Wikileaks founder Julian Assange gave a rare talk via video at annual tech mega-conference SXSW, where he came out swinging not only at President Obama but also Google and Facebook. Assange claimed that in the Obama administration, the intelligence agencies “wear the pants” and he called out Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg as part of “an unprecedented theft of wealth.”
Since the global uproar over the National Security Agency’s spying practices were exposed last summer, there have been no major shakeups, Assange claimed. When a government wants actual reform, “someone is fired, someone is forced to resign, someone is prosecuted,” he argued.
Because few have faced sanction and the NSA continues its bulk collection of Internet and telephone records, “that means the Obama administration’s response is not serious,” concluded Assange, who has been holed up in London’s Ecuadorian Embassy since June 2012.
There have been a few changes to the NSA. The deputy director, Chris Inglis, stepped down. Obama has ordered the NSA to slightly rein in its surveillance net, from “three steps” to “two steps” of association away from a suspect (for many people, that could mean being able to surveille a few million to a few hundred thousand, depending on how many associations a suspected individual has to the rest of the nation). But bigger reforms will be up to Congress.
President Obama himself has claimed that the NSA already had significant oversight and that the only real reform needed is to reassure a now-scared public that the intelligence agencies are not violating the law. His argument has literally been an analogy about Michelle Obama occasionally needing to double-check that when he says he washes the kitchen dishes, he, in fact cleaned up the dishes (really).
Assange seemed to imply that Obama is powerless, claiming that if he really wanted to disband the NSA, he might be impeached and the intelligence agencies would drudge up dirt to discredit him. So if you follow the more conspiratorial explanation, Obama wants to stop the NSA and can’t. If you follow Occam’s Razor, perhaps the simpler explanation is that Obama doesn’t think he’s evil and is effectively managing the military.
Notably, Assange also took aim at Google and Facebook. He claimed that Facebook co-founder Mark Zuckerberg was part of “an unprecedented theft of wealth” that was transitioning power and money in the hands of a few people. Google, with its wildly popular mobile operating system, Android, now has the capacity to spy on millions of people all over the world.
Not all Internet billionaires are bad in Assange’s view. Pierre Omidyar, for instance, has committed hundreds of millions of dollars to a new civil liberties-focused news site, First Look Media, which employs Glenn Greenwald, the journalist who broke the NSA scandal.
But even Omidyar can’t bring his journalists, who are scattered in different parts of the world, back to the U.S. and Britain. “With money alone you don’t get power,” he argued, saying that the NSA sees a “threat to cashed up industrialists who are not part of the military industrial system”.
Assange won’t be the only big interview on the NSA at SXSW.
On Monday, Edward Snowden will also be addressing the audience via video. More details about the political fall-out from the talk and live streaming options here. I will also be addressing the NSA and other policy issues at my panel on Sunday at 11am with Congress members Darrell Issa and Suzan DelBene.