"You can be killed by someone in the White House, President on down, for completely arbitrary reasons."
So said WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange on HBO's Real Time with Bill Maher Friday.
BILL MAHER, HOST: But now, my first guest is the founder and editor-in-chief of Wikileaks.org and co-author of "Cypherpunks: Freedom and the Future of the Internet." He spoke with me earlier today from the Ecuadorian embassy in London where he's been in sanctuary since June 19, 2012. Here is Julian Assange. Julian, welcome to our show and welcome to America. I wish you could be here in person. I know that's impossible.
JULIAN ASSANGE: So do a lot of other people, Bill.
MAHER: Yeah. So, I'm going to give a little context to people who may not know exactly your story. You are of course the man behind WikiLeaks, which has released thousands and thousands of government documents, many of which the government, certainly our government, did not want released. So you are now a virtual prisoner there in the Ecuadorian embassy in London, and if you step outside you fear that the British authorities will extradite you to Sweden where you are wanted to answer questions on a sex charge, but you don’t want to go to Sweden because you fear they will extradite you to America for the WikiLeaks stuff. Is that about your life?
ASSANGE: It's about right except I haven't been charged.
MAHER: Alright, let me ask you a couple of basic questions also. One, how do you come by the documents that you do release? I would guess hacking and stealing is involved.
ASSANGE: Well, that's the allegation. I mean, we're set up in such a way that we don't know how we come by them. That's the part of the technology involved is that people can give us material and if you really want to keep sources safe, you need to make sure that no one, even inside your own organization, can tell what's going on. So you can’t, even if you're penetrated by intelligence agencies you, can't out your own sources.
MAHER: One thing I find very disconcerting here in America is that even the people in our liberal party have lined up against you. Dianne Feinstein, who I think of as a very liberal senator from a very liberal state here in California, has called for you to be arrested on the espionage act. Look, I'm not going to kid around, I'm on your side. But, just give a…
ASSANGE: She's a lovely woman. Lovely woman.
MAHER: If you could briefly tell the American people why they should be on your side in this.
ASSANGE: Look, we've risen to a situation, or collapsed to a situation in the United States now where you can be killed by someone in the White House, President on down, for completely arbitrary reasons. You won't know that you're on the kill list until you're dead. And lawyers, if you have a suspicion that you might be on this kill list, they can't even represent you. That was a case for our lawyers this (?) for constitutional rights trying to represent Anwar al-Awlaki. He was discovered to be on that kill list, and his son wasn't even allowed to be his lawyer because he was part of a prescribed organization.
So, that’s a, I can't see a greater collapse when the executive can kill its own citizens, arbitrarily, at will, in secret, without any of the decision-making becoming public, without even the rules of procedure, without even the law behind this being public.
So, that's why we need organizations like WikiLeaks, and I encourage anyone in the White House that has access to those rules and procedures, walk them on over to us. We'll keep you secret and reveal it to the public.
MAHER: Is there anything you would not publish? I mean, would you not publish nuclear codes, or if you found the plans to get bin Laden before that raid had been conducted?
ASSANGE: Well, if you engage in these hypotheticals like “24” did, you can justify anything. You can justify torturing people with hypotheticals - ticking time bombs and so on. But unlike most media organizations, we have a publicly stated policy on what we publish and what we don't publish. We don't make this up based on our political alliances like most organizations do. We accept material that is political, diplomatic, or historical or ethical significance that hasn't been published before and is on some kind of under some kind of censorship threat.
If it meets all those criteria, we will put our resources into publishing it and defending it. We may keep some portions of it at bay for a period of time if it would subject someone to reprisals for example. We promised the publisher eventually some pieces may be need to withheld for a period of time.
MAHER: But I know you have published diplomatic cables and diplomacy by its very nature has to do with, well, being diplomatic, and sometimes that's a good thing. For example, during the Cuban missile crisis, it was a lot about face-saving. We were on the brink of war. We made a deal behind the scenes to, where, if the Russians took the missiles out of Cuba, we said we would take the missiles out of Turkey. But the missiles were coming out of Turkey anyway. It was purely a face-saving endeavor to end the standoff. But if that had become public, it wouldn't have been face-saving, and maybe the world would have went to war.
ASSANGE: Yeah, maybe. I mean, I can see arguments for in the minutes of the negotiations, the negotiations need confidentiality at the moment that they're happening. But we're talking about what's happening at a significant time afterwards. And, you know, this is a matter of there being costs and benefits. We look at the benefits of what we've published.
I mean, there is massive reforms all around the world. These documents that we’re published contributed significantly to the Arab spring. And that’s not us saying that. That’s Amnesty International and a lot of other reports saying that. But in the end, yes, sometimes the state department and other organizations have a responsibility to keep things secret for a limited period of time. They failed in that responsibility arguably. Us as a publishing organization, we have a responsibility also, and our responsibility is to publish fairly and fearlessly and represent the whistleblowers who bring us material, and it's all right for a different bodies in society to have conflicting roles. That's what keeps all our different organizations honest.
MAHER: Yeah, I think, I think if the United States could prosecute a foreign journalist, it would set a rather chilling precedent around the world. I don't know what would stop other countries from prosecuting our journalists if they felt like it. Russia comes to mind. So I certainly hope we…
ASSANGE: Already this case has been used to justify prosecutions around the world. I mean, it's used in Ethiopia, it’s used in a lot of countries to justify a crackdown on journalists. It’s not just me who’s involved in this. I mean, the young soldier Bradley Manning has now been detained without trial a U.S. military prison for longer than any other case in U.S. military history.
MAHER: Ok. Well, I hope you get out soon, Julian. We'd like to see you out on the outside again. I don't want to send Ben Affleck in like we did in Iran. Thank you, Julian Assange, everybody. Thank you, Julian.