The controversial website WikiLeaks collects and posts highly classified documents and video. Founder Julian Assange, who's reportedly being sought for questioning by US authorities, talks to TED's Chris Anderson about how the site operates, what it has accomplished -- and what drives him. The interview includes graphic footage of a recent US airstrike in Baghdad.
Julian Assange: Whistleblower
Internet activist Julian Assange serves as spokesperson for WikiLeaks, a controversial, volunteer-driven website that publishes and comments on leaked documents alleging government and corporate misconduct.
Why you should listen to him:
You could say Australian-born Julian Assange has swapped his long-time interest in network security flaws for the far-more-suspect flaws of even bigger targets: governments and corporations. Since his early 20s, he has been using network technology to prod and probe the vulnerable edges of administrative systems, but though he was a computing hobbyist first (in 1991 he was the target of hacking charges after he accessed the computers of an Australian telecom), he's now taken off his "white hat" and launched a career as one of the world's most visible human-rights activists.
He calls himself "editor in chief." He travels the globe as its spokesperson. Yet Assange's part in WikiLeaks is clearly dicier than that: he's become the face of creature that, simply, many powerful organizations would rather see the world rid of. His Wikipedia entry says he is "constantly on the move," and some speculate that his role in publishing decrypted US military video has put him in personal danger. A controversial figure, pundits debate whether his work is reckless and does more harm than good. Amnesty International recognized him with an International Media Award in 2009.
Assange studied physics and mathematics at the University of Melbourne. He wrote Strobe, the first free and open-source port scanner, and contributed to the book Underground: Tales of Hacking, Madness and Obsession on the Electronic Frontier.
"WikiLeaks has had more scoops in three years than the Washington Post has had in 30."
Chris Anderson: Julian, welcome. It's been reported that WikiLeaks, your baby, has ... in the last few years has released more classified documents than the rest of the world's media combined. Can that possibly be true?
Julian Assange: Yeah, can it possibly be true? It's a worry -- isn't it? -- that the rest of the world's media is doing such a bad job that a little group of activists is able to release more of that type of information than the rest of the world press combined.
CA: How does it work? How do people release the documents? And how do you secure their privacy?
JA: So these are -- as far as we can tell -- classical whistleblowers. And we have a number of ways for them to get information to us. So we use just state-of-the-art encryption to bounce stuff around the Internet, to hide trails, pass it through legal jurisdictions like Sweden and Belgium to enact those legal protections. We get information in the mail, the regular postal mail, encrypted or not, vet it like a regular news organization, format it -- which is sometimes something that's quite hard to do, when you're talking about giant databases of information -- release it to the public and then defend ourselves against the inevitable legal and political attacks.
CA: So you make an effort to ensure the documents are legitimate. But you actually almost never know who the identity of the source is.
JA: That's right, yeah. Very rarely do we ever know. And if we find out at some stage then we destroy that information as soon as possible. (Phone ring) God damn it.
CA: I think that's the CIA asking what the code is for a TED membership.
So let's take the example, actually. This is something you leaked a few years ago. If we can have this document up ... So this was a story in Kenya a few years ago. Can you tell us what you leaked and what happened?
JA: So this is the Kroll Report. This was a secret intelligence report commissioned by the Kenyan government after its election in 2004. Prior to 2004, Kenya was ruled by Daniel arap Moi for about 18 years. He was a soft dictator of Kenya. And when Kibaki got into power -- through a coalition of forces that were trying to clean up corruption in Kenya -- they commissioned this report, spent about two million pounds on this and an associated report. And then the government sat on it and used it for political leverage on Moi, who was the richest man -- still is the richest man -- in Kenya. It's the Holy Grail of Kenyan journalism. So I went there in 2007, and we managed to get hold of this just prior to the election -- the national election, December 28. When we released that report, we did so three days after the new president, Kibaki, had decided to pal up with the man that he was going to clean out, Daniel arap Moi. So this report then became a dead albatross around president Kibaki's neck.
CA: And -- I mean, to cut a long story short -- word of the report leaked into Kenya, not from the official media, but indirectly. And in your opinion, it actually shifted the election. JA: Yeah. So this became front page of the Guardian and was then printed in all the surrounding countries of Kenya, in Tanzanian and South African press. And so it came in from the outside. And that, after a couple of days, made the Kenyan press feel safe to talk about it. And it ran for 20 nights straight on Kenyan TV, shifted the vote by 10 percent, according to a Kenyan intelligence report, which changed the result of the election.
CA: Wow, so your leak really substantially changed the world?
CA: Here's -- We're going to just show a short clip from this Baghdad airstrike video. The video itself is longer. But here's a short clip. This is -- this is intense material, I should warn you.
Radio: ... just fuckin', once you get on 'em just open 'em up. I see your element, uh, got about four Humvees, uh, out along ... You're clear. All right. Firing. Let me know when you've got them. Let's shoot. Light 'em all up. C'mon, fire! (Machine gun fire) Keep shoot 'n. Keep shoot 'n. (Machine gun fire) Keep shoot 'n. Hotel ... Bushmaster Two-Six, Bushmaster Two-Six, we need to move, time now! All right, we just engaged all eight individuals. Yeah, we see two birds, and we're still firing. Roger. I got 'em. Two-Six, this is Two-Six, we're mobile. Oops, I'm sorry. What was going on? God damn it, Kyle. All right, hahaha. I hit 'em.
CA: So, what was the impact of that?
JA: The impact on the people who worked on it was severe. We ended up sending two people to Baghdad to further research that story. So this is just the first of three attacks that occurred in that scene.
CA: So, I mean, 11 people died in that attack, right, including two Reuters employees?
JA: Yeah. Two Reuters employees, two young children were wounded. There were between 18 and 26 people killed all together.
CA: And releasing this caused widespread outrage. What was the key element of this that actually caused the outrage, do you think?
JA: I don't know, I guess people can see the gross disparity in force. You have guys walking in a relaxed way down the street, and then an Apache helicopter sitting up in one corner firing 30-millimeter cannon shells on everyone -- looking for any excuse to do so -- and killing people rescuing the wounded. And there was two journalists involved that clearly weren't insurgents because that's their full-time job.
CA: I mean, there's been this U.S. intelligence analyst, Bradley Manning, arrested. And it's alleged that he confessed in a chat room to have leaked this video to you, along with 280,000 classified U.S. embassy cables. I mean, did he?
JA: Well, we have denied receiving those cables. He has been charged, about five days ago, with obtaining 150,000 cables and releasing 50. Now, we had released early in the year a cable from the Reykjavik U.S. embassy. But this is not necessarily connected. I mean, I was a known visitor of that embassy.
CA: I mean, if you did receive thousands of U.S. embassy diplomatic cables ...
JA: We would have released them. (CA: You would?)
JA: Yeah. (CA: Because?)
JA: Well, because these sort of things reveal what the true state of, say, Arab governments are like, the true human-rights abuses in those governments. If you look at declassified cables, that's the sort of material that's there.
CA: So let's talk a little more broadly about this. I mean, in general, what's you philosophy? Why is it right to encourage leaking of secret information?
JA: Well, there's a question as to what sort of information is important in the world, what sort of information can achieve reform. And there's a lot of information. So information that organizations are spending economic effort into concealing, that's a really good signal that when the information gets out, there's a hope of it doing some good. Because the organizations that know it best, that know it from the inside out, are spending work to conceal it. And that's what we've found in practice. And that's what the history of journalism is.
CA: But are there risks with that, either to the individuals concerned or indeed to society at large, where leaking can actually have an unintended consequence?
JA: Not that we have seen with anything we have released. I mean, we have a harm immunization policy. We have a way of dealing with information that has sort of personal -- personally identifying information in it. But there are legitimate secrets -- you know, your records with your doctor; that's a legitimate secret. But we deal with whistleblowers that are coming forward that are really sort of well motivated.
CA: So they are well-motivated. And what would you say to, for example, the, you know, the parent of someone -- whose son is out serving the U.S. military, and he says, "You know what, you've put up something that someone had an incentive to put out. It shows a U.S. soldier laughing at people dying. That gives the impression -- has given the impression to millions of people around the world that U.S. soldiers are inhuman people. Actually, they're not. My son isn't. How dare you?" What would you say to that?
JA: Yeah, we do get a lot of that. But remember, the people in Baghdad, the people in Iraq, the people in Afghanistan -- they don't need to see the video; they see it every day. So it's not going to change their opinion. It's not going to change their perception. That's what they see every day. It will change the perception and opinion of the people who are paying for it all. And that's our hope.
CA: So you found a way to shine light into what you see as these sort of dark secrets in companies and in government. Light is good. But do you see any irony in the fact that, in order for you to shine that light, you have to, yourself, create secrecy around your sources?
JA: Not really. I mean, we don't have any WikiLeaks dissidents yet. We don't have sources who are dissidents on other sources. Should they come forward, that would be a tricky situation for us. But we're presumably acting in such a way that people feel morally compelled to continue our mission, not to screw it up.
CA: I'd actually be interested, just based on what we've heard so far -- I'm curious as to the opinion in the TED audience. You know, there might be a couple of views of WikiLeaks and of Julian. You know, hero -- people's hero -- bringing this important light. Dangerous troublemaker. Who's got the hero view? Who's got the dangerous troublemaker view?
JA: Oh, come on. There must be some.
CA: It's a soft crowd, Julian, a soft crowd. We have to try better. Let's show them another example. Now here's something that you haven't yet leaked, but I think for TED you are. I mean it's an intriguing story that's just happened, right. What is this?
JA: So this is a sample of what we do sort of every day. So late last year -- in November last year -- there was a series of well blowouts in Albania like the well blowout in the Gulf of Mexico, but not quite as big. And we got a report -- a sort of engineering analysis into what happened -- saying that, in fact, security guards from some rival, various competing oil firms had, in fact, parked trucks there and blown them up. And part of the Albanian government was in this, etc., etc. And the engineering report had nothing on the top of it. So it was an extremely difficult document for us. We couldn't verify it because we didn't know who wrote it and knew what it was about. So we were kind of skeptical that maybe it was a competing oil firm just sort of playing the issue up. So under that basis, we put it out an said, "Look, we're skeptical about this thing. We don't know, but what can we do? The material looks good, it feels right, but we just can't verify it." And we then got a letter just this week from the company who wrote it, wanting to track down the source -- (Laughter) saying, "Hey, we want to track down the source." And we were like, "Oh, tell us more. What document, precisely, is it you're talking about? Can you show that you had legal authority over that document? Is it really yours?" So they sent us this screen shot with the author in the Microsoft Word ID. Yeah. (Applause) That's happened quite a lot though. This is like one of our methods of identifying -- of verifying what a material is, is to try and get these guys to write letters.
CA: Yeah. Have you had information from inside BP.
JA: Yeah, we have a lot, but I mean, at the moment, we are undergoing a sort of serious fundraising and engineering effort. So our publication rate over the past few months has been sort of minimized while we're re-engineering our back systems for the phenomenal public interest that we have. That's a problem. I mean, like any sort of growing startup organization, we are sort of overwhelmed by our growth. And that means we're getting enormous quantity of whistleblower disclosures of a very high caliber, but don't have enough people to actually process and vet this information.
CA: So that's the key bottleneck, basically journalistic volunteers and/or the funding of journalistic salaries?
JA: Yep. Yeah, and trusted people. I mean, we're an organization that is hard to grow very quickly because of the sort of material we deal with. So we have to restructure in order to have people who will deal with the highest national security stuff, and then lower security cases.
CA: So help us understand about you personally and how you came to do this. And I think I read that as a kid you went to 37 different schools. Can that be right?
JA: Well, my parents were in the movie business and then on the run from a cult, so the combination between the two ...
CA: I mean, a psychologist might say that's a recipe for breeding paranoia.
JA: What, the movie business?
CA: And you were also -- I mean, you were also a hacker at an early age and ran into the authorities early on. JA: Well, I was a journalist. You know, I was a very young journalist activist at an early age. I wrote a magazine, was prosecuted for it when I was a teenager. So you have to be careful with hacker. I mean there's like -- there's a method that can be deployed for various things. Unfortunately, at the moment, it's mostly deployed by the Russian mafia in order to steal your grandmother's bank accounts. So this phrase is not -- not as nice as it used to be.
CA: Yeah, well, I certainly don't think you're stealing anyone's grandmother's bank account. But what about your core values? Can you give us a sense of what they are and maybe some incident in your life that helped determine them?
JA: I'm not sure about the incident. But the core values: well, capable, generous men do not create victims; they nurture victims. And that's something from my father and something from other capable, generous men that have been in my life.
CA: Capable, generous men do not create victims; they nurture victims?
JA: Yeah. And you know, I'm a combative person, so I'm not actually sort of big on the nurture. But some way -- There is another way of nurturing victims, which is to police perpetrators of crime. And so that is something that has been in my character for a long time.
CA: So just tell us, very quickly in the last minute, the story: what happened in Iceland? You basically published something there, ran into trouble with a bank, then the news service there was injuncted from running the story. Instead, they publicized your side. That made you very high-profile in Iceland. What happened next?
JA: Yeah, this is a great case, you know. Iceland went through this financial crisis. It was the hardest hit of any country in the world. Its banking sector was 10 times the GDP of the rest of the economy. Anyway, so we release this report in July last year. And the national TV station was injuncted five minutes before it went on air. Like out of a movie, injunction landed on the news desk, and the news reader was like, "This has never happened before. What do we do?" Well, we just show the website instead, for all that time, as a filler. And we became very famous in Iceland, went to Iceland and spoke about this issue. And there was a feeling in the community that that should never happen again. And as a result, working with some Icelandic politicians and some other international legal experts, we put together a new sort of package of legislation for Iceland to sort of become an offshore haven for the free press, with the strongest journalistic protections in the world, with a new Nobel Prize for freedom of speech. Iceland's a Nordic country so, like Norway, it's able to tap into the system. And just a month ago, this was passed by the Icelandic parliament unanimously.
Last question, Julian. When you think of the future then, do you think it's more likely to be Big Brother exerting more control, more secrecy, or us watching Big Brother, or it's just all to be played for either way?
JA: I'm not sure which way it's going to go. I mean there's enormous pressures to harmonize freedom of speech legislation and transparency legislation around the world -- within the E.U., between China and the United States. Which way is it going to go? It's hard to see. That's why it's a very interesting time to be in. Because with just a little bit of effort we can shift it one way or the other.
CA: Well, it looks like I'm reflecting the audience's opinion to say, Julian, be careful and all power to you.