Dealing With Assange and the Secrets He Spilled
Posted in: Miscellaneous at 28/01/2011 18:47
This past June, Alan Rusbridger, the editor of The Guardian, phoned me and asked, mysteriously, whether I had any idea how to arrange a secure communication. Not really, I confessed. The Times doesn't have encrypted phone lines, or a Cone of Silence. Well then, he said, he would try to speak circumspectly. In a roundabout way, he laid out an unusual proposition: an organization called WikiLeaks, a secretive cadre of antisecrecy vigilantes, had come into possession of a substantial amount of classified United States government communications. WikiLeaks's leader, Julian Assange, an eccentric former computer hacker of Australian birth and no fixed residence, offered The Guardian half a million military dispatches from the battlefields of Afghanistan and Iraq. There might be more after that, including an immense bundle of confidential diplomatic cables. The Guardian suggested -- to increase the impact as well as to share the labor of handling such a trove -- that The New York Times be invited to share this exclusive bounty. The source agreed. Was I interested?
I was interested.
The adventure that ensued over the next six months combined the cloak-and-dagger intrigue of handling a vast secret archive with the more mundane feat of sorting, searching and understanding a mountain of data. As if that were not complicated enough, the project also entailed a source who was elusive, manipulative and volatile (and ultimately openly hostile to The Times and The Guardian); an international cast of journalists; company lawyers committed to keeping us within the bounds of the law; and an array of government officials who sometimes seemed as if they couldn't decide whether they wanted to engage us or arrest us. By the end of the year, the story of this wholesale security breach had outgrown the story of the actual contents of the secret documents and generated much breathless speculation that something -- journalism, diplomacy, life as we know it -- had profoundly changed forever.