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Entering The Secret World Of Wikileaks
DAVE DAVIES, host:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies, in for Terry Gross.
In April of this year, a disturbing video appeared on the Internet,
showing a deadly 2007 attack by a U.S. Army helicopter that killed 12
people in Baghdad, including two employees of the Reuters News Service.
It was an American military video shot from the helicopter, but it was
posted on a website devoted to leaking government and corporate secrets
Wikileaks was founded by Julian Assange, an eccentric computer expert
who's described himself as an information activist. Wikileaks invites
whistleblowers to share information through a secure Web portal, and
thousands of classified documents have been posted on the site.
Last week, a U.S. Army intelligence officer was charged with providing
the Iraq video to Wikileaks, along with 150,000 classified diplomatic
cables. U.S. officials are concerned that releasing the cables could
endanger national security and have been trying to contact Julian
Assange, but he's proven to be an elusive character, surfacing only
occasionally at conferences or in media interviews.
For some perspective on Wikileaks and the issues it raises, we turn to
Philip Shenon, an investigative reporter who spent much of his career at
the New York Times. He's now a contributor to The Daily Beast.
Philip Shenon, welcome to FRESH AIR. Let's give the audience a little
bit of an introduction to what Wikileaks is. First of all, give us some
examples of the kind of leaked material it has posted.
Mr. PHILIP SHENON (Journalist; Contributor, The Daily Beast): They have
posted a tremendous variety of formerly secret documents, everything
from investigative reports about corruption in the nation of Kenya to
manuals from the Church of Scientology to Sarah Palin's hacked emails.
They very famously released the so-called Climategate memos that were
these emails among a group of climate scientists that were seized upon
by conservative groups to argue that global warming was a fraud.
DAVIES: All right, tell us about the founder of Wikileaks, Julian
Assange. He's a real character.
Mr. SHENON: He's a real character. He is a former computer hacker turned
anti-censorship activist who, in 2006, created Wikileaks, as I say, with
the intention of making public all that had once been secret.
DAVIES: And he has an interesting personal history, right? Grew up in
Mr. SHENON: We know he was born in 1971 in Australia. He was
homeschooled by a mother who apparently liked to move a lot. She moves
the family something like 40 times in a dozen years.
Assange has no formal education, certainly not in his early years. He
becomes â he gains a certain international notoriety in the late 1980s
when he becomes a computer hacker and manages to break into a variety of
prominent institutions, everything from the Defense Department to the
Los Alamos nuclear weapons facility to a variety of banks.
He's arrested. He is â goes through a long court process and is found â
pleads guilty to a lot of these hacking charges, gets a small fine, then
goes onto a career as an academic, as a physicist, as a computer
That apparently bores him. He aligns himself, as I say, with anti-
censorship groups, and in 2006, we get Wikileaks.
DAVIES: And when he was hacking into government institutions and banks
and the like, what was his motive?
Mr. SHENON: I believe his motive was largely fascination, both with the
ability to break into what were supposedly impenetrable institutions and
also this belief that information should be free and that he should be
able to have access to it.
DAVIES: So he wasn't extorting the banks for cash or anything like that?
Mr. SHENON: No, not at all. He has said his philosophy was that he would
do no damage to the institutions that he broke into, breaking into their
computer networks, apart from covering up his own tracks.
DAVIES: All right, so he establishes Wikileaks, this site that, you
know, invites leakers and whistleblowers to provide information in 2006,
Mr. SHENON: Right.
DAVIES: And I've read that he said his goal is scientific journalism,
Mr. SHENON: Well, he believes that when he puts material out, it should
be put out to some degree in context and that he should be able â or he
should, in putting that material out, prove that it is: A, authentic;
and B, of significance. He believes that a lot of, you know, there's â
he has a very difficult relationship with most mainstream news
organizations because he believes they do not do that, they do not prove
the truth of what they are offering up to their readers or viewers.
DAVIES: Now, and I guess the other interesting question is if people are
going to be providing confidential information over the Internet, they
have to be careful. They have to be confident that it is secure. Give us
a little bit of a sense of the technical structure that supports
Mr. SHENON: Well, Wikileaks, part of Assange's goal here is to make sure
that no government, no institution can shut down Wikileaks. So it exists
on a large number of computer servers all around the world. It has
hundreds of domain names. So you could attack one Wikileaks website but
not shut them all down.
DAVIES: And just to complete the picture here, is Wikileaks based at an
office that people can find? Is Assange someone who, you know, is at a
location where you can find him?
Mr. SHENON: Assange apparently has no real home. He mostly lives with a
knapsack and travels the world, living in the homes of friends and
He was, we know, for a time earlier this year in Iceland. I believe he
was last month in his native Australia. He was in Europe a couple of
days ago. No, he travels the world in part because he wants to, he says,
avoid surveillance by intelligence organizations.
DAVIES: Now in April of this year, Wikileaks made public a military
video from 2007 in Iraq, right? And this changed a lot for the
organizations. Tell us about this video.
Mr. SHENON: This was their biggest of all their leaks. It was a 2007
video of an American helicopter strike in Baghdad in which about a dozen
civilians were killed, including two employees of the Reuters News
DAVIES: A lot of listeners have probably seen this video. Many haven't.
Just describe what you see.
Mr. SHENON: It's a pretty horrifying video. It is an attack by an
American Apache helicopter, the video taken from within that helicopter,
in which American soldiers fire down on a group of men they apparently
suspect of being insurgents but on the basis of what seems to be very
little evidence and really just mow these men down.
The victims include â 12 people died, including two employees of the
Reuters News Agency. There's also a separate blast into a nearby van. We
now know that there were two young children in that van, and they were
very seriously injured in the attack.
DAVIES: Yeah, and the van is an interesting piece of this because it
appeared in the initial salvo, one of the men was injured and was
crawling away when the van arrived, right?
Mr. SHENON: The van arrived, and apparently the driver, seeing these
injured people in the streets, does what a good citizen should do: He
gets out and tries to help. And in trying to help, he comes under attack
by the helicopter. And the helicopter, as I say, then turns its sights
on the van and fires and does this apparently horrible damage to these
DAVIES: Now, Reuters, of course, protested this incident to the Army
when it happened and sought to get the video through a Freedom of
Information Act request. Did the military ever verify that this was
indeed the attack that Reuters had complained about?
Mr. SHENON: They don't deny that fact. Reuters put in a Freedom of
Information Act request, as you say, and got nothing but silence from
the Pentagon over a course of many, many months. And, as I say, the
video was then leaked to Wikileaks, which made it public, and Reuters
finally got to see what had actually happened to its employees.
DAVIES: And was there any fallout for this? Were there any charges or
discipline that resulted from these events?
Mr. SHENON: Very little, actually, and this is something that Assange
has been talking about, that he put out for all the world to see the
evidence of what Assange clearly believes was a war crime. And there's
been really no follow-up from within the Pentagon that we know of.
DAVIES: And when it was posted, it wasn't simply the raw video, right? I
mean, there was a decision made to, well, for lack of a better word,
package it, right?
Mr. SHENON: Absolutely, and, you know, we talked earlier about what
Assange describes as scientific journalism. He wanted to put it out in
context. So he released the video with an awful lot of documents,
internal military documents about the attack. And he packaged the video
itself in a variety of formats, including shorter versions and longer
And he put it on a special website that had the domain name
collateralmurder.com. And, you know, his decision to label this
collateral murder obviously suggests he had a strong view as to what
that video represented.
DAVIES: Right, and while he did post the full 38-minute video, there was
an edited and annotated version, right?
Mr. SHENON: Right. And that edited version, and in fact this whole
editing effort on Assange's part, has drawn criticism because, you know,
there's an argument that it would have been better for Assange to put it
out there and let people make their own judgments as to what happened.
Assange chose not to do that and made very clear that he thought that
what was being depicted here was a war crime.
DAVIES: And how did the Army respond to the release of this?
Mr. SHENON: Defense Secretary Gates was hugely annoyed by its release.
He described this as sort of â to view this video is to see war through
a soda straw, that it was presented without the real context of what had
happened in that attack.
And the context, as far as the Pentagon is concerned, is that these
young soldiers aboard the helicopter were in an extraordinarily dire
situation. They'd come under attack earlier in the day, they had every
reason to believe that the folks on the ground meant them harm.
DAVIES: You know, I'm interested in your opinion here because if you
look at the video, you don't see people who look like warriors. I mean,
they look like guys just walking along the street. They're walking in a
relaxed, casual way. A couple are carrying things that appear to be
described by the American soldiers as weapons, but from the distance,
you can't tell what they are. And in fact, the Reuters folks indicated
that one of the things they were carrying was a camera.
When you look at this, what do you make of the argument that these were,
in fact, combatants who posed a threat?
Mr. SHENON: I think I agree with you. I think it's a hard argument to
make. Thereâs - I know within Wikileaks, when they were preparing this
video, they did tend to agree that some of the items that these men were
carrying could possibly have been perceived as a weapon of some sort, an
RPG in the case of the camera that the Reuters journalist was carrying.
But no, I agree with you. It's hard to see where these men posed any
sort of direct threat to the helicopter.
DAVIES: We're speaking with investigative reporter Philip Shenon. He
writes for The Daily Beast, spent many years as an investigative
reporter for the New York Times. We're talking about Wikileaks, and
we'll talk more after a short break. This is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
DAVIES: If you're just joining us, our guest is veteran investigative
reporter Philip Shenon. He spent many years at the New York Times. He
now is a contributor to The Daily Beast. We're talking about Wikileaks,
the website which invites whistleblowers and leakers to post secret
information from government and corporations.
We were just talking about its release in April of this year of military
video from an attack by an American Apache helicopter in Iraq on a group
And there's word now that another military attack video may be coming,
Mr. SHENON: I think people are quite convinced there is one coming. It
will be a video of a 2009 air strike on a village in Afghanistan.
Apparently, in terms of civilian casualties, the most lethal American
attack in Afghanistan since the war began there in 2001.
And it will apparently depict the death of, I'd say, up to 140 people,
most of them children and teenagers.
DAVIES: Let's talk just a little bit about kind of how others view the
Wikileaks methodology. They get a lot of stuff, right, I mean, as many
as 30 submissions a day, right? Is it clear how carefully they vet â do
they attempt to vet it and, you know, verify its authenticity?
Mr. SHENON: They do. In particular cases, they clearly do make a real
effort to determine the authenticity of the material. In the case of the
2007 video from Baghdad, they actually sent two reporters to Iraq to try
to track down some of the victims to try to piece together more of what
actually happened in this attack.
In other cases, it appears they put out material, less interesting or
less important material, without making real efforts to verify its
DAVIES: And are they criticized as, you know, loose cannons of
disclosure, I mean, people who might put out information which could
threaten national security, could endanger lives?
Mr. SHENON: Well, certainly, that's the larger fear of Wikileaks, that
down the road, they're going to come up with even more explosive
material that really could harm national security, and they'll put it
out without much filtering.
They have come under criticism in the past for that. They put out some
time ago a text from Army material about IEDs in Iraq and how they
functioned and American efforts to try to overcome the IED threat in
Iraq. And this was scientific material that if available to the
insurgents in Iraq could have presumably put American soldiers' lives at
DAVIES: Well, since Wikileaks released the Iraq video, there have been
developments and a potential source has emerged. Tell us what's
Mr. SHENON: A young soldier, Bradley Manning, working in Iraq, was
arrested in June and accused of leaking classified material. It emerged
pretty quickly that he is believed to be the principle source for
Wikileaks, that he leaked the 2007 Iraq video and the 2009 Afghanistan
video, and he may have also leaked as many as a quarter-million State
Department cables to Wikileaks.
We learned that he apparently confessed much of this in an email chat
with a former computer hacker in California whose name came to Bradley
Manning through press reports. These voluminous Internet chats really do
suggest that Manning was the source of all this material that Wikileaks
has put out and intends to put out in the near future.
DAVIES: Does the government say he's the source of the Iraq video?
Mr. SHENON: They do.
Mr. SHENON: The government â several days ago, Manning was formally
charged with crimes, including the release of the video.
DAVIES: The computer hacker that Bradley Manning appears to have
confessed his leaking to, what did he do with that information, this
Mr. SHENON: The hacker, a fellow by the name of Adrian Lamo out in
California, is a fairly well-known figure in the hacking community.
Manning becomes aware of him through news accounts. He reaches out to
Lamo in California, looking for sort of a kindred soul on hacking
questions and confesses in the course of this long email chat what he's
Lamo says he becomes really alarmed at what Manning is confessing to,
especially the leaking of those, you know, quarter-million State
Department cables. Lamo has said that he thought that the release of
those cables might put people's lives in danger. He saw, you know, this
was a real criminal act. He, Lamo, then calls the FBI and the Army and
turns in Manning.
DAVIES: So what a strange case. Manning, this Army intelligence guy,
allegedly reaches out to someone he has never met face to face, in an
Internet chat exchange confesses all of this material, and then this
former hacker goes to the FBI and eventually tells the story to another
journalist from Wired magazine.
Mr. SHENON: Who is himself a former hacker. There are former hackers
everywhere in this story. Assange is a former hacker. Manning, the
soldier in Iraq, appears to be essentially a hacker. He confesses to
another former hacker in California. The former hacker in California
calls his â calls a journalist at Wired magazine, who is himself a
former hacker, who then releases the story to the world.
DAVIES: You know, the details get a little dense here, but one of the
things that if you really read the stuff on the net you discover is that
Bradley Manning, this soldier, was hospitalized for mental or emotional
distress some time before he allegedly boasted in this Internet chat
about being the source of these leaks.
Is it possible that he is not a source, that he was somebody who bragged
to somebody who in this case apparently he had never actually met, this
computer hacker that he confessed these things to. Is there â is it
possible that he isn't the source, that he's a disturbed guy who was
boasting, and the government, who wants to build a case against
Wikileaks because they hate them, find it convenient to have somebody to
pin this on and make a public case that Wikileaks is a threat?
Mr. SHENON: I've heard that theory offered, but if you take a look
through the Internet chats, Manning writes with such detailed knowledge
of the videos and the State Department cables that it's very hard to
believe that he is not responsible for the leaks.
DAVIES: What charges is Bradley Manning facing?
Mr. SHENON: He's accused of a variety of charges of improper access to
and leaking of classified documents. You know, I believe he faces many
decades in prison if he's convicted of all of these charges.
One thing that's been very frustrating for news organizations is the
fact that the Pentagon absolutely won't grant us any sort of access to
Manning or to his lawyers. We really at this point have nobody speaking
for Bradley Manning.
DAVIES: And is he in this country? He was arrested in Kuwait, right?
Mr. SHENON: He was held for a good long while in Kuwait. He may still be
there. As I say, we have very â we have really no information about his
whereabouts or his status or, you know, how he's defending himself. We
have no, we have no â we do not have the words of Bradley Manning, apart
from the computer chat logs that existed from several weeks ago.
DAVIES: And his trial would be in military court, right?
Mr. SHENON: Yes, yes.
DAVIES: It would be public?
Mr. SHENON: A good question. I don't know the answer. You would think
that because we're talking about classified information that they may do
their darnedest to restrict access to the trial.
DAVIES: Philip Shenon is an investigative reporter and a contributor to
The Daily Beast. He'll be back in the second half of the show. I'm Dave
Davies, and this is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies, in for Terry Gross.
We're speaking with investigative reporter Philip Shenon about
WikiLeaks, the website that invites whistleblowers to share classified
government and corporate documents. In April, WikiLeaks posted an
American military video showing a helicopter attack that killed 12
civilians in Iraq. An American Army intelligence analyst has been
charged with providing that video and 150,000 classified State
Department cables to WikiLeaks.
Julian Assange, I mean the founder and operator of WikiLeaks has been
this interesting and elusive character. Some very high stakes stuff is
happening here. I mean there is this damaging video of a U.S. military
action and the arrest of a soldier for leaking it. And Julian Assange, I
gather, has been in semi hiding for many of the past months saying he
fears, I don't know what, arrests, subpoena. Has the U.S. government
been trying to track him down?
Mr. SHENON: I know they were interested several weeks ago in trying to
contact him, if only to open up some sort of line of communication about
whether or not he really wanted to make public the State Department
cables if he had them. We know that Assange apparently has hired lawyers
to open up some sort of communication with the State Department and the
CIA and the White House. I can't tell you at this moment where those
conversations stand. But Assange has largely lived in the shadows for
many years now. You know, he doesn't like to let people know of his
whereabouts, with the occasional exception of the public appearance or a
DAVIES: Now it's interesting, if there are a couple of hundred thousand
secret State Department cables which are now in WikiLeaks' possession,
and the government wants to talk to Assange, perhaps to make the case
that he should use his discretion not to post all of this stuff, is
Assange saying well, he would be open to such a conversation? Or is this
a case where he believes information should be free, let's put it out
there and let the people of the world figure out what it means, what its
Mr. SHENON: You know, I can't tell you what's in Assange's head on that
point. And again, he insists he doesn't believe he has those memos. It's
hard to believe though that if he didn't have them available he wouldn't
consider making an enormous part of it public. He, you know, he
acknowledges that on occasion his release of material may do damage to
American national security, to American diplomacy, to the diplomacy of
other nations, to, you know, global economic systems.
He's talked about the fact that over time his release of public material
may leave WikiLeaks with, I think his words were, blood on our hands.
But he still believes that the effort to overcome censorship all around
the world is too important to not take those risks.
DAVIES: Now I read that Steven Aftergood of the Federation of American
Scientists Secrecy News blog was invited at some point to get involved
with WikiLeaks and looked it over, and he's somebody who believes in
disclosure, and declined. Do you have cases like this where people who
are interested in whistle-blowing and exposing government wrongdoing
look at WikiLeaks and say, not so sure about this?
Mr. SHENON: I think there are a good number of people who have that
criticism of WikiLeaks. You know, there are folks who believe that
WikiLeaks and Assange don't respect privacy. Certainly, they don't
respect copyright in certain circumstances, that this is all a form of
sort of information vandalism. You know, what is on the WikiLeaks site,
much of it is really quite fascinating and quite important. But at the
same time they, you know, they put out documents about the secret
rituals American sororities and what goes on, you know, the guidebooks
for the Masons or for the Mormon Church.
They put out last year the full text of a book, a 2009 book about
corruption in Kenya and the author and the publisher were very, you
know, upset about that. That suddenly, a book they expected to make a
profit on was suddenly available to the world free because of WikiLeaks.
That, you know, there are probably some secrets, certainly there is some
privacy that is worth respecting.
DAVIES: You know, one of the people who has weighed in on this debate is
Daniel Ellberg who, you know, people will remember was prosecuted in the
early 70's for his leaking of "The Pentagon Papers".
What does he say and what parallels do you see between his case and this
Mr. SHENON: Well, Ellsberg sees Assange as somebody who is doing the
sort of work - the sort of leaking, valuable leaking that Ellsberg
himself did in the time of "The Pentagon Papers". Ellsberg thinks, he
said repeatedly recently, that he thinks that Assange's life is in
danger, that there would be good reason for the United States government
and for other governments to try to do harm to Assange.
I personally don't find that a very persuasive argument but that
certainly is what Mr. Ellsberg feels very strongly.
DAVIES: Well, what's the Obama administration's record been on
government leakers? I mean they've taken a number of actions haven't
Mr. SHENON: They've been very tough and it's been greatly disappointing
to a lot of my colleagues in the news business and to an awful lot of
First Amendment advocates. But the Obama administration, just as much as
the Bush administration, seems determined to crack down on leaks.
DAVIES: Can you give us an example of a case that troubles you?
Mr. SHENON: Sure. There are several of them. My former colleague at The
New York Times, Jim Risen, who came up with the spectacular scoop a
couple years ago about the Bush administration's warrantless wiretapping
program, he is now under very serious threat from the Justice Department
to reveal the sources of material in a recent book. And, you know, I
think there is sort of the threat on the table that if Risen doesn't
give in to the Justice Department's demands, you know, he could face
some jail time.
DAVIES: You've also written that there's legislation now before Congress
which would give the president new authority over the Internet, at least
in some extreme circumstances. Tell us about that.
Mr. SHENON: Yeah. This is a bill that is really moving very quickly
through Congress that would allow the White House in a period of
national emergency to declare something called a cyber emergency, and
really, in extreme situations, really sort of shut down portions of the
Internet or at least block them - block Americans from having access to
them. And that's produced an awful lot of concern among civil liberties
DAVIES: So would that law allow the government to take action against
WikiLeaks, for example?
Mr. SHENON: You know, it would be tough to do directly, because
WikiLeaks exists everywhere. It exists on a whole bunch of computer
servers, exists on a whole bunch of domain names so you'd kind of have
to shut down the whole Internet to shut down WikiLeaks. But, you know,
if there was a determination made by the White House that there was some
national security threat by material out on the Internet they could try
to block that material from American Internet customers.
DAVIES: We're speaking with investigative reporter Philip Shenon. He
writes for The Daily Beast - spent many years as an investigative
reporter for The New York Times. We're talking about WikiLeaks and we'll
talk more after a short break. This is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
DAVIES: If you're just joining us, our guest is Philip Shenon. He's a
veteran investigative reporter. He is now a contributor to The Daily
Beast and we're talking about WikiLeaks, the website that offers leakers
and whistleblowers a chance to provide confidential information from
government or government sources or corporations. They got a lot of
attention in April when they posted a video of an attack by an American
helicopter on some men in Baghdad.
One of the places that WikiLeaks has been active in the past year is
Iceland. What's special about Iceland?
Mr. SHENON: Iceland in the wake of its economic collapse is trying to
recreate itself now as the great haven of free speech. And Assange has
been very actively involved in Iceland in trying to rewrite the laws
there to give absolute protection to news organizations, to journalists
and to their sources, you know, to really sort of shut down the process
of libel suits to make it impossible for writers and journalists working
in Iceland to be punished for any material they put out to the world.
DAVIES: So has the parliament of Iceland actually enacted these new
protections for journalists?
Mr. SHENON: The Icelandic parliament has announced its intention to
create a whole range of laws to protect free speech. It is now moving
into the process of actually writing the regulations and laws that will
do that. But it has committed itself to turning Iceland into this free
DAVIES: And what are some of the ways that it would function differently
than other countries when it comes to, you know, free speech in
Mr. SHENON: There would be absolute protections for journalists not to
reveal their sources. Libel litigation would be, you know, effectively
ended, that there would be no ability of foreign governments to insist
that damages be obtained from people living in Iceland or working in
DAVIES: You know, it's interesting, have other countries discouraged
them from taking this course?
Mr. SHENON: You know, Iceland has a big problem which is that its
economy collapsed and it has a need to recreate itself as something new.
And the decision's been made that, you know, for many reasons, including
economic ones, this is a great step forward for the country.
I've not seen any criticism of Iceland from other governments so far
about they're doing. I think that may come down the road, however.
DAVIES: Do they think journalists are going to move there? Is this going
to be like an economic development to look for?
Mr. SHENON: Right. Absolutely. This is a very useful industry to bring
to Iceland, and you certainly do hear the rumor that WikiLeaks would
among the organizations setting up shop in Iceland.
DAVIES: So they'll have cable TV ads for journalist colonies then.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. SHENON: Something like that. You and I might want to consider it.
DAVIES: Never know. You know, WikiLeaks raises a lot of interesting
questions that journalists have struggled with for years. And I'm kind
of interested in your views on, you know, the nature of secrecy and
disclosure. I mean I guess the fundamental questions is, are all secrets
in government and corporations bad and thus, all leaks good?
Mr. SHENON: You know, it's painful for me to say as a journalist but,
you know, there probably are some secrets worth keeping. And as somebody
who existed - who worked at a large news organization for many years,
you know, I can tell you that when national security leaks or
information came into The New York Times there was, you know, a big
debate within the paper about how to handle that material and whether or
not its release was outweighed - the value of the release outweighed
whatever damage might be done to national security.
You know, the warrantless wiretapping scoop of a couple of years ago,
The Times had that story for about a year, or more than a year before it
made it public. And you certainly hear at the Pentagon, at the White
House, concern that, you know, one of these days somebody is going to
leak something really important to an organization like WikiLeaks.
You know, examples given to me, you know, of the American nuclear
secrets or, you know, the whereabouts of Osama bin Laden, would
WikiLeaks put those out to the world without much filtering and isn't
there a real threat in that?
DAVIES: Right. And I guess the other side of the argument, and you read
this in people who support WikiLeaks, is that it's a place that the
government can't get to and pressure. If it had had the information
about the electronic eavesdropping program that The New York Times had,
it wouldn't have had an avenue to go in and make a case that you should
hold this and therefore, the story would not have been held. And there
are some who say given that the mainstream media can be pressured and
cajoled by the government, we need WikiLeaks because it's truly
Mr. SHENON: You know, you certainly hear that argument made and I think
there must be an awful lot of people who have access to government
secrets who now weigh in their own minds, well, do I want to leak this
to a mainstream news organization that may sit on it forever or do I
want to take it to WikiLeaks with the knowledge that WikiLeaks is much
more likely to put it out to the world in a hurry. And you have to
believe that if WikiLeaks disappeared tomorrow somebody else would try
the same thing.
DAVIES: You know, investigative journalism everywhere has declined as
mainstream media have had economic problems. And in one respect I would
think that for any investigative journalist, having someone who is
dumping a ton of raw data, you know, would be a terrific thing.
Have the mainstream media used WikiLeaks as an important source for
their own investigations?
Mr. SHENON: I don't believe so. I don't think - and I know Assange has
been very upset over the fact that mainstream news organizations have
often not followed up on the material available on his website. And it
is a remarkable website.
You know, a couple of days ago, I actually sat down and went through all
the leaks on Wikileaks, and it is a, you know, an incredible collection
of documents and videos and quite fascinating information that I don't
think I've seen follow-up on by other news organizations.
DAVIES: Do you have any idea when this other video from this 2009 attack
in Afghanistan might appear?
Mr. SHENON: You know, I talked to Assange a couple weeks ago, my one and
only extensive conversation with him, and he said that he believed the
video would be out this summer, that he intended to first put out on the
website a variety of documents that would put the video into context.
After the documents have been out for several days, the video would
appear. And he seems to be off his time frame, since I think he believed
he was going to do this all in the last couple of weeks. It hasn't
happened yet, but apparently it will happen some time in the next
DAVIES: You spoke to Assange, you said. How do you get a hold of him?
What's it like?
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. SHENON: It is not easy, and he really does seem to be, you know, the
international man of mystery in this world. He has a variety of
followers around the world who will pass messages to him, especially in
Iceland. And after pressing and pressing and pressing, finally, one of
the contacts in Iceland put a phone in his hand, and he talk to me.
DAVIES: And what was your sense of him?
Mr. SHENON: He is, obviously, an extraordinarily intelligent fellow who
has a cause that he absolutely believes in, that he will do anything
for, that he will sacrifice anything for. And I think he has made the
determination that, you know, he is going to sacrifice any sort of real
life in the cause of Wikileaks. That is to say, this is a guy who lives
his whole life with a boarding pass in his hand and a knapsack over his
back, and that's about it in terms of what his life is.
DAVIES: And what is that cause that he is so deeply committed to?
Mr. SHENON: The cause against censorship, the belief that governments
and institutions are involved, essentially, in a conspiracy to hide the
truth from the public. And he is going to make that material as public
as he can.
DAVIES: Well, Philip Shenon, thanks so much for speaking with us.
Mr. SHENON: Thank you.
DAVIES: Philip Shenon is an investigative reporter who spent many years
at The New York Times. He's now a contributor to The Daily Beast.
Coming up: Ed Ward on a new release of music from the late Blues
guitarist Freddie King.
This is FRESH AIR.
*** TRANSCRIPTION COMPANY BOUNDARY ***
Freddie King And The Harsh 'Business' Of The Blues
DAVE DAVIES, host:
Of the three great blues guitarists name King - B.B., Albert and Freddie
- probably the one who did the most to shape rock guitar styles was the
least known: Freddie. His most important work has been unavailable for
some time, but recently, Bear Family Records released "Taking Care of
Business," which covers most of his career.
Rock historian Ed Ward has his story.
(Soundbite of music)
ED WARD: Texas claims Freddie King as its son. But although he was born
on a farm near Gilmer in 1934, his real contribution came as one of the
young musicians from Chicago's West Side who challenged the Muddy Waters
Howlin' Wolf South Side musicians starting in the late '50s. Guitarists
like Otis Rush and Magic Sam played an aggressive, virtuosic blues that
attracted a younger crowd, and Freddie King ran with them.
King was always an innovator, and on his very first record, made for the
tiny El Bee label in 1956, he used Robert Big Mojo Elem on electric
bass, an instrument Elem played in Freddie's band, but few others in
(Soundbite of song, "That's What You Think")
Mr. FREDDIE KING (Musician): (Singing) Well, now, it's all over 'cause
now you say we're through. You've gone and left me. You say you found
somebody new. That's what you think. That's what you think. You can lay
off a while, but you sure can't quit me now.
WARD: Freddie's big break came in 1960, when King Records opened an
office in Chicago. Sonny Thompson, a seasoned veteran of postwar rhythm
and blues, was the talent scout, and after learning that Leonard Chess
didn't think Freddie was worth signing, snapped him up and took him to
the label's home in Cincinnati to record. The very first session in
August resulted in the song that has been linked with Freddie King's
name ever since.
(Soundbite of song, "Hide Away")
WARD: "Hide Away" was a tune everyone on the West Side played, probably
written by Hound Dog Taylor. Freddie's version, named after one of his
favorite clubs, Mel's Hideaway Lounge, entered the Top 10 in the rhythm
and blues chart, and even got to 29 on the pop charts. Freddie King had
a white following almost from the beginning. Freddie and Sonny Thompson
wanted to prove he was also a singer, and his next session had the hit
to prove it.
(Soundbite of song, "I'm Tore Down")
Mr. KING: (Singing) Well, I'm tore down, I'm almost level with the
ground. I'm tore down. I'm almost level with the ground. Well, I feel
like this when my baby can't be found. Well, I went to the river to jump
in. My baby showed up and said, I will tell you when. Well, I'm tore
WARD: "I'm Tore Down" again rocketed into the rhythm and blues Top 10,
but the pop market ignored it. Freddie only saw the charts one more time
during this period, with a Christmas record that charted for one week.
But King kept recording him and more and more he was on the road with
revues, barnstorming the country. When he was home on the West Side, he
and his band worked seven days a week if they wanted to.
The thing was, although Freddie's records sold steadily, they didn't
sell a lot. His contract with King was up in 1966, and Freddie parted
ways with them. He'd already moved his wife and six children to Dallas
and used that as a base from which to tour.
Meanwhile, Eric Clapton recorded "Hide Away" with Mayall's Blues
Breakers in England, the first British guitarist to show his explicit
debt to Freddie. Freddie returned the favor by going to England and
touring, showing the Brits how it was done.
In 1968, Atlantic Records in New York started a new label, Cotillion,
for saxophonist King Curtis to record who he wanted. He wanted Freddie
King, and so in July, Freddie entered the studio for the first time in
two years. Curtis assembled an amazing band, and they got to work.
(Soundbite of song, "Let Me Down Easy")
Mr. KING: (Singing) Let me down easy. Tell it to me slow, yeah. Come on
and whisper something sweet into my ears now. Baby, we're going home. I
said our (unintelligible) are coming baby for a long, long time now.
Please come on and stay right here with me, baby. Whoa, baby, don't
leave me behind.
WARD: It's hard to say why the two singles and two albums on Cotillion
didn't sell, unless they were too sophisticated for the rock market and
too old-fashioned for the new soul market. But for me, they remain the
peak of Freddie King's output. The valley was to come: Leon Russell,
flush with success from kick-starting Joe Cocker's career, signed
(Soundbite of song, "I'm Going Down")
Mr. KING: (Singing) I'm going down. I'm going down, down, down, down,
down. Yeah, I'm going down, yeah, I'm going down, down, down, down. Yes,
I've got my big feet in the window, got my head on the ground.
WARD: Russell's intentions were no doubt sincere, and Freddie tried, at
their best like "Going Down," the recordings were oil-and-water blues-
rock, and at their worst, generic '70s blues sludge. Freddie King stayed
with Russell until 1972, then moved on to RSO Records, run by Eric
Clapton's manager. These recordings aren't on this set.
Freddie King was living hard by this point, drinking copiously, and
always downing a couple of Bloody Marys before stepping on stage
because, as he told a journalist, they've got food in them. In 1976,
playing a club in New Orleans, King passed out in the middle of a solo.
He went back up to Dallas and played a gig in New York on Christmas. But
he canceled a show scheduled for the next night, returned to Dallas and
went into the hospital. He died, riddled with ulcers and suffering from
pancreatitis, on December 28th, 1976, at the age 42.
DAVIES: Ed Ward lives in Southern France. He reviewed Freddie King,
"Taking Care of Business."
Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.