Julian Assange Says Lengthy Embassy Stay Has Sharpened His Perspective On The World

Feb 19, 2016
Originally published on February 21, 2016 8:09 am

"You're able to take into account your perspective because your perspective is the same, it doesn't change ... and the world does change."

That's what WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange told NPR's Morning Edition about his life in long-term confinement. "For example, let's say you're watching the boats in the river but you're sailing at the same time — it's hard to understand how much they're moving versus your moving."

Assange's reflective take on the three-plus years he has lived at the Ecuadorian Embassy in London comes a week and a half after a U.N. panel ruled that he was being "arbitrarily detained" and should be released.

The saga, as we've reported, began in 2010, when Assange was arrested in Britain on a Swedish warrant over sexual-assault accusations. He was held in isolation for 10 days and then placed under house arrest for more than a year before seeking asylum at the embassy in 2012, where he has remained to avoid being arrested.

He is also wanted in the U.S. over WikiLeaks' publication of classified military and diplomatic documents, one of the largest leaks of such information in history.

The U.K. is formally contesting the U.N. opinion and maintains that it will arrest the WikiLeaks founder should he leave the embassy. When the decision was announced, Assange called it a "vindication" and said, "There is no ability to appeal the decision of the United Nations," calling his status "settled law."

But so far, he is still holed up inside the embassy. In the interview with NPR, Assange had this to say when asked about what he missed most from the outside world: "Well, I often get this question and I've decided my response is nothing at all, except for my children and mother. Because there is an attempt here to create a general deterrent in relation to publishing, and that's not an attempt that should be committed."

He added that he is being detained even though he has never been charged or questioned, and that his persecution is a threat to journalism worldwide.

During the interview, Assange focused mainly on his legal case, but he did reveal that he took steps to prepare himself for a long confinement: "When I became confined here, of course I looked up — I found some quite interesting books produced by Californian solitary confinement prisoners into what sort of psychological and exercise routines they used to try to get them through."

He said his daily life is not so exciting but that his work keeps him busy.

"Being editor of WikiLeaks was always a pretty difficult job," he said. "And then to do it in an embassy, which is under very intense surveillance and a covert operation — which the U.K. government publicly admits that they have spent more than $20 million in the past three years on a covert operation against me in this embassy. So it's a very compelling situation to be in, even though physically it's quite isolated."

Despite his isolation, Assange said he wouldn't consider giving up his position at the helm of WikiLeaks, saying that such a move would be capitulating to what he called a "general deterrent."

"I'm not going to commit that general deterrent to have effect by, for example, knocking off editors, in this case the editor, which is me," Assange said.

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On June 19, 2012, Julian Assange, the founder of WikiLeaks, walked into the Ecuadorian Embassy in London and asked for asylum. He's been there ever since. British authorities say if he ever leaves, he will be extradited to Sweden over rape allegations. He denies the allegations and further says if he's ever sent to Sweden, Sweden might extradite him again to the United States, where he could face prosecution for leaking classified cables on WikiLeaks. Our colleague, David Greene, had the rare opportunity to talk with Julian Assange this week on a phone line from the Ecuadorian Embassy. He wasn't given much time, told he had exactly five minutes.


What do you miss the most about, you know, the outside world?

JULIAN ASSANGE: Well, I get this question, and I've decided my response to it is nothing at all except my children, their mother because there is an attempt here to create a general deterrence in relation to publishing, and that's not an attempt that should be permitted. The United States says that it proceeds with its pending prosecutions for so-called espionage, conspiracy, to commit espionage, computer terrorism, general conspiracy and (unintelligible) to government secrets. There's no allegation that this is anything other than our normal publishing activity. So of course, it's absurd, it's a threat to investigative journalism within the United States, but more than that, it's a threat to journalism worldwide because this is a extraterritorial law grab from people in D.C. trying to push out what were already very controversial U.S. laws to try and push them to journalists operating in different countries.

GREENE: And we should say that there's a U.N. working group that has agreed with you and said that you should be immediately set free. But there are so many Americans who want to understand what it's like to be you. Is there just sort of a nugget of what life is like being confined to this place? I think it's something that is on the minds of so many people when they hear your story.

ASSANGE: Well, it's an interesting thing. When I became confined here, I found some quite interesting books produced by Californian solitary confinement prisoners into what sort of psychological and exercise regimes that they use to try and get them through. So in some ways, it gives you a sense of perspective because your environment is static, and the world doesn't change. For example, let's say you're watching the boats in the river, but you're sailing at the same time. It's hard to understand how much they're moving versus you're moving. If you have a fixed position, you can compare what's going on more easily.

GREENE: Given your legal saga has become so much of a focus, is there an argument that WikiLeaks would be better off without you still leading it?

ASSANGE: Interesting question, if I felt it would be stronger that way, I would be very happy to do the other ideas that I have, which are many. But we have to understand that there's been attempt to create a general deterrent, a very nasty one in relation to Chelsea Manning, who was imprisoned for 35 years and subject to psychological torture - that's a formal binding by the U.N. - in their military prison, purely delegation, even by the Pentagon, purely (unintelligible) communicating information to the press to communicate it to the public, in this case, allegation is (unintelligible) with us. That's a very nasty general deterrent, and they're trying to do the same thing with me. So I'm not going to permit that general deterrent to have effect by, for example, knocking off editors, in this case, the editor of WikiLeaks.

GREENE: Mr. Assange, forgive me. I have one more question on my list if I could ask, and then I'll let you go. Would that be OK? Mr. Assange, are you still there? Julian Assange had just disappeared from the line, and our interview was over.

INSKEEP: That's our colleague, David Greene. Julian Assange never did explain the line being cut off. It appeared the time that he was willing to talk had expired. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.