Iraq logs—and the cables

Despite these fallings-out, WikiLeaks and the media partners were moving ahead on releasing the second big trove of documents: battlefield records from Iraq. Assange gave the collection to Leigh on July 7 and they moved directly into the production system set up for the Afghan logs. By the original schedule, the Iraq logs would run two weeks after the Afghan logs—on August 8. But on Friday, July 30, Assange contacted Leigh about a delay of at least six weeks. Assange wanted to bring television into the mix; specifically, he wanted both Al Jazeera and a fledgling UK production company, the Bureau of Investigative Journalism (BIJ), to produce documentaries (the BIJ piece would air on Channel 4).

Leigh decided to bargain. The Guardian could consider a delay until late September or early October, he said, if Assange gave him the entire third tranche: a collection of US diplomatic cables. The Guardian , he argued, needed to see if there was any value to the documents. The target date to publish the cables, if they merited it, would be mid-October. Assange agreed, on condition that Editor Rusbridger write a letter agreeing to three items: don’t allow the cables to be accessed online at all (no email, shared drive, cloud computing, etc.), don’t publish them without Assange’s okay, and don’t give the cables to anyone else. That meant for the time being neither Der Spiegel nor the New York Times would get a copy. Rusbridger did so, and on Tuesday, August 3, Leigh headed north on his annual three-week vacation to the Scottish highlands—with a memory stick that held 250,000 US diplomatic cables, the equivalent of 2,000 books. [1]

It was not much of a vacation. While the team at the Guardian in London struggled to make sense of 391,000 reports from the Iraq war, Leigh scrutinized the cables to figure out what he had. Systems Editor Frayman had again come to his rescue, dividing the cables file (too large to view on a laptop) into 87 manageable pieces of some 20 megabytes each. Leigh searched them for key words and phrases. For example, he entered the name “Megrahi”—a Libyan intelligence officer convicted for participation in the 1988 Lockerbie bombing and released from a Scottish jail by UK officials in 2009.

The results, says Leigh, were unimaginably exciting. For three weeks, sworn to secrecy, he went through the cables as systematically as he could alone. He recalls:

I was lowering a hook into a pond and seeing if any fish came up… Within a week or two, it was clear to me that there were about two dozen stories, each of which would normally be the splash story on the front page of the paper. So I was thinking this was a very rich pudding. [2]

He found that there were very few documents from before 2006, and the record ended in February 2010. The cables covered some 100 countries. There were cables about Iran, Yemen, Saudi Arabia, Russia—even about Britain’s Prince Andrew. Leigh returned to London in early September with a list of at least 20 stories. But he also walked into the teeth of a new chapter in the evolving Julian Assange story.

Sex charges. On Saturday, August 21, Davies had called Leigh in Scotland with disturbing news. Assange had been charged with rape in Stockholm by two Swedish women. As Leigh digested this, the two speculated on what might lie behind such an outlandish accusation. They reviewed the list of Assange’s potential enemies, including the CIA. “Way out on the distant fringes,” says Davies, “[we considered it] possible that it could be true.” Yet that seemed to be the case—the women considered that they had been assaulted. Leigh reported the story from Scotland, dictating it for Monday’s paper. He and Davies decided their only option was to “fully report the facts” even if Assange took offense.

The rape charge quickly changed to “sexual harassment.” Nonetheless, Assange had a tricky situation on his hands. On September 27, worried about arrest, he moved permanently from Sweden to London. The Guardian , too, could not help but worry about its close cooperation with an individual now involved in a very different story. “We could see that he was engaging in misinformation” about what had happened, recalls Davies. “That was so worrying for us,” adds Leigh.

The sexual harassment charges also affected the release of the Iraq war logs. In late September, Assange pleaded for an extension: WikiLeaks had had no opportunity to redact them which, after the backlash in July, it wanted to do. So they moved back the publication date to Friday, October 22. The original three partners continued to coordinate their efforts. Channel 4 would release the BIJ film, while CNN and Al Jazeera would release related stories on their own. [3]

Publication . Again the release went smoothly. The public was given access to Iraq war records from 2004 to December 2009. Assange hosted his own launch event at the Park Plaza hotel in London. This time, he had taken care not to include names of informants or others who might suffer retaliation. As with the Afghan logs, the partner news organizations chose each their own focus: the New York Times on torture of prisoners by Iraqi forces, on private contractors, and Iran’s involvement; the Guardian on civilian deaths and torture, including detainees under Iraqi supervision; and Der Spiegel on the leak itself and the helplessness of US troops in Iraq. But the peace would not hold for long.

[1] Leigh and Harding, WikiLeaks: Inside Julian Assange’s War on Secrecy , p.140.

[2] Author’s interview with David Leigh in London, UK, on March 8, 2011. All further quotes from Leigh, unless otherwise attributed, are from this interview.

[3] Assange also unilaterally gave the Iraq logs to Le Monde a week before publication, but the team was not trying to coordinate with the French newspaper.