Book Describes Working With WikiLeaks' Assange

The New York Times and the Guardian both have books out this week which detail the back story behind the WikiLeaks revelations. Alan Rusbridger, editor of the Guardian, talks to Renee Montagne about WikiLeaks' Julian Assange.

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STEVE INSKEEP, Host:

It's MORNING EDITION, from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.

RENEE MONTAGNE, Host:

And I'm Renee Montagne.

It's safe to say that this time last year, few people had heard of Julian Assange. Now, the controversial WikiLeaks founder is the subject of two books. The New York Times, and Britain's Guardian newspaper, are among several that collaborated with Assange on the release of classified U.S. diplomatic cables, and each has a book's worth of stories about what it meant to work with him.

Alan Rusbridger is the editor of The Guardian. He says Julian Assange was an unusual partner.

ALAN RUSBRIDGER: Incredibly intelligent, incredibly visionary, erratic. He can be prone to terrible mood swings. He's a bundle of contradictions, but he's - the one thing he isn't, is dull.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER))

MONTAGNE: No. No. Now, you were the first editor who Julian Assange approached.

RUSBRIDGER: We read about him. He was, effectively, on the run at the time. And we tracked him down in Brussels. To begin with, it was all fairly plain sailing, if a bit cloak-and-dagger. He's very difficult to contact. He doesn't like speaking on the mobile phone. He doesn't like doing email.

But we came to an agreement because I think he realized that these caches of documents were so large - we worked out, it was about 300 million words in all. That compares with the Pentagon Papers, which was about 2.5 million words. So there was no way on earth that he could make sense of these documents without some help.

MONTAGNE: What were the trickiest things for you to decide, in working both with the material and with Julian Assange?

RUSBRIDGER: Well, there were logistical difficulties involved between a British daily, a Spanish daily, a French afternoon paper, a German weekly and a New York paper on a different time zone; and a bunch of anarchists who were effectively, in a bunker by then. So there were logistical difficulties working out which stories we were going to publish, when; how we could synchronize publication.

There was then - I mean, simply wading through 300 million words required us to fly in essentially, all the foreign correspondents so that they could look at their particular regions.

MONTAGNE: Quite literally, you had your foreign correspondents - you said, get back here; we're going to give you a room and a light bulb, and put a bunch of papers in front of you and - you help us out with this?

RUSBRIDGER: That's more or less it. I mean, because you really need people with expert knowledge of countries in order to work out where the stories are likely to be.

MONTAGNE: At what point did your relationship with Julian Assange start to go sour? I mean, people may not know this, but the New York Times reporters were actually hacked by Assange even as they were working alongside of him, according to the Times WikiLeaks book. And he has called your book - that is, The Guardian's book about him - an attack.

RUSBRIDGER: Well, I think there were two things that he really didn't like. The first was, he didn't like the behavior of the New York Times in not linking to his site. And he really objected to a profile of him that they ran.

MONTAGNE: That didn't show him in such a great light.

RUSBRIDGER: It was a sort of warts-and-all portrait. And I think he thought, look, I'm working on this with you. Don't I deserve a bit of respect? And the second thing that really upset him was this whole question of the sex charges in Sweden. [POST-BROADCAST CORRECTION: Assange does not face formal charges in Sweden. Swedish authorities sought to question Assange relating to allegations of sexual assault.] We, at some point, got sent the police files on what had happened. Julian, again, took the same attitude. He said, look, I'm a source, you know. How can you do this to a source?

MONTAGNE: Now, wait, wait, wait. So you published leaked police files - that were leaked to you - about Julian Assange, who is world famous for publishing leaked files about everyone else.

RUSBRIDGER: Well, you've picked up on the irony. He has got this - see, he's got this uncertain status which, I think, he exploits; where he's - at one moment, he says look, I'm a source; you've got to protect me. The next moment, he says, I'm the editor-in-chief. That's quite a - sort of problematic relationship to cope with.

MONTAGNE: Looking back at your experience with Julian Assange, do you have any regrets? You know, high-up government officials were saying people could die because of what you and other newspapers published.

RUSBRIDGER: Well, they said that, and I think they've now said on the record that they've got no evidence that anybody was hurt. And I think that's because of the care we took as news organizations. I think he's a really interesting man, you know. It's been a difficult relationship. But I think what he's done, and the challenge that he makes - not only to media, but to government - is a very interesting challenge.

MONTAGNE: Alan Rusbridger is the editor of The Guardian newspaper in London. Thanks very much for joining us.

RUSBRIDGER: Thank you.

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Correction May 25, 2012

In this interview, in talking about Assange, our guest referred to the "whole question of sex charges in Sweden." Assange does not face formal charges in Sweden. Swedish authorities have wanted to question Assange regarding allegations of sexual assault.

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