Sean Langan, a documentary filmmaker, sat down for a wide-ranging interview for the latest episode of “The Investigation," a new ABC News podcast. A transcript of Langan’s interview as it appears in this episode of the podcast follows here:
ABC NEWS' CHRIS VLASTO: Welcome to a special bonus episode of The Investigation. I’m Chris Vlasto, Senior Executive Producer at ABC News. I’m joined by Matt Mosk, Senior Investigative Reporter, and a special guest today is James Meek. He’s been a member of our investigative team, but is also, has been tracking and covering the Julian Assange story since it broke in 2006. Today we’re also joined by a special guest, Sean Langan, who has worked with James over these past few years. And at the center of it all, Julian Assange. There are very few people that know him, but the man we’re talking to today has spent at least 50 hours over the last year inside that Ecuadorian embassy, as recently as last month. And we’re going to get an insider’s look inside that Ecuadorian embassy. Sean Langan is a well-known war documentary filmmaker who was taken hostage by the Taliban in 2008. He is also an ABC News contributor and he joins us by phone overseas.
VLASTO: So listen, you recently have spent some time you spent a lot of time I think with Julian Assange. Tell us about the last visit you were with him.
SEAN LANGAN: It was two weeks ago on a Friday. We have these regular social visits, the embassy call it because he's not allowed to have media or anyone. He's not allowed to give interviews. So every other Friday I've been going along and we bring lunch and we sit in this room where they lock the door and the idea is to sort of help pass the time.
VLASTO: And is it in his room? I mean what's his room like? And what I mean is it is it just like a hotel room or can we move around? Paint the picture for us.
LANGAN: Yes. Well after five hours, I found it very claustrophobic and wanted to get out because you’re, it's a small embassy in a very nice part of London in Knightsbridge but it's like an old 1950s Havana Spanish Mexican Embassy and you’re ushered into one room which has a long desk. And it's a meeting room. And then they lock the door.
ABC NEWS' JAMES MEEK: And then he’s blasting music, right Sean? He's got something…(overtalk)
LANGAN: There's one window, but that's got mesh on it to stop electronic eavesdropping. So there's no natural light. There's also cameras, CCTV security cameras, so you’re being filmed. And then Julian Assange, for his own reasons, to counter the the measures, this recording, filming, he puts on music. So you sit there for five hours in one room and they lock the door. And I went along with a friend of his called Vaughan Smith who has been one of his loyal supporters. And when I was there they have two speakers with music. One was blaring out David Bowie, “Can you hear me Major Tom” and I think on the other speaker was some classical music. Sometimes he plays white noise. So it's it's an unusual environment.
VLASTO: and he seemed disheveled. I mean today he obviously was arrested but was he that way when you saw him last week.
LANGAN: Yeah he he. Well he looked bet…well so the last few months before Christmas I went in to see him, and he really has since his relationships with the Ecuadorian government have deteriorated, his looks and his physical being changed. So in the last few months, he had very long hair. Not like all the videos of him on TV which are from four years ago, five years ago. He now has long hair. And until a few weeks ago he had this very big, bushy beard. Which I noticed today. His hair was in a ponytail and he's he's shaved the beard, he's trimmed it. So in fact I thought today he’s looked he looked slightly more presentable than he has in recent months.
VLASTO: And is that out of stress that he's doing that? Or is he just, I mean is it a Heart of Darkness kind of thing?
LANGAN: And I'm not saying this as a supporter of Julian Assange or as WikiLeaks, but I was a hostage my… I was kidnapped by the Taliban for four months and kept in a room. Now I know his is very different circumstances. And he sought asylum. But leaving aside the reasons why he’s in there. Five years inside. Now I was describing drawing a picture of this one room with this dark dining table in a room full of listening devices. He actually just next to that has a small bedroom. And that's where he's been living for five years. But in the last six months, with the new Ecuadorian government, it's no longer even a friendly small airless, environment. Whilst I, in all the visits I’ve been they’re very polite but they would knock on the door and hand him a leaflet saying or document “Please Sign this” that you agree to some new terms or you agree to have a health check. So going back to your question, that takes its toll. You know since Christmas, he has been expecting to be thrown out and extradited. And physically as well, it is taking its toll. I think not being with sunlight not having sunlight lack of vitamin D, he was shaking hands. Last time I met him, he shook hands with his left hand and a rather limp way. I think he is now has back problems muscle problems. So yes I'm sure it's it's it's both stress, stress related. And also just physical confinement has taken its toll.
MEEK: But he has been eager to talk about his situation and even you know some of the characters that have come before Mueller’s investigation. Jerome Corsi, Roger Stone and so forth, talking about the jet parked in Heathrow. The U.S. Department of Justice jet recently. He loves to talk about this stuff and dance around whether Wikileaks did business with the Russian intelligence services, right?
LANGAN: Yeah. So, a number of things. I met him I think when you know WikiLeaks first broke out onto the world stage, when they were releasing the various cables and army files. And he was a very different person then, he was thrust into the limelight as I imagine it would affect most people who’s suddenly front page news in every country in the world. It was sort of, like I imagine a computer geek, not with the greatest social skills in the world. Clearly you know into that kind of hacking world of what might some people might consider slightly conspiratorial. The man I met in the last few weeks is very different. And one thing that struck me is that line that you know through suffering one learns empathy. And he now he looked me in the eye, I don’t think when I first met him five years ago, this sort of computer nerd didn't make eye contact with fellow humans. And just before I answer your question about the jet being there or what the Americans were planning. There was this, where I felt really sorry, where there is this human element to this story. Because whether you like what WikiLeaks do or you don't or whether you like him as a person or not, and I know there are very many camps divided on this. He looked me in the eye and I could sense, and he said it, he had this real fear now, which I think is about to be realized, of spending the rest of his life in a Supermax federal prison in America.
MEEK: What does he fear happening there. What will happen to him? What does he say?
LANGAN: Well there was, first of all he did say he was worried if he was a normal American prison of being beaten up. And then I said, well the chances are you’re more likely, slightly gallows humor it didn't really make him feel. But I said “don't worry about being beaten up you're most likely going to be put into one of those federal max prisons where you don't see a soul.” And then I really saw in his eyes someone who's just spent five six years inside that confined space, albeit still free and he's got asylum. The idea now that he could face the rest of his life in isolation. You can see the toll it is taking on him. And that, it's an unpleasant thing to see that in any man. So that's hanging over his head the whole time and I can see real fear and it's now real. You know in the years before, I imagine there was a slight impression that it was all a bit of a game. But he all people think of these people that they've seen too many movies or so when he does talk he talks a mile, “you know Sean when you've got the CIA after you. The NSA. A superpower after you. But in fact you're sitting in a room surrounded by cameras and listening devices. It's not melodramatic. It's not some conspiracy movie. I imagine these these organizations and U.S. intelligence organizations are very much focused on him. And it's taken its toll and he’s under great pressure.
LANGAN: Whilst we’re having lunch, I would ask him these questions about the Mueller inquiry, the investigation and the charges of organization one did. Did WikiLeaks collude with the Russians knowingly and did they cooperate with the Trump campaign team on when to release those Democrat files. He would describe, he would, now this is my opinion of him and the way he argues. I'm sure he would just disagree with my take on it. He seemed to be very strong on things when it suited him. And then rather vague on other things but he was very strong and I think this has been borne out by the what we know of the Mueller investigation. And he described Roger Stone and Trump Junior. He said “those bunch of clowns.” That’s his direct quote. “Those bunch of clowns couldn't conspire and organize this kind of thing.” I suspect he may that might be correct.
ABC NEWS' MATT MOSK: Still Sean I'm curious if you know, does he still carry with him the sort of value set that he's always had about protecting his sources? Or could he turn around under these conditions and start talking about where some of the material for Wikileaks came from?
LANGAN: He's very guarded on that and I think that's, I mean one thing with this that this whole six year seven years inside the embassy, one thing that's being shown is that he's got that sort of character type who's not for changing, not for compromise and often to his own expense. You know he's an absolutist as it were. I'm not sure myself personally having spent time with him and met the other Wikileaks people including Kristen who's now head of Wikileaks. You know how principled it always is. You know sometimes they have their own principles. So when you’d ask him direct questions about the timing the release of certain files, I didn't always feel their answers always were as concrete as others might be.
MOSK: Do you know more generally what he thought of President Trump.
LANGAN: Yes well I mean there was the famous quote which I discussed with him that when he, a few years ago at the time of the election, he said, “Well the difference between Trump and Clinton was like the difference between cholera and gonorrhea.” I was never sure which one he was referring to as gonorrhea and cholera.
MOSK: But he knows that the president championed him. What was it James, 137 times?
MEEK: Well it was a hundred and thirty seven and I think we’re going to play some of those bites.
[video clips of then candidate Trump speaking about Wikileaks]
MEEK: In fact Trump just came out and said that he knows nothing about WikiLeaks. He said moments ago today. “It's not my thing.” But what did he say about Trump? Didn't he comment on his marvelous use of social media?
LANGAN: So with me, I think now you know he was talking about these clowns. He used that phrase “these bunch of clowns,” and he was specifically referring to Roger Stone at that point and Trump Jr. I got the impression he might include the President in that view. It was not…he certainly did not hold him in high regard. And he was quite dismissive. But in previous conversations I've had with him and from my reading, my understanding was you know they were. I did see that the tweets between WikiLeaks and sometimes direct personal tweets- Trump Junior. My impression is, at that time he was getting quite carried away and excited to be there in the middle of the U.S. election and in touch with the winning campaign team.
MEEK: But he was impressed with Trump’s ability to use this Twitter platform of the millennials. Didn't he call him something like an idiot savant in one of your meetings?
LANGAN: Yes. And so that's why I think when we talk about principles and do they give up sources, I think perhaps, he would disagree, but I think he was swayed. My one impression I would have which I suspect…the reason why I’m (inaudible) when you talk to him. Anyone who turns against him, he (inaudible) as though they are traitors. You know when I mentioned, brought up how he'd cooperate with media in the past, British and American media or film directors. Oliver Stone or the Guardian newspaper or the New York Times and then falls out. He inevitably falls out with everyone. And I'm invited to lunch. But if I say anything against him, I'm sure I would be cast out. So my impression is despite no doubt I will be cast out from meeting him again perhaps, is he does get, there’s a slight narcissistic thread to this and I'm sure he was swept up and loved the idea that he was a power broker and he played a part in the US election.
VLASTO: But Sean, going back to what you were saying that maybe he's afraid that his face - spending the rest of his life in solitary confinement in a supermax prison in Colorado. Do you think he would Would he give up? Maybe one? Would he give up sources? Would he make something up to try to get out of jail?
LANGAN: You know that's a very difficult question to answer. I can tell you what I know what he said. One of the hardest things he found psychologically to deal with is even when he was confined in the embassy, he was still in control of his global network WikiLeaks. And he talked about it like that. And yet he wasn't in control of his own body and person inside that and I could see it was it was debilitating and it's quite crushing. And the way he was looking ahead with doom at the thought that he would be in a far worse isolated place, a max prison in America. Who knows how a man will cope what he would say at that point.
MEEK: What you're getting to though is his mental state has changed pretty dramatically just your observational -
LANGAN: Well, I would say and I've noticed this with having observed close, close up other hostages. Hostages - someone who survived five years in that, six, seven years whatever it is in that Ecuadorian embassy. There's an enormous amount, there’s incredible strength and reserve. So, it's well known amongst hostage kidnap, captivity psychologists if you last that long you developed this thing where you can keep going. The real trouble happens if, when you’re let out and try to revert back to life in the free world. So in fact, so even though I say it’s physically and psychologically taken its toll that doesn't mean he wouldn't keep going, in that realm. I think he's capable of lasting them out.
MOSK: Sean, can I ask you about the Russians have put out a statement from the Kremlin today condemning his arrest. And I think we've heard before he was before he was confined in the embassy. That he denied the Russians were involved in leaking material to him. Did he shed any more light to you on his relationship with the Russians or his plans to potentially go to Russia?
LANGAN: Yeah no. So I put courses over these lunches which lasted for five or six hours. I would occasionally ask questions and he was happy to talk about them. You know he denied - specific questions I'll give you just for the quote. He denied releasing the Podesta Democrat files two hours after the (expletive) grabbing video, he said that’s incorrect. He was going to release that and if you check the WikiLeaks statements. It wasn't. It wasn't to help Trump. On the Russia front he issued denials on pointed questions. He would say no.
MEEK: Well he addressed Guccifer?
LANGAN: When he said no to things he, it was more like shutting down conversations than an expansive denial.
MEEK: But you asked about the communications with Guccifer 2.0 which Mueller in an indictment of the Russian intelligence operative’s references and he said something to you about the fact that they WikiLeaks were not the only ones talking to that persona online?
LANGAN: Yes, and that's exactly and that I took to be a non-denial, denial. That In fact he was saying yes he had, that was an admission that he had been in communication with Guccifer 2. And his response was Why Reuters and AP and others had to be in communication with them. So why pick on WikiLeaks? So that wasn't a direct-denial talking to Guccifer 2.
MOSK: I'm trying to imagine his day in court in the United States if that day comes. I’m curious Sean what you think he will be like when he shows up at the courthouse, if he appears on the stand. What do you expect?
LANGAN: Well you saw today briefly you know he was sort of shouting out some, you know, like a sort of, I don't want to use the word grandstanding, but you know he was using that moment in public because he was being taken out of the embassy by the British police and put him in the back of their trucks. He was in political mode. I think he'll very much hunker down, batten down the hatches, and will use any court hearing, any public hearing, any chance he gets he will see as a political act and he will make statements. I imagine. That is – whether one unfairly could call it, perhaps glibly - he's going to be - but I think what I can say for sure is this is not a game for him now. He knows what's at stake and he could be facing life in solitary. So, I think this is now - whereas before when the first WikiLeaks scandal broke and he was put under house arrest and even with the Swedish allegations - this is no longer a game for him. You can see that in his eyes, he's really deep down scared of being beaten up in some prisons, but deeply disturbed at the thought of being in solitary for the rest of his life and cut off from his beloved network of WikiLeaks.
VLASTO: The American indictment is actually only saying that he is being charged with a crime which would only face five years in jail, that he gave the passcode or helped Chelsea Manning.
MEEK: Well you know in the last visit he did tell Sean. You know Sean shared some of our reporting and our assessment that they were going to try to prove that Assange was not a journalist. His longtime defense and that he had done things, his methods were not what journalists do. And he seemed to be aware of that right, Sean?
MEEK: That that was their strategy?
LANGAN: Now, it’s odd, he often talks about - whenever he talks about theories, conspiracies - he always does as those it’s great assurity and it's not always clear how you would know. But he has talked in meetings I've had with him, how the minute the Mueller investigation - that's when Trump will say go on, you can go after Julian Assange, you know. And then, timing wise, he said he's – he’s been, as well talked often about that the release of vault 7, the CIA files and previous files, the diplomatic cables. So angered whether it's state department, CIA department of defense that they were going to go after him, and they were these secret indictment, sealed indictments. The world would see. You know they. And so he's never thought of it as just five years. But yes he was talking about – and WikiLeaks people had been in touch with Chelsea Manning's defense team. I don't know if Chelsea Manning personally I think she declined to talk to him but when the grand jury recently taking place dealing with the Chelsea Manning case, WikiLeaks was reaching out and he was very much aware of the indictments and the questions she was being asked and relating it to how he could see and he said I can see this is where they're going to go after me on this front that I solicited. I wasn't acting like a journalist or a publisher. But I was encouraging Manning to hack.
VLASTO: But he saw this coming, he knew they were going to come after him?
LANGAN: He sits there and he's cut off from the world, but also connected. He was saying an interesting, and I'm not quite sure how he's managed to do it. I mean, they cut off his internet. But he - one thing I do know if when I'm in that embassy within hours it's on some YouTube, WikiLeaks person talking about Sean Langan’s visiting or not being allowed in. So he's talked about it and is he somehow connected and able to be connected to all his WikiLeaks supporters and helpers and hackers around the world. So, he's very well informed about developments in what's happening in Ecuador. He seemed to be always one step ahead. In fact the Ecuadorians, at one point, accusing him of hacking their system. So, yes. He's very well informed in many cases with the Justice Department are doing, grand juries. And then he spends the rest of his time thinking about these things and –
MEEK: But he also seems a little paranoid. You said he thought that some of the Ecuadorian CCTV cameras were piping live video into CIA headquarters in Langley, Virginia.
LANGAN: Yeah, so. The last visit he said it was like a development. Like Yes Now this is now being as though before being recorded and then sent to the CIA. But he would say now this is now being fed live to CIA at Langley.
MOSK: Does he have a plan do you think Sean? Does he have some idea of what he's going to do next?
LANGAN: I'm sure the very, I mean it's with his British attorney Gloria. They've been able to game play this rather like the British and the Americans the Ecuadorians all sides have been gaming this various scenarios - how this is going to play out and I'm sure they've all prepared their chess moves well in advance.
MOSK: Well to Chris's point - the charge against him in the United States seems to have predicted his next chess move - it doesn't. It precludes a defense that he's a journalist, it doesn't actually go after him on any crime that would allow him to say, I deserve the protections of a journalist.
VLASTO: You know?
LANGAN: Whether it’s being fed live or not I'm sure I'm sure that they – well it’s publicly and privately - that I think the moves are and in fact his lawyers have been in talks with the British and the Australian Embassy, consul has been involved. So I think it's the chess moves, a kind of - there has been some level of discussion amongst the various governments involved and his lawyers.
VLASTO: I think there's always been a story where there were stories recently that if this day had come there'd be a secret trigger of documents which didn't.
MEEK: Dead man's --
VLASTO: That's it James, dead man's switch. Do you believe that?
MOSK: That he would unleash some kind of attack, cyber-attack on the world and in revenge?
MEEK: Or a trove of documents that have been stolen from the US or other governments that we don't even know about on the cloud.
LANGAN: That’s not something he shared with me. He, he was preparing for this time. So, when, when there was in the news reports that the aeroplane, WikiLeaks had tweeted there was a plane which it’s ID reference that had been involved in some previous addition
MEEK: A U.S. government plane.
LANGAN: Yeah. And he was thinking aloud musing on that possibility as we were having lunch that that plane may be there, a British airport waiting to render, rendition him to America and of course it didn't happen. And I asked him at that point well, you know are you prepared for just in case, the British, the Americans come and you’re on a plane? And he said, well you know I've made some preparations and I've recorded this. He explained what he has done is there's probably a statement whether it's audio or printed or visual, I don't know, a prepared statement that they would be able to release in the event that he's in-incommunicado.
VLASTO: One other story that came up recently and I think it was the guardian newspaper correct me if I'm wrong about Paul Manafort and his visits, possible visits and meetings that he had with Julian Assange. Do you know anything about that?
LANGAN: Yeah. So that was one of my examples I was talking about early on - some things, when he's on strong ground. He's very adamant and he's not so adamant when he’s, I think, on shifty ground. So he was very adamant. And I am not sure I can use this word that’s (expletive). Never met him, so he strongly denied that. Where that leaves a doubt is when you then say ‘Wait, were you in communication with a third party or an interim?’ Then he gets vague. So you know there was other people, so no. But on the Paul Manafort, he said there you go once again (expletive) media. You know, it's not true. Never happened.
VLASTO: And one, also before I'm sure James and Matt may have something else, but Pamela Anderson I know this is a big U-turn, but what was the nature of their relationship. Do you know?
LANGAN: Well I met her with James at the Frontline Club. She was visiting him, regularly. You know, he's tired of meeting lawyers, all he normally meets is his lawyers, the legal team, and hers was very much a social visit, she would bring gifts. Now one thing, I could answer you, you haven’t asked me directly, is I do know the Ecuadorians don't allow overnight visits. So I think hers would be a social visit like mine and Vaughan Smith.
MOSK: And can I just ask because just set it straight. There have been all kinds of reports about the conditions that he's under and that he's put feces on the wall or that he doesn't do any dishes or that they're cats running around feral.
VLASTO: The cats…
MOSK: Can you shed some light just on what it actually looks like and smells like in there?
LANGAN: It’s like a gilded cage. But a cage is a cage is a cage. So you know the actual embassy is a very small little, like a local counsel. With very old fashioned 1950s dark, Spanish, Mexican furniture. And there’s this one room where you sit at a table and he has this very small bedroom next to it with a small single bed. There is a tiny galley kitchen. And when we go for lunch, he goes into this little galley kitchen. Get the plates. We eat food and then he takes the plates back and he will wash them up. He was very upset.
MEEK: No, feces on the wall that you saw? No cat droppings? It didn’t smell bad?
LANGAN: No, no, no. There was no smell about him either. It was odd. That really affected him. This is where when you in that psychological batten down the hatches, somethings hit you more than others so he's prepared to be attacked or undermined or criticized by the CIA. But when the New York Times describes him having smelly socks he, that really hurt.
MEEK: Particularly, he was worried that the women would think of him for that.
LANGAN: At one point, he looked me in the eye and he said Sean you know. I said this has clearly got to you and he said yeah, I mean when I look into a woman’s eyes I know she's now thinking you know, yeah he raped those women and he's got smelly socks. And I was thinking well I think the smelly socks isn't quite as bad as the woman thinking you raped another woman. But, so I was thinking he's definitely on a spectrum. He doesn't quite get things, but that's slightly unfair. But he's clearly genuinely upset at the thought that women and the public, New York Times and others publishing reports which are untrue. And I think it's fair to say, having I witnessed it myself. The Ecuadorians were always very polite with me and Vaughan. And most of the time with Julian Assange I did in the last few visits. Here's some angry words spoken outside. But it was. Clearly a deliberate and ongoing attempt at psychological warfare. Because every time I go to visit they would knock on the door and hand him something to sign and he wouldn't know what he was being asked to sign would give them the excuse to throw him out. So, there was this very much a sort of psychological dark arts going on, of how do you force someone out of the embassy.
MEEK: Well, that's I mean, utterly fascinating. Sean thank you for the insight. We really appreciate it.
VLASTO: Thank you for joining us today. Please be sure to hit subscribe and leave us a rating. Thanks to our producer, Trevor Hastings. For my colleagues, Matt Mosk, James Meek. I’m Chris Vlasto and we’ll see you here next Tuesday for another episode of The Investigation.