Oh, to be a fly on the wall when former J.P. Morgan employee-turned-post-9-11 Iraq War combat vet Paul Rieckhoff came face to face with the waifish, prematurely gray Julian Assange of Wikileaks at a recent TED Global conference in London on July 16.
“He had just finished his talk with [TED founder Chris Anderson] where he got a favorable response and was basically unchallenged,” Rieckhoff tells FastCompany.com.
Assange hadn’t yet dropped on three pet media outlets 92,000 classified documents that either paint a picture of gross incompetence in the War in Afghanistan or show very little new at all, depending mostly on whether you’re one of his special media buddies selected to share in an early disclosure of the latest Wikileaks. (Assange himself has said the documents show evidence of “war crimes.”) Still, the alleged source for the documents, a 22-year-old Army private, an intelligence analyst, had already landed in the hottest of waters, and there were rumblings about what was about to surface when Rieckhoff confronted Assange. We asked Rieckhoff, an all-too-rare hybrid of patriot and gadfly, the founder and executive director of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America (IAVA), what all the two had discussed during their 15 minutes in London, what he thinks of Sunday’s revelations, and what he’s heard from many of the IAVA’s 125,000 or so veteran members and civilian supporters.
FASTCOMPANY.COM: What did Assange say when you confronted him about the dangers of publicizing classified documents?
PAUL RIECKHOFF: He argued to me that [his source] has a First Amendment right to leak that information. That’s an entirely false understanding of the American judicial system and uniform code of military justice … I am extremely bothered by his shallow understanding of American law and of the American military and our way of operating.
You’re no stranger to criticizing the government and military leaders over wars, what’s different about what Assange is doing via Wikileaks?
There’s a huge difference of opinion depending on where you come from. If you come from a military community, if you’ve dealt with classified information, if you understand what classified information is, there’s a much different perspective on this entire Wikileaks scenario.
A lot of us are bothered by Julian’s activist role. Wikileaks existing in a vacuum without Julian’s political agenda would be one thing. But he is definitely against the war in Afghanistan. He’s got an agenda. I think he’s anti-military. He’s expressed a number of anti-American sentiments. He’s already said he wants to end the war in Afghanistan.
[Ed: Assange told Der Spiegel: “There is a mood to end the war in Afghanistan. This information won't do it alone, but it will shift political will in a significant manner.” Later, in a response to a question about whether he’s the most dangerous man in America, he added, “The most dangerous men are those who are in charge of war. And they need to be stopped. If that makes me dangerous in their eyes, so be it.”]
I think he’s very quick to rush to judgment and show the American military in a very bad light. We know there have been problems. I’m objective all the time, but I think you have a responsibility to accurately portray information and put it in a proper context.
Is there some value in this sort of raw reporting?
Perhaps. There’s this idea that the American military doesn’t know what’s happening in the field and they’re trying to cover it up. If he can substantiate that, it’s fine…. There’s obviously a need for government transparency. But that’s a different argument. I think he also said he hasn’t even read all the documents. That’s problematic to me. He has a responsibility as the head of this organization to assure that there is not information in there – what if, for example, there were home addresses of senior officers in the military? … What if he got his hands on the president’s travel schedule? Or nuke sites? Or defenses at military bases? … I am concerned with how quickly he is pushing this stuff out and how quickly the press is running with it. This is the top story in a lot of press that hasn’t even read the full documents.
You believe he should be more transparent, personally?
He’s Mr. Transparency, but he’s not incredibly transparent about himself. There is always room for transparency. But I think there is also responsibility. As the person who runs this organization, he has the responsibility to put things in proper context.
How did your conversation with Julian in London end?
We got into a pretty heated discussion and in the end, we shook hands and went our separate ways.