Three months after he had given the Guardian most of his collection of nearly a quarter of a million leaked documents, Julian Assange, the founder of WikiLeaks.org, stormed into the office of Alan Rusbridger, the paper’s editor, with his lawyer. He was furious. In an ironic turn of events, one of Assange’s employees at WikiLeaks had leaked the last big chunk of the documents to the Guardian, absolving the paper of a previous agreement with Assange to roll out the now infamous diplomatic cables one chunk at a time. I own this information, Assange essentially told Rusbridger, before threatening to sue. Just seven days later, the leaks got out.
WikiLeaks, which was founded by Assange in 2006 to create “an uncensorable Wikipedia for untraceable mass document leaking and analysis,” stands for transparency if nothing else. In exclusive interview after exclusive interview, Assange has reminded reporters of that. “[M]ost of the times, transparency and openness tends to lead [toward a more just society],” Assange told Time magazine’s managing editor Richard Stengel over Skype, “because abusive plans or behavior get opposed, and so those organizations which tend to commit them are opposed before the plan’s implemented….” But WikiLeaks is an organization, and one that is starving for cash to continue operating. Visa, MasterCard, PayPal, and a number of other companies have cut off WikiLeaks because of the controversy surrounding the diplomatic cables. It was in Assange’s best interest — philosophy be damned — to roll out the documents at a pace that would keep press coverage at a maximum level.
In a new feature story from the February issue of Vanity Fair, “The Man Who Spilled the Secrets,” veteran reporter Sarah Ellison — formerly of the Wall Street Journal — dives deep into the clash between Assange and the editors of the Guardian and the New York Times. A lot has been written about WikiLeaks this year, most of it coming out since the release of the cables, but most of it has been opinion-driven; Ellison is the first to report on the legal action Assange threatened the Guardian with.
Ellison’s piece also reveals other little-discussed details. For example, Rusbridger and the Guardian approached Assange instead of the other way around. In discussing WikiLeaks, most reporters, it seems, have quickly glossed over how the documents were handed over — Assange sent them to the Guardian, Der Spiegel, El Pais, and others, they write — but that sequence is entirely wrong, months of extensive interviews conducted by Ellison have determined. After reading an article about Private First Class Bradley Manning that mentioned WikiLeaks as an afterthought, the Guardian‘s Nick Davies knew he had to track down Assange. And track him down he did.
In the end, though, approaching Assange was unnecessary. After months of hunting and negotiating, Assange was working with the Guardian. But after getting a taste of what it was like to work with one big media company, Assange was hungry for more. He started inviting other newspapers into the project against the Guardian‘s will; if the government tried to shut down Wikileaks, Assange’s reasoning went, he wanted to have outlets in several different countries. (“It is unlikely that U.K. courts could block publication,” Ellison writes, “but it’s even more unlikely that the U.S. government would go after the New York Times, given the strong First Amendment protections and the precedent set by the Pentagon Papers case.”)
The Guardian‘s team played along with Assange even though they didn’t have to. It was discovered that Heather Brooke, a British freelance journalist, had obtained a copy of the complete database from a former WikiLeaks volunteer. Brooke was invited to join the Guardian team so that the paper would have its own copy of the leaks. No longer was it bound by the stipulations set out in an agreement with Assange.
Rusbridger worked to calm Assange down that day he stormed into the Guardian‘s office threatening to sue. He brought all concerned parties to the table and reached a mutual understanding. “Given all the tensions that were built into it, it would have been surprising to get out of it without some friction, but we negotiated it all quite well,” Rusbridger told Ellison. But that’s raises new questions that Ellison doesn’t answer — or even explore — in this piece. If the Guardian has its own set of the diplomatic cables and is no longer bound by Assange’s rules, why is the paper still following them? We know there are a quarter of a million documents waiting to get out and WikiLeaks is slowly letting them drip out. If he wanted to, Rusbridger could give the sign.