WikiLeaks, the website which solicits and publishes secret and suppressed material from whistleblowers all around the world, was back in the news this week, along with its mysterious and eccentric founder Julian Assange. Someone - it's not clear who - dumped 250,000 unredacted and classified State Department and Pentagon documents, which had been in WikiLeaks possession, onto the Internet.
When Steve Kroft first interviewed Assange last January, he was already under investigation by the Justice Department for publishing classified material and possible violations of the Espionage Act. He was also under house arrest in Britain fighting extradition to Sweden in connection with two sexual assault cases, which he has called part of a smear campaign against him.
None of that has changed and the battle between the freedom to publish and government's need to keep secrets continues. In what is still his most extensive television interview, Assange talked to "60 Minutes" about the idea behind WikiLeaks and the prospect of facing criminal charges in the United States.
Having Julian Assange sit down for his first major TV interview was not an easy task
Steve Kroft: You've been called a lot of names. You've been characterized as a hero and as a villain. A martyr. Terrorist.
Julian Assange: I'm not yet a martyr.
Assange: Let's keep it that way.
For now, Assange is holed up on a bucolic 600-acre English estate with an ankle bracelet, a 10 p.m. curfew, and a slow Internet connection. He declined to talk to us about the allegations in Sweden, on the advice of his attorney. He has not been charged and proclaims his innocence.
Kroft: Well, I suppose if you have to be under house arrest, there could be worse places.
Assange: Well it's a gilded cage. It's still a cage. But when you are forced to stay somewhere against your will, it does become something that you want to leave.
It's a radical departure from the lifestyle that the peripatetic Internet muckraker is used to - bounding from city to city, country to country, and regularly changing his cell phones, hair styles and general appearance, he says, to elude surveillance and avoid being killed, kidnapped or arrested.
And there are reasons for his paranoia: in the last four years, WikiLeaks has released information that played some role in deciding the 2007 election in Kenya, and fueling the anger that recently brought down the government in Tunisia. It has also divulged the membership rolls of a neo Nazi organization in Great Britain, and secret documents from the Church of Scientology. And that was before Assange began publishing U.S. secrets, provoking what he calls threatening statements from people close to power.
Kroft: What statements are you referring to?
Assange: The statements by the Vice President Biden saying, for instance that I was a high-tech terrorist. Sarah Palin calling to our organization to be dealt with like the Taliban, and be hunted down. There's calls either for my assassination or the assassination of my staff or for us to be kidnapped and renditioned back to the United States to be executed.
Kroft: Well as you know, we have a First Amendment and people can say whatever they want, including politicians. I don't think that many people in the United States took seriously the idea that you were a terrorist.
Assange: I would like to believe that. On the other hand the incitements to murder are a serious issue. And unfortunately there is a portion of the population that will believe in them and may carry them out.
Howard L. Rosenberg and Tanya Simon are the producers.