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The Story Behind the Publication of WikiLeaks’s Afghanistan Logs

From Brussels, to a bunker, to blockbusters
July 28, 2010

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.

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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.”

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.”

“I’ve seen Julian Assange in the last couple of days kind of flouncing around talking about this collaboration like the four of us were working all this together,” says Schmitt. ”But we were not in any kind of partnership or collaboration with him. This was a source relationship. He’s making it sound like this was some sort of journalistic enterprise between WikiLeaks, The New York Times, The Guardian, and Der Spiegel, and that’s not what it was.”

“He was in and out,” says Schmitt. “He’d come and you’d ask him questions about certain types of data, and certain questions—some of them he answered and some of them he didn’t. Where did you get this material? He wouldn’t answer that. Did it come from Bradley Manning? He didn’t answer that. What else may be coming? He’d be very coy about these things.”

John Goetz says he, Eric Schmitt, and Nick Davies shared two dinners outside the building with Assange during the time they were all in London; one time where they joined by other staffers from The Guardian for Chinese food.

“It was just a continuation of the work,” remembers Goetz, adding that the dinners were full of “talk about stuff we had seen, stuff we thought was interesting, the date issue, all of the above… It’s not like we went to dinner and stopped talking about our common project.”

“There’s a really interesting collaboration between the three news organizations. But Julian, he’s a source,” says Davies. “All three media organization interviewed him in order to be able to write a profile of him, explain various things about the material, challenge him on various points. So he was there for that function.”

Goetz and Davies also say they had conversations with Assange encouraging him to be careful about the lethal harm that could come to people identified in the logs if he released certain documents unredacted.

While the frequent information sharing, which continued long after the group split geographically, gave the outlets some idea of what each was working on, no one was let in on specific stories. Nor were drafts or copy shared.

“Sunday night, when it all went online at 10 o’clock in the evening U.K. time, we were sitting there saying ‘What has Eric written? What’s Goetz written?’” says Davies.

The packages provided a detailed, contextualized analysis of the originally unwieldy and confusing database with which that the reporters had originally been provided. Davies says ensuring that the reporting power of these high-profile newsrooms was brought to bear on the logs was exactly, back in Belgium a month ago, what Assange had said he hoped for by providing the outlets an advance look, instead of following WikiLeaks’s usual past practice of simply uploading the once-secret documents to their own site.

“I remember one of the things he said was that there was a problem when you put raw material on a Web site—each individual news organization says ‘Well we’re not going to invest weeks trying to make sense of that, because for all we know, another media organization over the hill is already doing that. And two days before we’re ready to go, they’ll go, and all our effort will be wasted,’” says Davies. “He isn’t just putting it out there for the sake of it. He’s putting it out there because he wants the world to understand whatever the subject of the information is. And our operation has hugely increased that possibility.”

CORRECTION, 7/29: Schmitt had been reporting in Pakistan, not, as the piece incorrectly said, Iraq. The text has been corrected.

Clint Hendler is the managing editor of Mother Jones, and a former deputy editor of CJR.