The War Logs

The operation was, from the start, cloaked in secrecy. Assange was convinced that governments, especially the US, were tracking him and willing to use the most unscrupulous spycraft to gain access to his secrets. Assange turned over the first batch of records, reports from the war in Afghanistanon Thursday, June 24, via a dedicated website to which he uploaded the files; Davies already had a password which Assange had scrawled on a napkin. After Davies downloaded them, the site disappeared. Assange insisted on complete securitypasswords, encryption, no mention of the documents in phone calls or emails (which could be intercepted by government agencies). Communication would be conducted via Skype (which allows voice and video calls over the Internet) using accounts under fictitious names.

Guardian newsroom

At the Guardian , Rusbridger set aside a fourth-floor room for the small team of reporters and tech staff detailed to go through the Afghan war logs (as they were dubbed). The New York Times dispatched war correspondent Eric Schmitt, and Spiegel sent reporters John Goetz and Marcel Rosenbach to see what it was WikiLeaks had provided. Each publication was given a copy. The three news organizations found a manageable way to apportion the work. Recalls Davies:

When it came to choosing what stories to write and how to write them, we operated independently. But there was a lot of collaboration to help each other get through this mass of material.

For four and a half weeks, the Guardian group worked feverishly to turn the morass of encrypted field reports into intelligible news stories. The Guardian s systems editor, Harold Frayman, devised a database to hold the 92,000-plus entries and make them searchable by keyword, name, date, or phrase. Correspondents such as Declan Walsh, stationed in Islamabad, were brought back without explanation to work on the logs. Resident experts such as Middle East Editor Ian Black were also on the team. Assange himself was back and forth to Stockholm, though throughout July he settled in London for days at a time, cycling among the homes of Davies, Leigh, and other friends.

The news organizations had three prevailing worries. One was logisticalhow should they publish the Afghan reports, all at once or over several days? The second was ethicalhow to redact the battlefield reports to protect individuals? The third was legalwould governments, especially the US and UK, try to stop publication altogether? After all, the US government must have learned from Private Manning what was in the documents.

Legal threat. The UK Official Secrets Act (amended in 1989) permitted prosecution of newspapers or journalists who published secret information, including that belonging to foreign governments. UK privacy law was also strict, and plaintiffs regularly succeeded in preventing publication of material they deemed libelous or confidential by obtaining court injunctions. We have to be much more paranoid than American journalists because the law is so prohibitive, says Davies. In order to reduce the risk of an injunction, the team decided to abandon the original idea of publishing a sequence of stories (some through other news organizations such as Le Monde or Fox television), and instead release all the Afghan stories in a single burst.

The US Espionage Act also had teeth and forbade unauthorized disclosure of classified material. The Guardian became particularly worried when the New York Times , as was its custom, on July 21 asked President Barack Obamas White House and the Pentagon for comment on the Afghan battle reports. Might the US government take preemptive action? As Rusbridger recalls, the Guardian s external lawyers called him on the afternoon of Saturday, July 24, to caution: Are you thinking about this? Are you focusing on this enough? This could be really significant. [1] They warned that it was not out of the question that Rusbridger could be extradited to the US or denied a visa. On the other hand, there was some protection in the fact that other papersnot to mention WikiLeaks had the same information.

To the immense relief of all, publication went off smoothly. On Sunday, July 25, at 10 p.m. GMT, the three news organizations released their separate accounts of the Afghan war logs. Governments made no effort to prevent it. The Obama Administration, at least for now, seemed more intent on working with the media to limit damage than on lawsuits or injunctions.

The Guardian ran 14 pages of stories. It chose to focus on civilian deaths, particularly on a Special Operations group dubbed Task Force 373, which targeted the Taliban. The New York Times paid more attention to Pakistans aid to the Taliban. The relevant cablesredactedaccompanied each article. Assange, by contrast, simultaneously published all but 15,000 threat reports (which he deemed the most sensitive) on the WikiLeaks website--unedited. Many criticized Assange as irresponsible. Admiral Mike Mullen, chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, was forceful: "Mr. Assange can say whatever he likes about the greater good he thinks he and his source are doing, but the truth is they might already have on their hands the blood of some young soldier or that of an Afghan family." [2] A Taliban spokesman said his associates were studying the files to identify individuals: If they are US spies, then we know how to punish them. [3]

While the documents were now safely in the public domain, the publication caused the first rupture between Assange and his media partners. The day before Sundays publication, Davies learned that on Friday Assange had given the Afghan war logs and a summary of the stories the Guardian planned to run to Channel 4 (a British public-service national TV station), Al Jazeera, and CNN. Also on Saturday, Assange had taped an interview with Channel 4.

In Davies view, this blatantly broke the agreement Assange had concluded with the Guardian in June. It also made a mockery of the general attempts to preserve secrecy and threatened the exclusivity which Assange had promised the Guardian and its two partners. Julian understood that news organizations wont commit resources unless theyre guaranteed that theyre going to be the first to publish, says Davies. What then happened was that stage by stage, he proceeded to break the agreements. He adds:

We had got to know Julian well, and we liked him and we trusted him. Just at that personal level, it was pretty breathtaking that he had done this He thought that he had this power over us, that he had so much lovely, juicy information that it didnt matter how much he deceived, or how dishonest he was, or how many agreements he broke.

Listen to Davies describe the Guardian s initial relationship with Assange.

Davies had another time-consuming assignment looming and decided to pull out of the WikiLeaks project to register his disapproval. He never spoke to Assange again. Davies wanted to send a message: No. We are not your servants. We are not here to be abused by sources of information. Were journalists. We will not be wagged by the tail of the dog. The episode changed Leighs attitude as well. From now on, he would assume that were dealing here with an untrustworthy person.

For his part, Assange was furious with the New York Times because, unlike the other two publications, it chose not to link directly to WikiLeaks in its online version of the Afghan war logs stories. Editor Keller explained he did this to preserve the Times credibility and independence. Assange was not persuaded.

[1] Authors interview with Alan Rusbridger in London, UK, on March 8, 2011. All further quotes from Rusbridger, unless otherwise attributed, are from this interview.

[3] Robert Winnett, Wikileaks Afghanistan: Taliban hunting down informants, Telegraph , July 30, 2010.