Just a few months ago, most people had never heard of a Web site called WikiLeaks, or of its mysterious and eccentric founder, Julian Assange. But in that short period of time both have managed to rattle the worlds of journalism, diplomacy, and national security. WikiLeaks, which solicits and publishes secrets and suppressed material from whistleblowers around the world, has been under cyber attack from governments that want to shut it down. And Assange is currently under legal attack from the U.S. government which would like to charge him with espionage for publishing volumes of classified material from the Pentagon and the State Department.
"60 Minutes" and correspondent Steve Kroft spent two days with him in Great Britain where he is under house arrest, while fighting extradition to Sweden for questioning in two sexual assault cases, which he's called part of a smear campaign against him. In his most extensive television interview to date, Assange talked to us about his work, his vision and the prospects of facing criminal charges in the United States.
Watching at home, it might seem simple to assemble the interviews and produce the pieces that you see on "60 Minutes" every Sunday night. Well, there was nothing "simple" about getting Julian Assange to sit down for his first major TV interview.
Assange: WikiLeaks Played "Inside the Rules"
Poll: What's your take on WikiLeaks?
Segment: Julian Assange, Part 1
Segment: Julian Assange, Part 2
Extra: Assange Stays on the Move
Extra: Assange's Defense & Daniel Ellsberg
Extra: Assange On Playing By The Rules
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.