You wouldn’t be reading the coverage of the so-called Afghanistan logs—in The New York Times, Der Spiegel, and The Guardian—if Nick Davies, a senior contributor to the British paper, hadn’t tracked down WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange in Brussels one month ago.
Davies’s interest had been piqued in mid-June when Bradley Manning, a junior army intelligence analyst and the alleged source of several high-profile WikiLeaks disclosures, was quoted in chat transcripts claiming to have leaked a voluminous amount of yet-to-be disclosed diplomatic cables.
Whatever Assange had, and whomever its source, Davies knew that WikiLeaks would publish again—and hoped to convince him to let The Guardian look at any future release before WikiLeaks splashed it on its own site.
After e-mails to Assange’s listed accounts netted nothing, Davies contacted a half dozen people close to him, hoping to reach and woo Assange. One of them came back with a tip that a skittish Assange planned to honor a commitment to speak before the European parliament on Tuesday, June 21, despite the cries of “manhunt” surrounding him. Davies asked The Guardian’s Brussels reporter to corner Assange and tell him that he was on his way.
“While I was on the train going under the Channel, I had tried to work out what I would say to him,” remembers Davies. “It wasn’t going to work if I said ‘I’m a greedy reporter, I’d like to take all your information and put it in my newspaper.’”
Instead, Davies planned to tell Assange that The Guardian would allocate a team to identify stories in WikiLeaks’s unreleased documents that would benefit from careful research, some of which his paper would report out and some that could be parceled to other outlets. On June 22, during a six hour coffee-soaked meeting in a Brussels café, Davies says Assange suggested another idea—that The Guardian and The New York Times be given an advance look at some information the site had on the Afghanistan war, with each paper publishing their own takes on the documents. Within the next twenty-four hours, Davies says Assange told him Der Spiegel should be included as well.
Davies thought it unwise from a security standpoint to share Assange’s offer via the phone. Early Wednesday morning, Davies says he trained back to England to notify Alan Rusbridger, The Guardian’s editor in chief, who, in turn, called Bill Keller and, later, Mathias Müller Von Blumencron, top editors at The New York Times and Der Spiegel.
Rusbridger says he informed Keller of the terms of the deal: Though there was no fixed date of publication, WikiLeaks would agree to keep the documents under wraps for a term of “a few weeks.” All the organizations would publish simultaneously with WikiLeaks, once it determined the final publication date. The date had to work for the weekly Der Spiegel and the daily print outlets; it was eventually set for 10pm London time, Sunday, July 25. (Rusbridger says that as the organizations grappled with “the amount of work required to make sense of the material” Assange was asked, and agreed, to push back an earlier deadline. Davies pegs this delay as about a week.)
Meanwhile, in Washington, Times reporter Eric Schmitt had just returned from a reporting trip to Pakistan.* Dean Baquet, his bureau chief, advised him of a quick turnaround to undertake a “special project” in London. Schmitt says he was briefed by Keller, and touched down in London late Saturday, June 26. After a Sunday lunch with David Leigh, The Guardian’s investigations editor, Schmitt was shown to a room that the journalists analyzing the documents would come to call “the bunker.”
The room—tucked away on a floor used by The Guardian’s advertising staff, deliberately out of view of curious newsroom eyes—featured two rows of a half-dozen or so desks, facing each other. A floor to ceiling window looked across The Guardian’s office building.
Davies was having further discussions with Assange in Stockholm, and, until Monday when he joined the staff in the bunker, was somewhat out of touch with the effort he had kicked off in London.
“At this stage, we were still working in this state of anxiety, and I was not having phone calls with the U.K. If the NSA and our GCHQ were doing their jobs, they should have been trying to figure out what WikiLeaks would leak next,” says Davies.
When John Goetz, a Der Spiegel reporter, was first told of the invitation to come to London, the atmospherics were similar.
“My boss said there was an exciting project with a lot of secrecy. We weren’t supposed to talk on the phone,” remembers Goetz. “There was a lot of stuff that wasn’t clear. At that point, there was a real concern about security. You couldn’t write e-mails, and people were talking about encrypted phones.”