Error in deserializing body of reply message for operation 'Translate'. The maximum string content length quota (8192) has been exceeded while reading XML data. This quota may be increased by changing the MaxStringContentLength property on the XmlDictionaryReaderQuotas object used when creating the XML reader. Line 1, position 8700.
Artwork by Jenny Morgan (left) and Daniel Gordon (right)
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?An archive of classified military documents offers views of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. A cache of diplomatic cables provides a chronicle of the United States’ relations with the world.
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.
Soon after Rusbridger’s call, we sent Eric Schmitt, from our Washington bureau, to London. Schmitt has covered military affairs expertly for years, has read his share of classified military dispatches and has excellent judgment and an unflappable demeanor. His main assignment was to get a sense of the material. Was it genuine? Was it of public interest? He would also report back on the proposed mechanics of our collaboration with The Guardian and the German magazine Der Spiegel, which Assange invited as a third guest to his secret smorgasbord. Schmitt would also meet the WikiLeaks leader, who was known to a few Guardian journalists but not to us.
Schmitt’s first call back to The Times was encouraging. There was no question in his mind that the Afghanistan dispatches were genuine. They were fascinating — a diary of a troubled war from the ground up. And there were intimations of more to come, especially classified cables from the entire constellation of American diplomatic outposts. WikiLeaks was holding those back for now, presumably to see how this venture with the establishment media worked out. Over the next few days, Schmitt huddled in a discreet office at The Guardian, sampling the trove of war dispatches and discussing the complexities of this project: how to organize and study such a voluminous cache of information; how to securely transport, store and share it; how journalists from three very different publications would work together without compromising their independence; and how we would all assure an appropriate distance from Julian Assange. We regarded Assange throughout as a source, not as a partner or collaborator, but he was a man who clearly had his own agenda.
By the time of the meetings in London, WikiLeaks had already acquired a measure of international fame or, depending on your point of view, notoriety. Shortly before I got the call from The Guardian, The New Yorker published a rich and colorful profile of Assange, by Raffi Khatchadourian, who had embedded with the group. WikiLeaks’s biggest coup to that point was the release, last April, of video footage taken from one of two U.S. helicopters involved in firing down on a crowd and a building in Baghdad in 2007, killing at least 18 people. While some of the people in the video were armed, others gave no indication of menace; two were in fact journalists for the news agency Reuters. The video, with its soundtrack of callous banter, was horrifying to watch and was an embarrassment to the U.S. military. But in its zeal to make the video a work of antiwar propaganda, WikiLeaks also released a version that didn’t call attention to an Iraqi who was toting a rocket-propelled grenade and packaged the manipulated version under the tendentious rubric “Collateral Murder.” (See the edited and non-edited videos here.)
Throughout our dealings, Assange was coy about where he obtained his secret cache. But the suspected source of the video, as well as the military dispatches and the diplomatic cables to come, was a disillusioned U.S. Army private first class named Bradley Manning, who had been arrested and was being kept in solitary confinement.
On the fourth day of the London meeting, Assange slouched into The Guardian office, a day late. Schmitt took his first measure of the man who would be a large presence in our lives. “He’s tall — probably 6-foot-2 or 6-3 — and lanky, with pale skin, gray eyes and a shock of white hair that seizes your attention,” Schmitt wrote to me later. “He was alert but disheveled, like a bag lady walking in off the street, wearing a dingy, light-colored sport coat and cargo pants, dirty white shirt, beat-up sneakers and filthy white socks that collapsed around his ankles. He smelled as if he hadn’t bathed in days.”
Assange shrugged a huge backpack off his shoulders and pulled out a stockpile of laptops, cords, cellphones, thumb drives and memory sticks that held the WikiLeaks secrets.
The reporters had begun preliminary work on the Afghanistan field reports, using a large Excel spreadsheet to organize the material, then plugging in search terms and combing the documents for newsworthy content. They had run into a puzzling incongruity: Assange said the data included dispatches from the beginning of 2004 through the end of 2009, but the material on the spreadsheet ended abruptly in April 2009. A considerable amount of material was missing. Assange, slipping naturally into the role of office geek, explained that they had hit the limits of Excel. Open a second spreadsheet, he instructed. They did, and the rest of the data materialized — a total of 92,000 reports from the battlefields of Afghanistan.
Bill Keller is the executive editor of The New York Times. This essay is adapted from his introduction to “Open Secrets: WikiLeaks, War and American Diplomacy: Complete and Expanded Coverage from The New York Times,” an ebook available for purchase at nytimes.com/opensecrets.