Last night, Steve Kroft on 60 Minutes challenged Julian Assange on a variety of issues surrounding WikiLeaks, and failed miserably. But what happened last spring when Assange met a real master of the debate -- Stephen Colbert?
Here is the second exclusive excerpt from my just-published book, The Age of WikiLeaks: From Collateral Murder to Cablegate (and Beyond). You can read the first here.
During this first week of publicity for WikiLeaks after the release of the "Collateral Murder" video, most Americans had only met Assange in brief snippets on the nightly news or on one of the cable programs, if they were really paying attention. For a few million people (via its original airing and then on the Web), a more revealing and intense introduction came from an unusual platform: Comedy Central's Colbert Report. On April 12, Assange appeared for the trademark, show-closing interview with its host.
Sitting across from Assange, who was wearing a light-colored, open-necked shirt and his usual brown blazer, Colbert goofed around for a minute, his own face pixilated and voice modified to protect against a drone attack. (Some reports in the media suggested, with little evidence, that the U.S. was conducting a manhunt for Assange and seeking to detain him.) When that charade ended he gave his guest a chance to explain U.S. constitutional guarantees on freedom of speech and the press and the need for "the flow of information."
Maintaining a light manner, Colbert said, "If we don't know what the government is doing, we can't be sad about it. Why are you trying to make me sad?" This produced a boyish grin from Assange. "You are trying to bum us out about the world. All of these terrible things are going on behind closed doors and you decided I needed to hear about it."
"That's just an interim state, Stephen, you'll be happier about it later on," Assange said, smiling again.
So far, a typical Colbert interview segment. But now Colbert got serious. "Let's talk about this footage that has gotten you so much attention recently," he said. "This is footage of an Apache helicopter attack in 2007. The army described this as a group that gave resistance during the fight, and that doesn't seem to be happening. But there are armed men in the group, they did find a rocket propelled grenade among the group, the Reuters photographers who were regrettably killed were not identified as photographers. And you have edited this tape, and you have given it a title called Collateral Murder. That's not leaking, that's a pure editorial."
Assange, no smile this time, explained, "the promise we make to our sources is that....we will attempt to get the maximum political impact for the materials they give to us."
"So 'Collateral Murder' is to get it political impact?"
"Absolutely. Our promise to the public is that we will release the full source material...it's there for them to analyze and assess."
"Actually I admire that," Colbert said. "I admire someone who is willing to put 'Collateral Murder' on the first thing people see knowing that they probably won't look at the rest of it."
Assange grinned again, but Colbert continued: "That way you have manipulated the audience into the emotional state you want before something goes on the air. That is an emotional manipulation.... That's journalism I can get behind," he added, obviously tongue-in-cheek.
"That's true," Assange replied, "only one in ten people did actually look at the full footage."
"So 90 percent of the people accept the definition of collateral murder?"
"Do you believe it was collateral murder?"
"You do? Did you get to make that call?"
"Yes. That was our call."
"Really?" Turning to the audience, Colbert announced, "I want the Pentagon to know he is actually not in my studio right now." After laughs from the crowd, Stephen returned on point: "How can you call that collateral murder?" Then hitting an uncharacteristic low blow, Colbert asked, "What branch of the service did you serve in, sir? Huh?"
Assange pointed out, "Well, I'm an Australian, actually."
"You guys don't fight down there? How can you call it collateral murder? I watched the entire thing, I'm one of that 10 percent. And you did not reveal there was a firefight that had gone on nearby."
"Because that's a lie."
Colbert, caught off guard, paused, then replied, "That's a lie?"
"We have records that showed all that there was, 28 minutes before, was a report of small arms fire, the person involved and location not identified."
"What were these men doing in the streets, uh, carrying rifles and rocket propelled grenades?"
Assange said "it appears that possibly" one man was carrying an AK-47 and one carrying an RPG, "although we're not 100% sure of that....However, the permission to engage was given before the word RPG was ever used and before the Reuters cameraman ever pulled up his camera."
Colbert backed off and returned to witticisms. "What is the purpose of letting the public know - it's as if you're saying it is better to know than not to know. Have you not heard the expression, ignorance is bliss?"
"All too frequently," Assange said with a laugh and perfect timing.
Sensing the news value of the interview, Colbert's people put the entire unedited segment online, at more than eleven minutes. As it turned out, there were a few choice moments rescued from the cutting room floor. Assange disclosed that twenty minutes were already missing from the middle of the video when WikiLeaks received the tape.
Then there was this exchange:
Colbert: "War is war. I haven't fought in a war therefore I don't judge it. How can you judge it?"
"You can make the justification that, well, a lot of bad things happen in war, but what is war?" Assange replied. "Well, this is what it is."
When his guest said he'd sent people to Baghdad to notify victims' families about the video, Colbert asked about the soldiers in the helicopters. Does Assange think only civilians are harmed by war? Assange replied rather eloquently: "Soldiers are debased in war, and this is one thing this video shows, that the character of these young soldiers in the air has been corrupted by the process of war. We should have some sympathy for these soldiers who go to war, but understand that it is an inevitable outcome in sending them, and stop sending them." Mitchell's new book is only available here. His live-blog at The Nation is now in its 65th day. He is the former editor of Editor & Publisher and has written ten books.