Return to Transcripts main page


Interview With Julian Assange; Obama Announces Proposed Surveillance Changes

Aired January 17, 2014 - 12:30   ET



BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: And I've instructed my national security team, as well as the intelligence community to work with foreign counterparts to deepen our coordination and cooperation in ways that rebuild trust going forward.


WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR, "THE SITUATION ROOM": All right, so the president speaking to folks all over the world, a lot of them have been upset about U.S. surveillance of some foreign leaders, including friendly foreign leaders, like Angela Merkel, chancellor of Germany.

Let's get some analysis. Bob Baer is an intelligence analyst, former case officer over at the CIA. There is a huge "out" in that statement that the president said. You heard it.

If there is a compelling reason to do so, the U.S. is going to go back and listen in on some of those conversations.

BOB BAER, CNN NATIONAL SECURITY ANALYST: Oh, absolutely. If there is a political crisis anywhere in the world, we have to be able to turn the national security agency on it. Go back to listening to phones. I think he was absolutely right. It's not worthwhile now listening to German chancellor's phone and the rest of it. Cut that out. Let's don't waste our time. But we reserve the right to listen to anyone we want in foreign government. He's right.

BLITZER: Jim Sciutto, give me a thought about where we go from here.

JIM SCIUTTO, CNN CHIEF NATIONAL SECURITY CORRESPONDENT: I think clearly, this is not the end of the conversation. A lot of the questions have been left open.

We have talked about where -- who holds this data. For how long and how long do they have to decide who holds the data? The public advocate that he's talking about says that -- this public advocate will take part in significant cases.

What are the significant cases, who is going to define it, how often, apparently up to Congress to decide? One thing we didn't hear a lot about is the effect on businesses. You and I have had some conversations about the billions of dollars lost for U.S. technology business abroad because of this, because there is concern their customers are going to be spied on.

He didn't talk about encryption. When will the NSA break encryptions? Will they subvert software, key issues to U.S. technology companies around the world?

Those are questions that still need to be answered and some of the most difficult questions.

BLITZER: It's interesting, Gloria. Some of the harshest criticism is from liberal Democrats who aren't happy about this entire program, and probably won't be very satisfied by what they heard today.

GLORIA BORGER, CNN CHIEF POLITICAL ANALYST: Liberal Democrats and libertarian Republicans, as you heard from Rand Paul earlier.

Look, I think what the president did today was he raised all the questions, but he made it very clear he didn't have a lot of the answers. I mean, for example, to Jim's point about he wants the government to get out of the business of holding all of this information.

But on the other hand, he is not quite sure where to put it. And so he is saying to the Justice Department, can you come up with some ideas about where to put it?

He's not, you know -- he's suggesting some changes of the court, have an advocate on the other side, but he wants some different approaches. But it's clear, and it's clear he's done an extensive review here, that the answers are not that obvious to him.

What he did say is that technology is changing dramatically every second, ad that this country has not kept up with the changes, and we have to figure out a way to keep up with the changes in technology, protect our citizens, and protect our privacy. And it just is not easy.

BLITZER: Very, very difficult, indeed, enormous challenge for the president of the United States. And we just saw a brief reflection of that during that 45-minute address.

All right, I'll be back at the top of the hour, much more special coverage what's going on here in Washington, all the day's other news.

CNN's "AROUND THE WORLD" with Suzanne Malveaux, that picks up in just a moment, her special guest, Julian Assange, from London.

We're anxious to get his reaction of what we just heard from the president.



Our special coverage continues on the new rules to protect your privacy from the vast spying powers of the federal government without compromising national security, President Obama just laying out his plan to reform the NSA's surveillance program in a speech just a short time ago.

The new safeguards include putting limits on the controversial bulk collection of telephone records; also, setting up a special public advocate to argue privacy rights cases inside a secret intelligence surveillance court; also, increasing privacy protections for people overseas, particularly heads of state.

Many are already arguing that these are not necessarily sweeping changes, but the president does hope that the reforms will help restore trust in U.S. spy practices at home and AROUND THE WORLD.


OBAMA: The directive makes clear that the United States only uses signals intelligence for legitimate national security purposes, and not for the purpose of indiscriminately reviewing the e-mails or phone calls of ordinary folks.

I've also made it clear that the United States does not collect intelligence to suppress criticism or dissent, nor do we collect intelligence to disadvantaged people on the basis of their ethnicity or race or gender or sexual orientation or religious beliefs.

We do not collect intelligence to provide a competitive advantage to U.S. companies, or U.S. commercial sectors.

The bottom line is that people around the world, regardless of their nationality, should know that the United States is not spying on ordinary people who don't threaten our national security, and we take their privacy concerns into account.


MALVEAUX: The president's decision to reform the NSA's surveillance program is a direct result of the blockbuster leaks by former government contractor Edward Snowden. His revelations last year sparked concerns that the government had gone too far with his surveillance programs.

Now, Snowden is in Russia after receiving temporary asylum. He got it with the help of, of course, Wikileaks.

Want to welcome founder, Julian Assange, a man who exposed volumes of secret government documents online years before the Snowden leaks. He joins us from the Ecuadorian embassy in London where he has been holed up for a year-and-a-half.

I have to ask, straight-up, when you listen to the president's comments here, it is the first time we have seen at least some restrictions on the NSA since September 11th attacks, requirements for specific approval from the courts, more oversight from congress, specific presidential approval on spying on national leaders.

You've given up your life to provide this platform to expose these secrets through your Web site. Are you satisfied with what you have heard?

JULIAN ASSANGE, FOUNDER, WIKILEAKS: Well, look, I think it's embarrassing for a head of state to go on like that for 45 minutes and say almost nothing.

Unfortunately, one has to deconstruct a little of what is being said in the points that you have raised.

First of all, let's look for some positive in what has come out of here. Well, it's clear that the president would not be speaking today were it not for the actions of Edward Snowden and whistle-blowers before him like Frank, Drake and Binney.

Now, those national whistle-blowers have forced this debate, this president has been dragged, kicking and screaming, to today's address.

He has been very reluctant to make any concrete reforms, and, unfortunately, today, we also see very few concrete reforms. What we see is kicking off the ball into the congressional grass, kicking it off into panels of lawyers that he will report -- that he will instruct to report back at some stage in the future.

My greatest concern, I think, looking at this broader package, is that there is -- what was not said. There was no restriction on secret law.

The FISA court, which he named as the court that will review some of this process, is known to be the most secret captive court in the United States that's producing secret judge-made law.

There was a law, Section 215, that was designed to protect American citizens from these invasive searches and seizures. The FISA court and the DOJ secretly reinterpreted that law to make it apply to the entire country. That process has been stopped.

MALVEAUX: Let me ask you this, if I can interrupt just for a moment here.

One of the things that the president did talk about is at least some sort of public advocate who would work on behalf of individuals who they might have these -- the phone numbers, that there would be some process, that there would be a way of actually protecting those individuals.

You don't see that that is significant in any way in trying to at least establish some sort of benefit, someone who would act on this person's behalf, a citizen's behalf?

ASSANGE: Look, the FISA court itself was originally set up following recommendations from the Church Committee in the '70s, and, over time, it was quickly corrupted. So a public advocate constantly in the FISA court in a secret manner is unlikely to produce a decent result.

That said, of course, it is a small advance. We have to see whether being implemented, who would be this public advocate.

Presumably, they would have to be security-cleared, which means the NSA would have to approve of them in some way. There are still issues to do with the appointment of FISA court judges.

But the big problem with the FISA court is the creation of secret judge-made law that is capable of reinterpreting anything that Congress passes in order to make it acceptable for the NSA to engage in bulk-collection activity.

What we didn't hear from the president was any meaningful protection of U.S. business, and, you know, I've been involved in the tech industry for a long time. I know my friends in the U.S. are really hurting as a result of NSA -- of what has happened in the NSA.

As far as the outside world is concerned, the United States has become an archipelago of coercion, where any person you are dealing with in business, at Google, or Facebook, or Yahoo!, or at a telecommunications company might have become secretly an agent of the National Security Agency, because they're ordered to do so by the FISA court, and they're forced to keep that secret, all through the mechanism of national security letters.

So --

MALVEAUX: Let me talk a little bit about --

ASSANGE: -- at the moment, Europe has much more competitive protections than the United States for cloud data, IBM's exports of its mainframe computers to China this year.


ASSANGE: The U.S. tech industry is hemorrhaging.


ASSANGE: And there is no protection, no meaningful protection, given the industry.

MALVEAUX: I understand your point there, because there are at least a group of people from the telecommunications business who did visit with the president who complained that there were problems in terms of competition, saying that their own software was being tainted.

That was a problem, to get public trust, if you will, for those particular companies, so that is a valid point, but the president did acknowledge that the U.S. has gone too far in spying on world leaders.

He is saying that, you know, if he wants to talk to the German chancellor, Angela Merkel, he can pick up the phone and call her, that they are not necessarily going to spy on foreign leaders, but would still spy on foreign governments.

I want you to listen to the distinction that the president made.


OBAMA: Now, let me be clear.

Our intelligence agencies will continue to gather information about the intentions of governments, as opposed to ordinary citizens, around the world, in the same way that the intelligence services of every other nation does.

We will not apologize simply because our services may be more effective.


MALVEAUX: Isn't that an important distinction here? I mean, he does give some assurances that, you know, this is not going to be something that's going to be done nilly-willy here.

They have to have at least some sort of national security concern if they're going to look at these foreign leaders and foreign governments, and he makes that distinction.

ASSANGE: Well, we heard a lot of lies here in this speech by Obama. He said, for example --


ASSANGE: He said, for example, that the National Security Agency has never abused what it has done.

When the FISA court has found -- even the FISA court has found, again and again, that it has done just that. So if the National Security Agency is interpreting what national security means, the secret court, FISA, is interpreting what national security means, well, of course, these are ambiguous wooly (ph) terms. And in a secret institution, they gradually become corrupted over time. That's precisely how we ended up in these places (ph).

ASSANGE: But, OK, you can say that we're not going to spy on Angela Merkel.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: But specifically talk about the world leaders, if you will, specifically -- yes, go ahead, talk about the world leaders.

ASSANGE: Yes, we're not going to spy on Angela Merkel or David Cameron. We're not going to spy on Angela Merkel or David Cameron or the Australian prime minister. Sure, but you don't spy on them, you just spy on everyone else that they talk to. I mean it doesn't mean anything to not spy on world leaders. Maybe you can save a bit of PR flack if another Edward Snowden comes along.

I don't think actually the spying on world leaders, why (ph) is can cause PR problems. I don't see that to me as a real concern. The real concern is that when you have an organization as powerful as National Security Agency has become and its five allies and the cost of engaging in mass surveillance is decreasing about 50 percent every two years because of the cheapness of computers and the cheapness of bandwidth, that is a threat to constitutional government in the United States and also into other countries.

What I wanted to see today was a mechanism that would retard that tendency of producing a long-term threat to constitutional government. I don't see that. I don't see that individuals are protected from those surveillance abuses. I don't see any prosecutions. You know government is serious when it starts talking about, someone's going to be prosecuted.

MALVEAUX: All right.

ASSANGE: It's going to prosecute Edward Snowden.

MALVEAUX: Julian, what -

ASSANGE: I didn't see talk of prosecution of James Clapper, investigation of anyone, anyone being fired, the National Security Agency being split apart into its functions, decreases in budgets or any protection, meaningful protection for -

MALVEAUX: We're going to get more -- we're going to get more from you in just a moment. We've got to take a quick break here. But, obviously, we're going to get more about Edward Snowden, we're going to get more about Julian Assange, his own life there in the embassy and what is next for him. We're going to take a quick break first.


MALVEAUX: We're back with Julian Assange, the founder of WikiLeaks.

And thank you for joining us. I appreciate your time.

Of course, after the president's speech dealing with some of the reforms that he's talking about in the NSA, I want to talk about Edward Snowden, who is now in Russia. He's granted temporary asylum for his role in releasing and exposing those classified NSA surveillance programs. There have been some pretty high-powered folks who don't want to see Snowden harshly punished here.

For instance, senators like Rand Paul, who we just heard from within the last hour, as well as "The New York Times." Rand Paul saying, "I don't think Edward Snowden deserves the death penalty or life in prison. I think that's inappropriate. And I think that's why he fled." A "New York Times" editorial, "it is time for the United States to offer Mr. Snowden a plea bargain or some form of clemency that would allow him to return home."

Here's what the president said about Snowden today.


BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: I will say that our nation's defense depends in part on the fidelity of those entrusted with our nation's secrets. If any individual who objects to government policy can take it into their own hands to publicly disclose classified information, then we will not be able to keep our people safe or conduct foreign policy. (END VIDEO CLIP)

MALVEAUX: So, Julian, he's still saying that he doesn't think that Snowden went about this the right way. What do you think is appropriate for Snowden?

ASSANGE: Well, look, obviously the internal mechanisms failed, this president failed, this administration failed and our security agency failed to hold itself to account internally. When there's a failure of internal oversight, other people have to step into the role. And that's what Edward Snowden has done. That's what the press involved in this matter has done.

Edward Snowden, next week, will be making, I believe, an online response to President Obama on, his defense team and defense fund.

MALVEAUX: Tell us more about that. When was the last time you talked to Edward Snowden or his team?

ASSANGE: Well, because of communication/security concerns, which must be all too obvious, I don't speak directly about the nature of my communications. The U.K. government has admitted to spending 6 million pounds, about $10 million, so far on spying on me in this embassy, just for the police alone.

But I think Edward Snowden today will be quite happy that at least there is 45 minutes of a president speaking about these issues. There's going to be a lot of debate generated as a result of the president's statements, debates including some of the details, for example, if an independent body is created to hold that data or presumably the FBI and other law enforcement bodies will also go after it.

We know what the situation is in Europe. Many European countries tell their telecos to hold the data for 18 months. Others, such as Germany, have found that to be unconstitutional. It's deleted. What's the difference in the United States, where people in the United States are subject to less rights than Europe despite the Fourth Amendment? So clearly, clearly there's a problem there. Edward Snowden and other NSA whistle blowers have seen that problem and they're addressing it.

MALVEAUX: Julian, I --

ASSANGE: In relation to your question about Edward Snowden's circumstance, and what will happen with him, well, he is, thanks to our efforts and some lawyers, safe now in Russia. His visa is coming up for renewal in eight months. His asylum visa. I suppose that is an important time for him and people should be supportive of him. It's outrageous to see President Obama condemning him on the one hand and saying at the same --

MALVEAUX: Is he actually watching -- was he watching the president's speech, do you know? Do you know if he was watching -

ASSANGE: At the same time -- MALVEAUX: Excuse me.

ASSANGE: Please, go on.

MALVEAUX: Do you know if he was watching the president's speech? You say that he's going to be responding in about a week or so. Do you know if he was watching?

ASSANGE: He will be responding next week, I believe, possibly early next week. I'm not sure if he's watching, but I'm sure he's following the matter quite closely. I know he's -- he does follow the debate and the reform debate in the United States quite closely.

MALVEAUX: And let's talk about your own circumstance here, because what we understand is that at least here in the United States that it is - that you are likely not going to be facing charges. Officials have indicated that there is no sealed indictment against you. And according to "The New York Times," Justice Department officials are saying that, you know, if they were to prosecute you, they'd have to prosecute many news organizations in the United States and journalists, as well. They're just not going to do that.

If that's off the table, right, and you're not going to have to face -- likely face charges in the United States, you still face the allegations in Sweden of sexual misconduct. You've repeatedly said those are politically motivated, retribution for your website. Would you consider stepping out of the embassy grounds, off the grounds, taking your case and defending yourself in Sweden to prove them wrong?

ASSANGE: Well, look, unfortunately, it's not the case, what you claim. That was one anonymous official speaking anonymously to "The Washington Post." Subsequently, the district attorney involved in the matter in our grand jury, which has now been going for three years, the biggest investigation into a publisher, the most expensive that has ever occurred in U.S. history, the (INAUDIBLE) federal attorney --

MALVEAUX: I'm sorry, what did you say was not the case? Are you talking about the allegations in Sweden or are you talking about the indictment in the United States?

ASSANGE: The formally -- yes, formally the investigation into WikiLeaks and me continues in the United States. It's run by the Virginia district -- Virginia federal attorney. He has confirmed that it formally continues. There seems to be some debate, perhaps, within the DOJ about the correctness of that investigation. I hope that our staff are protected and that wiser heads prevail in the U.S. and drop that investigation. But, unfortunately, now it continues.

We know that a wide range of people have been involved in that investigation. The FBI, the NSA, the CIA has publicly declared that it has been involved in an investigation, the Pentagon, et cetera. Twelve U.S. government agencies. It has been the largest investigation into a publisher ever. It has gone on for more than three years and it continues. It's a disgrace. It's a threat to journalists. It's a threat to my staff. Thanks to our lawyers, we're been fighting it. But thus far, it continues. In relation to the Swedish matter, I have not been charged in Sweden. There are allegations. The Ecuadorian government has asked that Sweden not extradite me to the U.S. If I go to Sweden, unfortunately, Sweden has refused and it also refuses to come here to speak to me and thus, unfortunately, we're at an impasse.

MALVEAUX: So you remain where you are in the Ecuadorian embassy in London. Julian Assange, thank you so much for your time, for your perspective. We really appreciate your taking the time this afternoon.

And thanks for watching AROUND THE WORLD. CNN NEWSROOM starts right after this.