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The Guardian Weekly - 2021-05-07

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WikiLeaks 2010

The Guardian Is

It was a story that started with perhaps the most famous napkin in the history of journalism. It came from the Leopold hotel in Brussels where Guardian reporters Nick Davies and Ian Traynor had tracked down Julian Assange, then a relatively unknown Australian hacker and freedom of information activist. On it Assange had circled several words and scrawled the instruction: “No spaces.” The password written on the napkin would unlock one of the biggest and most explosive caches of secret information ever obtained by journalists. Over the following six months it would unleash a torrent of stories that would touch every corner of the globe. It would usher in a new kind of journalism, leave the soldier who leaked it in a military prison and Assange holed up in a London embassy. Several Guardian colleagues and I would find ourselves characters in a highly missable movie. The reality of the reporting effort behind the WikiLeaks disclosures of 2010 was rather less cinematic. In an airless room at the Guardian’s King’s Cross office, a team of reporters led by David Leigh, the investigations editor, trawled through hundreds of thousands of documents in an improvised database created by the paper’s tech wiz Harold Frayman. It was in fact three separate mountains of data: first, 90,000 documents detailing every incident recorded by the US military in Afghanistan between 2004 and 2010; then a similar trove of 400,000 papers constituting in effect the US military’s internal record of the Iraq conflict; and finally, the greatest prize: 251,287 secret embassy cables revealing the candid thoughts of US diplomats on governments from Libya to London. A cast of Guardian specialists rotated through gh h the “bunker”, periodically y joined by reporters from our international partners, s , the New York Times and Der Spiegel – later to be joined by Le Monde and El País. From time to time someone would let out a yelp and call everyone over to share a nugget extracted from the e mountain. The project was complicated by our volatile relationship with Assange, mercurial, mistrustful and often machiavellian. He insisted on communicating by encrypted chat. He would be available to do this only in the early hours of the morning when he would flit gnomically from one conversation to the next. Collaborating with Assange was made more difficult by his ambiguous status. Was he a fellow journalist, a source or an activist? Assange flitted between these identities. Our biggest disagreement blew up over the question of whether confidential sources identified in the documents deserved protection. All the traditional journalists took it as read we would redact the names of informants who could be put at risk. Assange saw it differently. “They’re informants,” he told Leigh. “So if they get killed they’ve got it coming.” It was a dispute that went to the heart of our different views of the role and responsibilities of journalism. One by one, Assange fell out with each of the Guardian journalists he worked with, including Davies and Leigh. Relations between him and the Guardian reached their lowest ebb when Davies obtained the Swedish police files detailing allegations of rape andd and sexuall sexual assaultl assault against him by two women. The Guardian felt bound to publish. Assange, who had always denied the allegations, saying the sex was consensual, saw it as an act of disloyalty to a partner. I was dispatched to Ellingham Hall, the Norfolk pile where he was hunkered down, to make peace. (In November 2019, the Swedish authorities discontinued their investigation into the sexual assault allegations against him. The deputy director of public prosecutions made an assessment that the evidence was not strong enough to form the basis for filing an indictment.) The WikiLeaks saga was full of surreal moments. At one point, before the publication of the embassy cables, the U US Department of State re requested a conference c call with us to urge us not to publish certain cables. When the Guardian’s senior editors joined the c call, it emerged that a re representative of every U US intelligence agency (t (there are, it turns out, a surprising number of th them) was on the call too. T They each listed the cables th they were most worried a about. In the editor’s office, we could barely conceal our delight at b being directed to

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