ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:
The arrest of Julian Assange has renewed the debate, is the co-founder of WikiLeaks a journalist or a criminal? Yesterday on the program, we heard from one of his critics, former defense secretary and former CIA Director Leon Panetta.
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LEON PANETTA: If we care about classified information, if we care about what our intelligence people are doing, then I think it's important that we decide whether or not somebody has the right on his own to not only gather that kind of information but release it.
SHAPIRO: Now we're joined by someone who used to work with Julian Assange. James Ball is a journalist and former WikiLeaks employee speaking with us from a street corner in London. Hi there.
JAMES BALL: Hi there.
SHAPIRO: You argue that Assange is unlikable, that he is a difficult person but that it's still important to defend him. Why?
BALL: I should be specific on this. I think it's important to defend him against the U.S. extradition on the charge that he's currently facing. I think he deliberately breached due process in the U.K., and he is right to be punished for breach of bail there. What I don't think we should do it just because we don't like Julian Assange as a person or we don't like his journalistic ethics or maybe we don't even think he's a journalist - we shouldn't let that blind us to what looks at the moment like a politically motivated and dangerous prosecution.
SHAPIRO: He has described himself as a journalist. You're saying we may disapprove of his journalistic ethics, but we should still evaluate his actions on that basis. His critics will say that as opposed to exercising any kind of editorial judgment, he was just a tool for intelligence agencies, including those of Russia.
BALL: I think if someone has evidence that Assange was a knowing tool of the Russian state, then that's something that he should face prosecution for. But that is not the charge on the table. The charge on the table relates to material leaked by Chelsea Manning. She was an ideologically motivated whistleblower. The charge around Assange is that he offered some help in cracking a password that might have made it easier for her to hide her actions. There's actually no evidence that was even successful.
And so it doesn't change the fact that we're dealing with a public interest whistleblower. And the material that was published was judged to be in the public interest by The New York Times, by The Guardian, by Le Monde, by Der Spiegel and more.
SHAPIRO: If I as a journalist with NPR helped somebody who works for the Defense Department or the CIA or the NSA hack into a secure server or access classified documents, I would likely be prosecuted for that independent of what I might do as a journalist. Are you saying that shouldn't be the case?
BALL: I think we have to look at the proportionality of the prosecution. The allegation is that Assange sort of offered to help crack a password unsuccessfully that would have helped someone who was already leaking material not be discovered. That's the kind of mistake I could see someone not trained in journalism sort of doing in a close source relationship. I think 10 years after the fact, to try and pursue that for prosecution - you know, you don't have to be a cynic to see it as a backdoor way of trying to punish Assange for the 2010 disclosures while hiving off journalistic support because we can all call it hacking and say it's different to what we do.
SHAPIRO: It's clear that while you believe that prosecutors are making the wrong decision here, that doesn't make you a fan of Assange personally. What made you decide to go work for him and for WikiLeaks at a time when he had basically driven away everybody else who had worked with him prior to that?
BALL: I mean, I was a young guy. I was 24. Assange was quite inspiring to me. And it takes time, especially when you're at that age, to see the reality of someone versus the image or the icon. And I really believed in the mission of what WikiLeaks was trying to do - you know, responsible disclosure, holding power to account. And then of course when I saw the reality, I came to a much more nuanced fear of Julian, to say the least.
SHAPIRO: James Ball is a journalist in London who used to work for WikiLeaks. Thanks so much for speaking with us today.
BALL: Thanks very much - good to speak to you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.