Julian Assange pads out from the room in the Ecuadorian Embassy he’s called home for the past year, greeting me with a polite kiss on both cheeks. He’s dressed in an old T-shirt, worn-in jeans – and he’s wearing white towelling socks without shoes.
Well, it is the hottest day of the year, and this is his home. I crack an obviously hilarious joke about dressing up for the occasion as we wander into another room for our exclusive interview about the WikiLeaks’ founder’s bid to run for a seat in the Australian Senate.
The embassy is in Knightsbridge, minutes from Harrods, but once inside – past the smiling Met officer, through the security detector, surrendering my passport – it’s fairly underwhelming. I wait in the small reception area, corridors leading off to various rooms, and busy people chatting in Spanish.
It’s humid, no air-con – and it’s even hotter in the room we go into to talk, with computers dotted around it, a green screen for filming, and Post-it notes on one of the walls with soundbites written on them, such as ‘Cablegate’.
Assange, 42, grew up in Australia. As a teen he hacked into government computers, got raided by the Feds, and started an underground magazine. By 2010 he’d hit headlines as editor-in-chief at WikiLeaks, publishing secret information from anonymous sources.
Using high-profile media, that year the organisation released hundreds of thousands of US military cables, painting a devastating picture of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan – damning evidence about civilian casualties and ignored torture.
The US and UK condemned the leak. Soldier Bradley Manning was arrested on suspicion of passing classified documents to WikiLeaks, and is now on trial in the US. Assange has described it as a “show trial”, with WikiLeaks helping to fund his defence – as well as supporting the latest whistleblower to go public, Edward Snowden.
Later in 2010, Assange was accused of sexual offences by two women in Sweden. Although he admits he had consensual sex with them, the activist denies wrongdoing, dismissing it as a ruse for the US to extradite him to possibly stand trial over the leaking of military cables. After a legal battle against extradition to Sweden, in June 2012, Assange was granted political asylum at the Ecuadorian Embassy.
Assange is one of the world’s most controversial figures, with two films being released this year – documentary We Steal Secrets (which WikiLeaks dismissed as lies) and thriller The Fifth Estate, starring Benedict Cumberbatch as the WikiLeaks founder. This week, Assange will be officially announced as the WikiLeaks Party candidate for an Australian Senate seat in Victoria.
The other candidates for New South Wales, Western Australia and Assange’s running mate in Victoria will be announced on Thursday. However, one of the pressing issues is that Assange isn’t in Australia – he’s sitting in a chair opposite me, his silver-blond hair long and unkempt, and even lighter than it appears on TV or in photos.
He speaks in a low, gravelly tone – though the Australian accent is there. Pausing on a few occasions to find the right word, making sure he doesn’t say the wrong thing, Assange seems incredibly guarded, placing his dictaphone next to mine to record the interview, saying he’s been burnt many times by the media. Every now and then he relaxes, breaking into a laugh or a smile.
He warns me of his tendency to give long answers – and more than five minutes in, I’ve only asked the first question. Our 15-minute allotted slot soon creeps to 45. Here’s the outcome of when TNT met Assange.
Are you serious about wanting to help Australians, or is the Senate run a bid for your own freedom?
For me personally, it doesn’t make any difference legally. Unfortunately, or perhaps fortunately, Australian senators have no immunity [in my situation] … I would never run for any office to simply introduce another political party which just has platforms like any other political party … What is the point of doing that?
Already, the platform I have with WikiLeaks is significantly greater than the platform I would have being an Australian senator. The idea is to change how the Senate operates, change how the processes of government operate … shake things up as much as possible.
How do you intend to shake things up?
The Australian Senate is like the House of Lords here in the UK, except it has significantly more teeth. Its job is to scrutinise and expose the behaviour of government, hold it to account and check on its power … it has to understand the complex mechanisms of governments and corporations – their lies, their deceits, their spin, their interconnections, their pressures – cut through all of that, through all the crap and say it like it is …
Now the question is can we take that same understanding WikiLeaks has developed about big corporations, about foreign policy about how states and big corporations really behave and apply that to the Senate in Australia … I think that is possible.
Is there much corruption in Australia?
Some of our people like to joke that we [WikiLeaks] only have one policy, and that’s ‘lights on, rats out’ – that is, to bring as much attention and exposure to what’s happening in Canberra as possible, and to drive out opportunistic or corrupt players. Canberra is a debauchery … by taking Australia’s elected representatives who are meant to represent their electorates … and putting them in isolation in Canberra together with the bureaucrats and the foreign embassies – that’s a toxic environment.
These people will go to cocktail parties and luncheons with the same people in the city, they’ll develop social and business relationships. In that little, isolated artificial city, they’re not involved in the local community, they’re not even going to lunch with the regular middle-sized business leaders, so even the type of corruption in Canberra is not an average type of corruption because we’ve moved the politicians away from the people.
What does that mean in practical terms?
Having the ability to use the Senate to break immoral gag orders on the Australian press; to deal with many cases of self-censorship, where the press is too scared to speak about the issue because the people being spoken about are very powerful; to introduce legislation which ensures there is proper, frequent communication on the internet which has become our central communications mechanism …
Also use the Senate committee process as a process to cross-examine and interrogate various complex Australian bureaucratic structures.
How will your involvement with WikiLeaks help?
We’ve become experts of dealing with millions of documents on foreign policy and bureaucracy, people trying to cover them up, and people trying to apply pressure to us to stop it and defeating that pressure. So I see quite a strong connection with what we do as an organisation and what we expect to do as a political party in the Senate.
Have you had support from Aussie politicians?
The Australian Labor government took the most hostile reaction to WikiLeaks of any government in the world, including the US. The Australian Labor party has been so corrupted by its connections with the US government that it fell over backwards to demonstrate publicly that it was going to go in for me even harder than the US.
It pronounced a “whole of government investigation” – that’s what Julia Gillard called it – the Attorney General looked for ways to cancel my passport, the AG’s office was instructed by cabinet to find ways to see if I could be charged with treason, the Australian Federal police came back and said he’s committed no crime under Australian law.
The Australian press, fortunately, came into bat for me, and so the Australian population made its displeasure known with what was happening, so eventually there was a public fallback.
Do you really think you can win a Senate seat?
Yes. We will have to struggle to not win it based on polling. That said, there’s a lot of ways to lose. But [there are] now four or five polls showing that I have between 25-28 per cent of the vote over the past year or so. It’s remarkably consistent and the level of support by the Australian community is even higher, that’s in the 60-70 per cent range.
Why do you think support is so high?
I would like to believe it’s because I am an expression of Australian culture, and WikiLeaks has a disproportionate number of Australians involved not just because they’re friends of mine … it’s something that resonates with Australians and the Australian culture. Australians don’t like wankery.
Another way of saying that is Australians don’t like lies. And we’re an organisation that exists to expose the most powerful lies. But I suspect there’s also a fair degree of sympathy with my personal situation, the abandonment by the Australian government of WikiLeaks as an Australian organisation that has been successful, [and] me, as a person. And Australians don’t want to see that precedent being set.
How will it work logistically if you win?
If I’m elected, I’m meant to take my Senate seat in July 2014. Hopefully [my] situation will be resolved by then. It is in essence a political situation, it involves the prestige of a number of states, so it is, to a degree, fluid. If it is resolved by that time in the US, and it drops its investigation against me, and the Swedes drop their investigation, then I can return to Australia. If that doesn’t happen, if the US continues its investigation and there is no safe passage then, I won’t be able to take up my seat in Australia.
If after two months I still cannot take my seat, then the Senate can elect to give me further time, or not … Let’s assume it doesn’t, because I think I know where they’re at, then my running mate can take the seat, or any publicly recognised member of the WikiLeaks Party can take the seat until such time as I am able to return.
Back in 2010, you were accused of sexual assault by two women. Why don’t you face the charges?
When you embarrass very, very powerful groups like the US and its allies … then you get a lot of smear coming back the other way … There are no charges – that’s an important grounding point. If the Swedish government wants to speak to me, [they can] come here, or alternatively provide a guarantee that I will not be extradited to the US.
The Ecuadorian government has asked for that, it’s not just me asking for this, it’s perfectly normal – these guarantees are given all the time. They won’t provide a guarantee, they won’t provide a reason they won’t provide a guarantee, they won’t come to the Ecuadorian Embassy. It’s simply an unreasonable way to behave.
The Ecuadorian government received my application for asylum, processed it and formally found that my fears of persecution by the US … were reasonable and as a result I was granted political asylum.
So you believe there are political motivations?
I don’t want to say that there are political motivations … But the entire situation has been politicised and is something that has been pushed by the US. When a matter reaches a certain political level, normal justice is thrown out the window, so normal due process is disregarded, and that is something that’s happened in this case, in the US case, in the case of Bradley Manning, it’s happening right now in the case of Edward Snowden with the US trying to interfere with his rights to asylum, just like the British government is trying to interfere with my right to asylum.
WikiLeaks has exposed classified information about governments, military, politicians, corporations. What motivates you to make secret information public?
Some days I think it’s just that I don’t like lying arseholes [laughs]. And other days when I’m feeling less combative and more cerebral, then I just think I like educating people. And by education I don’t mean chalk in the classroom, although that’s part of it. I mean adult education: what kind of world do we live in? How does it actually work? If you do this what happens?
I hate these moralising journalists – although I must confess that I probably do seem to be one – who say you should care about this. Why? Why should someone care more about themselves, their family, their business and then the community? Yes, of course, everyone should care a little bit about everyone else, but, of course, they should also care more about their children than someone else’s children … that’s the way things should be.
By leaking classified military information, do you feel you’ve done anything wrong?
We don’t need to talk about feelings, because we have facts. The facts are, despite the propaganda, no government, not the Pentagon, not the CIA, not the White House, no government department says a single person has come to physical harm from our publications. So the answer is no.
Will you ever be a free man?
Well, I’m free now in the most important respect. My thoughts are free and I can speak.
Photos: Getty; Allen Clark Photography, Anthony Devlin, John Pryke 2012, Andrew Drummond