A rare glimpse of Julian Assange

WikiLeaks founder offers insight into the release of the Afghanistan documents at a rare press confe

Julian Assange gave a rare press conference yesterday, and some intriguing details emerged about the publication of the leaked Afghanistan documents that lend even more weight to this already extraordinary story.

Early on in the press conference, Assange referred to some of the incidents detailed in the documents as "war crimes", but then refused to clarify what he meant by this, dismissing multiple questions on the subject with increasing annoyance. Eventually, he said thay "it is up to a court to decide if something is a crime, but there seems to be prima facie evidence here", referring specifically to the Task Force 373 reports.

Assange dismissed any suggestion that the information he helped to release would cause deterioration in relations between Afghanistan and Pakistan, or be useful to the Taliban as propaganda, saying: "There is no perfect information. The truth is all we have." This was a theme throughout; as you would expect, Assange clearly believes there are very few circumstances in which information should be withheld, even if it holds the potential for danger in the future.

However, he was unexpectedly complimentary about the US military:

Outside of the PRs, army personnel are basically engineers, who build roads and fire guns. They are frank and direct, and the top people mostly won't lie to you unless they're repeating a lie that someone else told them.

Surprisingly, it also emerged that WikiLeaks has only been through about 2,000 documents in real detail, instead using a tagging and keyword system to flag up certain types of document likely to require closer vetting.

Of course, the site is still in possession of about 15,000 documents that still require what Assange terms the "harm minimisation process" and will probably need to be redacted before they can be published. Despite not having actually read the bulk of the leaked material, Assange strongly defended this system as "responsible publication".

He obviously would not comment on the identity of the original whistleblower, but did confirm that WikiLeaks had "committed funds" to Bradley Manning's laywer "for such time when he seeks civilian counsel". Manning, a US army intelligence analyst, is now in custody in Kuwait and has been charged with improperly downloading state department cables.

Assange described Manning as "the only alleged US military source" for the documents so far, but went on to say that "as far as we see, there is no evidence and no correlation" linking Manning to this leak.

The rare opportunity to quiz Assange in person naturally drew the world's media in droves, and he seemed very happy to talk as long as journalists could still think of questions.

The assembled hacks had much to ask about the details of the documents' release and his aims and ambitions in doing so. But as the conference went on, people started to drift away, and the realisation dawned: Assange is no expert on Afghanistan, and could only speak about the contents of the documents and their implications in the most generalised way.

He's made the material available; now it's up to us to make what we can of it.

Caroline Crampton is assistant editor of the New Statesman. She writes a weekly podcast column.

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As crime moves online, the police need the investment in technology to follow

Technology offers solutions, not just threats.

It’s perhaps inevitable that as the world becomes more digital, so does crime. This week Alison Saunders, director of public prosecutions, recognised that online crime is as serious as face-to-face crime. “Hate is hate,” Saunders wrote referring to internet abuse, and the police should protect people from it wherever they are. This will add demand to under-pressure police forces. And it is only the tip of the iceberg. 

Forty-seven per cent of crime involves an online element. Police recorded 30,000 instances of online stalking and harassment last year. People are 20 times more likely to be a victim of fraud than robbery, costing businesses an estimated £144bn a year. On a conservative estimate, 2,500 UK citizens use the anonymous dark web browser, Tor, for illegal purposes such as drug dealing, revenge porn and child sexual exploitation.

The police need new technology to meet demand, a Reform report published today finds. Some progress has been made in recent years. West Midlands Police uses an online portal for people to report incidents. Durham uses evidence-gathering software to collect social media information on suspects, and then instantly compile a report that can be shared with courts. Police have benefited from smartphones to share information, and body-worn cameras, which have reduced complaints against police by 93 per cent.

Yet, Theresa May’s 2016 remarks that police use “technology that lags woefully behind what they use as consumers” still stand. Officers interviewed for Reform’s research implored: “Give us the tools to do our job”.

Online evidence portals should be upgraded to accept CCTV footage. Apps should be developed to allow officers to learn about new digital threats, following the US army’s library of knowledge-sharing apps. Augmented-reality glasses are being used in the Netherlands to help officers identify evidence at digital crime scenes. Officers would save a trip back to the station if they could collect fingerprints on smartphones and statements on body-worn cameras.

New technology requires investment, but forces are reducing the resources put into IT as reserves have dried up. Durham plans to cut spend by 60 per cent between 2015-16 and 2019-20. The government should help fund equipment which can meet demand and return future productivity savings. If the Home Office invested the same as the Department of Health, another department pushing “transformative” technology, it would invest an extra £450m a year. This funding should come from administrative savings delivered through accelerating the Government’s automation agenda, which the think tank Reform has previously calculated would save Whitehall £2.6bn a year.

As crime moves online, police must follow. Saunders is right to point to the importance of meeting it. But technology offers solutions, not just threats. Installing the next generation of equipment will give police the tools to do their jobs, addressing online hate and more. 

Alexander Hitchcock is a senior researcher at reform