Assange: “WikiLeaks is the intelligence agency of the people”

The site chief discusses radical journalism and WikiLeaks’s main threat in an exclusive <em>New Stat

In an exclusive essay for the New Statesman, the editor-in-chief of WikiLeaks, Julian Assange, argues that the whistleblowing website is a return to the days of the once-popular radical press. He also discusses why the New York Times dislikes the website and reveals the biggest threat to WikiLeaks today.

"WikiLeaks is part of an honourable tradition that expands the scope of freedom by trying to lay 'all the mysteries and secrets of government' before the public," writes Assange, who compares WikiLeaks to the pamphleteers of the English civil war and the radical press of the early 20th century. "We are, in a sense, a pure expression of what the media should be: an intelligence agency of the people, casting pearls before swine."

Assange argues that the New York Times's hostility to WikiLeaks stems from the newspaper's illiberal tradition of failing to back organisations or figures that challenge established elites. He highlights the newspaper's failure to support the American pacifist and anti-war campaigner Eugene Debs, who was imprisoned for ten years for making an anti-war speech in 1918.

"The New York Times, true to form, had been calling for [Debs's] imprisonment for more than two decades, saying in an editorial of 9 July 1894 that Debs was 'a lawbreaker at large, an enemy of the human race. There has been quite enough talk about warrants against him and about arresting him,' " writes Assange. "Seen within this historical perspective, the New York Times's performance in the run-up to the US-led invasion of Iraq, and its hostile attitude to WikiLeaks today, are not surprising."

In its major leaks, the website only agreed to work with the NYT, among others, "for reasons of realpolitik", according to Assange.

WikiLeaks is able to succeed because, unlike many of its forebears, it does not rely on advertisers, he continues. "As well as the hostility of governments, popular grass-roots publishers have had to face the realities of advertising as a source of revenue. [T]he Daily Herald . . . was forced to close despite being among the 20 largest-circulation dailies in the world, because its largely working-class readers did not constitute a lucrative advertising market."

WikiLeaks has other problems, however, writes Assange: "How do we deal with an extrajudicial financial blockade by Bank of America, Visa (including Visa Europe, registered in London), MasterCard, PayPal, Western Union, the Swiss PostFinance, Moneybookers and other finance companies, all keen to curry favour with Washington?"

To read the piece in full, pick up a copy of this week's New Statesman, on news-stands from Thursday, or click here to subscribe to the magazine.

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I'm far from convinced by Cameron's plans for Syria

The Prime Minister has a plan for when the bombs drop. But what about after?

In the House of Commons today, the Prime Minister set out a powerful case for Britain to join air strikes against Isil in Syria.  Isil, he argued, poses a direct threat to Britain and its people, and Britain should not be in the business of “outsourcing our security to our allies”. And while he conceded that further airstrikes alone would not be sufficient to beat Isil, he made the case for an “Isil first” strategy – attacking Isil now, while continuing to do what we can diplomatically to help secure a lasting settlement for Syria in which Assad (eventually) plays no part.

I agreed with much of David Cameron’s analysis. And no-one should doubt either the murderous barbarism of Isil in the region, or the barbarism they foment and inspire in others across the world.  But at the end of his lengthy Q&A session with MPs, I remained unconvinced that UK involvement in airstrikes in Syria was the right option. Because the case for action has to be a case for action that has a chance of succeeding.  And David Cameron’s case contained neither a plan for winning the war, nor a plan for winning the peace.

The Prime Minister, along with military experts and analysts across the world, concedes that air strikes alone will not defeat Isil, and that (as in Iraq) ground forces are essential if we want to rid Syria of Isil. But what is the plan to assemble these ground forces so necessary for a successful mission?  David Cameron’s answer today was more a hope than a plan. He referred to “70,000 Syrian opposition fighters - principally the Free Syrian Army (FSA) – with whom we can co-ordinate attacks on Isil”.

But it is an illusion to think that these fighters can provide the ground forces needed to complement aerial bombardment of Isil.  Many commentators have begun to doubt whether the FSA continues to exist as a coherent operational entity over the past few months. Coralling the myriad rebel groups into a disciplined force capable of fighting and occupying Isil territory is a heroic ambition, not a plan. And previous efforts to mobilize the rebels against Isil have been utter failures. Last month the Americans abandoned a $500m programme to train and turn 5,400 rebel fighters into a disciplined force to fight Isil. They succeeded in training just 60 fighters. And there have been incidents of American-trained fighters giving some of their US-provided equipment to the Nusra Front, an affiliate of Al Qaeda.

Why has it proven so hard to co-opt rebel forces in the fight against Isil? Because most of the various rebel groups are fighting a war against Assad, not against Isil.  Syria’s civil war is gruesome and complex, but it is fundamentally a Civil War between Assad’s forces and a variety of opponents of Assad’s regime. It would be a mistake for Britain to base a case for military action against Isil on the hope that thousands of disparate rebel forces can be persuaded to change their enemy – especially when the evidence so far is that they won’t.

This is a plan for military action that, at present, looks highly unlikely to succeed.  But what of the plan for peace? David Cameron today argued for the separation of the immediate task at hand - to strike against Isil in Syria – from the longer-term ambition of achieving a settlement in Syria and removing Assad.  But for Isil to be beaten, the two cannot be separated. Because it is only by making progress in developing a credible and internationally-backed plan for a post-Assad Syria that we will persuade Syrian Sunnis that fighting Isil will not end up helping Assad win the Civil War.  If we want not only to rely on rebel Sunnis to provide ground troops against Isil, but also provide stable governance in Isil-occupied areas when the bombing stops, progress on a settlement to Syria’s Civil War is more not less urgent.  Without it, the reluctance of Syrian Sunnis to think that our fight is their fight will undermine the chances of military efforts to beat Isil and bring basic order to the regions they control. 

This points us towards doubling down on the progress that has already been made in Vienna: working with the USA, France, Syria’s neighbours and the Gulf states, as well as Russia and Iran. We need not just a combined approach to ending the conflict, but the prospect of a post-war Syria that offers a place for those whose cooperation we seek to defeat Isil. No doubt this will strike some as insufficient in the face of the horrors perpetrated by Isil. But I fear that if we want not just to take action against Isil but to defeat them and prevent their return, it offers a better chance of succeeding than David Cameron’s proposal today. 

Stewart Wood is a former Shadow Cabinet minister and adviser to Ed Miliband. He tweets as @StewartWood.