In his first interview since Julian Assange’s arrest, WikiLeaks Editor-in-Chief Kristinn Hrafnsson discusses the “disgraceful” detention of the platform’s founder, criticism of its links to Russia and what he describes as the “appalling” treatment of Chelsea Manning.
Kristinn Hrafnsson, 56, spent three decades working as a journalist for media in Iceland, including the country’s public broadcaster. In his reporting, including his research into the collapse of Iceland’s Kaupthing Bank, he used documents from WikiLeaks. In 2010, he established Sunshine Press Productions in Iceland together with the Australian national Julian Assange. Before replacing Assange as editor-in-chief of WikiLeaks, Hrafnsson served as the platform’s spokesman for six years.
DER SPIEGEL: Mr. Hrafnsson, on Wednesday you saw WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange in a court room in London, where he was sentenced to 50 weeks in jail for violating the conditions of his bail. British police arrested him on April 11 in the Ecuadorian Embassy after the government of Ecuador withdrew his political asylum. How is he doing?
Hrafnsson: He is in the Belmarsh high-security prison in South London. There, he is waiting for his trial for the extradition request from the United States government. On Wednesday, a court found him guilty of a bail act offense when he was using his human right to seek asylum. As you may remember, he was released on bail in December 2010 after friends had paid a deposit of 200,000 pounds. Before he entered the Ecuadorian Embassy in June 2012, he cut off his ankle monitor.
DER SPIEGEL: As the new editor-in-chief of WikiLeaks, do you sometimes worry you could end up in a high-security prison like Assange?
Hrafnsson: As WikiLeaks has been under attack for 10 years, I am aware of the dangers that come with the job. I have been working full-time for WikiLeaks since midsummer 2010. It is obvious that I am in the cross hairs of the U.S. government, its military and its secret services. We have known since 2014 that not only Julian Assange, but also other people who are connected with the organization are under investigation.
DER SPIEGEL: How do you know this?
Hrafnsson: Google took it to court that they were forced by a secret U.S. court to hand over data from me and others on the WikiLeaks team to an investigating U.S. secret court. Google won the right to inform us. So, Sarah Harrison, Joseph Farrell and I were informed in December 2014 that our mails were seized because of a grand jury investigating us in an espionage case.
DER SPIEGEL: How has Assange changed during his time in the embassy?
Hrafnsson: I have been quite surprised that he has been withholding and withstanding this situation in a more resilient manner than I would expect from anybody else.
DER SPIEGEL: How did the diplomatic asylum end which Assange was granted by the Ecuadorian government in August 2012?
Hrafnsson: The ambassador asked him into the meeting room of the embassy and presented a letter, which he read out loud, saying the diplomatic asylum had been revoked and that he had to leave the embassy immediately. When Julian left the meeting room and wanted to go back to his room, the lobby of the embassy was full of British Policemen who grabbed him.
DER SPIEGEL: That doesn’t really fit with diplomatic rules.
Hrafnsson: Well, it was a long prepared, politically motivated move. Already last year, the embassy started a war of attrition, psychological warfare: cutting off the Internet, installing cell phone jammers, restricting visitors, turning off the heating. Everything was done to make Julian Assange’s life miserable.
DER SPIEGEL: He certainly didn’t look particularly well when he was dragged out of the embassy.
Hrafnsson: I am not sure if anyone would look really well when he was handcuffed and dragged out by seven policemen — not to mention spending seven years inside one flat. It was disgusting and disgraceful.
DER SPIEGEL: How was Assange’s life in the embassy before he got arrested?
Hrafnsson: The security staff and diplomats spied on him 24/7. They copied documents from his lawyers, they recorded the visits of doctors. The United Nations’ special rapporteur on the right to privacy was supposed to meet with him in the embassy, but the Ecuadorians obviously wanted to expel him before the rapporteur could collect any evidence in the embassy. He has now visited him in Belmarsh prison.
DER SPIEGEL: Is it true that you were offered the surveillance material from the embassy?
Hrafnsson: Somebody was offering it on Twitter, so I contacted the person who immediately said that this was for sale. The offer was to buy the material for 3 million euros — otherwise the information would be spread in the media. This was extortion. I flew to Madrid and had meetings with the special division of the Madrid police on blackmail and extortion. We filed a complaint there and it was taken very seriously by the Spanish police and now it is before a court. A complaint has now also been filed against the Ecuadorian minister of foreign affairs and the staff of the embassy in London.
DER SPIEGEL: Were you able to view some of the material?
Hrafnsson: I was allowed to browse through 104 folders with masses of material on every aspect of Assange’s life. Videos, photographs, audio recordings. The intensity of the surveillance was shocking.
DER SPIEGEL: There were reports of Assange not behaving in a way that one would expect from a guest of the embassy. He supposedly didn’t flush the toilet, and he has been described as arrogant and narcissistic.
Hraffnsson: It is not hard to manufacture some kind of supposed evidence of negative behavior when you have somebody under total surveillance for years. The security guards and diplomats were instructed to collect selectively negative material. They once found a stain on the light switch of the toilet and alleged it was feces from Julian. This report was used by the president of Ecuador as evidence that Julian had been smearing feces all over the walls of the embassy. I mean, how low can you go?
DER SPIEGEL: What kind of guy is Assange?
Hrafnsson: I have had to work with a few editors in my 30 years as a journalist, and I would describe my relationship with editors as sometimes problematic. I am rather stubborn and independent. The relationship with Julian was the least problematic of all of them. He has a very clear vision of where he wants to go. We had disagreements, but he listened to my views. Sometimes we only agreed to disagree.
DER SPIEGEL: Do you consider him a journalist or an activist?
Hrafnsson: As both. Back in 2009, I found it extremely interesting to hear his opinions on information freedom coming from his background as a digital activist in Melbourne when the term “hacker” did not yet have a negative connotation but was a label for creative people who wanted to use the internet in a democratic or anarchistic way. Although I came from the totally different background of mainstream media journalism, at the end of the day I found out that we shared the same values.
DER SPIEGEL: So, you consider yourself to be an activist and journalist as well?
Hrafnsson: If you are a journalist and you are not fighting for information freedom, for accountability and transparency, then you are not a journalist in my eyes. Besides that, I am absolutely convinced that the struggle for Julian Assange’s freedom of is the biggest struggle for press freedom we have experienced so far in the 21st century.
DER SPIEGEL: WikiLeaks has a rather simple but radical approach. If documents are in the public interest and authentic, they will be published. Is this still the idea?
Hrafnsson: WikiLeaks’ approach would not have been radical a few decades ago, but that changed with the enormous escalation of secrecy of those in power after 9/11. State secrecy and corporate secrecy have been increasing without being convincingly justified. In this environment, the fight of an organization like WikiLeaks is becoming more radical in an environment changing for the worse. At the same time, regular people are unprotected against the invasion of their privacy, as former CIA employee and whistleblower Edward Snowden revealed to us. And private entities like Google, Facebook and others are harvesting our private information as well. So, yes, this is still the idea.
DER SPIEGEL: In the beginning, WikiLeaks said: “We don’t discriminate, we publish what we get.” Does that still apply today?
Hrafnsson: When we started to publish U.S. military documents in 2010 on a massive scale, we were criticized for just “dumping documents” unredacted. We were accused of having “blood on our hands.” In 2013, during Chelsea Manning’s trial, a Pentagon official was called to testify about the harm the publications had caused and the people who had been killed because of these. He had to admit that nobody had been harmed.
DER SPIEGEL: But of course, you still have a responsibility for the people mentioned in the documents.
Hrafnsson: Once again: There have been millions of documents published by WikiLeaks. Where is the harm? And where is the harm in truthful information? And that compared to the harm that has been exposed and the bloodshed that was caused by the parties that were exposed.
DER SPIEGEL: But why was it necessary to publish full names? Does WikiLeaks have any limits at all?
Hrafnsson: Of course, there are. Parts of the Afghan war documents were withheld by WikiLeaks. If you would have the manual for how to launch intercontinental ballistic missiles with nuclear warheads, would you publish it? Of course not!
DER SPIEGEL: What will happen to Julian Assange in the future?
Hrafnsson: He almost got the maximum sentence of one year in jail for skipping bail, but the real battle is the extradition case. It can take two or three years. The U.S. government has been given two months, until June 12, to produce additional information supporting the extradition request.
DER SPIEGEL: The request is based on an indictment on a charge of conspiracy to commit computer intrusion that holds a maximum sentence of five years. Will that be the only charge?
Hrafnsson: It is obviously only the first step, and it would be extremely naive to try to maintain that other charges will not be added when he is on American soil. Letters were issued to individuals connected with WikiLeaks where they were offered immunity if they provided information pertaining to the investigation into what obviously was being described as the violation of the Espionage Act of 1917.
DER SPIEGEL: Do you think the government in Washington is trying to get Assange to the U.S. in the first place on the pretext of the relatively benign charge of conspiracy to commit computer intrusion, so that it can then come up with additional charges that might lead to a life sentence or even the death penalty?
Hrafnsson: That’s an absolute certainty. That is the playbook.
DER SPIEGEL: When American whistleblower Edward Snowden escaped to Moscow, a lot of people in Germany demanded that he be provided with political asylum here. Assange’s arrest has been met with silence. Why?
Hrafnsson: My impression is different. We are seeing increasing support because people are starting to understand the severity of this situation, and even some journalists are getting how important the case is for the freedom of the press.
DER SPIEGEL: It’s a slow start though.
Hrafnsson: The blueprint for what has been happening was written out by the CIA and some companies working for high corporate interests, leaked to WikiLeaks and published by WikiLeaks almost 10 years ago. The concept includes fighting the support base of WikiLeaks. And it’s done by attacking the individuals who are in the circle of WikiLeaks and especially by attacking Julian Assange with attempted character assassination.
DER SPIEGEL: You probably mean the investigation into him regarding
alleged minor rape. Is it possible these Swedish investigations will be reopened?
Hrafnsson: I find it highly unlikely for the simple reason that the Swedish state prosecutors wanted to close down the case in 2013 and it was the British Crown Prosecution Service that actually was pushing them to keep the investigation alive.
DER SPIEGEL: Female WikiLeaks supporters, in particular, have been deterred by these allegations. Even more supporters might have turned away after WikiLeaks published emails from Hillary Clinton and other leading U.S. Democrats. They believe that helped Donald Trump to win the election. Was it a mistake to publish those emails?
Hrafnsson: Absolutely not. It would have been a severe violation of all journalistic principles not to publish information passed to a journalistic entity about a political party and an individual prior to an election. The journalistic entity reviewed the material, found it to be truthful and in the public interest to publish it, precisely because there was a forthcoming election. It is not even a choice — it is a duty for journalists to give the electorate access to all such information.
DER SPIEGEL: Robert Mueller stated in his report that two Twitter accounts allegedly connected to a Russian intelligent service provided WikiLeaks with these documents. Has WikiLeaks been instrumentalized by Russian intelligence?
Hrafnsson: It is worth noting that Mueller declined the offer to hear Julian’s testimony. There is no evidence anything was sent by Russian entities that later was published. Mueller jumps to a conclusion, but it is not based on evidence. But usually there is an agenda attached to leaked information. There are sometimes individuals who leak information because they believe it is in the public interest to do so. They are very honorable whistleblowers, but you could call that an agenda as well. We have to scrutinize all leaked information and publish if it is in the public interest.
DER SPIEGEL: But it was more than just getting information. Assange was in contact with Donald Trump, Jr., Mr. Trump’s oldest son, during the campaign. Was he an active part in the political game?
Hrafnsson: There is nothing per se unusual about journalists being in direct contact with political campaigns. Trump Jr. was not given, in advance, substantive information. It is not a crime to inform a political campaign of information that has already been published.
DER SPIEGEL: How do you address suspicions that WikiLeaks has been fed and used by Russia?
Hrafnsson: I’m not a fan of Putin. I’m generally a skeptic of power. There’s definitely a lot of criticism, justifiably pointed at Putin’s Russia. However, according to the latest statistics, Russia fell from second to sixth place on the list of countries’ spending on military and defense, so now Saudi Arabia is No. 2. A few days ago, there were 37 beheadings in Saudi Arabia. We are talking about a nation that sends out assassination squads to torture and kill journalists. We are talking about the incubator of Islamist terrorism. So, why don’t we put things into perspective?
DER SPIEGEL: But it’s conspicuous that WikiLeaks has mostly published documents relating to the U.S. and not, for example, Russia.
Hrafnsson: We have already published information about corruption in Russia. Putin is mentioned in our database 82,940 times. We have published information about private companies working for secret services in Russia. Of course, we would publish material about the Kremlin if we could authenticate it and if it was in the public interest to publish it.
DER SPIEGEL: The next time when you get documents and you know they are from Russian intelligence, will you deal with it in the same way as you did it in the past?
Hrafnsson: There’s an interesting premise in your question. You said, if you knew it was from Russia. It should be fairly well-recognized now that WikiLeaks tries its utmost not to know the source of its submissions. It’s our policy, that’s why we have a very advanced system, where you can submit information to us without being traced. Not knowing the source is probably the best security you can offer a source.
DER SPIEGEL: But if you happen to know the source, you have to deal with it.
Hrafnsson: I would say this in general terms: If the devil himself offered me truthful information about corruption in the Kingdom of Heaven, I would publish it. That’s journalistic duty.
DER SPIEGEL: Chelsea Manning, a former military analyst who has been WikiLeaks’s source for the Iraq war logs and other documents, has been jailed again because she refused to testify against Julian Assange. Did the two ever meet personally — and could that explain the degree of loyalty?
Hrafnsson: No, they never met. But I must say: What is being done to Chelsea Manning is such a serious violation of any principle of law that is absolutely appalling. Chelsea Manning basically stated: “I do not accept the mandate of a secret court, where I am being hauled in front of it to demand I give information on a crime that I was sentenced for, for which I served seven years, after which the president of the United States reduced my sentence and I was released. I’ve said everything that I know in my trial.” Because of this stance, she has been thrown in jail again. This is something that could have happened in the German Democratic Republic or countries where there is no respect for the rule of law. This is extortion, she is being extorted into giving evidence in the attempt to get a harsher sentence for Julian Assange.
DER SPIEGEL: What conclusions do you draw from Manning’s treatment?
Hrafnsson: It looks like that when it comes to the criminal justice system in the U.S., in certain cases, it’s just a criminal system without justice. Look at the letters that have been sent out to several individuals who were connected with WikiLeaks and are now living in exile — some here in Germany, some in Iceland — threat letters with the offer of immunity if they work with the grand jury in Virginia in the persecution of WikiLeaks. In other words: If you don’t cooperate, we will go after you. I refer to this as the Don Corleone offer, which is from the Godfather, an offer you can’t refuse.
DER SPIEGEL: What are you hoping for from the Germans?
Hrafnsson: There has to be some resistance to that overreach. The other day Julian Assange was given the Daphne Galizia Award by the members of the left group in the European Parliament. One of the members of parliament who presented it said that the extradition request for Assange was an attack on European democratic principles, and I do agree with that. Not only are we seeing the basic principles of press freedom under attack, the whole case is an attack on our democracy.
DER SPIEGEL: So, what do you expect from the German politicians or the government?
Hrafnsson: I would like to see more spine. It’s about drawing a line in the sand, it’s not about the person of Julian Assange, it’s not about whether you like him or not, but about the core principles at stake. If we sacrifice this one, my god, we’re in a pretty nasty territory.
DER SPIEGEL: How will WikiLeaks proceed from here, and how are you going to finance the platform?
Hrafnsson: Through donations. The majority of them are relatively small, 20 euros on average.
DER SPIEGEL: Can you reveal how many people work for WikiLeaks?
Hrafnsson: It’s a floating number. The core team is very small and staff numbers vary depending on the publication. But, of course, our resources have been strained and we have been affected by these constant fights going on throughout the years.
DER SPIEGEL: Do you think WikiLeaks will still exist 10 years from now?
Hrafnsson: Definitely. But what is more important, is that the ideas introduced by WikiLeaks have gained momentum and have totally transformed journalism. WikiLeaks is proof of the power of strong ideas with mass appeal. History has proved that ideas are more resilient than empires.
DER SPIEGEL: Mr. Hrafnsson, we thank you very much for this interview.