Watch CBS News

Julian Assange, the man behind WikiLeaks

WikiLeaks' Julian Assange, Pt. 1 14:59

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.

"60 Minutes Overtime"
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.

Kroft: Right.

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.

Extra: Assange stays on the move

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.

If nothing else, WikiLeaks is the latest demonstration that a small group of people with a powerful idea can harness technology and affect large institutions. In WikiLeaks' case it was the idea to aggregate state and corporate secrets by setting up an online electronic drop box where whistleblowers around the world could anonymously upload sensitive and suppressed information. The secrets are stored on servers around the world, beyond the reach of governments or law enforcement, then released worldwide on the Internet.

Assange: The U.S. does not have the technology to take the site down

Kroft: Because?

Assange: Just the way our technology is constructed, the way the Internet is constructed. It's quite hard to stop things reappearing. So, we've had attacks on particular domain names. Little pieces of infrastructure knocked out. But we now have some 2,000 fully independent in every way Web sites, where we're publishing around the world.

WikiLeaks first caught the attention of most Americans a year ago in April when it released a video which shows a U.S. Apache helicopter crew in Iraq opening fire on a group of suspected insurgents who were standing on a street corner in Baghdad.

Some of the men were armed, but two of them were journalists from Reuters.

At least a dozen people were killed in the attack, some of them innocent civilians. Then last July, WikiLeaks released 76,000 classified field reports of U.S. operations in Afghanistan that provided a chaotic and bleak ground level view of the war. In October there were another 400,000 classified documents released from Iraq showing that civilian casualties there were much higher than the Pentagon had claimed; and finally in November, thousands of State Department cables that lifted the veil on highly sensitive back room diplomacy.

The documents revealed that Arab leaders were lobbying the U.S. to attack Iran, and that the State Department had been secretly collecting intelligence on leaders at the United Nations. It triggered outcries that Assange was a political actor trying to damage the U.S. government.

Kroft: Are you a subversive?

Assange: I'm sure there are certain views amongst Hillary Clinton and her lot that we are subverting their authority. But you're right, we are subverting illegitimate authority. The question is whether the authority is legitimate or whether it is illegitimate.

Kroft: Do you consider the U.S. State Department a legitimate authority?

Assange: It's legitimate insofar as its actions are legitimate. It has actions that are not legitimate.

Kroft: And you've gone after the ones that you think are illegitimate?

Assange: We don't go after. That's a bit of a misconception. We don't go after a particular country. We don't go after a particular organizational group. We just stick to our promise of publishing the material that is likely to have a significant impact.

To increase the impact of the U.S. documents, Assange decided to share them with some of the leading news organizations in the world, including The New York Times - a relationship that grew testy when Assange published the first set of war logs without removing the names of Afghans who were cooperating with U.S. forces.

Kroft: The most persistent criticism from within the press has been that you have behaved recklessly from time to time. And the example that they cite is the fact that you've decided to release Afghan documents without redacting the names of people who had provided intelligence to the U.S. government.

Assange: There's no evidence, or any credible allegation, or even any allegation from an official body that we have caused any individual at any time to come to harm in the past four years.

Kroft: The Pentagon said that they've gone through all of these documents and they found the names of 300 people.

Assange: Well, that's new public information to us. It's possible that there are 300 names in the publically released Afghan material. We don't pretend that that process is absolutely perfect. We did hold back one in five documents for extra harm minimization review and we also improved our process. So, when Iraq came around there was not even a single name in it.

Kroft: I mean, there have been reports of people quoting Taliban leaders, saying that they had the names of these people and that they were going to take retribution.

Assange: The Taliban is not a coherent outfit. But we don't say that it is absolutely impossible that anything we ever publish will ever result in harm. We cannot say that.

Kroft: There's a perception on the part of some people who believe that your agenda right now is anti-American.

Assange: Not at all. In fact, our founding values are those of the U.S. revolution. They are those of the people like Jefferson and Madison. And we have a number of Americans in our organization. If you're a whistleblower and you have material that is important, we will accept it, we will defend you and we will publish it. You can't turn away material simply because it comes from the United States.

After the release of the State Department cables, Attorney General Eric Holder condemned WikiLeaks for putting national security at risk. "There's a real basis. There is a predicate for us to believe that crimes have been committed here," Holder said at a press conference.

Extra: Assange's defense and Daniel Ellsberg

Holder announced that the Justice Department and the Pentagon were conducting a criminal investigation. They are reportedly looking at the Espionage Act of 1917 and other statutes to find a way to prosecute Assange and extradite him to the U.S.

Assange: It's completely outrageous.

Kroft: Are you surprised?

Assange: I am surprised, actually.

Kroft: But you were screwing with the forces of nature. You have made some of the most powerful people in the world your enemies. You had to expect that they might retaliate.

Assange: Oh, no. I fully expected they'll retaliate.

Kroft: You took, you gathered, you stored all sorts of classified cables and documents. And then released them to the world on the Internet. They see that as a threat.

Assange: They see it as highly embarrassing. I think what it's really about is keeping the illusion of control. I'm not surprised about that. I am surprised at how the sort of flagrant disregard for U.S. traditions. That is what I'm surprised about.

Kroft: You're shocked? Someone in the Australian government said that, "Look, if you play outside the rules you can't expect to be protected by the rules." And you played outside the rules. You've played outside the United States' rules.

Assange: No. We've actually played inside the rules. We didn't go out to get the material. We operated just like any U.S. publisher operates. We didn't play outside the rules. We played inside the rules.

Kroft: There's a special set of rules in the United States for disclosing classified information. There is longstanding...

Assange: There's a special set of rules for soldiers. For members of the State Department, who are disclosing classified information. There's not a special set of rules for publishers to disclose classified information. There is the First Amendment. It covers the case. And there's been no precedent that I'm aware of in the past 50 years of prosecuting a publisher for espionage. It is just not done. Those are the rules. You do not do it.

No one has accused Assange of stealing secrets. The Apache video and the classified documents were allegedly provided to WikiLeaks by Private First Class Bradley Manning, a low-level intelligence analyst in Iraq who is accused of copying them from a classified government network that a half a million people have access to.

Manning is now in a military prison at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, facing charges that could put him away for life.

Kroft: You've called him as a prisoner of a conscience, correct?

Assange: I've said that if the allegations against him are true then he is the foremost prisoner of conscience in the United States. There's no allegation it was done for money. There's no allegation it's done for any other reasons than a political reason. Now, I'm sorry if people in the United States don't want to believe that they are keeping a political prisoner. But in Bradley Manning's case, the allegations are that he engaged in an illegal activity for political motivations.

Kroft: People in the United States think he's a traitor.

Assange: That's clearly not true.

Regardless of what happens to Private Manning, any prosecution of Assange will be fraught with problems because WikiLeaks wasn't alone in the publishing the classified material. The New York Times also published some of it. If the government were to try and prosecute WikiLeaks and not The New York Times, it would likely need to prove that Assange was actively involved in a conspiracy to illegally obtain the documents.

Kroft: Did you encourage anyone to leak this material to you? Or have you done anything in connection with the U.S. cases in terms of encouraging an individual to provide you with material?

Assange: No, never.

Kroft: There are people that believe that it has everything to do with the next threat. That if they don't come after you now that what they have done is essentially endorsed small, powerful organization with access to very powerful information releasing it outside their control. And if they let you get away it, then they are encouraging...

Assange: Then what? They will have to have freedom of the press?

Kroft: That it's encouragement to you...

Assange: And? And?

Kroft: ...or to some other organization?

Assange: And to every other publisher. Absolutely correct. It will be encouragement to every other publisher to publish fearlessly. That's what it will encourage.

Kroft: To publish information much more dangerous than this information.

Assange: If we're talking about creating threats to small publishers to stop them publishing, the U.S. has lost its way. It has abrogated its founding traditions. It has thrown the First Amendment in the bin. Because publishers must be free to publish.

Extra: Assange on playing by the rules

Julian Assange is not a traditional journalist or publisher and many have argued that he is not really a journalist at all. He is an anti-establishment ideologue with conspiratorial views. He believes large government institutions use secrecy to suppress the truth and he distrusts the mainstream media for playing along.

Some people have called him an anarchist, which he denies. Assange prefers to be called a libertarian and believes the only people who can adequately police the system are those on the inside who are in a position to notice the abuse and blow the whistle.

While most reporters pride themselves in gathering information and interpreting it for a larger audience, WikiLeaks wants to make the raw data available and let others decide the meaning. Regardless of whether you agree with this idea or not, it beats close to the heart of the Internet and a younger generation and it runs through the life of Julian Assange.

Kroft: You obviously have a mistrust of authority. Where does that come from?

Assange: I think it comes from experience with various types of authorities.

Assange gave us an example from his childhood, a story about him and his mother Christine, who was present at one of his recent court hearings. She was a political activist who helped scientists gather information about nuclear tests conducted by the British in the Australian outback. He remembers them being stopped late one night and questioned by authorities, one of whom said:

Assange: Look lady, you're out at two o'clock in the morning with this could be suggested that you're an unfit mother. I suggest you stay out of politics. And which she did for the next ten years in order to make sure nothing happened to me. So that's a very early abuse of power and the secrecy that I saw in my life.

His was an unconventional and sometimes tumultuous childhood in which he was frequently uprooted and moved around the countryside. He attended 37 different schools.

Kroft: So you've always been a little bit of an outsider?

Assange: I've certainly, when I was a child, going from one school to another, you are the outsider to begin with and you have to find your way in. But in most of the places where I stayed long enough, I did find my way in.

One of the first places Assange found his way into was populated by teenagers and computers. And he knew how to program them before most people had them.

Kroft: You got involved with computers pretty early? With hacking?

Assange: Well, I first became involved with computers when I was 13 or so. And I was unusually adept and I saw a sort of intellectual opportunity understanding how to program, understanding how these complex machines work. And that was part of a social culture in cracking codes to prove that you could do it. And this is something that is very actually normal and healthy amongst young men. You see it in skateboarders competing to show that they are capable in learning the best tricks.

Kroft: And your tricks were like breaking into computers at the Department of Defense and Los Alamos National Laboratory, NASA and NORTEL, some Canadian banks.

Assange: Yeah. All that happened.

At age 20, Assange was arrested by the Australian Federal Police and eventually pled guilty to multiple counts of computer hacking. He managed to get off with no jail time because the judge concluded Assange hadn't stolen any information or done any damage.

Kroft: Is that still one of your skills?

Assange: Not really. Unfortunately, I've been sort of, you know, promoted up into management, so I don't get to do that so much. But I know the terrain which means I know what is possible. I mean, Bill Gates could program but he certainly doesn't program anymore. But he knows what is possible for other people to do.

Except that Assange is not Bill Gates and WikiLeaks is not Microsoft. The shoestring operation that created all the havoc has no permanent offices and is headquartered wherever Assange happens to be. WikiLeaks is a small non-profit organization with a handful of anonymous employees, a secret cadre of international programmers, and a legion of worldwide volunteers.

Its finances are administered by the Wau Holland Foundation based in Berlin and named after a famous hacker. According to the ledgers, WikiLeaks took in $1.3 million last year in donations, with expenses of about $500,000.

Kroft: For somebody who abhors secrets, you run a pretty secret organization.

Assange: That's not true. What we want is transparent government, not transparent people. We are an organization who one of our primary goals is to keep certain things secret to keep the identity of our sources secret so secrecy is an inherent part of our operation.

Kroft: The State Department would make the same argument. They have...doing very sensitive work that they're trying to make peace and negotiate situations around the world. Very delicately. It's very important that they do this in secrecy. What's the difference?

Assange: We don't say that the State Department should have no secrets. That's not what we're saying. Rather, we say that if there are people in the State Department who say that there is some abuse going on, and there's not a proper mechanism for internal accountability and external accountability, they must have a conduit to get that out to the public. And we are the conduit.

Given all the attention that Assange has received, we were curious about how he thought he was being perceived in the United States. He told us that he hasn't had the time to give it much thought.

Kroft: Do you want me to give you my characterization of what I think people think?

Assange: Sure.

Kroft: Mysterious. Little weird. A cult-like figure. Little paranoid.

Assange: Well, you're repeating all the ad hominem attacks by our critics. My role when I do something like speak about that we have discovered the deaths of 109,000 individual people in Iraq, 15,000 civilian casualties never before reported anywhere, that's a very serious role. That is not a role where I can engage in humor. So I'm not used to performing under the spotlight. And I am learning this as time's going by.

Kroft: You have shown a fair amount of contempt for the mainstream press over the years. Why did you decide to as you used, the word "partner" with them, in some of these most recent releases?

Assange: We're a small organization. We're in a position, say, with Cablegate, where we have 3,000 volumes of material that are very important to get out to the public in a responsible manner that have the potential for great change - for example, this recent revolution in Tunisia. It is logistically impossible, so instead our organization delegates its excess source material to other journalists, who will have more impact. Who will do a better job.

Kroft: There is an element of the press, most of the mainstream press, nobody wants to see you prosecuted, because it could affect the way that they do their business. But there's also a feeling within the community that you're not one of them, that you play a different game.

Assange: We do play a different game. And I hope we're a new way.

Kroft: The point that they're making I think is that you're not -- you're -- you're a publisher, but you're also an activist.

Assange: Wait, whoa. We're a particular type of activist. In the U.S. context, there seems to be communist activists or something, so it's a...

Kroft: Right. Agitator.

Assange: It's a dirty word in the U.S.

Kroft: It's a dirty word. And people think that what you're trying to do is to sabotage the workings of government.

Assange: No. We're not that type of activists. We are free press activists. It's not about saving the whales. It's about giving people the information they need to support whaling or not support whaling. Why? That is the raw ingredients that is needed to make a just and civil society. And without that you're just sailing in the dark.

There have been clear signs that Assange - under the threat of possible indictment by the Justice Department - has moderated some of his views. Before releasing the last two batches of classified documents, Assange and his lawyers contacted both the Pentagon and the State Department offering to explore ways to minimize potential harm. In both cases their offer was rebuffed. Assange acknowledged that his fundraising has been hurt by the decision of PayPal, MasterCard, Visa and Bank of America to cease handling donations. But he dismissed reports that WikiLeaks is wracked by internal dissention and mass defections.

Assange: We're talking about Daniel Domscheit-Berg, who was a German spokesman, had a limited role in the organization. We had to suspend him some five months ago.

Kroft: Describes you as being authoritarian, secretive, punitive.

Assange: I'm the boss that suspended him, that's correct.

Kroft: You don't care to elaborate?

Assange: I think I just did.

Kroft: You said you have this package of very damaging documents, sort of a poison pill, that's going to be released if anything bad happens to you.

Assange: No, that's not at all true. That's some kind of media hype. What we do have is a system whereby we distribute encrypted backups of things we have yet to publish. There are backups distributed amongst many, many people, 100,000 people and that all we need to do is give them an encrypted key and they will be able to continue on.

Kroft: This wasn't intended to be a blackmail threat.

Assange: Not at all.

Kroft: What would trigger that encryption code being released?

Assange: Anything that prevented us from our ability to publish. So not just for a second, but preventing us significantly from being able to publish.

Kroft: Your imprisonment, for example.

Assange: If a number of people were imprisoned or assassinated, then we would feel that we could not go on and other people would have to take over our work, and we would release those keys.

Kroft: I mean you see yourself as a check on the power of the United States and other big countries in the world. And in the process of doing that, you have now become powerful yourself. Who is the check on you?

Assange: It is our sources who choose to provide us with information or not, depending on how they see our actions. It is our donors who choose to give us money or not. This organization cannot survive for even a few months without the ongoing support of the public.

Since our interview first aired in January, WikiLeaks has continued to release documents on its website, but its donations have fallen off considerably. Also a number of websites have tried to copy the WikiLeaks model of soliciting secrets; including several in the mainstream media.

View CBS News In
CBS News App Open
Chrome Safari Continue
Be the first to know
Get browser notifications for breaking news, live events, and exclusive reporting.