- By John HudsonJohn Hudson is a senior reporter at Foreign Policy, where he covers diplomacy and national security issues in Washington. He has reported from several geopolitical hotspots, including Ukraine, Pakistan, Malaysia, China, and Georgia. Prior to joining FP, John covered politics and global affairs for the Atlantic magazine’s news blog, the Atlantic Wire. In 2008, he covered the August war between Russia and Georgia from Tbilisi and the breakaway region of Abkhazia. He has appeared on CNN, MSNBC, BBC, C-SPAN, Fox News radio, Al Jazeera, and other broadcast outlets. He has been with the magazine since 2013.
Back in 2011, Google executive Eric Schmidt conducted a secret interview with Julian Assange while the WikiLeaks founder was under house arrest in Britain. The nature of the interview has not been revealed until now, a week before the release of Schmidt’s new book The New Digital Age. In the book, obtained by Foreign Policy, Schmidt and Assange discuss a range of issues related to secrecy and the free flow of information. But one particular exchange chips away at one of Assange’s core beliefs about protecting government informants from violent reprisal.
For years, Assange has been dogged by allegations that he never cared if his WikiLeaks disclosures endangered the lives of innocent civilians. “If they get killed, they’ve got it coming to them,” Assange allegedly said, according to the Guardian‘s investigative journalist David Leigh. “They deserve it.” But Assange has always denied saying this, and has insisted that thousands of WikiLeaks files were carefully redacted out of concern for innocent people exposed by the cables. “We don’t want innocent people who have a decent chance of being hurt to be hurt,” he told PBS. But now, in his new book, Schmidt says Assange never wanted to redact the cables — and only did so for monetary reasons.
“Assange told us he redacted only to reduce the international pressure that was financially strangling him and said he would have preferred no redactions,” writes Schmidt and his co-author Jared Cohen. In the book, the line serves as a warning to readers that “in the future, if a centralized platform emerged that offered [hackers and information criminals] WikiLeaks-level security and publicity, it would present a real problem.”
When contacted by FP, WikiLeaks spokesman Kristinn Hrafnsson sharply rebuked Schmidt’s account of the interview. “Mr. Assange … does not recall linking regrets (if any) of having redacted too much of the material to any financial concerns,” he said. “I can also add that as a member of the core WikiLeaks team, I find this odd. At no time was there any WikiLeaks monetary concerns raised in relation to this issue.”
For supporters and opponents of WikiLeaks, the issue of protecting innocent civilians remains one of the most contentious elements of the organization’s legacy. It gets to the heart of whether Assange is truly an information absolutist — willing to sacrifice anyone’s security at the altar of radical transparency — or something less than that. Supporters note the lack of evidence that any Afghan informants were injured in the aftermath of the leaks. But critics point to other instances in which innocents were endangered, such as in 2011, when an Ethiopian journalist was forced to flee his country after a WikiLeaks cable named him and his source. Or in January 2011, when Zimbabwean generals faced potential treason charges over confidential comments made to U.S. ambassador Charles Ray.
Most of the redactions that occurred in the WikiLeaks releases were made by the organization’s many media partners, such as the New York Times and the Guardian, which worked in consultation with the U.S. government to identify vulnerable sources. Unfortunately, in 2011, the WikiLeaks “insurance file,” a highly encrypted file released to the web, was decrypted, exposing the entire cache of unredacted U.S. diplomatic cables.
The remarks in Schmidt’s book are the first to support the allegations by Leigh that Assange never actually cared about the well-being of U.S. informants as demonstrated by the infamous “they deserve it” quotation. But Hrafnsson insists Assange never said that. “It is only supported by one person; David Leigh of the Guardian,” Hrafnsson said. “Representatives of other media partners, who where present, have stated that they never heard him make such a remark.”
What’s novel about Schmidt’s account is the declaration that money played a role in Assange’s decision-making, something Hrafnsson vehemently protested. As evidence that financial considerations weren’t a factor, Hrafnsson argued that WikiLeaks was barely able to receive money from contributors given the financial blockade against the organization by companies such as MasterCard, PayPal, and Visa — so pleasing potential donors wasn’t a concern for Assange.
“In Cablegate for example we went through a period of 10 months in publishing where redactions were mostly trusted to our (100+) media partners,” Hrafnsson said. “At that time we were already dealing with a banking blockade so there was almost no way of donating to the organization.”
Schmidt’s book, The New Digital Age, co-written by former State Department advisor Jared Cohen, comes out April 23.
Update: WikiLeaks has published a transcript of the interview between Eric Schmidt, Jared Cohen and Julian Assange. You can read the whole exchange here.