Three weeks before WikiLeaks and several media outlets began publishing a massive trove of U.S. diplomatic cables, WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange expressed fear that the content of the cables was too explosive for his organization to withstand.
“We have to survive this leak,” he told newspaper editors during a tense meeting in London prior to publication of “Project 8,” WikiLeaks’ code word for the cables.
The account comes from an excerpt of a new book published by journalists at the German newsweekly Der Spiegel, one of three newspapers that were the primary media outlets that obtained exclusive access to the cables and other WikiLeaks leaks prior to publication.
During the meeting, which involved editors from Der Spiegel and the London-based Guardian newspaper, Assange insisted the cables be doled out over time, instead of being published at once, and asserted that he would take a public back seat this time. To avoid taking heat for the disclosures, for example, there would be no press conference like the ones he had convened after publishing two previous troves of documents from the Iraq and Afghan wars.
The primary reason for the meeting, however, was Assange’s anger at the Guardian. Assange accused the Guardian of “theft” and “criminal” activity for passing a copy of the cable database to The New York Times, the third media outlet in on the publishing agreement. Assange wanted to cut the Times out, after the U.S. paper had published a critical front-page article about him. But the Guardian was having none of his demands and passed the cables to the Times anyway.
Assange now insisted, without irony, that the copy the Guardian gave the Times was “illegal.”
The original database, of course, had been obtained by Assange from a source believed to be Army Pfc. Bradley Manning, who was charged last year with illegally downloading them from a classified U.S. network.
Holger Stark and Marcel Rosenbach, authors of the German book, write:
Assange was using terms like “theft” and “criminal activities,” against which he said he would take legal action, because the copy was, as he claimed, “illegal.” At that moment, he was apparently unaware of the dual meaning of what he had just said. [Der Spiegel’s Georg] Mascolo replied: “There are nothing but illegal copies of this material.”
These revelations represent the third behind-the-scenes account from media organizations that worked with WikiLeaks to simultaneously publish its most high-profile leaks over the last year.
The New York Times Magazine published a lengthy piece by Editor-in-Chief Bill Keller on Wednesday about that paper’s volatile relationship with Assange. A Vanity Fair article earlier this month depicted a similar rocky relationship between Assange and the Guardian. That piece was the first to describe the tense standoff between Assange and the Guardian, after Assange learned the paper had passed a copy of the cable database to the New York Times.
The Guardian said it needed the Times to be involved as insurance against political pressure it might receive in Britain to halt publication of the cables. The paper’s editors also insisted that Assange had already violated his exclusivity agreement with them, when he began negotiations with other media outlets to give them advance access to the leaks.
Assange stood firm. He wanted the Times to publish a retraction of its profile or publish a prominently placed opinion piece from him to counter the negative article. But the Times, contacted by phone during the meeting, refused. Editor-in-Chief Keller said only that Assange was free to write a letter to the editor about his complaints. Assange, however, also wanted assurances that the Times would never publish an unflattering piece about him again.
Unhappy with the way the discussion was going, he threatened to cut out the Guardian from the publication deal as well unless he got what he wanted.
But Der Spiegel Editor-in-Chief Georg Mascolo told Assange, “There will be no deal with us without the Guardian.”
The authors write that Assange simply shrugged his shoulders and said: “We don’t need to have Spiegel in on the deal.”
Eventually, the parties reached an amicably strained agreement and proceeded with the project.
Photo: Julian Assange (Lily Mihalik/Wired.com)
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