of all US nuclear sites.
Q: But that is for them to decide, because they are the elected government of that nation and they can do that… You are getting leaks illegally.
JA: Not illegally… We have been victorious in every single court case we have ever had. Legality is something for the highest court in the land to decide. It is not what a general claims.
Revealing illegal behaviour is in most countries not illegal. We are a publisher. We accept information from whistleblowers. We vet it, we analyse it and we publish it and that’s what we do.
Q: It is illegal to hack into protected sites. It is illegal.
JA: Where is the suggestion that any of the things we have published about government sites have come from illegal hacking?… The allegations are in this case, that an intelligence agent walked out with the material on a CD. That’s the allegation.
Q: I’m going to have to end this interview very soon because you have to go off to report to the police for your daily check.
JA: For my high-tech house arrest.
Q: Just a final thought. Do you see yourself… as some sort of messianic figure?
JA: Everyone would like to be a messianic figure without dying. We are bringing some important change about what is perceived to be the rights of people who expose abuses by powerful corporations and then to resist censorship attacks after the event. We are also changing the perception of the west.
Q: I’m talking about you personally.
JA: I’m always so focussed on my work, I don’t have time to think about how I perceive myself… I had time to perceive myself a bit more in solitary confinement. I was perfectly happy with myself. I wondered what that process would do. Would I think ‘my goodness, how have I got into this mess, is it all just too hard?’
The world is a very ungrateful place, why should I continue to suffer simply to try and do some good in the world. If the world is so viciously against it ,why don’t I just go off and do some mathematics or write some books? But no, actually, I felt quite at peace.
Q: You want to change the world?
JA: Absolutely. The world has a lot of problems and they need to be reformed. And we only live once. Every person who has some ability to do something about it, if they are a person of good character, has the duty to try and fix the problems in the environment which they’re in.
That is a value, that, yes, comes partly from my temperament. There is also a value that comes from my father, which is that capable, generous men don’t create victims, they try and save people from becoming victims. That is what they are tasked to do. If they do not do that they are not worthy of respect or they are not capable.