How the Wikileaks story came together

The Wikileaks controversy is still swirling.

Official Washington is fuming. The Guardian’s investigation’s editor explains the importance of the Afghan war logs and why his paper featured them so prominently. A partnership between old and new media gave this story its global significance (and amen to that).

Perhaps the most fascinating insight into this yarn is how exactly Wikileaks worked with the New York Times, Guardian and Der Spiegel to get it to the world. Columbia Journalism Review gives a definitive account:

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.)

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