Redactions and reporting

The Guardian told Le Monde and El Pas about the new arrangement shortly after the November 1 meeting. The new papers had barely three weeks to sift through the massive trove of cables before the agreed-on digital publication date of November 28. The pre-existing partners listed the stories they had already uncovered. For example, Spiegel had been the first to notice cables about the State Department ordering US diplomats to spy on UN officials. The New York Times had closely examined materials on Saudi Arabia encouraging the US to bomb Iranian nuclear installations. The Guardian targeted cables about the relationship between China and North Korea. Meanwhile, both new consortium members, especially the Spanish publication, helped uncover some new stories, including one about US diplomats seeking to influence judges. [1]

On November 11, all the parties gathered to fine-tune the publication grid. Assange came with a lawyer, while New York Times Deputy Foreign Editor Ian Fisher flew in from the US. Guardian Deputy Editor Katz took on the coordination job. He prepared a grid tracking which papers would publish which stories on which days. We didnt want to scoop each other, says Leigh. It was complex. For example, for all to publish simultaneously on a Sunday, the weekly Spiegel would have to suspend its standard electronic distribution Saturdaya costly adjustment. There was a heart sink about how on earth we would synchronize across four languages [and] three different production schedules, says Katz, referring to Le Monde , an afternoon paper, and El Pas , which published at midnight.

Redactions . Preparing the diplomatic cables and related stories for publication was tough. Not only did reporters have to extract the best stories from the documents, but the cables themselves had to be redacted to remove any references which might threaten the lives of those named. Each individual reporter had first responsibility for redacting the cables that supported his articles. Key correspondents, such as Luke Harding in Moscow, were summoned back to London to join the team. Other star reporters based in Washington, Brussels, Africa, India, and Latin America joined the team remotely. Walsh, who had returned for the war logs and stayed to work on a book, took on the Pakistan- and Afghanistan-related cables. In the run-up to November 28, says Katz, the Guardian had upwards of 25 reporters and editors involved.

Production Manager Jon Casson's publication grid

The second layer of redaction was Production Manager Jon Casson , who tried to spot anything missed the first time around. Casson set up shop in another 4 th floor room typically used for training. He read every story and its associated cables. Even if a reporter referred only to a couple of paragraphs in a lengthy cable, Casson had to read the whole thing because the papers had undertaken to post entire cables. He kept track of where in the process each story stood. Most stories pulled together several cables, so those were all redacted to be released simultaneously with the story. Casson not only went through Guardian redactions carefully, but compared the Guardian s version to those of the other media partners.

Partners . These problems were multiplied times five by the media partnership. All five news outlets had agreed to maintain the same secrecy observed for the Afghan and Iraq war logs. No one would mention a cable in either an email or a phone conversation. Instead, they held paper copies of cables up to a camera in a Skype exchange, so that all could see the subject of the conversation. Spy-movie attempts to use disposable phones and other security devices, however, were amusing, but flopped. We were essentially completely useless at any of the spooky stuff, said Katz. [2] The whole coordination was very difficult, says Casson. We did the best we could. [3] He adds:

It was just the volume, and the urge to publish as much as possible in as short a time as possible, was quite difficult. If it was just the Guardian publishing, I think it would have been much more of a straightforward process.

Listen to Casson describe coordinating publication with several newspapers.

Casson designed a massive online spreadsheet that tracked each cable by number, the ID number for its related stories, whether the cable had been redacted, whether the redaction had been coordinated with partner publications, and when the story and cable were slated for publication. In the beginning, Casson and two helpers were processing upwards of 200 cables a day. In the end, he tracked more than 900 cables, each color coded for their stage of redaction. Despite their best efforts, sometimes the partners published different versions of a cable. In a very few instances, the publications agreed not to use a cable at all because it was too sensitive. Topics that qualified for exclusion were strategic secrets, information on nuclear power plants or oil pipelines, or details on military operations.

Casson worked hard to avoid defamation or endangering individuals. He consulted with Guardian lawyers on a daily basis. Diplomats or public figures were fair game. But what really kept me awake most night was, if were publishing a sources name, is that going to put that person, or that persons family, in danger? recalls Casson. Sometimes deleting a name was not enough; place names and dates also had to come out. Likewise, he deleted pronouns in instances when a female speaker would be identifiable. That meant deleting not only she and her, but he and his from time to time so it would not be obvious when a woman was meant.

At the Guardian , secrecy was as tight or tighter than it had been for the war logs. The team continued to work out of two small, fourth-floor rooms. I think I told the foreign editor, because I had to bring some of his people back. But we kept it very, very tight, recalls Katz. We only told the main news editors a week before publication. All the reporters working on the project were forbidden to discuss their work.

Dangerous . There were also disputes over which cables to use. Leigh had made the first cut at discerning which cables would produce worthwhile stories. The second round of selections looked at geography. If with the war logs the Guardian had worried about injunctions, now it also had to worry about upsetting the world order. Recalls Deputy Editor Katz: More than one of our spouses, and certainly mine, said at the time, What on earth are you doing, and why on earth are you doing this? Youre going to start a war somewhere.

One group of cables, for example, revealed that the Yemeni government had said it would claim US air attacks on militants as its own. The New York Times (with Spiegel s concurrence) was reluctant to publicize some of the Yemen material for fear of repercussions on a strategic relationship, but the Guardian and El Pas saw no real danger in reporting it ( Le Monde couldnt decide). The debate was around, you will have blood on your hands if you publish this, because this is the front line of the fight against Islamist baddies, says Rusbridger.

And you will really undermine that fight by publishing this. The counterargument was, but were been down this route before [in Iraq 2003 and alleged weapons of mass destruction] of suppressing stuff in order to depend on people who appear to be on our side.

Other sensitive material concerned US views of Russian leaders, suspicions about the close relationship between Russian President Vladimir Putin and Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, the business dealings of some Russian oligarchs, and top-level corruption in both Pakistan and Afghanistan. While the UK Official Secrets Act technically covered some of this, the press did have on its side the so-called 1999 Reynolds Defense, a legal precedent which allowed the media to publish unproven allegations if they were acting responsibly and in the public interest, and followed standard journalistic procedures.

The partners eventually came to agreement on which stories to run. The big ones would be rolled out simultaneously; the timing for others of chiefly regional interest were left up to the individual publication. We had furious arguments along the way, but it was an incredibly complicated thing to do, notes Rusbridger.

[1] Leigh and Harding, WikiLeaks: Inside Julian Assanges War on Secrecy , p.177.

[2] Ibid, p.179.

[3] Authors interview with Jon Casson in London, UK, on March 8, 2011. All further quotes from Casson, unless otherwise attributed, are from this interview.