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.

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It's easy to see where Berlin is being rebuilt – just hit the streets

My week, from walking the streets of Berlin to class snobbery and the right kind of gentrification.

Brick by brick, block by block, the people are rebuilding the city once called Faust’s Metropolis. To see it clearly, put your boots on. One of the most bracing walks starts by the Gethsemane Church, which served as a haven for dissenters in the last days of the GDR and takes you down ­towards the Hackescher Markt.

Here, in what is still the eastern half of a divided city that wears its division more lightly, is a Berlin experience both old and new. In three decades of frequent visits, it has been fascinating to note how much this part of town has changed. Even a decade ago these streets were rundown. With crumbling buildings showing bulletholes, it wasn’t hard to imagine what the place looked like in 1945. Now there are lilacs, blues, and yellows. Cafés, bars and restaurants abound, serving the young professionals attracted to the city by cheap rents and a renewed sense of community.

 

Breaking the fourth wall

Looking north along Schliemannstraße, you’ll find a delightful vista of well-tended balconies. It’s a pleasant place to live, notwithstanding the gaggle of grotesques who gather round the corner in the square. On Kastanienallee, which forms the second leg of the walk, an old city feels young. It’s a kind of gentrification but the right kind. There’s more to eat, to drink, to buy, for all.

Berlin, where Bertolt Brecht staged his unwatchable plays, was supposed to have been transformed by a proletarian revolution. Instead, it has been restored to health by a very middle-class one. Germany has always had a well-educated middle class, and the nation’s restoration would have impossible without such people. The irony is delicious – not that irony buttered many parsnips for “dirty Bertie”.

 

The new snobbery

The British Museum’s survey of German history “Memories of a Nation” is being presented at the Martin-Gropius-Bau as “The British View”. Germans, natürlich, are curious to see how we observe them. But how do they see us?

A German friend recently in England  said that the images that struck him most forcibly were the tins of food and cheap booze people piled up in supermarkets, and the number of teenage girls pushing prams. Perhaps Neil MacGregor, the former director of the British Museum who will shortly take up a similar role here at the new Humboldt Forum, may turn his attention to a “German View” of the United Kingdom.

There’s no shortage of material. In Schlawinchen, a bar that typifies Kreuzberg’s hobohemia, a college-educated English girl was trying to explain northern England to an American she had just met. Speaking in an ugly modern Mancunian voice that can only be acquired through years of practice (sugar pronounced as “sug-oar”), she refer­red to Durham and York as “middle class, you know, posh”, because those cities had magnificent cathedrals.

When it comes to inverted snobbery, no nation can match us. To be middle class in Germany is an indication of civic value. In modern England, it can mark you as a leper.

 

Culture vultures

The Humboldt Forum, taking shape by the banks of the Spree, reconsecrates the former site of the GDR’s Palace of the Republic. When it opens in 2018 it will be a “living exhibition”, dedicated to all the cultures of the world. Alexander von Humboldt, the naturalist and explorer, was the brother of Wilhelm, the diplomat and philosopher, whose name lives on in the nearby university.

In Potsdamerplatz there are plans to build a modern art museum, crammed in between the Neue Nationalgalerie and the Philharmonie, home to the Berlin Philharmonic. Meanwhile, the overhaul of the Deutsche Staatsoper, where Daniel Barenboim is music director for life, is likely to be completed, fingers crossed, next autumn.

Culture everywhere! Or perhaps that should be Kultur, which has a slightly different meaning in Germany. They take these things more seriously, and there is no hint of bogus populism. In London, plans for a new concert hall have been shelved. Sir Peter Hall’s words remain true: “England is a philistine country that loves the arts.”

 

European neighbours

When Germans speak of freedom, wrote A J P Taylor, a historian who seems to have fallen from favour, they mean the freedom to be German. No longer. When modern Germans speak of freedom, they observe it through the filter of the European Union.

But nation states are shaped by different forces. “We are educated to be obedient,” a Berlin friend who spent a year at an English school once told me. “You are educated to be independent.” To turn around Taylor’s dictum: when the English speak of freedom,
they mean the freedom to be English.

No matter what you may have heard, the Germans have always admired our independence of spirit. We shall, however, always see “Europe” in different ways. Europe, good: we can all agree on that. The European Union, not so good. It doesn’t mean we have to fall out, and the Germans are good friends to have.

 

Hook, line and sinker

There are fine walks to be had in the west, too. In Charlottenburg, the Kensington of Berlin, the mood is gentler, yet you can still feel the city humming. Here, there are some classic places to eat and drink – the Literaturhauscafé for breakfast and, for dinner, Marjellchen, a treasure trove of east Prussian forest delights. Anything that can be shot and put in a pot!

For a real Berlin experience, though, head at nightfall for Zwiebelfisch, the great tavern on Savignyplatz, and watch the trains glide by on the other side of Kantstraße. Hartmut Volmerhaus, a most amusing host, has been the guvnor here for more than 30 years and there are no signs that his race is run. The “Fisch” at twilight: there’s nowhere better to feel the pulse of this remarkable city. 

This article first appeared in the 01 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Age of outrage