Lifting the Lid on WikiLeaks An Inside Look at Difficult Negotiations with Julian Assange


By and

Part 2: A Plan By the New York Times and Guardian to Go it Alone

The last Friday in November is normally a quiet day in Washington. It's the day after Thanksgiving, probably the most important holiday in the United States, and many Americans turn it into a long weekend. Not in 2010, though, at least for many government officials. The diplomatic community was in turmoil, and at the State Department an informal crisis team was hard at work. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was busy making phone calls to her key counterparts abroad. She had a lot of explaining to do.

The State Department had known for a few days that the release of the next tranche of WikiLeaks documents was imminent. The target this time wasn't the military but the US State Department. The leak of 251,287 secret diplomatic cables would be the biggest in the history of diplomacy, a disaster of global proportions. Never before had the details of a country's diplomacy been exposed to such an extent.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton looked pale and exhausted as she stared into the cameras with a serious, almost frozen expression on her face, trying hard to keep her composure. Clinton's staff members were not only preparing the politicians in various countries for the things they would soon be reading in the newspapers -- they were also urging the media outlets that planned to publish the cables to be as restrictive as possible.

The New York Times negotiated with the White House, and there were meetings and telephone calls with the Guardian, Le Monde, El País and SPIEGEL. The US government had mustered a remarkable armada in its effort to appeal to the journalists. In addition to Assistant Secretary of State for Public Affairs Philip Crowley and Clinton's Chief of Staff Cheryl Mills, it included representatives of the CIA, the Pentagon and the office of Director of National Intelligence James Clapper -- a reflection of the combined national security expertise of the most powerful nation in the world.

Official Fury Directed at Manning and WikiLeaks

The US government had taken a while to develop its political strategy. At first, less than a week before the upcoming publication of the leaked documents, Clinton's diplomats wanted three things from the participating media organizations. First, they wanted the names of US government sources to be protected if leaks posed a danger to life and limb. This was a policy that all five media organizations involved already pursued. Second, they asked the journalists to exercise restraint when it came to cables with security implications. Third, they asked them to be aware that cables relating to counterterrorism are extremely sensitive. Otherwise, the officials pointed out, they had no wish to impose content restrictions on the media organizations. The official fury of the US government was directed at the presumed source, Bradley Manning, and, most of all, WikiLeaks. The government was not interested in quarrelling with the media organizations involved.

This was also the approach taken by Philip Murphy, the American ambassador in Berlin, when we met with him at the United States Embassy. It was Thanksgiving Day, and Murphy drove from his residence in the Dahlem neighborhood to the embassy on Pariser Platz in downtown Berlin. At home, his wife Tammy and their four children were waiting for him to return for their traditional turkey dinner. Murphy, a former investment banker and national finance chair of the Democratic National Committee, wasn't wearing a suit that day. He donned a jacket, casual trousers and loafers. In addition to all of the foreign policy turmoil Julian Assange had created, he had also ruined Thanksgiving for the ambassador and his colleagues in Washington, an offence for which Murphy would never forgive him.

"I am mad about it, and I don't blame our brethren in the German government if they are mad, too, that someone has downloaded these documents," Murphy said. "I'm incredibly angry. I don't begrudge SPIEGEL and the press, who are just doing their jobs. I am criticizing those who stole this material."

The ambassador looked haggard. He coughed a lot and had to interrupt the conversation to get some water. Like so many American diplomats around the world, Murphy would have to explain to his foreign counterparts why the embassy's internal assessments of German politicians were so much harsher than its public statements. This is a challenge for diplomats, whose job requires them to preserve as perfect a façade as possible.

This time WikiLeaks did not want to leak the government documents all at once. The material was too extensive and interesting to be turned into one or two big stories. Instead, it was to be analyzed and published over a period of several weeks. In preliminary meetings at the Guardian building in London, the media organizations involved agreed on the main international leitmotifs for each day. In addition, the organizations could mix in subjects relating to their individual countries, as they saw fit.

But first a few obstacles had to be overcome. Assange had already given the Guardian a copy of the embassy cables in the summer, but he had also secured a contractual guarantee that the documents would not be published without his consent.

'The Times Is Out'

From the standpoint of WikiLeaks, however, it was by no means self-evident that the same media organizations that had been involved the last time would be evaluating the cables. At the end of October, a day after the publication of the Iraq war diaries, the New York Times printed a front-page portrait of Assange, written by its London correspondent, Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist John Burns. In the story, Burns was critical of Assange and quoted his enemies, in particular. "But if Mr. Assange is sustained by his sense of mission, faith is fading among his fellow conspirators," Burns wrote.

The portrayal triggered an international debate, and Burns received far more readers' comments than usual. His story was an expression of independent journalism, and yet the timing was remarkable, given that it was published only a day after the New York Times had made worldwide headlines with its exclusive access to the Iraq material. Assange was deeply offended and called the story a "sleazy hit piece." He speculated that by printing the Burns piece, the New York Times was trying to distance itself from him, perhaps to make up for its harsh critique of the government in Washington the day before. For Assange it was the last straw, especially after he had been so upset about an earlier portrait in the New York Times, this time about Bradley Manning.

"The Times is out," Assange told his cohorts. Everyone involved could sense the tension and, for a while, it seemed that further cooperation would be impossible. A crisis meeting was held at the Guardian offices in London on Nov. 1, 2010 to determine what would happen next. As it turned out, the meeting was urgently needed.

Assange Threatens to Sue

The Guardian had felt duped when Assange expanded the circle of media organizations involved in the publication of the Iraq material. It also appeared that a second copy of the cables was being circulated, and that it might not be possible to control its publication. An Icelandic WikiLeaks supporter who had been asked to load the material into a database had turned it over to British journalist Heather Brooke, who in turn had contacted the Guardian. The people at the Guardian were also keeping an eye on internal disputes at WikiLeaks. "The organization is dysfunctional," David Leigh, the Guardian's investigations executive editor, said on that Nov. 1 in London.

By that point, the New York Times no longer felt bound to any agreements with WikiLeaks and now considered the Guardian to be its source. Leigh had surreptitiously passed on the material to the Times, without Assange's knowledge. Leigh would later admit publicly that he had passed on the file because he was concerned that the British courts would prohibit publication on the basis of the country's restrictive press laws.

The Guardian and the New York Times had already begun concrete preparations in early October to publish the embassy cables without WikiLeaks' consent. Under their plan, WikiLeaks was not to be informed until one or two days before publication. There was even a tentative publication date: Friday, Nov. 5, 2010. Assange had threatened to immediately publish all of the cables online if the two publications went ahead with their plans. This is why SPIEGEL requested the meeting in London, at which it would be decided whether the entire cooperative venture would fall apart and partners would turn into competitors.

The meeting was scheduled to begin at 6 p.m., but Assange was late, as usual. When he arrived, about half an hour late, the group got its first surprise. In addition to WikiLeaks' Kristin Hrafnsson, Assange had brought along Mark Stephens and Jennifer Robinson, the website's attorneys. The Guardian journalists perceived this as an ambush.

Assange, wearing a white shirt and jacket and sporting a three-day beard, was even paler than usual and had a hacking cough. "Stress," he said, by way of apology. The Guardian was represented by Editor Alan Rusbridger, his deputy Ian Katz and David Leigh. The SPIEGEL contingent included us and Editor-in-Chief Georg Mascolo. The New York Times was invited but did not attend. The meeting was delayed by another 20 minutes, because Rusbridger insisted on asking the Guardian's in-house lawyer to attend. She had already left the office and had to be fetched from her health club. After some debate, we agreed that all of the attorneys would leave the room and would only be called in if they were needed.

'We Have to Survive this Leak'

The mood was tense. "Does the New York Times have a copy?" Assange wanted to know. He repeated the question, and it sliced through the room, which by now was very still. "And if so, where did it get a copy?" Assange mentioned the written agreement he had signed with the Guardian in the summer, which stipulated that WikiLeaks was merely providing the Guardian with the embassy cables for its review, and that publication or duplication was only permissible with the consent of WikiLeaks. Assange felt that a breach of contract had taken place, which is why he had brought along his attorneys.

The Guardian argued that WikiLeaks had violated the agreement itself because a second copy was in circulation -- the Icelandic copy that was now in the hands of Heather Brooke. "The situation seems slightly out of control," said Rusbridger. "WikiLeaks has been leaked, that's the truth."

Assange was using terms like "theft" and "criminal activities," against which he said he would take legal action, because the copy was, as he claimed, "illegal." At that moment, he was apparently unaware of the dual meaning of what he had just said. Mascolo replied: "There are nothing but illegal copies of this material."

The mood became somewhat more relaxed after about an hour. Rusbridger opened a bottle of Chablis and asked what it would take for WikiLeaks to approve publication. "Anything less than a month would be practically fatal for us," said Assange. "Early 2011 would be optimal, and it depends on how you go about publishing." This time, Assange said, he didn't want to be in the front row. There was to be no press conference and no initial publication of the material by WikiLeaks. The media were to begin with their reports, while WikiLeaks would merely publish the corresponding diplomatic cables. "We can't handle the entire printing. It won't work this time. The material is too dramatic for that," he said. "We have to survive this leak."


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