Former Combat Soldier-Activist Paul Rieckhoff on Wikileaks and Founder Julian Assange

After a "pretty heated discussion" with the man who revealed almost 100,000 classified military documents, the founder of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America says he's concerned about Assange's agenda.

Rieckhoff and Assange

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

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.

How so?
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.

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  • konsyltacii

    Основой юридической защиты г-на Джулиана Пола Ассанжа (Julian Paul Assange) из Wikileaks могло бы стать обоснование соответствия его действий международному праву и основным правам человека (в том числе это и право знать кто управляет людьми и какой их как интеллектуальный, нравственный, так и профессиональный уровень, в той части, что касается их способности регулировать публичные общественные процессы).

    Кроме того, есть юридические обоснования его права не раскрывать источники информации, если обнародованная информация соответствует действительности и затрагивает основные права большого количества людей.

    Невід'ємні права Людини.
    Неотъемлемые права Человека.
    Droits inalienables de l'homme.
    Rechte des Menschen.
    Inalienable human rights.


    Относительно выдвинутого формального обвинения Джулиану Полу Ассанжу (Julian Paul Assange) из Wikileaks: судя по тому, в чем его обвиняют, он, скорее, не обвиняемым должен быть, а потерпевшим, так как из самой сути обвинений понятно, что идет фактическая его дискриминация и пустые придирки с противоположной стороны, мало имеющие общего с правами человека и простой логикой.

    The basis of legal protection, Mr. Julian Paul Assange of Wikileaks could be justification for its compliance with existing international law and fundamental human rights (including this and the right to know who controls the people and what they as an intellectual, moral or and professional level, in so far as regards their ability to regulate public social processes).

    In addition, there is legal justification of his right not to disclose sources of information, if released information corresponds to reality and affects the basic rights of many people.

    Regarding the charges of formal charges, Julian Paul Assange (Julian Paul Assange) from Wikileaks: Judging by the charges against him, he is likely not to be accused and victim, because of the very essence of the charges it is clear that it is the actual discrimination and empty carping from the opposite side, having little to do with human rights and simple logic.

    Невід'ємні права Людини.
    Неотъемлемые права Человека.
    Droits inaliénables de l'homme.
    Unveräußerlichen Rechte des Menschen.
    Inalienable human rights.

  • Deacon1959

    First of all, there are THREE levels of classification - CONFIDENTIAL, SECRET, and TOP SECRET. TOP SECRET information includes "code word" information that is usually special programs. There is nothing higher than TOPSECRET. So, the person who said SECRET is the lowest classification obviously has absolutely no idea what they are talking about.

    Second, Bravo Wikileaks for publishing classified information, regardless of your motivation. Perhaps you do not understand how the Taliban works. Let's say "Omar" appears in the released documents as an informant. The Taliban is not a kind and gentle organization. Omar will be "arrested". As will his wife, two sons and daughter. His children and wife will be raped and mutilated in front of him. Most of them will be killed, as will his parents. His eldest child will be blinded and have her tongue cut out, then put in the streets so that everyone can see what happens to someone who cooperates with the American infidels - the crusaders.

    So, yes, Bravo Wikileaks for killing probably hundreds of civilians because you have such high moral standards and must stop the war, but in the process, realize that you just killed more civilians in this one act than American troops probably have in the entire war..

  • CitizenPlusPlus

    Bravo WikiLeaks!! Thank you for keeping freedom and democracy and justice alive in this age of fascism.

  • Matt King

    There should be no surprise that there is an agenda. Firstly Julian is Australian, so looking at his actions through an "American" prism is probably going to have a few issues to begin with. Secondly he has a long history of challenging authority and social activism. There should be no surprise that this flow of military “secrets” is fuelling his agenda. And when you look at some of the other material on Wikileaks it does make you wonder if he might not just have a point or two worth making.

  • Chris Reich

    Mr. Rieckoff implies that Mr. Assange's act is somehow worse because he has an "agenda". Of course he has an agenda. The act of disclosing "secrets" is the issue, not the motivation. If I speed through a school zone at 70 miles per hour the police will not mitigate my fine because I might be racing to an anti-war protest.

    I think the American people agree that our government should be more transparent. But I don't think it's appropriate to disclose anything that puts our troops at risk regardless of one's position on the war(s).

    I also abhor the slinging around of the term "anti-American". We are free to criticize the government, its leaders and its military without being anti-American. The military has an agenda that is not purely the agenda of the government which in turn is not purely the agenda of the people. The whole process is off agenda. Better, let's say off purpose. Ask a thousand people, get a thousand different answers. What the hell are we doing in Iraq and Afghanistan?

    Video releases by bin Laden barely make the space above the fold. Wasn't the original purpose to get bin Laden and rout the Taliban? Now bin Laden is hardly recalled and we're considering talks with the Taliban.

    Open dialogue without name calling or verbal stone throwing would contribute greatly to the people's voice being heard. Today our politicians play to the loudest, not necessarily the wisest, constituents.

    Chris Reich

  • Gary Sweeten

    I hope and trust that Mr. Assange will take his just punishment for leaking war secrets. Freedom of speech is not a compact for suicide. The arrogance of the people who think they know what is a good war or bad war a good secret or a bad secret is only superseded by their ignorance. He had not even read the secrets before releasing them.

    It is definitely Anti American to release confidential matters that can lead to death of soldiers and civilians. The Taliban intentionally kill ten times as many civilians as the soldiers do unintentionally. Why not help the soldiers stop all that killing? To attack only Americans seems awfully Anti American.

  • Peter Sharma III

    The level of classification here is SECRET, which is the lowest level of confidentiality. In addition, the info is 8-10 months old, thus compromising nearly nothing while shedding light on the practices of many political actors in theater.

    We have too many secrets to the detriment of our society. I welcome Ellsberg-ian disclosure of 'secret' information as often as possible that we, the American public may have some sense of what we are paying for as e waste 40% of our revenues on corporate wars to the harm of many and benefit of very few.

  • Paul Weber

    Really the issue is that many ordinary folks believe that whatever information they are getting via the official media channels is way too doctored, or tamed down, ither by design or because the media themselves are fed edulcorated material (press briefings, etc).

    I think that Wikileak's contribution to the issue of information is the fact that these documents contain the naked info. Some of this info will probably conlict in the eyes of public vs. whatever official propaganda (and it's not only about the US I'm talking) that constitutes the "news".

    In the case of the US military intervention in A'stan it is obvious that there is a rift between many of the heroic portraits that have been written on mainstream media and the crude reality of those conflicts - especially when lives of young men and women are being sacrificed in defense of some outpost which later must be abandoned in any case.... Those men and women who enlisted either out of need or out of duty, the families that support these conflicts -on the base of official propaganda- have the right to see an alternative view of that conflict. And ultimately they have the right to voice their opinion in the ballot box and through their representatives.

  • Matt Schafer

    I think one of the most interesting things about the entire Wikileaks situation is watching the different coverage of blogs and traditional journalism. Fox News initially led their coverage as a sub-headline under a lead about BP CEO Tony Hayward stepping down. The Washington Post also had the leak story playing second fiddle to a story–the immigration debate. CBS News had just two small headlines about the story. Yet, the Huffington Post ran a picture of soldiers pointing rifles under the red headline: THE WAR LOGS: A Devastating Portrait of the Failing War in Afghanistan. The Drudge Report ran a similar headline across the top of its front page tha called the situation a “nightmare.”

    It is no secret that blogs are not tied to the same code of conduct that their traditional counterparts are. That fact gives blogs, in general, greater latitude to play with a story’s focus, angle, tone, and sources or lack thereof. While this may not be kosher with the majority of the traditional media, it indeed serves an important purpose. It breathes life into stories, offers independent viewpoints, and highlights facets of a story that would otherwise be left in the dark. Although some blogs can be toxic in both their rhetoric and lack of validity, on the whole blogs provide an important context to stories that traditional journalism cannot. Sometimes stories may merit all caps headlines and red font, and that’s exactly what bloggers are good at.


  • Tyler Gray

    Consider the wording there -- Anti-American. A very abstract, subjective thing. Ditto "sentiments." So Assange says he values the right to leak classified documents above the military code of conduct and a justice system that has held up the protection of certain information from public consumption. Could you see how someone could consider that sentiment anti-American? Here's another bit of bonus material: Paul has been against MANY aspects of recent wars (see the link in the story -- just one example, and there's this, from his own bio: "In the spring of 2004, Rieckhoff became one of the first Iraq veterans to publicly criticize the war, call for better care for Iraq and Afghanistan veterans and demand accountability from elected officials."). When we, the editorial team, started talking about this story idea this morning, the first idea was to get a hold of some Afghanistan vets, ask them what they thought. I decided that would be fairly unrepresentative and that we should try and get a hold of the person most representative of the broad range of enlisted person sentiment. That's Paul. As it turned out, he had actually confronted Assange man-to-man; that's more than I could have ever hoped for. As for calling anyone who disagrees with the War in Afghanistan I'll point you to this quote: "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." Thanks sincerely for the thoughtful comments.

  • Gerald Irish

    I don't think he's saying anyone who is against the war is anti-American (at least not in this interview). He is saying that Julian Assange has expressed some anti-American sentiments. What those sentiments of Assange were, I don't know.

    I do know that the way the video of the Apache firing on civilians was editorialized was not objective or fair. It was plain as day that the editors of that video were pushing an agenda.

    And Rieckhoff is not the only critic of Wikileaks. Its co-founder also has some serious misgivings about the site which he expressed in an interview with cnet:

    My opinion is that Assange is way off base about classified information. If PFC Manning were actually exposing clearly criminal wrongdoing that'd be one thing, but he was wantonly divulging a lot of classified information, which is a crime. Anyone with a clearance has taken an oath not to divulge that sort of information, so he is definitely on the wrong side of the law. As to the shady money trail with Wikileaks, I don't know, but I'm sure that'll come to light sooner or later.

  • scott griffis

    Although I agree with Paul on a couple points I'm a bit concerned that he seems to believe that anyone who does not think the Afghanistan war is right for America is therefore anti-American.