Original video clips
Rhonda Pence: Welcome to Face to Face. I’m Rhonda Pence in New York City. Joining me today is Julian Assange. He is cofounder of Wikileaks. Wikileaks is a website designed to be a safe haven for whistle-blowers around the world, where leaked documents are published in their entirety so viewers can read them and make their own determination. Most recently, Wikileaks released a 2007 video from New Baghdad where U.S. Apache helicopter pilots were gunning down civilians. Thank you so much for joining me, Julian. People are talking about this video; they’re blogging about this video; they’re twittering about this video. For viewers who have not yet seen this video, can you describe it for us?
Julian Assange: The video, in full, is thirty-eight minutes long. It is taken from the gun-side of the lead Apache helicopter, called Crazy Horse. It shows three events: firstly, an attack on a gathering of about twenty relaxed-looking people, two of which may have had weapons, but that was fairly normal to be happening in Baghdad at that time. In that group were two Reuters journalists from Baghdad, photographer Namir and his driver and assistant Saaed. Namir is walking towards a corner with his camera strapped over his shoulder, and the Apache asks and gets permission to engage, to open fire, to shoot 30mm cannon shells at the entire group. By that stage there are about nine people together, including Namir and Saaed, and they are all mowed down, all killed, with the exception of Saaed, who is wounded. Saaed crawls along—and this is the second event—is crawling on the ground, in the gutter, (you can see him by his white shirt,) and the gunners and the pilots in the Apache are saying, “C’mon, buddy, pick up a weapon. All we need you to do is pick up a weapon.” They know that under the rules of engagement if there are any weapons on the scene nearby him, or if he picks one up, they can kill him. Of course, there are no weapons there, in fact they can’t see any weapons there, everyone else is dead, and this is not a combat situation.
RP: Now, I’ve seen this video, of course, and I attended the press conference you had in Washington D.C., and it is as if you are inside the Apache helicopter, almost watching people play a video game; with the words you described, “light him up,” “shoot him up.” Except of course these are real people who are being shot down. Why do you want the world to see this video?
JA: We’re concerned with this video not because it’s another war video, but because of the cover-up that was involved. This was also a video that has killed journalists who can’t have been insurgents. For any other sort of victim, except a child, there is always an allegation, “Well, maybe they were really insurgents.”
RP: But there was shooting in New Baghdad, about twenty to twenty-five minutes before the Apache helicopters arrived there was open gunfire. So the pilots apparently could have thought insurgents were there. But as you said, the Reuters journalists were walking around relaxed, they saw the Apache helicopters, and they were not afraid. Why do you think there was so much targeting going on and so much shooting for so long?
JA: According to classified U.S. military records, there was shooting, small-arms fire, somewhere in New Baghdad, not in the street, twenty-eight minutes before the Apaches circled around and saw this group. Also in that classified documentation it says that they were not able to identify who was doing the shooting. So there cannot be any allegation that they know that this group had anything to do with the shooting that was happening twenty-eight minutes beforehand. It appears that these were just very bloodthirsty pilots. You hear it in their language—this appears to be just another day at the office. The pilots are fairly relaxed during this whole episode, and just get sort of excited and enthusiastic when they’re actually killing people. It seems to be a type of debasement of war. You expect people to become debased by war, their characters to be corrupted by engaging in war. Because of the removed nature of the Apache— they can’t hear anyone on the ground, they’re a long way up, they’re totally removed—it looks like a video game, with a cross, and you press the button, so that over time, these pilots started thinking it really was a video game. They got pleasure by getting a high score, and it was also a source of pride to them. They bragged to the ground forces, “Hey, we shot twelve to fifteen. You go there; you’ll find twelve to fifteen bodies.” It’s a source of pride, and they congratulate each other, saying, “Nice shoot,” and they joke about the dead bodies. A little bit of gallows humor. You expect this in war, this black humor, so I’m not so concerned about the black humor. It’s the enthusiasm for the killing that seems to me to be the problem. They are looking for any excuse to kill. They do know the rules. They do not try and shoot before saying, “There are weapons. We’re looking for weapons.” They do not shoot Saaed when he is crawling on the curb, when he has no weapon. When the van arrives, it seems like they know something about the rules, that if insurgents are escaping, they can shoot. And later on with the house, they say, “Hey, we’ve seen six armed men go in there. Hey, we can now put a missile in it.” They know these rules fairly well. They always ask their commanding officer for permission to attack in the three major events. And later on, after complaints by Reuters about the deaths of the journalists, there was a review. So, there was an internal military investigation as to whether any laws were broken, whether the rules of engagement were broken. And the review found that no rules were broken in this event, that this was perfectly acceptable. There had been no disciplining of those troops, no imprisonment, and as far as we know, no demotions of those individuals. Either there is a problem with that review, a problem with the internal judicial system in the United States military, the internal mechanisms of accountability, or, those really were the rules, and everyone did follow the rules, and also the review panel acted in the right way, when it said that everyone followed the rules. Then there is a problem with the rules.
RP: Now, the Pentagon says it can’t find this video. Did you get this video from the U.S. military?
JA: We never reveal where we get material from precisely, but obviously this passed through the hands of military officers or enlisted personnel on its way to us. When we first got this we got it with a brief textual description. We didn’t really know what we had. We originally thought this was a video about Afghanistan, and it was only once we decrypted it, which took a volunteer effort of many people donating their computers to help go through all the different passwords and find the one decryptor, it was only then that we started to see what was going on, and started researching this more and more and more. And the more we looked, the worse it became.
RP: Wikileaks has another video coming out, similar to this one, but shot in Afghanistan?
JA: Yes. We have a number of additional videos, including one about Afghanistan, that we’re working on. We’re analyzing it and assessing it, and we hope to send someone to Afghanistan as well, like we did with this video that was about Baghdad, because getting their back-story is really important.
RP: So this is your assessment, that this is “Modern Warfare” going on?
JA: This is the first glimpse we’ve had of what modern warfare is really like. At each stage in our history, “modern” has meant something different. The warfare of the type that’s been happening in the last five years, this advanced, high-tech warfare with very powerful zoom lenses, with powerful targeting systems that all make it more like a video game. Now we can kind of understand, when we hear of thirty-three civilian casualties in Afghanistan or some other place in the world, something happening in Israel, where this high-tech weaponry is used—I don’t mean to pick on the U.S. in particular, but that’s the country that has the most high-tech weaponry—when we hear of people killed in an airstrike, this is what it’s like: high-tech zoom lenses, cross-hairs, and pressing a button. That’s a problem because it means this video game mentality must be creeping into all these pilots and gunners.
RP: So what do you want to happen? Do you want an investigation into these pilots? Who do you want to see this video? What are you hoping to accomplish?
JA: We want the incident reopened. The two investigative reports that were done into this were not released by the Pentagon until we released the video. One of them was released in response on Monday, and another one on Tuesday. Both of those investigation reports are clearly biased. They’re not only very short—remember, a lot of people died, including two Reuters journalists—but it sounds like they’ve been written by a defense lawyer. I don’t think it can be argued that these were mutual, objective, comprehensive investigations whatsoever. There’s also key facts that are wrong.
RP: You’ve had Sarah Palin’s hacked emails published on Wikileaks, Wesley Snipes’ tax returns—that’s certainly not in the same category as NATO’s plans on the Afghan war. But why Wesley Snipes’ tax returns?
JA: So I’m glad you raised that, because it’s quite irritating that people are speaking about that. Wesley Snipes’ tax returns were there, not because it’s Wesley Snipes, but because there was a scheme to evade tax. This is a rich person, who has a particular scheme, some offshore scheme, to evade taxes. That’s why that was interesting from our perspective. Similarly with Sarah Palin—well, she’s a political figure who could be the next president, so actually everything to do with her is politically interesting, but in this particular case, she was using not her government email account, but her Yahoo! Email account, in order to evade the Freedom of Information Act. In fact, there was an ongoing lawsuit, in Alaska, to try and get those emails. That’s quite an interesting case. But nonetheless, we make a promise to our sources that if something is hidden from the public, and is not self-authored, and is of diplomatic, political, ethical or historical interest, we guarantee to release it. Give it to us, we’ll protect you, and we guarantee to release it. So, Sarah Palin’s emails are of political interest, evasion of the Freedom of Information Act is of ethical interest, and anything involving the U.S. election at that level is also of historical interest. So, we release it.
RP: So you are an Australian award-winning journalist, cofounder of Wikileaks, and you’re sitting on a nine-member board. Who else is part of Wikileaks?
JA: Well, it may surprise some people, but we only have five fulltime staff, due to funding constraints. But we do have eight hundred part-timers.
RP: Who are they?
JA: They’re from all over the world; they’re former transparency head international people, they are journalists, they are corruption investigators, they are former intelligence agents.
RP: Did they contact you? Did you come together through paths crossing?
JA: They are people who volunteered. We have many, many lawyers. If you go to Wikileaks, you will see at the moment we are in a fundraising volunteer drive. And so, if you have good technical abilities you can volunteer, help run some of our infrastructure.
RP: I saw the list on your website, and a lot of mainstream media are donating to your site.
JA: Well, they primarily haven’t donated any money. But they do donate lawyers for our legal cases, and that’s a very important contribution that they have made. So that’s eleven major, U.S., mainstream organizations, and the Society of Professional Journalists and other journalists’ unions. In the United States, ACLU and EFF and these other civil rights groups have contributed to our legal cases. That has been very valuable and important, that they have done that. So, I think the mainstream press here—the quality aspect of the mainstream press—sees us as the free-press vanguard. The more we can publish, the more they can publish. If Wikileaks.org is taken down today, NYTimes.com will be taken down tomorrow. So we are both the vanguard, the advanced guard, of press freedoms in the world, but we are also the canary in the coalmine. If we fail in some way, the next group to fail will be the mainstream press.
RP: Are you being spied on by different governments or different entities, or governments trying to shut down your website? I would imagine that there are many groups that have concerns about you.
JA: We have lots of litigation from banks, because people have lots of money and lots to hide. So, there have been some serious cases. Swiss bank Julius Baer, the largest private Swiss bank, (you can’t open an account unless you’ve got over a million dollars,) engaged in very serious litigation against us in San Francisco, and lost. In fact, that attempt to sue us canceled their U.S. IPO, their stock offering, and cost them over three-hundred million dollars. So, quite a nice outcome: many legal threats from Icelandic banks, from banks in Abu Dai, U.K. banks—we haven’t had too many in from U.S., [banks] even though we have released documents on them—I think they understand it’s better to just keep quiet and not draw attention to those banking documents. In government interactions we have had censorship, and have ongoing censorship, by China, from the very beginning, from the moment of our launch. We have had some minor problems with Australia and Germany, but those have been rolled back. People saw that that was the wrong thing to do. Even in our problems with Iran, the Iranian government has rolled back, and doesn’t censor us anymore, which is good.
RP: In 2007 you received military documents saying that U.S. troops were given authority to go into countries like Iran and Syria to hunt down Saddam Hussein’s followers and alleged terrorists. What happened with that?
JA: This is a very important document. We worked with New York Times reporter Eric Schmitt to expose this document and its context. That was a leading article in the Times. The Iranian government saw that, and then the foreign minister at that time—I can’t remember his name—they held a press conference saying Iranian territory should not be entered by the United States, this is not acceptable, to have rules that permit U.S. troops to enter into Iranian territory under their own decision. And we know—we just released the 2008 version—that that is no longer in the rules of engagement for U.S. troops. That is a significant advance. Many wars have been started by these border skirmishes. For some, maybe reasonable, reason, troops from one country cross the border, in pursuit of smugglers or terrorists, into another country, and then the other country engages on them, and there’s a back-and-forth, and the situation escalates, and then there is outrage in the various countries, and it makes countries enemies, and a war starts. I think that it’s not unreasonable to assume that there was about a five percent chance that that document helped stop a war between the United States and Iran. Remember, this is in the context of 2007. This is when Bush’s neo-cons were at their height in trying to ferment some sort of conflict or hostility between Iran and the United States. Fortunately, that didn’t happen, not just as a result of this document, but as a result of several good people within the U.S. administration being unhappy about this and resigning, or coming out in the press and saying that that was what was going on and calling to stop it. Daniel Ellsberg, the famous whistle-blower who leaked the Pentagon Papers here in the 1970s, he called tirelessly, again and again, for people to come out and leak information about the plans to have a war with Iran. Sy Hersh published information saying that there were attempts to push for some kind of conflict with Iran. So, I think a combination of all these, our efforts and these other groups’ efforts, ended up stopping that kind of conflict from going ahead, and that’s a great thing.
RP: I think it’s interesting that you worked so closely with the New York Times. Wikileaks also worked very closely with the Washington Post when Wikileaks received a manual regarding Guantanamo, telling secrets like detainees were being intimidated by dogs. What happened with that?
JA: We got all of the 2003 manual for Guantanamo Bay, which was authored by the then-commander, General Miller. That is the same general who went to Abu Ghraib, and set up Abu Ghraib, in response to request by Donald Rumsfeld, saying, “Go to Abu Ghraib and gitmo-ize it.” Turn it into another Gitmo. Take the lessons you have learned in Guantanamo Bay and apply them to Abu Ghraib. The abuses in Abu Ghraib occur after that. It’s very interesting to look at the progression of this abuse. And we see for the initial 2003 manual for Guantanamo that there was a policy of hiding people from the Red Cross for one month—a breach of the Geneva Convention. Not only just not allowing the Red Cross to see them, but hiding them, pretending that they weren’t there at all, falsifying records. It says in the manual for Guantanamo Bay that records should be falsified, also that every initial prisoner is to be held in maximum penalty conditions when they first come, in solitary confinement, as a sort of softening-up process for interrogation. When that information came out, the spokesperson for Guantanamo Bay said, “Oh; that was under Jeffrey Miller. That was under the previous general, in 2003. Even by the next year, it had all changed. There was a new commander who came in.” That statement stimulated another source to provide us with the 2004 manual. Then we compared every letter of difference between 2003 and 2004, and showed that no, it didn’t get better, it got significantly worse. There was a show-camp that was set up in 2004—Camp Four—which was a place that had guards just for their media and public relations schools. This is where you would take journalists and visiting foreign MPs to show them Guantanamo wasn’t so bad after all. Language had changed. Remove all references to say, suicide, and call it self-harm. And a number of other problems. We worked with the Center for Constitutional Rights, based here in New York, who provide many of the lawyers for the Guantanamo detainees, to go over that and analyze it and assess it and get it out.
RP: I only have time for one more question, and it is, do you fear for your personal safety, do you fear that anyone may be coming after you, fear for your life, fear that you may be jailed?
JA: No. None of us act like fools. There are certain countries where it can be dangerous to do things. There may be problems with me going to China, as an example. But here in the West, it’s in no one’s career interest to do anything like that to us. The backlash would be so extraordinary that it would be some kind of career suicide. It’s in no one’s individual self-interest, from the C.I.A. to the military to do anything like that, so it doesn’t get done. Even if you might say, “Is it in the C.I.A.’s institutional interest?” Well maybe. But it’s not in any one individual’s interest to do that, so it’s not going to happen. Also, we have a lot of supporters, including within the U.S. military. Those people leak us information about us. When U.S. counter-intelligence started writing reports about us in 2008, those reports came to us, and we released them. I think that it is quite hard for many governments to try and move against us in that way because we have such extensive support in the mainstream media, amongst human right activists, lawyers, and in intelligence organizations themselves. I think they have some respect for us. We are in fact doing what they want to do. If you are a spy or an intelligence agent, basically you are an investigative journalist who isn’t able to publish. You are not able to tell the public all the things that you wanted to tell them. We are a bit like that, except we can tell the public. So in some ways, amongst the good people in intelligence communities, there’s a degree of camaraderie with what we do. They know that we’re after the bad guys. We don’t want to expose the good intelligence operations that are happening. We’re after the bad guys as well; the abuses that occur. I think individual intelligence officers in the United States and many other countries understand that and are supportive.
RP: Thank you so much for this very interesting and insightful conversation.