“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.”
Goetz arrived at the bunker on Wednesday, June 30. That afternoon, Assange came too.
Assange, in the wake of Manning’s detention, feared that he or others involved with WikiLeaks might be arrested or face other hostile action. If that had happened, some of the reporters had the impression that Assange was ready to publish the documents on the WikiLeaks site immediately, whether the print outlets were ready or not.
“In the beginning, it felt like we had to be very fast about this,” says Davies.
While in the bunker, the reporters searched a raw dataset on Apple computers provided by The Guardian. They began to sort through the documents, trying to find the most noteworthy stories hidden among them.
“At this point it was a huge Excel spreadsheet,” says Schmitt. “For some weird reason, the data started in January of ‘04 and it ended in like April of ’09. And we couldn’t figure out why does it end there? Assange later comes and says it doesn’t end there—you just gotta open up a new screen or whatever… It was clear that we were going to need some technical assistance here.”
The Guardian’s computer staff attempted to make the database easier to manage, but Schmitt soon decided that he had to get a copy of the documents back to New York. WikiLeaks and the Times’s technical staff cooperated on a method to securely transfer the information back to a New York Times computer assisted reporting team.
With copies of the data outside the bunker, there wasn’t much reason for Schmitt and Goetz to stay in London. They left on Friday. (Schmitt never returned, but Goetz made two further trips to London with a colleague, in part to interview Assange, who had stayed on in England, at one point sleeping on Davies’s Sussex sofa.)
But from Wednesday until their departures, the journalists had collaborated on feeling out what was in the logs.
“Everyone was autisticly connected to their screen,” says Goetz. “The whole time, we’re going through, talking out loud, saying ‘I found this, I found that.’”
Before leaving, reporters from the three outlets sat down and divvied up some tasks. Der Spiegel offered to check the logs against incident reports submitted by the German army to their parliament—partly as story research, partly to check their authenticity—and to share their findings. Davies, Goetz, Leigh, and Schmitt brainstormed about fifteen topic areas for which The New York Times’s computer assisted reporting team would try to find relevant logs to be shared with the group. Der Spiegel and The Guardian did their own searching, and also shared fruitful results, search terms, and methods.
“You get to the point where all three organizations have the same material under that heading, and each of us goes off separately to write our copy,” says The Guardian’s Davies. “I thought that collaboration was really rather heartwarming, and unusual.”
Although Assange has since spoken in a way that could suggest WikiLeaks was a journalistic collaborator in the effort, the traditional journalists don’t agree with that description.
At a press conference on Monday, Assange said that, along with The Guardian, “we had Der Spiegel and New York Times and us in a collaborative basement, if you like, working on this material.” The WikiLeaks website speaks of the three outlets as its “media partners.”