Steve Kroft asked Julian Assange a lot of great questions tonight. Assange had some impressive, polished answers. The interview was so long that you have to watch it in two different clips. Here’s the first:
I think the most noteworthy quotations come in the second clip, however. Three reactions follow:
1) Assange: “What we want is transparent government, not transparent people.”
@ 4:53: Kroft: “For somebody who abhors secrets, you run a pretty secretive organization.”
Assange: “That’s not true… We are an organization who one of our primary goals is to keep things secret, to keep the identities of our sources secret. Secrecy is an inherent part of our operation.”
I like that Assange came out and stated it this way. I think this goes a long way toward openly distinguishing his government transparency ethic from the wider “information wants to be free” mantra of MarkZism and the hacktivist subculture from which Assange emerged. And I also think it’s a defensible response to those who criticize him for not disclosing more information about the organization.
2) Shorter Assange: “We don’t say we did what we did. Rather, we say: we did what we in hindsight realize we should have done.”
@5:22: Kroft: “The State Department would make the same argument.That they are doing very sensitive work, they are trying to make peace and negotiate situations around the world very delicately, it’s important that they do this in secrecy, what’s the difference?”
Assange: “We don’t say the State Department should have no secrets. Rather, we say: if there are people in the State Department who say there is some abuse going on, and there’s not a proper mechanism for internal accountability, they must have a conduit to get this out to the public. And we are the conduit.”
Whoa, whoa, a thousand times whoa. Of course, I’m heartened that Assange appears to be taking to heart the idea of targeted whistle-blowing. (The conditions he lists here for when and how to conduct leaks are pretty close to my comfort zone, and if he had actually followed them all along I would be a huge fan.) But are you kidding me? Is he really defending Cablegate on the basis that this was the organization’s modus operandi previously?
3) Kroft: “You’re a publisher, but…”
@8:12: “There’s a feeling in the [journalism] community that you’re not one of them. The point that they’re making is that you’re a publisher, but you’re also an activist.”
Steve Kroft gets the question slightly wrong when he asks Assange whether the mainstream media thinks of him as “not one of them” because of his activism. If you read Bill Keller’s memoir in the New York Times Magazine this past week, it’s clear that it’s not the activism that distinguishes Assange from other journalists in the minds of the media: it’s the journalism. Simply put, Keller and the NYTimes see Assange – or have realized it’s in their interest to say they see Assange – as a source, not as a partner or a collaborator, not as a journalist or publisher, the way Assange describes himself. I would have liked to see Kroft push Assange on the definition of “publisher” rather than accepting and legitimating this claim. I think it remains an interesting open question.
But I did have great respect for the way Assange answered Kroft’s question:
We’re not that sort of activist. We are free press activists. It is not about saving the whales. It is about giving people the information they need to support whaling or not support whaling. That is the raw ingredient that is needed to make adjustments in society, and without that, you’re just sailing in the dark.