On Sunday, November 28, 2010, Alan Rusbridger—editor of the left-leaning British Guardian newspaper—and a team of journalists pledged to months of secrecy were finally scheduled to go public with one of the most explosive collections of documents in the paper’s history: 250,000 classified US diplomatic cables recording confidential conversations and contacts around the world. In this project, the Guardian had four media partners: the New York Times (US), Der Spiegel ( Germany ) , Le Monde (France), and El País (Spain).

The five publications had come into possession of the cables thanks to a 21 st -century organization called WikiLeaks. WikiLeaks was founded in 2007 by Julian Assange, a brilliant and mercurial Australian former computer hacker. Assange believed that information, even classified or dangerous information, should be available to everyone. It was in that spirit that he had already given the Guardian, New York Times , and Spiegel official US frontline records from the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. In an agreement forged originally by Assange and the Guardian , the three had simultaneously published the so-called War Logs in July and October 2010.

While there had been moments of tension, the War Logs publication had gone fairly smoothly. The same could not be said of the diplomatic cables. Logistics had been a nightmare. First, there was redaction—editing the cables so no one would suffer death or retaliation. That had taken weeks of intensive labor by a small group of journalists; organizing and tracking the process required a purpose-built database. Then there was the challenge of arranging for simultaneous publication across time zones and languages by five news partners with widely varying deadlines. A massive grid tried to reconcile the multiple conflicts.

What’s more, relations with Assange—never simple—had become fraught. The two principal Guardian reporters on the War Logs stories no longer spoke to him. Assange had also conceived an abiding hatred for the New York Times , and the Guardian and Spiegel had fought fiercely to keep the Times in the consortium. To appease Assange somewhat, they acceded to his 11 th -hour demand to include Le Monde and El País in the release of the diplomatic cables.

There were also legal worries. The cables were classified and revealed, for example, the damaging news that Saudi Arabia had encouraged the US to bomb Iran; that Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal could be threatened; that the US State Department had asked its diplomats to spy on United Nations personnel; or that the government of Yemen had offered to cover for US raids on Muslim radicals in Yemen. Britain had an Official Secrets Act that was frequently invoked to prevent publication of sensitive materials. The US had an Espionage Act. Either government might yet intervene.

Editor Rusbridger was confident the Guardian and its partners had acted conscientiously in preparing to release the cables. Nonetheless, he couldn’t repress a persistent worry—what if publishing them at all was in some fundamental way a mistake? Perhaps the paper was too caught up in the drama and momentum of the project to comprehend its full impact. What if people died as a result? Or the cables incited mass violence?

On November 26, as the paper completed final steps toward launch, Rusbridger’s doubts were reawakened by a thoughtful email from a trusted and respected colleague outside the small WikiLeaks team. Would publication damage the administration of US President Barack Obama, he asked, and derail much of what the Guardian itself stood for? Might Democrat Obama fail to win approval for a new arms control treaty from the Republican Congress? “Are we serving our interests, by publishing material which weakens a president, who we think is trying to do the right thing?” wrote the colleague. [1]

I just wonder whether we are not putting ourselves in the position, whether we are serving the opposition, and undermining our own stand, on so many of the issues that we care about.

Rusbridger was not a man easily flustered. But for all the care the Guardian had exercised, he could see that this project had the potential to go seriously wrong.

[1] Rusbridger chose not to identify the colleague, but confirmed it was a male.