The Frontline Club in London has long been where foreign correspondents gather to swap boozy stories about far-flung adventures and bravado. But on Monday, the venerated club hosted a new star in international journalism one with a decidedly different temperament. Tall, wan and with wispy, prematurely gray hair, Julian Assange told the gathered reporters about the 90,000 classified documents from the war in Afghanistan that he released through his website WikiLeaks.org. Assange, a former computer hacker who has never traveled to Afghanistan, met up with TIME's Eben Harrell in the attic of the Frontline Club to discuss the site, his motivations and a set of documents that has upset the game plan of the Obama Administration.
There's a collection of newspapers with your picture on the front page. Who is Julian Assange?
I am a journalist and publisher and inventor. In the case of WikiLeaks, I have tried to create a system which solves the problem of censorship of the press and censorship of whistle-blowers across the whole world. As a public spokesman for the organization, I take all the heat and get all the credit.
You have been called "the Robin Hood of hacking," and it has been reported that you don't spend more than two days in same place. What is your lifestyle like?
There is a bit of a desire to romanticize what I do. But like war correspondents who go to various countries, I do the same thing. I travel to different countries where we have supports and where I need to follow stories. Most of what any leader of an organization does is logistics, and that's what I do.
Do you have a home base?
We have different bases in different places. There are four places where I would personally feel secure.
What do you mean by secure?
It's where we have strong political support.
A lot of newspapers have described you as a pacifist.
Not at all. I'm an extremely combative person. That said, of course the death of children and conscript soldiers should be avoided if it can be avoided. We are more interested in looking at whether abuses are occurring, understanding where they have occurred and getting that out to the public, to investigate it for police and policy people, so that justice is done in relationship to past abuses and that future abuses do not occur because of a deterrence effect.
But you say that many of the abuses are just part of war?
That's right. When we go back to look at descriptions of Vietnam and World War II, it's just one thing after another. That's why, when you go into a war, you have to make it as brief as possible. No matter how good your intentions are, war starts corrupting the people involved in it. It corrupts the social and economic fabric of the country where the war is taking place. That seems to be what is happening in Afghanistan.
So you're not antiwar?
If a country which is surrounded by other countries does not have an army or security sector, opportunistic groups invade and take over. A military is important to defend the security of a country. But that said, how can we support a war that isn't about defense? The war in Afghanistan seems to be slowly turning into something that is not about defense. It's an ongoing mire for all parties.
Do you believe in total transparency? Should governments and individuals be allowed to hold secrets, or should we put everything out there?
Of course there are legitimate secrets. But we must make the default assumption that each individual has the right to communicate knowledge to other individuals. We call up our grandmother, and the government doesn't listen in. Your mail can be sent, and the government doesn't open it up. That is our default assumption. There is a community assumption that we can talk to one another freely and that it is right to exchange knowledge about what is happening in the world. Those assumptions are embodied in good jurisprudence.
What we see coming out of the U.S. First Amendment is that Congress shall make no law in relating to restriction of freedom of speech or press. It doesn't say Congress should make a law to protect the press. It takes the function of political debate and exchange of ideas outside the legislature. There's a very good reason for that. It was the Federalist papers and the swapping of information that led to the U.S. Constitution and in an ongoing sense to the social structure that creates laws and legislation. It is the communication of information that regulates politics and the legislature, the judiciary and the behavior of the police. It's quite important to have the default assumption that the free exchange of information should not be regulated except in specific and clear circumstances.
But doesn't a soldier reporting from the ground in Afghanistan have to feel he is typing up a confidential report? How do you square that? Why is he an exception?
A soldier may not have the right to do that. It depends on whether he is engaged in legitimate action. Just because there's a soldier somewhere doesn't mean his action is legitimate. We have seen an increasing number of dissidents in the U.S. military during the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. This is a divisive issue within the U.S. government and within the people on the ground who are seeing firsthand what is happening. Do those people have the right to express their dissent? We can say maybe or maybe not. Maybe they personally do not have the right ... The First Amendment is clear that publishers do have the right to tell the people what is going on.