(NEW YORK) — WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange on Sunday dismissed criticism from British and U.S. intelligence officials who called recent leaks about secret surveillance programs a “gift” to terrorists, saying in an interview on This Week that the programs are a “threat to U.S. democracy.”
Andrew Parker, the new head of Britain’s domestic intelligence agency MI5, said in a speech Tuesday that the leaking of classified information about surveillance programs such as those by Edward Snowden “hands the advantage to the terrorists.”
NSA director Gen. Keith Alexander said Thursday that terrorists “listen, they see what has come out in the press and they adjust. … I believe people will die because we won’t be able to stop some of those threats.”
Assange, the mastermind behind WikiLeaks’ release of tens of thousands of secret documents online in recent years, rejected that notion on Sunday.
“Every time the press embarrasses the security establishment, shows they have been acting unlawfully, against what they have said to Congress or to the media, they trot out this old canard, that some speculative harm sometime in the future might happen, when we’re discussing harm that is happening right now, as a result of these abusive programs,” Assange told George Stephanopoulos.
Assange, who has been living under diplomatic asylum in the Ecuadorian Embassy in London since June 2012, suggested that the West in general is “getting pretty close in the practical elements” of a totalitarian regime.
“It’s a threat to U.S. democracy and to democracy more broadly in the West to have a surveillance apparatus on every single person that would have been the dream of East Germany,” Assange said.
“What type of place is Western democracy going to be? Is it going to be a place with a collapsing rule of law, with mass surveillance of entire populations?” he asked. “The West is becoming a place where the best and the brightest, who keep the government, hold the government to account, are ending up in asylum or in exile in other countries. We’ve seen that before with dictatorships in Latin America, with the Soviet Union, and it’s time it stops.”
Assange, whose group helped Snowden travel from Hong Kong to Russia after his leaking of classified NSA documents in June, said the former NSA contractor “is safe” in Russia, where he received asylum this summer.
“Edward Snowden is safe,” Assange told Stephanopoulos. “He’s working to educate people, the journalists involved in these disclosures, as to what is going on.”
Snowden resurfaced last week, appearing on a video receiving a whistle-blowers award from a group of former American national security officials who traveled to Russia with the help of WikiLeaks.
Assange’s interview on Sunday followed a This Week interview with actor Benedict Cumberbatch, star of the new Dreamworks film The Fifth Estate about Assange and WikiLeaks’ release of classified files. The film is distributed by Touchstone Pictures, a division of ABC’s parent company, Disney.
Cumberbatch plays Assange in the film, and explained to ABC’s Linsey Davis the difficulty of playing the man often called the world’s most notorious transparency activist.
“The difficulty, I guess, was to try and portray him as a three-dimensional human being, not vilify him or glorify him,” Cumberbatch said.
The actor said that when he wrote to Assange requesting to meet him in January before filming began, the WikiLeaks founder “slammed the door pretty politely, but pretty firmly” in a strongly worded response letter.
“I believe you are a good person, but I do not believe that this film is a good film,” Assange wrote in response. “It is going to smother the truthful version of events, at a time when the truth is most in demand.”
“I wrote one back with equal force arguing why I thought this story and his character and this particular moment in time was needed,” Cumberbatch said on This Week. “WikiLeaks achieved great, great things all the way up to the 2010 big smash with the War Logs and cables. I think the film celebrates that. I think it’s far more diverse even in its dual-point perspective than he feared it would be.”
On This Week, Assange acknowledged Cumberbatch’s efforts.
“I do know that he tried to ameliorate some of the worst elements of the script, but unfortunately with limited success,” Assange said, adding that Cumberbatch’s letter was the only attempt from anyone involved in the film to approach him before filming began, and that none of the changes suggested by WikiLeaks made it into the final script.
“This is a film that is based upon my life’s work, the work of my organization,” Assange said. “We have people in extremely serious situations. Sarah Harrison, who accompanied Edward Snowden out of Hong Kong, now effectively in exile in Russia because of the terrorism investigation here… What are the responsibilities for ethical filmmaking in that context?”
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