Assange at SXSW: 'Who really wears the pants in the administration?'

WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange questions Obama's power over the NSA during Day 2 of the SXSW Festival in Austin.

Julian Assange doesn't use the blustering rhetoric you might expect from the founder of the activist publishing group WikiLeaks. Assange is responsible for leaking documents that have changed America's political landscape-- State Department cables and Iraq War logs--yet to a South by Southwest audience on Saturday, he spoke quietly and matter-of-factly even when uttering the most inflammatory statements.

"Who really wears the pants in the [Obama] administration?" Assange asked during a Skype call with the SXSW audience. "Is it the intelligence agencies or is it the civilian part of that administration?"

The obvious answer from Assange's perspective: The National Security Agency runs the show and would dig up any and all of President Obama's buried skeletons to force him out of office if he tried to disband the surveillance agency.

Assange, speaking from his home at the Ecuadorean embassy in London, said the NSA shouldn't be considered a rogue agency that will be reigned in. When an agency or individual goes against the grain, there are typically consequences handed down by the government. In the case of the NSA, however, this has yet to take place.

"Somebody is fired, somebody is forced to resign, somebody is prosecuted, an investigation is launched, or the budget is cut--none of those things has happened since the Edward Snowden revelations," Assange said.

Surveillance at the forefront of SXSW

NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden's revelations about the agency's surveillance programs are top of mind at this year's SXSW, which is typically a more lighthearted affair best known for helping Twitter and Foursquare to explode into the mainstream. Last year's highlights included a grumpy-looking cat. But along with Assange, this year's festival also featured Google executive chairman Eric Schmidt's thoughts on the NSA's fiber-optic wiretapping of Google data.

Snowden and reporter Glenn Greenwald are both scheduled to speak at the festival on Monday, though Snowden obviously won't be appearing in person.

Surveillance is a pervading theme at SXSW, but if the NSA runs the show and its data collection dragnet is inescapable, as Assange believes, then what hope do any Americans have of fighting back or changing the system?

But Assange still seems optimistic that change is possible. He pointed to journalists like Greenwald and Laura Poitras, who have worked with Edward Snowden to expose programs like PRISM and MUSCULAR and continue to carry out their journalistic duty even though they are essentially in exile.

"National security reporters are a new kind of refugee," Assange said. "Where once people would've been completely crushed and not able to work anymore, they are able to use these tenements of classic liberalism--freedom of movement, freedom to communicate--to continue working."

The NSA's programs are a concern even to billionaires like eBay founder Pierre Omidyar, whose First Look Media publishes Greenwald's new journalistic venture The Intercept.

"The threat of the surveillance complex is so severe that it threatens [people like Omidyar]," Assange said.

Less than 1 percent of Snowden's documents have been released to the public, so we can expect more information to come. Assange also said WikiLeaks plans to dump "important upcoming material" in the near future, but wouldn't say when.

"I don't like to give timeframes because it helps opponents of the material prepare," he said.

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