Caution and concern

It was not the first time Rusbridger had worried about publishing the cables. In early October, after Leigh had handed over the trove and other Guardian reporters had started to go through them, the editor had had serious misgivings: “a moment of standing back and thinking, actually, should we be doing this at all?... [Sometimes] you get into a little sort of bubble where you get carried along by it.” Perhaps the Guardian had been too quick to dismiss government concerns. After all, in 2004 the New York Times , at the request of the Bush Administration, had delayed for a year publishing a story about domestic spying. [1] In that case, the Times had found Administration arguments invoking national security persuasive.

Rusbridger was sufficiently disturbed to call on Simon Jenkins, former editor of the Evening Standard , to spend an hour reading through some of the cables and give his opinion. “It was a reality check,” recalls Rusbridger. He amplifies:

[The leak] was just a staggering breach of secrecy, trust, confidence. We knew all the arguments that would be advanced: you endangered people. You’ve made diplomacy impossible…. Normally within a newspaper, you can add things up with your colleagues. But because this was happening in a very tight operational little bubble, I wanted to get an extra pair of eyes to just say either “Oh my God, you’re crazy, what you are thinking of?” Or, “it’s fine.”

At the time, Jenkins read for several hours. While he understood Rusbridger’s hesitation, Jenkins’ opinion was that the Guardian had no choice but to publish the documents. But now it was November, and Rusbridger once again found himself questioning the very premise of publishing classified US government documents. He had rehearsed with Katz and others what he would say if, for example, a bomb went off on a flight to New York and the head of London’s anti-terror unit blamed the Guardian . “We did that exercise on quite a few things, actually,” says Katz. [2] But those rehearsals seemed rather inadequate.

The issue was brought front and center by an email Rusbridger received on Friday, November 26, from a respected colleague. The war logs, argued the colleague, “broadly supported our view of how badly Iraq and Afghanistan have gone as wars.” With the cables, he warned, “we may be doing something qualitatively different.” He continued:

Foreign policy is, for the next two years, the one field of operation a seriously weakened but still liberal US president has left, without succumbing to a Republican veto. But neither is he immune from Republican opinion.  We as a paper have argued that the US should not bomb Iran, or allow Israel to do so. If we publish a story saying that the US was encouraged to bomb Iran by a close powerful regional neighbour, to whom would that news be welcome, and who would profit from it?

Publication could also, the email argued, threaten President Obama’s chances of moving a START arms control treaty through Congress. If the cables revealed candid US diplomats’ views of Russian President Vladimir Putin, might that threaten the arms agreement? The writer said:

If START fails, two other treaties with Russia will fail, a president's word will not become his bond, Russia could easily start shipping S300 air defence missiles to Iran... None of these are unrealistic scenarios.  Are we serving our interests, by publishing material which weakens a president, who we think is trying to do the right thing?”

Finally, concluded the writer, “we are a newspaper not a propaganda unit.”

Others will publish the same material if we desist. Our duty is to set these stories in context, and that context is governed as much by our liberal values as well as our journalistic analysis. I am writing in total ignorance of what will be published and I do not want to interfere. 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 knew that he could not stop the publication process at this late date. Whatever his qualms, the Guardian ’s media partners would no doubt move forward. But the email jarred him because it so closely mirrored his own misgivings of October. If Guardian readers and supporters found the paper’s editorial decisions misguided or wrong, how would he respond? What if people died? Did the Guardian and its partners remain in control of this process, or had Assange manipulated them?

[1] President George W. Bush in 2002 authorized the National Security Agency to eavesdrop inside the US without court-approved warrants. See: James Risen and Eric Lichtblau, “Bush Lets U.S. Spy on Callers Without Courts,” New York Times , December 16, 2005.

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