Government weighs in

Guardian building

The Guardian was not inclined to ask for comments in advance of publication. Such an action would have opened it up to injunctions under the Official Secrets Act on the grounds that the newspaper was in unlawful possession of confidential documents. “Our instincts, coming from a European tradition, would have been not to,” comments Rusbridger. But the New York Times took a different view and, on November 19, first approached the White House to let it know which cables it planned to disclose. “When Bill [Keller] said we’re going to go a week in advance, we were all quite uneasy,” recalls Rusbridger, partly from fear of injunction.

I think all the European partners were anxious. And I think, left to our own devices, we wouldn’t have done what Bill [Keller] did… It was a difficult position where you felt obliged to get some reaction. But the longer you gave them, the longer it gave them to injunct us.

Also, says Katz, the Guardian was well aware that “often, institutions and governments dress up in security terms things which are simply embarrassing or are politically inconvenient.”

The Times forwarded White House comments to the Guardian —an awkward arrangement because it was not clear whether the Times represented the other media partners and whether it was a formal clearance process or an informal one. [1] So on Friday, November 26, the White House hosted a conference call with Rusbridger, Deputy Editor Katz, US Assistant Secretary of State P.J. Crowley, and representatives from Defense, intelligence community, and the National Security Council. Crowley stated that “from our perspective, these are stolen documents,” to which the British editors did not reply.

Crowley asked Rusbridger for the numbers of the cables the paper intended to use, but Rusbridger would not oblige. He did disclose the Guardian ’s intended publication schedule: Day 1, Iran; Day 2, North Korea; Day 3, Pakistan. Quite soon Crowley, worried that the government was giving out more information than it was getting, wrapped up the call. Apparently, as Investigations Editor Leigh recalls, “they weren’t going to come after us. They were going to engage with us instead.” Just before publication, says Rusbridger, the Guardian also heard from the British government—“a sort of private message from Number 10 [Downing Street] saying don’t worry, we’re not going to injunct you.”

By the target publication date of November 28, the Guardian had more than 160 articles ready to go and more in production. On the eve of publication, however, Editor Rusbridger found himself questioning whether the newspaper had made the right choice.

[1] Der Spiegel came in for its fair share of pressure as well; the US ambassador called Editor Mascolo to warn against publishing the cables. The government also asked WikiLeaks not to publish and hand back all records. Assange in fact offered to consider US objections and said WikiLeaks had no desire to put anyone at risk.