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Assange: Critics got lucky because NSA had no PR strategy

Though the WikiLeaks founder and critics like Edward Snowden were forced into exile, they took advantage of the previously-silent NSA's lack of experience at spinning public opinion, Assange told SXSW.

WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, speaking by Skype at SXSW today. Daniel Terdiman/CNET

AUSTIN, Tex.--National security reporters are a new kind of political refugee, but for the first time they've had a extremely powerful opponent without an effective public relations strategy.

Those were two of the main points delivered by WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange during a teleconference interview at South by Southwest today.

Assange, speaking over Skype from the Ecuadorian Embassy in London, said that while the Internet had, over the last few years, been co-opted by the U.S. National Security Agency, the Pentagon, and other government organizations in what could amount to the "most aggressive form of state surveillance" ever created, critics had in some ways gotten lucky.

In the past, Assange said, the NSA had run a public relations strategy that relied on radio silence, to essentially not exist. But, he said, it appears that the intelligence agency was not prepared for the worldwide outcry that resulted from the release by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden of documents revealing the organization's massive surveillance efforts. "The Pentagon has [always had] that strategy of trotting out soldiers wrapped in flags trying to demonstrate bravery, but the NSA didn't have that strategy," Assange said. "We got lucky, because we ended up with an opponent that didn't have a PR strategy."

What that's meant, he suggested, is that while the NSA has almost certainly not curtailed its surveillance actions, it has come under much brighter scrutiny than ever before, with substantial coverage of what it does, and intense criticism, both at home and abroad. And that, though change may be slow, can only be a good thing.

To be sure, many of the leading voices in the community of critics of national-security surveillance have had to run from prosecution. Assange, for example, has been forced to hole up in the Ecuadorian Embassy in London for nearly two years to avoid prosecution. Similarly, Snowden is in exile in Russia, and four other vocal critics, Glenn Greenwald, Jacob Applebaum, Sarah Harrison, and Laura Poitras are all living outside the United States and Britain. Greenwald is in Brazil, while Applebaum, Harrison, and Poitras are all living in Berlin.

To be sure, those critics have lost much of their personal freedom, at least insofar as where they live and work, and as such have become what Assange called "a new type of [political] refugee."

In addition to Assange, both Snowden and Greenwald will be speaking to SXSW by teleconference.

At the same time, though, Assange said he and the others have a freedom few political critics, especially those on the run, have never had before. Thanks to the Internet, each can still work and criticize organizations like the NSA, and similar institutions abroad. And in Assange's own situation, because he is protected inside an embassy, he is outside the reach of British police or other attempts to silence him. "To some degree," he said, "it is every national security reporter's dream, to be in a land without police."

One thing Assange was very enthusiastic about was the reporting efforts of Greenwald, and the man behind his new outlet, The Intercept: eBay co-founder Pierre Omidyar.

With $8 billion in assets, Assange asserted, Omidyar is free to do what he wants, including funding a publication like The Intercept. And he has to, Assange said, if he wants to have influence on a society that Omidyar clearly believes is under the thumb of the military-intelligence complex. "Despite all that money...Omidyar has seen there is not liberty even for someone who has $8 billion," Assange said, adding that we don't usually see powerful industrialists at the helm of intelligence or military contractors speaking up.

That's because "They're able to work inside the system and work the levers [of power]," Assange said. But "the cashed-up industrialists who are not part of the military industrial system are not able to do that. With money alone, you don't get power."

And that power is essential is society at large wants to know what is going on around them, Assange suggested. In the past, without organizations like WikiLeaks, or leakers like Snowden, people had little idea of what the military-intelligence structure was doing. "We were living in some fictitious representation of what we thought was the world," he said, "and we (still are because we don't have all the documents). So we're living in sort of an illusion...the way human institutions all obcsured by some sort of fog, and we're walking around in this fog. We think we can see the ground, but we can't. And every now and then there's a clearing in the fog with one of these disclosures."