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What did WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange change by releasing classified documents?


For more on the impact of Julian Assange and WikiLeaks, let's bring in Alan Rusbridger. He's a former editor-in-chief of The Guardian. He now edits the current affairs magazine Prospect. At The Guardian, he was one of the first journalists to work with Assange and WikiLeaks. Rusbridger joins us now from London.

Alan, over the years, Assange went from being regarded as a champion of press freedoms to a virtual pariah. Why was there such a big shift in opinion?

ALAN RUSBRIDGER: Good morning. Well, I think one of the reasons was the whole brouhaha over the 2016 leaking of the DNC emails and Hillary Clinton, where people felt that Assange had changed into more of an activist than a journalist. He's a complicated figure because he has multiple different identities. To my mind, he can be a journalist; he can be a publisher; he can be an activist, a kind of information anarchist. And he's all those identities, and I think many what would call themselves proper journalists are reluctant to line up with him.

MARTÍNEZ: How did you see him?

RUSBRIDGER: Well, I think all of the above. We worked for a number of big projects over Iraq, over Afghanistan, over the diplomatic cables, with papers, including The New York Times. And sometimes those were highly rewarding experiences. Sometimes they were fraught. But I've always defended the work that we did together, which was very careful and professional. And so in - my dealings with him were when he was behaving as a journalist.

MARTÍNEZ: Yeah. You were the editor-in-chief of The Guardian when it was just one of the few newspapers printing stories based on half a million documents that have been stolen by a U.S. Army Intelligence analyst, Chelsea Manning. Alan, how did you decide what to publish and what not to publish?

RUSBRIDGER: Well, I mean, let's take The New York Times, although there were three European newspapers as well. I mean, we had separate teams working with them, and we collaborated in trying to form assessments of what should be redacted and how to publish these responsibly, though sometimes we had different choices about which stories to go for. And our aim throughout was not to place anybody in peril or danger while revealing what we consider to be the public interest in stories that did reveal significant things about misbehavior by special forces - or forces in war. And those to me were important stories to run.

MARTÍNEZ: When you say that you didn't want to put people in peril, who specifically were you talking about, the people in the documents or the journalists that were uncovering them?

RUSBRIDGER: No. I'm talking about the people in the documents.


RUSBRIDGER: And The New York Times was - you know, has a tradition of working with this kind of document, and they were in contact with the agencies and with the White House in advance of preparing a story so that we were as careful as we could be.

MARTÍNEZ: I ask that only because now that Julian Assange has pleaded guilty to one count of conspiring to disseminate classified defense information, that means that for the first time in U.S. history, reporting on and publishing information that the government deems a secret is now a crime. So, I mean, how does that not put all investigative journalists in greater peril?

RUSBRIDGER: Well, that's the menacing thing about this plea deal. I'm pleased Assange - that he's out. But the use of the Espionage Act, which was passed in 1917 to deal with spies against people behaving with journalistic intent, is a new and menacing thing, and it's part of a pattern that's happened in the U.K. It's happened in Australia - I think just to clamp down on national security reporting. You can see from the government's point of view why they want to keep things secret, and some things probably should be kept secret. But to really threaten people with this Espionage Act seems to me utterly wrong.

MARTÍNEZ: What do you think about it having maybe a chilling effect on whistleblowers in the future?

RUSBRIDGER: I think it already has because whistleblowers like Edward Snowden, who, to my mind, have performed a public service in doing what they did, will probably spend the rest of his life in Moscow. So I think it's intended to deter, and I think it will deter.

MARTÍNEZ: Alan Rusbridger is the editor of Prospect magazine. Alan, thank you very much for your time.

RUSBRIDGER: Great. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

A Martínez
A Martínez is one of the hosts of Morning Edition and Up First. He came to NPR in 2021 and is based out of NPR West.