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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Is defeat in Stoke the beginning of the end for Paul Nuttall?

The Ukip leader was his party's unity candidate. But after his defeat in Stoke, the old divisions are beginning to show again

In a speech to Ukip’s spring conference in Bolton on February 17, the party’s once and probably future leader Nigel Farage laid down the gauntlet for his successor, Paul Nuttall. Stoke’s by-election was “fundamental” to the future of the party – and Nuttall had to win.
 
One week on, Nuttall has failed that test miserably and thrown the fundamental questions hanging over Ukip’s future into harsh relief. 

For all his bullish talk of supplanting Labour in its industrial heartlands, the Ukip leader only managed to increase the party’s vote share by 2.2 percentage points on 2015. This paltry increase came despite Stoke’s 70 per cent Brexit majority, and a media narrative that was, until the revelations around Nuttall and Hillsborough, talking the party’s chances up.
 
So what now for Nuttall? There is, for the time being, little chance of him resigning – and, in truth, few inside Ukip expected him to win. Nuttall was relying on two well-rehearsed lines as get-out-of-jail free cards very early on in the campaign. 

The first was that the seat was a lowly 72 on Ukip’s target list. The second was that he had been leader of party whose image had been tarnished by infighting both figurative and literal for all of 12 weeks – the real work of his project had yet to begin. 

The chances of that project ever succeeding were modest at the very best. After yesterday’s defeat, it looks even more unlikely. Nuttall had originally stated his intention to run in the likely by-election in Leigh, Greater Manchester, when Andy Burnham wins the Greater Manchester metro mayoralty as is expected in May (Wigan, the borough of which Leigh is part, voted 64 per cent for Brexit).

If he goes ahead and stands – which he may well do – he will have to overturn a Labour majority of over 14,000. That, even before the unedifying row over the veracity of his Hillsborough recollections, was always going to be a big challenge. If he goes for it and loses, his leadership – predicated as it is on his supposed ability to win votes in the north - will be dead in the water. 

Nuttall is not entirely to blame, but he is a big part of Ukip’s problem. I visited Stoke the day before The Guardian published its initial report on Nuttall’s Hillsborough claims, and even then Nuttall’s campaign manager admitted that he was unlikely to convince the “hard core” of Conservative voters to back him. 

There are manifold reasons for this, but chief among them is that Nuttall, despite his newfound love of tweed, is no Nigel Farage. Not only does he lack his name recognition and box office appeal, but the sad truth is that the Tory voters Ukip need to attract are much less likely to vote for a party led by a Scouser whose platform consists of reassuring working-class voters their NHS and benefits are safe.
 
It is Farage and his allies – most notably the party’s main donor Arron Banks – who hold the most power over Nuttall’s future. Banks, who Nuttall publicly disowned as a non-member after he said he was “sick to death” of people “milking” the Hillsborough disaster, said on the eve of the Stoke poll that Ukip had to “remain radical” if it wanted to keep receiving his money. Farage himself has said the party’s campaign ought to have been “clearer” on immigration. 

Senior party figures are already briefing against Nuttall and his team in the Telegraph, whose proprietors are chummy with the beer-swilling Farage-Banks axis. They deride him for his efforts to turn Ukip into “NiceKip” or “Nukip” in order to appeal to more women voters, and for the heavy-handedness of his pitch to Labour voters (“There were times when I wondered whether I’ve got a purple rosette or a red one on”, one told the paper). 

It is Nuttall’s policy advisers - the anti-Farage awkward squad of Suzanne Evans, MEP Patrick O’Flynn (who famously branded Farage "snarling, thin-skinned and aggressive") and former leadership candidate Lisa Duffy – come in for the harshest criticism. Herein lies the leader's almost impossible task. Despite having pitched to members as a unity candidate, the two sides’ visions for Ukip are irreconcilable – one urges him to emulate Trump (who Nuttall says he would not have voted for), and the other urges a more moderate tack. 

Endorsing his leader on Question Time last night, Ukip’s sole MP Douglas Carswell blamed the legacy of the party’s Tea Party-inspired 2015 general election campaign, which saw Farage complain about foreigners with HIV using the NHS in ITV’s leaders debate, for the party’s poor performance in Stoke. Others, such as MEP Bill Etheridge, say precisely the opposite – that Nuttall must be more like Farage. 

Neither side has yet called for Nuttall’s head. He insists he is “not going anywhere”. With his febrile party no stranger to abortive coup and counter-coup, he is unlikely to be the one who has the final say.