Back in the days when almost no one had heard about WikiLeaks, regular emails started arriving in my inbox from someone called Julian Assange. It was a memorable kind of name. All editors receive a daily mix of unsolicited tip-offs, letters, complaints and crank theories, but there was something about the periodic WikiLeaks emails which caught the attention.
Sometimes there would be a decent story attached to the emails. Or there might be a document which, on closer inspection, appeared rather underwhelming. One day there might arrive a diatribe against a particular journalist – or against the venal cowardice of mainstream media in general. Another day this Assange person would be pleased with something we’d done, or would perambulate about the life he was living in Nairobi.
In Britain the Guardian was, for many months, the only paper to write about WikiLeaks or to use any of the documents they were unearthing. In August 2007, for instance, we splashed on a remarkable secret Kroll report which claimed to show that former Kenyan president Daniel Arap Moi had been siphoning off hundreds of millions of pounds and hiding them away in foreign bank accounts in more than 30 different countries. It was, by any standards, a stonking story. This Assange, whoever he was, was one to watch.
Unnoticed by most of the world, Julian Assange was developing into a most interesting and unusual pioneer in using digital technologies to challenge corrupt and authoritarian states. It’s doubtful whether his name would have meant anything to Hillary Clinton at the time – or even in January 2010 when, as secretary of state, she made a rather good speech about the potential of what she termed “a new nervous system for the planet”.
She described a vision of semi-underground digital publishing – “the samizdat of our day” that was beginning to champion transparency and challenge the autocratic, corrupt old order of the world. But she also warned that repressive governments would “target the independent thinkers who use the tools”. She had regimes like Iran in mind.
Her words about the brave samizdat publishing future could well have applied to the rather strange, unworldly Australian hacker quietly working out methods of publishing the world’s secrets in ways which were beyond any technological or legal attack.
Little can Clinton have imagined, as she made this much praised speech, that within a year she would be back making another statement about digital whistleblowers – this time roundly attacking people who used electronic media to champion transparency. It was, she told a hastily arranged state department press conference in November 2010, “not just an attack on America’s foreign policy interests. It is an attack on the international community.” In the intervening 11 months Assange had gone viral. He had just helped to orchestrate the biggest leak in the history of the world – only this time the embarrassment was not to a poor east African nation, but to the most powerful country on earth.
It is that story, the transformation from anonymous hacker to one of the most discussed people in the world – at once reviled, celebrated and lionised; sought-after, imprisoned and shunned – that this book sets out to tell.
Within a few short years of starting out Assange had been catapulted from the obscurity of his life in Nairobi, dribbling out leaks that nobody much noticed, to publishing a flood of classified documents that went to the heart of America’s military and foreign policy operations. From being a marginal figure invited to join panels at geek conferences he was suddenly America’s public enemy number one. A new media messiah to some, he was a cyber-terrorist to others. As if this wasn’t dramatic enough, in the middle of it all two women in Sweden accused him of rape. To coin a phrase, you couldn’t make it up.
Since leaving Nairobi, Assange had grown his ambitions for the scale and potential of WikiLeaks. In the company of other hackers he had been developing a philosophy of transparency. He and his fellow technologists had already succeeded in one aim: he had made WikiLeaks virtually indestructible and thus beyond legal or cyber attack from any one jurisdiction or source. Lawyers who were paid exorbitant sums to protect the reputations of wealthy clients and corporations admitted – in tones tinged with both frustration and admiration – that WikiLeaks was the one publisher in the world they couldn’t gag. It was very bad for business.
At the Guardian we had our own reasons to watch the rise of WikiLeaks with great interest and some respect. In two cases – involving Barclays Bank and Trafigura – the site had ended up hosting documents which the British courts had ordered to be concealed. There was a bad period in 2008/9 when the high court in London got into the habit of not only banning the publication of documents of high public interest, but simultaneously preventing the reporting of the existence of the court proceedings themselves and the parties involved in them. One London firm of solicitors over-reached itself when it even tried to extend the ban to the reporting to parliamentary discussion of material sitting on the WikiLeaks site.
Judges were as nonplussed as global corporations by this new publishing phenomenon. In one hearing in March 2009 the high court in London decided that no one was allowed to print documents revealing Barclays’ tax avoidance strategies – even though they were there for the whole world to read on the WikiLeaks website. The law looked a little silly.
But this new form of indestructible publishing brought sharp questions into focus. For every Trafigura there might be other cases where WikiLeaks could be used to smear or destroy someone. That made Assange a very powerful figure. The fact that there were grumbles among his colleagues about his autocratic and secretive style did not allay the fears about this new media baron. The questions kept coming: who was this shadowy figure “playing God”? How could he and his team be sure of a particular document’s authenticity? Who was determining the ethical framework that decided some information should be published, and some not? All this meant that Assange was in many respects – more, perhaps, than he welcomed – in a role not dissimilar to that of a conventional editor.
As this book describes, the spectacular bursting of WikiLeaks into the wider global public eye and imagination began with a meeting in June 2010 between the Guardian’s Nick Davies and Assange. Davies had sought out Assange after reading the early accounts that were filtering out about the leak of a massive trove of military and diplomatic documents. He wanted to convince Assange that this story would have more impact and meaning if he was willing to ally with one or two newspapers – however traditional and cowardly or compromised we might be in the eyes of some hackers. An agreement was struck.
And so a unique collaboration was born between (initially) three newspapers, the mysterious Australian nomad and whatever his elusive organisation, WikiLeaks, actually was. That much never became very clear. Assange was, at the best of times, difficult to contact, switching mobile phones, email addresses and encrypted chat rooms as often as he changed his location. Occasionally he would appear with another colleague – it could be a journalist, a hacker, a lawyer or an unspecified helper – but, just as often, he traveled solo. It was never entirely clear which time zone he was on. The difference between day and night, an important consideration in most lives, seemed of little interest to him.
What now began was a rather traditional journalistic operation, albeit using skills of data analysis and visualisation which were unknown in newsrooms until fairly recently. David Leigh, the Guardian’s investigations editor, spent the summer voraciously reading his way into the material. The Guardian’s deputy editor in charge of news, Ian Katz, now started marshalling wider forces. Ad hoc teams were put together in assorted corners of the Guardian’s offices in King’s Cross, London, to make sense of the vast store of information. Similar teams were assembled in New York and Hamburg – and, later, in Madrid and Paris.
The first thing to do was build a search engine that could make sense of the data, the next to bring in foreign correspondents and foreign affairs analysts with detailed knowledge of the Afghan and Iraq conflict. The final piece of the journalistic heavy lifting was to introduce a redaction process so that nothing we published could imperil any vulnerable sources or compromise active special operations. All this took a great deal of time, effort, resource and stamina. Making sense of the files was not immediately easy. There are very few, if any, parallels in the annals of journalism where any news organisation has had to deal with such a vast database – we estimate it to have been roughly 300 million words (the Pentagon papers, published by the New York Times in 1971, by comparison, stretched to two and a half million words). Once redacted, the documents were shared among the (eventually) five newspapers and sent to WikiLeaks, who adopted all our redactions.
The extent of the redaction process and the relatively limited extent of publication of actual cables were apparently overlooked by many commentators – including leading American journalists – who spoke disparagingly of a “willy nilly dump” of mass cables and the consequent danger to life. But, to date, there has been no “mass dump”. Barely two thousand of the 250,000 cables have been published and, six months after the first publication of the war logs, no one has been able to demonstrate any damage to life or limb.
It is impossible to write this story without telling the story of Julian Assange himself, though clearly the overall question of WikiLeaks and the philosophy it represents is of longer lasting significance. More than one writer has compared him to John Wilkes, the rakish 18th-century MP and editor who risked his life and liberty in assorted battles over free speech. Others have compared him to Daniel Ellsberg, the source of the Pentagon Papers leak, described by the New York Times’s former executive editor, Max Frankel, as “a man of incisive, devious intellect and volatile temperament”.
The media and public were torn between those who saw Assange as a new kind of cyber-messiah and those who regarded him as a James Bond villain. Each extremity projected on to him superhuman powers of good or evil. The script became even more confused in December when, as part of his bail conditions, Assange had to live at Ellingham Hall, a Georgian Manor set in hundreds of acres of Suffolk countryside. It was as if a Stieg Larsson script had been passed to the writer of Downton Abbey, Julian Fellowes.
Few people seem to find Assange an easy man with whom to collaborate. Slate’s media columnist, Jack Shafer, captured his character well in this pen portrait:
“Assange bedevils the journalists who work with him because he refuses to conform to any of the roles they expect him to play. He acts like a leaking source when it suits him. He masquerades as publisher or newspaper syndicate when that’s advantageous. Like a PR agent, he manipulates news organisations to maximise publicity for his ‘clients’, or, when moved to, he threatens to throw info-bombs like an agent provocateur. He’s a wily shape-shifter who won’t sit still, an unpredictable negotiator who is forever changing the terms of the deal.”
We certainly had our moments of difficulty and tension during the course of our joint enterprise. They were caused as much by the difficulty of regular, open communication as by Assange’s status as a sometimes confusing mix of source, intermediary and publisher. Encrypted instant messaging is no substitute for talking. And, while Assange was certainly our main source for the documents, he was in no sense a conventional source – he was not the original source and certainly not a confidential one. Latterly, he was not even the only source. He was, if anything, a new breed of publisher-intermediary – a sometimes uncomfortable role in which he sought to have a degree of control over the source’s material (and even a form of “ownership”, complete with legal threats to sue for loss of income). When, to Assange’s fury, WikiLeaks itself sprang a leak, the irony of the situation was almost comic. The ethical issues involved in this new status of editor/source became more complicated still when it was suggested to us that we owed some form of protection to Assange – as a “source” – by not inquiring too deeply into the sex charges leveled against him in Sweden. That did not seem a compelling argument to us, though there were those – it is not too strong to call them “disciples” – who were not willing to imagine any narrative beyond that of the smear.
These wrinkles were mainly overcome – sometimes eased by a glass of wine or by matching Assange’s extraordinary appetite for exhaustive and intellectually exacting conversations. As Sarah Ellison’s Vanity Fair piece on the subject concluded: “Whatever the differences, the results have been extraordinary. Given the range, depth, and accuracy of the leaks, the collaboration has produced by any standard one of the greatest journalistic scoops of the last 30 years.”
The challenge from WikiLeaks for media in general (not to mention states, companies or global corporations caught up in the dazzle of unwanted scrutiny) was not a comfortable one. The website’s initial instincts were to publish more or less everything, and they were at first deeply suspicious of any contact between their colleagues on the newspapers and any kind of officialdom. Talking to the State Department, Pentagon or White House, as the New York Times did before each round of publication, was fraught territory in terms of keeping the relationship with WikiLeaks on an even keel. By the time of the Cablegate publication, Assange himself, conscious of the risks of causing unintentional harm to dissidents or other sources, offered to speak to the State Department – an offer that was rejected.
WikiLeaks and similar organisations are, it seems to me, generally admirable in their single minded view of transparency and openness. What has been remarkable is how the sky has not fallen in despite the truly enormous amounts of information released over the months. The enemies of WikiLeaks have made repeated assertions of the harm done by the release. It would be a good idea if someone would fund some rigorous research by a serious academic institution about the balance between harms and benefits. To judge from the response we had from countries without the benefit of a free press, there was a considerable thirst for the information in the cables – a hunger for knowledge which contrasted with the occasional knowing yawns from metropolitan sophisticates who insisted that the cables told us nothing new. Instead of a kneejerk stampede to more secrecy, this could be the opportunity to draw up a score sheet of the upsides and drawbacks of forced transparency.
That approach – a rational assessment of new forms of transparency – should accompany the inevitable questioning of how the US classification system could have allowed the private musings of kings, presidents and dissidents to have been so easily read by whoever it was that decided to pass them on to WikiLeaks in the first place.
Each news organisation grappled with the ethical issues involved in such contacts – and in the overall decision to publish – in different ways. I was interested, a few days after the start of the Cablegate release, to receive an email from Max Frankel, who had overseen the defence of the New York Times in the Pentagon papers case 40 years earlier. Now 80, he sent me a memo he had then written to the New York Times public editor. It is worth quoting as concise and wise advice to future generations who may well have to grapple with such issues more in future:
1. My view has almost always been that information which wants to get out will get out; our job is to receive it responsibly and to publish or not by our own unvarying news standards.
2. If the source or informant violates his oath of office or the law, we should leave it to the authorities to try to enforce their law or oath, without our collaboration. We reject collaboration or revelation of our sources for the larger reason that ALL our sources deserve to know that they are protected with us. It is, however, part of our obligation to reveal the biases and apparent purposes of the people who leak or otherwise disclose information.
3. If certain information seems to defy the standards proclaimed by the supreme court in the Pentagon papers case ie that publication will cause direct, immediate and irreparable damage we have an obligation to limit our publication appropriately. If in doubt, we should give appropriate authority a chance to persuade us that such direct and immediate danger exists. (See our 24-hour delay of discovery of Soviet missiles in Cuba as described in my autobiography, or our delay in reporting planes lost in combat until the pilots can perhaps be rescued.)
4. For all other information, I have always believed that no one can reliably predict the consequences of publication. The Pentagon papers, contrary to Ellsberg’s wish, did not shorten the Vietnam war or stir significant additional protest. A given disclosure may embarrass government but improve a policy, or it may be a leak by the government itself and end up damaging policy. “Publish and be damned,” as Scotty Reston used to say; it sounds terrible but as a journalistic motto it has served our society well through history.
There have been many longer treatises on the ethics of journalism which have said less.
One of the lessons from the WikiLeaks project is that it has shown the possibilities of collaboration. It’s difficult to think of any comparable example of news organisations working together in the way the Guardian, New York Times, Der Speigel, Le Monde and El País have on the WikiLeaks project. I think all five editors would like to imagine ways in which we could harness our resources again.
The story is far from over. In the UK there was only muted criticism of the Guardian for publishing the leaks, though their restraint did not always extend to WikiLeaks itself. Most journalists could see the clear public value in the nature of the material that was published.
It appears to have been another story in the US, where there was a more bitter and partisan argument, clouded by differing ideas of patriotism. It was astonishing to sit in London reading of reasonably mainstream American figures calling for the assassination of Assange for what he had unleashed. It was surprising to see the widespread reluctance among American journalists to support the general ideal and work of WikiLeaks. For some it simply boiled down to a reluctance to admit that Assange was a journalist.
Whether this attitude would change were Assange ever to be prosecuted is an interesting matter for speculation. In early 2011 there were signs of increasing frustration on the part of US government authorities in scouring the world for evidence to use against him, including the subpoena of Twitter accounts. But there was also, among cooler legal heads, an appreciation that it would be virtually impossible to prosecute Assange for the act of publication of the war logs or state department cables without also putting five editors in the dock. That would be the media case of the century.
And, of course, we have yet to hear an unmediated account from the man alleged to be the true source of the material, Bradley Manning, a 23-year-old US army private. Until then no complete story of the leak that changed the world can really be written. But this is a compelling first chapter in a story which, one suspects, is destined to run and run.
• WikiLeaks: Inside Julian Assange’s war on secrecy is published on Monday