WikiLeaks – Julian Assange / Speech at Cambridge Union [15.03.2011] video and Transcript

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I did this transcript in April/May 2013. If you spot any errors or are able to spot the missing words please leave a comment and will endevour to correct/improve.


Chair: Ladies and gentlemen welcome to the Cambridge Union Society, a few notices before we start: filming and recording of any kind is absolutely forbidden, pls do not do it, […] chamber. Also, after the talk we have the chance to ask Julian some questions, please keep these relevant to the material he is going to speak about this evening which is the diplomatic cables. For legal reasons he cannot really speak about anything that is not relevant to the talk tonight. So, the Cambridge Union Society is joined this afternoon by Julian Assange. Julian is the founder and public face of WikiLeaks the whistleblowing website with […] is published Guantanamo Base Procedures, the Iraq War Logs, Afghan War Diary and US Embassy Cables.  He received the Amnesty International Media Award in 2009 publishing material about extra-judicial killings in Kenya, and the readers choice Time Magazine Person of the Year 2010. He will be speaking today about the diplomatic cables […] so, please welcome Julian Assange.

Thank you

It is always a privilege to have an audience but i had hoped, you know, to just come and speak to a few students because Cambridge is not so far from where I am under house arrest in in Norfolk, it might be good to finally get out of the house. But, everywhere I go seems to turn into a great big opera.  Now, in speaking to the Union founders earlier tonight, -sorry not founders- I’m a founder- in speaking to the Union Board, how do you call it?, Committee,  I understand that this Union was founded in 1815 as a result of censorship, here, at Cambridge University. And students needed a place to speak about the matters of their concern in that time and so they founded the Union as a place where Provosts were not permitted and this badge up here reminds people that when they leave this Hall they are entering back into the Big Bad World of Cambridge. So, it seems to me that this restriction on people not recording what I am doing is a bit rough although, actually, I understand it and I support it, to a degree, that is if we did not have it to some degree, this would simply turn into a press conference and there would be satellite vans outside and lots of press here. So, it is not an attempt, at least on our behalf to stop you recording, rather it is simply an attempt to prevent this thing becoming a complete and utter circus.

First of all, so I have some news about today, so, one piece of news is, I understand that Dearlove who is the Chair of the Union Board of Trustees and a former head of MI6 spoke here in February 14th, is that correct?, in February, and was recorded and spoke extensively about us and some of our work, and in part, incorrectly, and a secret recording was made of those activities and spiced with a reply, not by us, but by one of our supporters and pasted to youtube and I would encourage you to all go and have a look at that except youtube has removed it, presumably, as a result of a request by Dearlove. And so, that brings me to something that will occur throughout this talk, which is the privatization of censorship, in where the field of public discourse occurs on private land, when it occurs on the internet, and that archives that are historically important, important to all of us and become our intellectual record are no longer something that is safe and no longer something that we can build our discourse on and indeed build our civilization on because they are being ripped out from under us at the very moment we are trying to site them.

George Orwell said that ‘he who controls the present controls the past and he who controls the past controls the future’ and what he was getting at, was interference in the Great Encyclopedia of the Soviet Union shortly after  Beria fall from grace. (Beria was the Chief of the NKVD) in 1954 that Encyclopedia was amended to have the Beria section ripped out and replaced by a section on Bering Straight in order to pan out the content. And, letters were sent to libraries around the Soviet Union and the rest of the Russian speaking world instructing them to paste in a new version of events. Of course it is laughable, and I am telling you this story now because it was so clear and obvious what was going on, but now that is not the case, all over the world information of historical importance and political importance, that which we build our civil and political life on, is disappearing because it is in centralized archives owned by private companies.

Once, in a time of popular revolt, which, for all intents and purposes should be speaking about the events in Tunisia or the events in Egypt, but are in fact much closer to home. Critics of radical publishers said “they have cast all the mysteries and secrets of governments both by the kings and parliaments before the vulgar, like pearls before the swine and have taught both the soldiery and people alike to  look so far into them as to rabble back, all governments, to the first principals of nature. They have made the people thereby so curious and so arrogant that they will never find the humility to submit to civil rule”. That is a statement made in London in 1640’s at a time of popular revolt spurned on by radical publishers. What we have been doing is part of that great tradition. It is simply, how to be a radical publisher in the 21st century. And that revolt spurned in the UK, was largely to a degree a result of the printing press and groups trying to educate each other with its fruits. And, we can see now something occurring like that in the United States (sorry, not in the United States) we can see something like that occurring now in the Middle East and, perhaps, in the United States and certainly in Australia and, perhaps, in the United Kingdom and in countries in South America that  have been publishing the diplomatic cables. So, I thought I would go through just the brief chronology of these events because a lot of the inner story has never been told, and while it would take far too long to tell the back story we can perhaps tell part of the story, the most I think important part of the story that has not been told.

After our publishing of the Iraq War Logs, which exposed the deaths of 109 thousand people in Iraq, the precise times and geographic locations and often the weaponry and military units involved, we geared up to try to get out 250 thousand US diplomatic cables. At that time US intelligence was aware that we had in our back pockets that material, that I personally was involved in directing how it should be released and as a result I had to travel with great care all over the world and our people had to exercise great care and we set up a media alliance, with many difficulties and uncertainties and betrayals and carelessness. But, as a result, on the 29th of November (2010) we were victorious in our first goal which was to get the start of that material out to the public in a way that would have what we would hope to be maximum political impact. Those five big media organisations were: The Guardian, Der Spiegel, Le Monde, The New York Times and the El Pais of Spain. Subsequently, we have expanded the number of groups we have been working with and it now covers 50, spreading across the world, media organisations, small radical publishers and non profit organisations. And today, India went, 6 million words of cables about India shaking the Indian Parliament as we speak. Also today, another organization, an organization that was with us early on but then brutally attacked and that organization is Al Akhbar, they are the highest quality print publisher in the Middle East, they run out of Lebanon and on the 1st of December Al Akhbar started publishing US diplomatic cables and started writing stories in Arabic. Also, at that time, Al-Masry Al-Youm in Cairo started publishing diplomatic cable stories in Arabic. Immediately, Al Akhbar was attacked by Denial of Service Attacks. Even prior to releasing the cables we received Denial of Service Attacks from thousands of computers from all over the world in many different forms. There are now as a result over 1500 WikiLeaks servers run by us and our supporters in every Continent and in nearly every country. Reporters Sains Frontiers themselves run an entire copy of our cablegate material.

After Al Akhbar produced a story, a cable about corruption in Saudia Arabia and in Tunisia and in Egypt and the role of Israel in Lebanon and details about the Hesbollah fiberoptic network in Lebanon, its servers were redirected to a Saudi sex site.  Now, when I first heard this I thought this cannot be true, there can’t possibly be a Saudi sex site. But apparently it is true and for a twenty four hour period everyone who went to see Al Akhbar just got this Saudi sex site. With intervention of the Foreign Ministry of Lebanon those domain records for Al Akhbar were re-directed back to Al Akhbar’s servers which then came under more aggressive hacker attacks of a sophistication that makes me believe that a state intelligence service was involved. And, that was the end of Al Akhbar’s publishing. Those cables and those stories disappeared from the net from Al Akhbar but they were spread and published by others. Al Akhbar was banned by the Tunisian government, WikiLeaks was banned by the Tunisian government, and computer hackers supportive to our endeavors moved in to the Tunisian government and re-directed many and perhaps all Tunisian government websites to WikiLeaks to its cables about Ben Ali and that regime. On the 17th of December 26 year old Mohammed Bouazizi who lived in the provincial town of Sitti and had a university degree but no work, who had been trying to operate a small fruit selling stall and was not able to pay bribes sufficient to get a certificate to operate, set himself on fire in protest and on the 4th of January he died in hospital.  His act took what was an on-line understanding about what was happening in Tunisia and an on-line war of what was happening between publishers like us and Al Akhbar and our opponents into physical form and into a very emotional act that everyone could understand. As a result, protest grew within Tunis and a popular uprising was born.

But there are other aspects of those Tunisian cables as there were with the Egyptian material we released, which have a baring on these events that is not obvious. We have always wanted to try and expose corrupt or abusive or conspiratorial governments and pseudo-governments, such as giant co-operations to their peoples, so that those people can understand which way they should attempt to build a better society, or attack or defend themselves. However the Tunisian cables showed clearly that the US, if it came down to it, if it came down to a fight, between the military on the one hand and Ben Ali’s political regime on another, the US would probably support the military, and, that is something that changed part of the dynamics in the competition between reformers in Tunisia and the Ben Ali regime. And, there is something also that must have caused neighbouring countries of Tunisia some pause, that is, that they militarily intervened they may not be on the same side as United States. Similarly, when it came to Egypt, what we saw was a regional phenomena, Egypt shares a border with Tunisia and it shares a border with Libya. In understanding and being advised by our people in those countries that we should take a regional approach, we started as fast as we could, with the assistance of the Telegraph and some of our other partners, to pump out information about the principal players in Egypt and in Libya and in Bahrain. Not just so the people of those countries could know what was going on, because many of them already knew what was going on in great and grotesque detail, but rather, so that it won’t be possible for the West to stand up and support the principals involved, so would not be possible for those other countries in the region to support and intervene because they were so busy dealing with fall out themselves at a domestic level.

And, I still think that this is the way the Arab Spring must be approached, is, as a whole region phenomena, because Saudi Arabia has supported many of these dictatorships as has Israel as has United States and as has France in their quest of what they call: ‘stability’ but what people on the ground call dictatorship. And, understanding that, that whole world is a network of interconnecting powers at the diplomatic lever, at the military level, at the intelligence level and also, on the other side, between civil activists is what can enable us and everyone else to cut selective ties, to cut spare resources that could be used to prop up one regime by another. So, the name of that paper that started publishing again today, after a period were it could not, is Al Akhbar, so they started publishing today on Lebanon and on Saudi and other events on the region.

We have seen, I have seen, an interesting series of events in the US response to the Egyptian revolution and the US response to us. Earlier this year Joseph Biden called me a high tech terrorist.  Two weeks later he said that Mubarak was not a dictator and should not stand down. As a result of releasing cables about Suleiman, the US and Israel’s preferred option for regime take over in Egypt, as a result of releasing cables about Mubarak’s approval of Suleiman’s torture was not possible for Joseph Biden to say that, it was not possible for Hilary Clinton to publicly come out and support the Mubarak regime, and after that regime fell, Hilary Clinton came out and said: “ Well, it’s all the result of good American work. It’s all the result of two great American companies Twitter and Facebook” and yes they did play a part, although not nearly as large a part as Al Jazeera. But, the guide produced by Egyptian revolutionaries, the most organized form of which centered around the Ultchers, the Egyptian soccer clubs, says on the first page “Do not use Facebook and Twitter” and says on the last page: “Do not use Facebook and Twitter” and there is a reason for that. It is because there was actually a Facebook revolt in Cairo three or four years ago. It was very small, it was more a small protest. And, after it, Facebook was used to round up all the principal participants, who were then bitten interrogated and in some cases incarcerated.

So, while the Internet, in some ways, has the ability to let us know at an unprecedented level what government is doing and let us co-operate with each other to hold repressive governments and repressive corporations to account, it is also the greatest spying machine that the world has ever seen. It is not a technology that favours freedom of speech, it is not a technology that favours Human Rights and it is not a technology that favours civil life. Rather, it is a technology that, on one hand, can be used to set up a totalitarian spying regime the likes of which we have never seen, or, on the other hand, if taken by us, if taken by activists and taken by all those who wish a different trajectory for our technological world, it can be something that we all hoped for. But, that battle of people who want to use the internet as a tool of liberation and those tremendous organisations that want to use the internet as a tool of control, mass control, it is not over, it is only, it is only just beginning.

For Egypt I was concerned that, perhaps we had only seen a shifting of chairs in the top of the political regime. And, although we had, and others campaigning, had knocked out Suleiman as the new puppet for Mubarak, that he was still there in the transitional government, the head of the army, which is described in the cables as Mubarak’s poodle, was head of the transitionary government, perhaps there had not been in fact a real revolution. But, in fact, at every level of the Egyptian society there has been mini revolutions. In every University people connected to the Mubarak patronage networking power have been thrown out. There has been mini revolutions in every library, in every city council across Egypt. And when I knew for sure that the revolution was successful, was when the State Security Service Amn ad-Dawla, was penetrated and its archives opened by the Egyptian people. The State Security Service which Suleiman had been in control of, which was Egypt’s Stazi, was engaged in burning all its archives, such was its belief that it would be held to account. They shredded hundreds of thousands of documents, smashed hard drives. In the process of doing so, drew such attention to themselves, through the rising smoke, and the dump trucks exiting that the people of Cairo stepped forward en masse and penetrated the State Security Service. The State Security Service has now been officially disbanded and those archives can now be bought in Cairo market with three dollars a file. They are spreading all over the Internet, and an organization has started called Dawla leaks, ah, using our logo, actually, a better version I think, have a look it has an Amnesty candle mixed. And, that is when you know that a people have truly been successful, when the archives have been opened when there has been a loss of the control of information, at this most basic level.

In the United States crackdown on us, we have seen a privatization of censorship, that is more subtle than the censorship which we are all used to. But I say to you there is no difference between taking a journalist from their home in the night with a gun and taking the home from a journalist in the day with a gun. That in fact economic censorship by the state or by the quasi state bodies, giant corporations is in fact every bit as pernicious as the censorship  we have all read about coming out of the Soviet Union. We have Mastercard, Visa, Money Bookers, Paypal, Western Union, and other companies involved in the financial sector all conduct an economic embargo on us, entirely outside the judicial process, entirely even outside the administrative process. It does not just include American companies. It includes Visa Europe which is headquartered here in London, which is normally a British company. How is it that these major institutions that are meant to be independent from the State, act in this manner at the behest of the United States. Because they are not even acting at the behest of the United States people, they are not acting within a court of law, rather, they are acting at the behests of a global system of patronage, which has its centre of gravity in Washington but reaches in to all these companies. That is something that needs to be resisted aggressively. We saw Bank of America recently brief US Intelligence corporations to try and take us down, to take down supportive journalists in the United States such as Glenn Greenwald, to do it through one of the largest Washington law firms, so the contract would be protected by the client attorney privilege. And the fee for that service from three intelligence companies was billed to them to be 2 million dollars per month.  That is the entire budget for WikiLeaks per year.

So, although we are up against great odds, actually, it is amazing to see what we, together with some support, have achieved, simply by sticking to our principals and accepting the help of others from around the world where we were able to. The support that we receive from journalists, while at times very strong, they do not include the New York Times. And, perhaps that should not come as such a surprise. Although in Virginia, right now, there is a secret Grand Jury trying to work out how to charge us, and me personally, with espionage. It’s not the first time the US Espionage Act has been used to attempt to stifle criticism. Eugene Debs a firebrand Union leader in United States was convicted and sentenced to 10 years in prison for breaking the Espionage Act, for speaking out against WWI in a famous Pacifist speech.  The New York Times in its editorial, before hand, claimed that: “Debs was a law breaker at large, an enemy of the human race, and there have been quite enough talk about warrants, it was time to seize mouthing and begin, Debs should be jailed and the disorder his bad teaching has engendered must be squelched. It is well to remember that no friends of the government of the United States are ever killed by its soldiers, only enemies.” And that is something that has not changed. At least, not very much. The New York Times campaigns at editorial level, against us. One of the largest stories to come out of the Afghan wars, the story about Task Force 373, secret US assassination squad, operating in Afghanistan, working its way down a list of some 2000 people without any judicial oversight, opposed by the government of Afghanistan, discovered by us, became the front page of the German Weekly Der Spiegel, was reported in The Guardian and for our third partner, The New York Times, was indeed written by the National Security Reporter Eric Schmidt and was canned by Bill Keller and never made it into the paper. So, that is the reality that we are dealing with. On the one hand, tremendous support from reformers across the world, from young people, and, on the other hand, attacks from the very peak of media power and financial power in the United States and in the Western World more broadly.

And now some questions. {clapping]

Thank you [laughter]

Chair: There will be more time for clapping later. [laughter] Thank you very much for your talk Julian. Can I just remind that if you are going to ask questions please keep it relevant to the talk […] from Julian. Can we have a question to start this evening? Yes, Sir!

Q: Julian, thanks very much for coming […] You spoke of supporters of yours going into government sites in Tunisia, I think it was […] I can imagine that if I went back to my room now and went into UK government websites, at the very least I would be shipped back home down south, at the very worst, I can imagine the consequences what are your feelings about operating within the law and outside the law  in terms of Freedom of Expression.

JA: There have been to my knowledge six raids on our supporters here in the UK, who were not careful to cover their tracks. There have been at least 42 raids by the FBI in the United States. So, I would say to you actually that’s a very low chance of being caught, [laughter] because we have a lot of supporters. So, perhaps with a little care that does not happen. In relation to operating within law, or outside the law. The rule of law is a very important thing. But when the rule of law starts to break down and when human life is on the line, then it is time to operate within a system of ethics and to predict where the future will lie, to predict what the laws would be. It is not enough to simply go ‘today the law makes something illegal or legal’ we all know of cases of the law being an ass. It is legal to do, it is legal in Israel to apply reasonable physical pressure during an interrogation, and yet there are not many here who would agree to be correct for there to be a law that permits torture. There is no easy answer, […] to operating inside the law in one nation or the law outside another nation but, I have to mention one point. In our work there are many amateur supreme court judges that often have badges that say ‘general’ on the front of them, and they are often CEO’s of corrupt banks, and they are often journalists who have no stories to write so they write critical opinion. Those people do not understand the law. If we take the United States in context, what the law is, is what the supreme court decides in the end, after all Constitutional, legal and political considerations are taken into account. It is not what the Prime Minister of Australia said it was when she said that I was engaged in illegal acts, in fact, the Commission of Enquiry in Australia found this the opposite. So, there is great abuse by powerful people to try and say the law is what they say it is, as opposed to, all the fine points of a good system of law which includes, in a Common Law tradition, all the common Law tradition and in the US includes parts of Common Law and includes Constitutional Law. I am not saying that one, even within that system, one should never break what the Supreme Court may say be the law, in fact, I believe there are many circumstances, where one in fact must do so and it is then up to history to judge whether those actions were right or not.

Q: You talked about the danger of having private information concentrated, sorry, public information in the hands of private organisations, but WikiLeaks is a private organization with a lot of information in its hands, you guys get to decide as an organization in what order the information is released and presumably you can sort of tell a different story depending on what you release first and you can sort of change the focus depending on that order. Do you do anything to try to control bias when you decide what information is released?

JA: We lost 5 million dollars at least as a result of the financial embargo of the illegal financial embargo. Had we had those resources, perhaps we could release everything as fast as possible. In a situation where we have more supply than the ability to get through it, we have to prioritise, and, that is unfortunate and we do not like it. A year and a half ago our resources were approximately equal to the amount of material we were receiving.  So, there are now various economic and technical things that we have been working on to address that bottleneck, although at the moment  it’s rather difficult to resource those to the degree that they should be because of all of the attacks. Controlling for bias, actually, we cannot control for bias, it’s simply not possible, in any group of human beings […]. However, in general we try to publish what we receive first, but, another one of our commitments to our sources is to maximize impact, and a commitment that we have to the project as a whole is not simply that we want to be engaging in this type of publishing, we have a goal. And, our goal is to achieve just reform by this type of publishing. So, that means choosing material, if we have limited resources, that are most likely have the greatest impact. Of course that (?) by raising impact in that sense, we mean in the direction of positive reform to create a more Civil International order, civil society and that of course is clouded within our personal biases but, I think, it should be clear, after our four years of publishing history, to our sources, what our biases, such as they are, indeed are.

Q: Do you think as a consequence of the release of information like organisations such as yours governments will start, will stop recording information and rely more on word of mouth and face to face meetings and still go ahead with business as usual?

JA: Not if they want to survive, is my answer. And, that is something I thought about in detail in 2006. Because, when making these proposals, and discussing my ideas with my colleagues and friends, that was precisely the objection. And, I thought about this, and I wondered why they write things down at all, at the moment. And then, we had the situation in 2007 when we released the main manuals for Guantanamo Bay. And, in those manuals which were used by over 1000 soldiers at the Guantanamo base and there have been many through that base, it’s  stated that records should be falsified, although they did not use that word, but falsified, to keep them from  the Red Cross, who was there for the first month that they were there. And, during the first month the interrogation regime was meant to be as hard as possible, everyone goes in to Guantanamo Bay at the maximum penalty and punishment level, which is only drawn down as a result of compliance with interrogation. And that fact was hidden from the Red Cross and explicitly put on paper to do so. Why would someone do that. Because, that type of policy came from General Mueller and ideologically came to him from Donald Rumsfeld and it is simply not possible to get grads (?) to carry out work at scale without writing it down. That, if you want to have a large organization carry out systematic work, you have to write it down otherwise the periphery of the organisation’s starts wondering off and diverging from what the centre wants it to do.  In other words, it is not possible to conduct systematic large scale abuses without leaving a paper trail.  And, that means, if large organisations chose to not write things down, choose not to have a paper trail, they will be placed in a position that they cannot effetively control the systematization of the operation, which means that they will be inefficient organizations compared to those organisations that do leave a per trail. Which means they will be selected out of the competing bureaucracy and global economy.

Q: Bradley Manning still currently being imprisoned for  his role as a whistleblower, in his recent book your ex-colleague Daniel Schmidt alleges that WikiLeaks no longer has the operational capacity to defend or to protect its sources. Is this true and is this what happened with Bradley Manning

Chair: I don’t think Julian  is going to be able to answer that…

JA: No problem.

Chair: Can I take another question?

JA: Nah nah…I have to be very careful about speaking about Mr Manning for obvious reasons. Perhaps I might[…] One is his legal situation which is precarious. The other is that our support to his plight cannot be stated too loudly. Of course he is a young man embroiled as a result of our publishing activities, we have no idea whether he is one of our sources directly or indirectly, all our technology is geared up to make sure we have no idea, because the easiest way to keep a secret from powerful state intelligence organisations is to never have it in the first place. But, he is in a terrible situation.  And, if he is not connected to us, he is innocent, embroiled in this and if he is in some manner connected to our publications then of course we have some responsibility. That said, there is no allegation being made that he was arrested as a result of anything to do with us. Rather, the allegation is that he was arrested as a result of him speaking to Wired magazine in the United States who betrayed him.

One last question.

Q; […]

JA: Why, I do hope so. The answer is no we have not.  And, that is because we have a harm minimization procedure. It is very important to us as a philosophical goal, to censor as little as possible, and in the long run not censor at all. And, what I mean by that is, that we extend a promise to our sources that provided that the material is diplomatic political ethical or historic significance, hasn’t been published before, and it’s being actively suppressed by legal or extra legal means, then we will publish it, for sure, within whatever resource limits that we have. So, and we will publish it all. So, we are then left with the position, where some times material has information that might harm, might possibly harm someone. It is very rare but sometimes happens, so our position is to strip the harm from it, in somehow. So, that’s does not necessarily mean censorship. That can mean no f[…] people named in material before publication, and bthen publishing, it can mean redacting certain portions of the material and then publishing early, so we don’t have delay as long but I think there is no case that I can imagine where delay for some period would not be enough to strip all harm, and that is also a procedure which is tremendously used of course by National Archives bodies where they have say a 50 year period or 30 year period, cabinet material is released without any redactions at all and I cannot see a case where is not sufficient. I believe it is extremely dangerous for us to do that at all and that we are on  a very slippery slope, by doing it, and none the less it is the Real Politic and perhaps in certain cases right for us to do that. The postal system does not have postal workers looking at all your envelopes (they probably look at all mine) [laughter] that does not have postal workers, as a rule, looking at everyone’s envelopes, the interior of these envelopes, to understand whether the information that is being sent is right. Similarly, the telephone system, should not have people listening to every telephone call you make and hanging up in the middle if they do not like what you have to say. You should have the right to speak to your grandmother about anything you want without a censor body sitting in the middle of the conversation and deciding it is time to hang up. Similarly, when you send an e-mail, the default assumption is that you have the right and you should be entitled to transmit everything. And, if there is some restitution to be made for harm then it should come after, it should not be a form of prior restrain. I think prior restrain in all its forms including the forms that we engage in, is very dangerous.

Chair: And on that note I think we can end things there, before we end, can I ask everyone to remain seated for a few more minutes until we get Julian and the first couple of rows out of the chamber. But, Julian thank you so much for […] and now is your chance to clap again.