Interview Conducted by Michael Sontheimer
WikiLeaks is now 10 years old. SPIEGEL met with founder Julian Assange, 45, to discuss the whistleblower platform’s achievements and whether recent criticism leveled at the site is justified.
SPIEGEL: Mr. Assange, 10 years after the founding of WikiLeaks, the whistleblower platform is again being criticized. WikiLeaks is said to have put millions of Turkish voters in danger. What is your response?
Assange: A few days after the publication of internal emails from the Democratic National Committee, an entirely false story was put out that we had published the names, addresses and phone numbers of all female voters in Turkey. It is completely false. And it was and is simple to check. Power factions fight back with lies. That’s not surprising.
SPIEGEL: Quite a few German journalists have long sympathized with WikiLeaks and also with Edward Snowden. But they aren’t impressed with the publishing of the DNC emails. Are you campaigning on behalf of Donald Trump?
Assange: Our publication of the DNC leaks has showed that the Democratic National Committee had effectively rigged the primaries in the United States on behalf of Hillary Clinton against Bernie Sanders. That led to the resignation of leading members of the DNC, including its president Debbie Wasserman Schultz.
SPIEGEL: People within the Clinton campaign have suggested that the DNC emails were given to you by the Russian secret service.
Assange: There have been many attempts to distract from the power of our publications. Hillary Clinton is the favorite to win. As always, most media aligns with the presumptive winner even though their claimed societal virtue is to investigate those in power.
SPIEGEL: The fact is, WikiLeaks is damaging Clinton and bolstering Trump.
Assange: We’re not going to start censoring our publications because there is a US election. Our role is to publish. Clinton has been in government so we have much more to publish on Clinton. There is a lot of naivety. The US presidency will continue to represent the major power groups of the United States — big business and the military — regardless of who the talking head is.
SPIEGEL: If someone submitted internal documents from the Trump campaign or the Republican Party, you would publish that as well?
Assange: Yes, of course. That’s what we do.
SPIEGEL: The German newsmagazine Focus has even has accused WikiLeaks of publishing NSA documents and other documents that have been forged by the Russian secret service. What’s your comment on that?
Assange: The claims are not credible. Even the US government had to come out and say that they have no evidence of a link to WikiLeaks. I exposed the same German magazine back in 2008 as having been extensively penetrated by the BND (Eds. note: Bundesnachrichtendienst, the German foreign intelligence agency). We listed the times and dates of 58 contacts that a Focusjournalist had with the BND.
SPIEGEL: Isn’t WikiLeaks vulnerable because it isn’t possible for you to check and verify every single document submitted and to find possibly forged documents?
Assange: We have a perfect record in detecting forgeries and, unlike the traditional press, we publish every document so everyone else can check too. WikiLeaks is literally the worst place in the world to try and plant a false story.
SPIEGEL: Would WikiLeaks publish material about corruption in the Russian leadership?
Assange: Yes. In fact we have already published more than 650,000 documents on Russia and President Vladimir Putin, most of which was critical. A number of highly critical books were written using this material, like “The Mafia State” by the Guardian journalist Luke Harding. The documents have also gone on to be used in a number of significant litigations, including the Yukos case.
SPIEGEL: How can you prevent WikiLeaks from being taken advantage of in the global war of information?
Assange: Our editorial criteria are public and they have been the same for about eight years. If a source gives us material that is of political, diplomatic, ethical or historical significance that has not been published before and is comprised of official documents or recordings, then we will publish it. Is the majority of our material in English? Yes. But that is a resource constraint. Most of our submissions are in English because most of our readers speak English.
SPIEGEL: On Oct. 4, 2006, you registered the domain name www.wikileaks.org. What have you accomplished since then?
Assange: WikiLeaks has published over 10 million documents in 10 years. Most have been published over the last six years, during which time I have been illegally detained, without charge, in the United Kingdom.
SPIEGEL: You have received political asylum from the government of Ecuador, but have been stuck in the Ecuadorian Embassy in London for the last four years. British authorities would like to arrest you and extradite you for interrogation to Sweden. Hasn’t this situation handicapped WikiLeaks?
Assange: While many of the established media make losses or go bankrupt, WikiLeaks has survived a major conflict with a superpower, including an unlawful economic blockade by its banks and credit card companies and the detention of its editor. We have no debts. We have not had to fire staff. We have never lost a court case related to our publishing. We have never been forced to censor. Adversity has hardened us. We’re 10 now. Just wait until we’re teenagers.
SPIEGEL: What has been WikiLeaks’ most important publication?
Assange: The most important publication of WikiLeaks is that it has published more than 10 million documents. The most important single collection of material we have published is the US diplomatic cable series. We started with 251,000 in 2011, but are up to 3 million now and have more coming.
SPIEGEL: What have been the shortcomings of WikiLeaks? What would you like to improve?
Assange: Resources. Has WikiLeaks been forced to do one thing rather than another in response to resource constraints? Yes. Constantly.
SPIEGEL: For example?
Assange: For example, resource constraints forced us to deal with politically compromised publications like the New York Times in order to harness their distribution networks.
SPIEGEL: Do you regret the fact that you no longer have a cooperation with established papers like the New York Times or the Guardian– and that WikiLeaks is even criticized by liberal papers?
Assange: We have subsequently worked with journalists from both papers. Liberal papers are not necessarily liberal. We have excellent relations and contracts with more than 110 media organizations from all over the world. We aggressively enforce our agreements.
SPIEGEL: Your source Chelsea Manning, a US soldier, was sentenced to 35 years in prison. Edward Snowden is stuck in Moscow. And you are stuck here in the Ecuadorian Embassy in London. How can whistleblowers come to terms with such setbacks?
Assange: Let us not compare Edward Snowden’s situation with that of Chelsea Manning or Jeremy Hammond, who is also imprisoned in the United States. As a result of WikiLeaks’ hard work, Edward Snowden has political asylum, has travel documents, lives with his girlfriend, goes to the ballet and earns substantial speaking fees. Edward Snowden is essentially free and happy. That is no coincidence. It was my strategy to undo the chilling effect of the 35 year Manning sentence and it has worked.
SPIEGEL: Given all the pressure that you and those you work with are facing, how do you keep going?
Assange: We believe in what we are doing. It’s very satisfying. It’s extremely interesting intellectually. Sometimes great moments of justice come out of it. In one case, a man falsely accused left prison thanks to a publication of ours. A lot of people who work for WikiLeaks have the same instinct as me: If you are pushed you push back.