Vanity Fair’s Wikileaks feature by longtime media reporter Sarah Ellison went live online this morning. It’s the most in-depth and illuminating account of the relationship between Julian Assange and newspapers yet written. In addition to revealing that Assange threatened legal action against UK newspaper The Guardian when they gave the diplomatic cables to The New York Times, it describes how The Guardian, a paper with a tradition of investigative reporting and a slew of financial troubles, first tracked down Julian Assange after the “Collateral Murder” video of a U.S. helicopter attacking civilians in Baghdad was released in June. From there, Ellison documents the long and fraught negotiations between the traditional journalists and the righteous hacker, a constant push and pull between Assange’s desire for more outlets publishing more information and the newspapers’ desire to protect their scoop and their sources.
Ellison reveals how Assange managed to get five newspapers wrapped around his finger with the romantic, spy persona.
[Guardian reporter Nick Davies and Julian Assange] laid plans to set up a research bunker in The Guardian’s offices. They agreed that they wouldn’t talk about the project on cell phones. They agreed that, in two days, Assange would send Davies an e-mail with the address of a Web site that hadn’t previously existed, and that would exist for only an hour or two. Assange took a paper napkin with the hotel’s name and logo and circled various words. At the top he wrote, “no spaces.” By linking the words together, Davies had his password.
And how this same self-image caused divisions within Wikileaks, facing it’s own financial troubles:
In late August, Assange fell out with one of his key employees, Daniel Domscheit-Berg, who had been known outside the organization as the WikiLeaks spokesman “Daniel Schmitt.” Like others at WikiLeaks, Domscheit-Berg resisted Assange’s single-minded focus on military and diplomatic issues—and feared that Assange was becoming a lightning rod. At press time Domscheit-Berg was working on setting up a rival organization, OpenLeaks.org. He is also writing an unflattering book, scheduled to be published early this year, that will detail the strife within WikiLeaks. It accuses Assange of “high-handedness, dishonesty, and grave mistakes,” and quotes him as dismissing criticism from colleagues with the words “I’m busy, there are two wars I have to end.”
Which enabled The Guardian to get the diplomatic cables (and pass them to the Times) without adhering to Assange’s strict, and increasingly erratic, constraints:
In October, while The Guardian was preparing to publish the Iraq War Logs and working on package three, Heather Brooke, a British freelance journalist who had written a book on freedom of information, had a copy of the package-three database leaked to her by a former WikiLeaks volunteer. Leigh shrewdly invited Brooke to join the Guardian team. He did not want her taking the story to another paper. Furthermore, by securing the same database from a source other than Assange, The Guardian might then be free of its promise to wait for Assange’s green light to publish. Leigh got the documents from Brooke, and the paper distributed them to Der Spiegel and The New York Times. The three news organizations were poised to publish the material on November 8.
Assange betrayed The Guardian by giving the Afghan war logs to a TV station the day before they were planning on publishing:
On Saturday, July 24, the day before release, Davies received a call from someone he knew at the television network Channel 4. “You’ll never guess who I’m with,” said the voice on the other end of the phone. “I’m with Julian Assange. He’s just given me the entire Afghan database.” Davies was livid. Assange got on the phone and explained, falsely, according to Davies, that “it was always part of the agreement that I would introduce television at this stage.” Davies and Assange have not spoken since that afternoon.
And they betrayed him right back, by passing the diplomatic cables on to The New York Times without Assange’s permission:
That was when Assange stormed into Rusbridger’s office, threatening to sue. Rusbridger, Leigh, and the editors from Der Spiegel spent a marathon session with Assange, his lawyer, and Hrafnsson, eventually restoring an uneasy calm. Some in the Guardian camp had wanted to break off relations with Assange entirely. Rusbridger somehow kept all parties at the table—a process involving a great deal of coffee followed by a great deal of wine. Ultimately he agreed to a further delay, allowing Assange time to bring in other media partners, this time France’s Le Monde and Spain’s El País.
Ellison is smart to point out that although Julian Assange’s bid for power and attention looks like megalomania, it was also a desperate attempt to keep Wikileaks alive. Assange had to orchestrate the biggest possible impact of the document dumps in order to find the supporters who could give Wikileaks a home as his public image crumbled amid sex crime allegations.
Speaking of which, even if they didn’t conspire to make the allegations, Ellison reports the US is likely banking on them being being found true:
The U.S. Department of Justice is actively studying ways to prosecute Assange and WikiLeaks, and seeking to find a way that doesn’t entail prosecuting their partners in the media. “I don’t want to get into specifics here, but people would have a misimpression if the only statute you think that we are looking at is the Espionage Act,” U.S. attorney general Eric Holder has said. Investigators are looking for any evidence that Assange might have encouraged the leaker—widely assumed to be Bradley Manning—or given him guidance. That could amount to “conspiracy.” But any legal case would be a minefield. One congressional staffer told me that Justice Department lawyers were likely crossing their fingers that Assange would be extradited to Sweden and convicted, so they won’t have to attempt a tricky prosecution.
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