Rereading Michael Hastings’ Interview with Julian Assange
The sad news is being taken in by all self-respecting journalists. Someone who had a great passion for what he did and embodied the adversarial spirit that muckraking reporters should have in journalism died in a car accident at a young age. Rolling Stone contributor Michael Hastings died in a car crash in Los Angeles at the age of 33.
His death also happens to come almost exactly one year after WikiLeaks editor-in-chief Julian Assange sought asylum from Ecuador and entered the country’s embassy in the United Kingdom. He has spent an entire year inside the embassy pressing the UK for safe passage to Ecuador to no avail because Sweden continues to want to extradite him and the country has not dropped sexual assault allegations that he faces.
Hastings is one of the few reporters in the world to have conducted and published a major interview with Assange. He interviewed him back in December 2011 when Pfc. Bradley Manning first appeared in a military court at Fort Meade. Assange was still in a home in the British countryside under house arrest.
As someone who has aggressively covered the Manning court martial, along with Julian Assange and WikiLeaks, I found myself going back over the interview that Hastings did. I read it when it was released, but, a year and a half later, there are bits and pieces I am noticing that make it an enduring piece of work.
Hastings, unlike many other journalists, took seriously the fact that the United States government had decided to target Assange. He did not suggest that Assange was conjuring up conspiracy theories about how he was being persecuted because he was an egomaniac. He listened to what Assange had to say about how the Justice Department was likely pursuing him in a widespread investigation.
He asked Assange, “And they’re going after Manning, who is facing a life sentence, to get him to say that you’re a spy?” and about how the WikiLeaks site had a “most-wanted” list of stories” the organization was “eager to get.”
Both are prescient questions, given what I have been witnessing in Manning’s trial. Prosecutors maintain Manning was working on behalf of WikiLeaks, searching the secret network with government information he had access to for information that “was also found on the ‘most wanted’ list.” [For more on the role of the “most wanted” list in the prosecutors’ case, see this recent update from the trial.]
Assange answered, “To be another chess piece on the board in the attack on us. The U.S. government is trying to redefine what have been long-accepted journalistic methods. If the Pentagon is to have its way, it will be the end of national-security journalism in the United States.” He also said the “most wanted” list “was not put together by us.”
“We asked for nominations from human rights activists and journalists from around the world of the information they most wanted, and we put that on a list,” Assange added. “The prosecution in the Manning hearing has been attempting to use that list as evidence of our solicitation of information that is likely to be classified, and therefore our complicity in espionage, if we received such information.”
Hastings was willing to sympathize with Assange about the fact that the “Anglo-American press” had given him very little support. He asked about the New York Times‘ Bill Keller and how WikiLeaks was different from a mainstream news organization. Assange was able to talk about the Times smearing him and Hastings listened.
Given what we know from Manning now, I also find this exchange to be more interesting:
[HASTINGS] “Collateral Murder” – the video you released in April 2010 showing a U.S. helicopter gunship firing on a group of Iraqi civilians, including two Reuters journalists and two children – was the first scoop that got you major media attention. You learned that The Washington Post actually had the video and had been sitting on it.
[ASSANGE] A Post reporter named David Finkel had the video. We had sources who explained that he had even shown them the video in his home. Yet he concealed it.
…As I continued my research, I found an article discussing the book, The Good Soldiers, written by Washington Post writer David Finkel.
In Mr. Finkel book, he writes about the aerial weapons team attack. As, I read an online excerpt in Google Books, I followed Mr. Finkel’s account of the event belonging to the video. I quickly realize that Mr. Finkel was quoting, I feel in verbatim, the audio communications of the aerial weapons team crew…
Did Manning inform WikiLeaks, when he submitted the video, that Finkel had seen a copy of the video? Or, did WikiLeaks somehow know?
This exchange, when he asks about books being written about WikiLeaks and Assange, is fascinating as well:
[HASTINGS] One of the more interesting books is from Heather Brooke, a writer for The Guardian. She sounds almost like a scorned lover – she says she “swooned madly” when you first looked at her, then later concluded that you’re an asshole. That seems to be a recurring narrative of these stories about you.
[ASSANGE] [Long pause] I don’t think Heather Brooke is particularly interesting. The general phenomenon is interesting. Someone has an involvement to some extent in our work, which they then overstate tremendously to gain authority. They get something from the involvement – a reputation by proximity, information we’ve collected or some other item of value. Then we’re not able to continue the relationship with them at the same degree of involvement, so they feel rejected. When you become a celebrity – at various times, within the English language, I have been the most famous person being discussed in the news – people’s behavior shifts. What they lose through the lack of an ongoing relationship seems to be so incredibly valuable to them, so their desire to keep it, or their feeling of loss when they are not able to preserve the interaction, is so extreme that it drives them to do things you would not normally expect people to do. I always thought that A-level celebrities and their complaints about the difficulties of being a celebrity were rather self-indulgent.
It makes me think about Alex Gibney’s latest documentary We Steal Secrets and the prominent role that disaffected WikiLeaks staffer James Ball played in helping Gibney craft the film.
Ball is now a journalist working for The Guardian, who comes off as someone who has gone through the experience Assange described. He has had a “feeling of loss.” When publishing stories for The Guardian that do not tie-in to his past with WikiLeaks, his work does not enjoy as much interest. So, to continue to benefit from the “reputation by proximity,” he is willing to consistently rehash his past with WikiLeaks to keep up his notoriety.
Hastings pressed Assange on the sexual assault allegations he was facing, why he feared being extradited to Sweden and whether he should have ever slept with the two women, who say he violated them. He asked about legal expenses that were piling up and any advice he had for journalists.
He was generally interested in what Assange and WikiLeaks were trying to do. He did not ask questions to smear or call into question Assange’s character. They were asked to help the public understand who Assange was and why he had founded WikiLeaks, as well as to respectfully test some of Assange’s claims about his past actions.
A standard for interviewing someone like Assange that few journalists follow was set by Hastings. His passion and commitment to journalism will be missed.
Screenshot from Democracy Now interview on January 18, 2012