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.
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.
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."
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."
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.
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.
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."
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.