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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PMQs review: Jeremy Corbyn prompts Tory outrage as he blames Grenfell Tower fire on austerity

To Conservative cries of "shame on you!", the Labour leader warned that "we all pay a price in public safety" for spending cuts.

A fortnight after the Grenfell Tower fire erupted, the tragedy continues to cast a shadow over British politics. Rather than probing Theresa May on the DUP deal, Jeremy Corbyn asked a series of forensic questions on the incident, in which at least 79 people are confirmed to have died.

In the first PMQs of the new parliament, May revealed that the number of buildings that had failed fire safety tests had risen to 120 (a 100 per cent failure rate) and that the cladding used on Grenfell Tower was "non-compliant" with building regulations (Corbyn had asked whether it was "legal").

After several factual questions, the Labour leader rose to his political argument. To cries of "shame on you!" from Tory MPs, he warned that local authority cuts of 40 per cent meant "we all pay a price in public safety". Corbyn added: “What the tragedy of Grenfell Tower has exposed is the disastrous effects of austerity. The disregard for working-class communities, the terrible consequences of deregulation and cutting corners." Corbyn noted that 11,000 firefighters had been cut and that the public sector pay cap (which Labour has tabled a Queen's Speech amendment against) was hindering recruitment. "This disaster must be a wake-up call," he concluded.

But May, who fared better than many expected, had a ready retort. "The cladding of tower blocks did not start under this government, it did not start under the previous coalition governments, the cladding of tower blocks began under the Blair government," she said. “In 2005 it was a Labour government that introduced the regulatory reform fire safety order which changed the requirements to inspect a building on fire safety from the local fire authority to a 'responsible person'." In this regard, however, Corbyn's lack of frontbench experience is a virtue – no action by the last Labour government can be pinned on him. 

Whether or not the Conservatives accept the link between Grenfell and austerity, their reluctance to defend continued cuts shows an awareness of how politically vulnerable they have become (No10 has announced that the public sector pay cap is under review).

Though Tory MP Philip Davies accused May of having an "aversion" to policies "that might be popular with the public" (he demanded the abolition of the 0.7 per cent foreign aid target), there was little dissent from the backbenches – reflecting the new consensus that the Prime Minister is safe (in the absence of an attractive alternative).

And May, whose jokes sometimes fall painfully flat, was able to accuse Corbyn of saying "one thing to the many and another thing to the few" in reference to his alleged Trident comments to Glastonbury festival founder Michael Eavis. But the Labour leader, no longer looking fearfully over his shoulder, displayed his increased authority today. Though the Conservatives may jeer him, the lingering fear in Tory minds is that they and the country are on divergent paths. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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