In June 2011, Julian Assange received an unusual visitor: the chairman of Google, Eric Schmidt, arrived from America at Ellingham Hall, the country house in Norfolk, England where Assange was living under house arrest.
For several hours the besieged leader of the world’s most famous insurgent publishing organization and the billionaire head of the world’s largest information empire locked horns. The two men debated the political problems faced by society, and the technological solutions engendered by the global network—from the Arab Spring to Bitcoin.
They outlined radically opposing perspectives: for Assange, the liberating power of the Internet is based on its freedom and statelessness. For Schmidt, emancipation is at one with U.S. foreign policy objectives and is driven by connecting non-Western countries to Western companies and markets. These differences embodied a tug-of-war over the Internet’s future that has only gathered force subsequently.
In this extract from When Google Met WikiLeaks Assange describes his encounter with Schmidt and how he came to conclude that it was far from an innocent exchange of views.
Eric Schmidt is an influential figure, even among the parade of powerful characters with whom I have had to cross paths since I founded WikiLeaks. In mid-May 2011 I was under house arrest in rural Norfolk, England, about three hours’ drive northeast of London. The crackdown against our work was in full swing and every wasted moment seemed like an eternity. It was hard to get my attention.
But when my colleague Joseph Farrell told me the executive chairman of Google wanted to make an appointment with me, I was listening.
In some ways the higher echelons of Google seemed more distant and obscure to me than the halls of Washington. We had been locking horns with senior U.S. officials for years by that point. The mystique had worn off. But the power centers growing up in Silicon Valley were still opaque and I was suddenly conscious of an opportunity to understand and influence what was becoming the most influential company on earth. Schmidt had taken over as CEO of Google in 2001 and built it into an empire.
I was intrigued that the mountain would come to Muhammad. But it was not until well after Schmidt and his companions had been and gone that I came to understand who had really visited me.
The stated reason for the visit was a book. Schmidt was penning a treatise with Jared Cohen, the director of Google Ideas, an outfit that describes itself as Google’s in-house “think/do tank.”
I knew little else about Cohen at the time. In fact, Cohen had moved to Google from the U.S. State Department in 2010. He had been a fast-talking “Generation Y” ideas man at State under two U.S. administrations, a courtier from the world of policy think tanks and institutes, poached in his early twenties.
He became a senior advisor for Secretaries of State Rice and Clinton. At State, on the Policy Planning Staff, Cohen was soon christened “Condi’s party-starter,” channeling buzzwords from Silicon Valley into U.S. policy circles and producing delightful rhetorical concoctions such as “Public Diplomacy 2.0.” On his Council on Foreign Relations adjunct staff page he listed his expertise as “terrorism; radicalization; impact of connection technologies on 21st century statecraft; Iran.”
It was Cohen who, while he was still at the Department of State, was said to have emailed Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey to delay scheduled maintenance in order to assist the aborted 2009 uprising in Iran. His documented love affair with Google began the same year when he befriended Eric Schmidt as they together surveyed the post-occupation wreckage of Baghdad. Just months later, Schmidt re-created Cohen’s natural habitat within Google itself by engineering a “think/do tank” based in New York and appointing Cohen as its head. Google Ideas was born.
Later that year two co-wrote a policy piece for the Council on Foreign Relations’ journal Foreign Affairs, praising the reformative potential of Silicon Valley technologies as an instrument of U.S. foreign policy. Describing what they called “coalitions of the connected,” Schmidt and Cohen claimed that:
Democratic states that have built coalitions of their militaries have the capacity to do the same with their connection technologies.…
They offer a new way to exercise the duty to protect citizens around the world [emphasis added].
Schmidt and Cohen said they wanted to interview me. I agreed. A date was set for June.
* * *
By the time June came around there was already a lot to talk about. That summer WikiLeaks was still grinding through the release of U.S. diplomatic cables, publishing thousands of them every week. When, seven months earlier, we had first started releasing the cables, Hillary Clinton had denounced the publication as “an attack on the international community” that would “tear at the fabric” of government.
It was into this ferment that Google projected itself that June, touching down at a London airport and making the long drive up into East Anglia to Norfolk and Beccles.
Schmidt arrived first, accompanied by his then partner, Lisa Shields. When he introduced her as a vice president of the Council on Foreign Relations—a U.S. foreign-policy think tank with close ties to the State Department—I thought little more of it. Shields herself was straight out of Camelot, having been spotted by John Kennedy Jr.’s side back in the early 1990s.
They sat with me and we exchanged pleasantries. They said they had forgotten their Dictaphone, so we used mine. We made an agreement that I would forward them the recording and in exchange they would forward me the transcript, to be corrected for accuracy and clarity. We began. Schmidt plunged in at the deep end, straightaway quizzing me on the organizational and technological underpinnings of WikiLeaks.
* * *
Some time later Jared Cohen arrived. With him was Scott Malcomson, introduced as the book’s editor. Three months after the meeting Malcomson would enter the State Department as the lead speechwriter and principal advisor to Susan Rice (then U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, now national security advisor).
At this point, the delegation was one part Google, three parts U.S. foreign-policy establishment, but I was still none the wiser. Handshakes out of the way, we got down to business.
Schmidt was a good foil. A late-fiftysomething, squint-eyed behind owlish spectacles, managerially dressed—Schmidt’s dour appearance concealed a machinelike analyticity. His questions often skipped to the heart of the matter, betraying a powerful nonverbal structural intelligence.
It was the same intellect that had abstracted software-engineering principles to scale Google into a megacorp, ensuring that the corporate infrastructure always met the rate of growth. This was a person who understood how to build and maintain systems: systems of information and systems of people. My world was new to him, but it was also a world of unfolding human processes, scale and information flows.
For a man of systematic intelligence, Schmidt’s politics—such as I could hear from our discussion—were surprisingly conventional, even banal. He grasped structural relationships quickly, but struggled to verbalize many of them, often shoehorning geopolitical subtleties into Silicon Valley marketese or the ossified State Department micro-language of his companions. He was at his best when he was speaking (perhaps without realizing it) as an engineer, breaking down complexities into their orthogonal components.
I found Cohen a good listener, but a less interesting thinker, possessed of that relentless conviviality that routinely afflicts career generalists and Rhodes Scholars. As you would expect from his foreign-policy background, Cohen had a knowledge of international flash points and conflicts and moved rapidly between them, detailing different scenarios to test my assertions. But it sometimes felt as if he was riffing on orthodoxies in a way that was designed to impress his former colleagues in official Washington.
Malcomson, older, was more pensive, his input thoughtful and generous. Shields was quiet for much of the conversation, taking notes, humoring the bigger egos around the table while she got on with the real work.
As the interviewee, I was expected to do most of the talking. I sought to guide them into my worldview. To their credit, I consider the interview perhaps the best I have given. I was out of my comfort zone and I liked it.
We ate and then took a walk in the grounds, all the while on the record. I asked Eric Schmidt to leak U.S. government information requests to WikiLeaks, and he refused, suddenly nervous, citing the illegality of disclosing Patriot Act requests. And then, as the evening came on, it was done and they were gone, back to the unreal, remote halls of information empire, and I was left to get back to my work.
That was the end of it, or so I thought.