WASHINGTON — Embattled WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange beamed in to Washington from London on Monday to explain his organization's newest project: a searchable database of nearly 2 million diplomatic cables, most of them recently declassified.
The new initiative, called the Public Library of US Diplomacy, folds WikiLeaks' previous 2010 State Department dump of 250,000 diplomatic cables into a new batch of "Kissinger cables" from the 1970s and makes the files searchable. Unlike WikiLeaks' 2010 release, this is not a leak. Instead, the organization has taken millions of PDFs that have become declassified and entered the public domain and organized them in what Assange called the "single most significant geopolitical publication that has ever existed."
Assange and Icelandic journalist and WikiLeaks spokesperson Kristinn Hrafnsson appeared in a press conference physically helmed at the National Press Club by Hrafnsson. They said the cables from the Kissinger era show an explosion of US diplomatic strength in the 1970s accompanied with the growth of US diplomats teaming with foreign opposition movements. They feature some early descriptions of characters that became important later, including Margaret Thatcher, and Assange's bête noir, Swedish foreign minister Carl Bildt.
Skyping in from the Ecuadorian Embassy in London, where he has been taking asylum since June to avoid his prosecution for alleged sex crimes in Sweden, Assange appeared on a big screen. The feed intermittently cut out throughout the press conference. Wearing an embroidered shirt and sporting some facial hair, Assange looked slightly wan; if he leaves the embassy in London at all he risks extradition to Sweden. He began his speech to reporters by quoting George Orwell: "He who controls the present, controls the past. He who controls the past, controls the future."
He reeled off some of the highlights from the database, from the involvement of Gandhi scion Rajiv Gandhi in Swedish arms deals to a description of Margaret Thatcher in a 1975 cable: "Her voice, her dress, her manner all bear the unmistakeable stamp of the suburban Tory matron."
Assange emphasized the sheer size of the cables: "It's sometimes quite hard for journalists and people who work with words to understand the scale of things. It requires a sense of numeracy." And he took issue with skeptical questions implying that this latest project is little more than a slick repackaging of information that is available to anyone.
The Kissinger-era documents "are technically in the public domain," Assange acknowledged. But he called the cables, which have been uploaded as PDF files, "essentially unusable" in that form.
"The were practically not available to the public in a way that's efficient enough for people to be able to make sense of them," Assange said.
Their value, Assange said, is historical.
The Kissinger cables show how "diplomacy became the central ingredient to US power across the world," Assange said, referring to the period as the "big bang" of diplomacy.
"This is when the modern international order came to be," Assange said. "Back in the 1970s, US embassies were more important. Now, because of the speed of international flights, video conferences like we're having right now, email et cetera, means that the center, Washington, has more direct control of the periphery."
The cables, Assange said, also give a glimpse into the nuts and bolts of what embassies do abroad, including currying favor with opposition movements: "In my experience, after studying many thousands of cables, the US makes a priority of gaining influence and contacts within opposition movements."
Assange and Hrafnsson didn't say they expected retribution for the latest release, but didn't count it out, either.
"If the Department of Justice was to go after us for this release like they're attempting to prosecute us for previous releases involving US embassy documents, the approach would probably be along the lines of the approach that was taken with Aaron Swartz, which is the manner of acquisition as opposed to the nature of the material," Assange said.
"No, not to the degree where people have stopped doing such things," Assange said when asked if the prosecution of Bradley Manning had a chilling effect on new leaks of recent information. But he acknowledged that the Manning case had made some potential whistleblowers more cautious.
Assange himself is in stasis, now in his ninth month holed up at the Ecuadorian Embassy. As of February, his police protection there had cost British taxpayers nearly 3 million pounds. He deflected When BuzzFeed asked how long he plans to stay there, he deflected the question to Hrafnnson, who called the situation in Sweden "very worrying" but had no new information about the progress of the investigation.
Rosie Gray is a reporter for BuzzFeed News and is based in Washington, D.C. Gray reports on politics and foreign policy.
Contact Rosie Gray at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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