State Department Tried To Dissuade WikiLeaks From Posting U.S. Documents

Apr 12, 2019
Originally published on April 12, 2019 7:44 am
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DAVID GREENE, HOST:

All right. And let's go back in that timeline now to November 2010. The publication of 200,000 secret U.S. government documents was imminent. The then-legal adviser at the State Department sent a letter to Julian Assange and his attorney. It said, this release would harm lives, and it asked Assange to stop the publication. The author of that letter is Harold Koh. And he joins us on the phone this morning.

Mr. Koh, thanks for taking the time.

HAROLD KOH: Good to be here.

GREENE: So it sounds like the State Department was scrambling as WikiLeaks was ready to release all of these cables. Can you take me inside? What was happening?

KOH: Well, the cables - many of the cables indicate information that's threatening to human rights activists. You often have cables that say that an embassy official met with somebody in hiding - who is hiding from authorities, and this is what happened.

The request was made to Assange to redact this material so these lives could be protected. He and his colleagues were pretty much contemptuous of this and said, well, you know, let the chips fall where they may.

And so in the couple of days before the release, there was a mad scramble to try to get to all these people and move them. It was an extraordinary performance by dozens or maybe hundreds of State Department officials around the world.

Anyway, we know of nobody who got hurt as a result of the release. But when the release occurred, Assange said, see, no problem. In fact, he was the one who put them in jeopardy, and the State Department people were the ones who saved them.

GREENE: But as I understand it, didn't Assange actually reach out to you saying, give me the names of people who could really be hurt here? Why didn't you take him up on his offer to give him some names of people who were truly at risk?

KOH: I don't think that's actually what happened. The main point here was we quickly realized we were not negotiating with The New York Times or people who had high journalistic standards. And so as a result, we - there were some negotiations back and forth. And they were pretty high-handed about it, which is - we have no notion that there is any valid confidentiality interest in any of these documents. We're just going to dump them out there.

GREENE: But did Assange reach out? I mean, did you feel like there was an opening to talk to him about certain names and protect them?

KOH: There was pretty limited discussion. I think it was through his lawyers largely.

GREENE: I guess I just wonder, wasn't that an opportunity to find a balance? I mean, to protect lives but also protect press freedom, which is something that, you know, the State Department promotes so passionately in other countries.

KOH: I mean, we requested that. It was he who rejected it.

GREENE: And you didn't see an opening to explore it further - I mean, you had become convinced that Julian Assange and WikiLeaks - I mean, in your mind, was not legitimate as a media organization.

KOH: They weren't interested in negotiating. They were interested in revealing. And they were just going to say, we'll do it in the next hour, you know. We'll do it tomorrow if you don't - they weren't actually negotiating with us. And, you know, they'd received documents through some method of cyber intrusion, which we later learned more about.

So as soon as this release occurred, everybody had to go through every single cable that had been sent to see if there was anything there that we would have to then discuss with our foreign government allies so as to try to smooth over relations.

I mean, just imagine if all of your emails of the last year were suddenly put out onto the Web. You'd have to - at a time in which you have other work to do, you have to go back and look at all your old emails to see whether you've inadvertently insulted someone by saying something...

GREENE: Although to be fair, I mean, I don't work in government. Isn't it the point that people who are working on taxpayer money in government - I mean, that all the work you're doing on work emails is stuff that could at some point be made public and available?

KOH: Well, not classified emails. I mean, the classified emails are classified for a reason. And you generate information based on notions of confidentiality. I mean, if you're doing something under what you believe to be is a journalistic privilege, you tell somebody the name of sources that you wouldn't tell otherwise. And your hope and assumption was that it would be protected.

You know, like, I'm all for transparency. I favor transparency. But there are legitimate confidentiality interests that every organization has to respect or they can't do their job. And, you know, if you have somebody like The New York Times or The Washington Post who understands that idea and is ready to figure out a solution and discuss it, that's one thing. But Assange was in a very, very different place.

GREENE: Harold Koh was legal adviser to the State Department. He is now a professor at Yale University.

Thank you so much.

KOH: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.