The Guardian, Wikileaks and the war logs

The Guardian, July 25 2010

The Americans have known for weeks that they have suffered a haemorrhage of secret information on a scale which makes even the leaking of the Pentagon Papers during the Vietnam war look small by comparison.

The Afghan war logs, from which the Guardian reports today, consist of 92,000 internal records of actions by the US military in Afghanistan between January 2004 and December 2009 – threat reports from intelligence agencies, plans and accounts of coalition operations, descriptions of enemy attacks and roadside bombs, records of meetings with local politicians, all of them classified secret. The Guardian’s source for these is Wikileaks, the website which specialises in publishing untraceable material from whistleblowers, which is simultaneously publishing raw material from the logs. But that is not all.

It is believed that the Americans have also lost an even bigger database of war logs from Iraq containing up to half a million internal reports of incidents in the Iraqi insurgency since 2003 as well a cache of potentially embarrassing paperwork from the US prison in Guantanamo and finally, and most politically sensitive, an archive of tens of thousands of cable messages sent by US embassies around the world reflecting arms deals, trade talks, secret meetings and uncensored opinion of other governments.

Wikileaks’ founder, Julian Assange, says that in the last two months they have received yet another huge batch of ‘high-quality material’ from military sources and that officers from the Pentagon’s criminal investigations department have asked him to meet them on neutral territory to help them plug the sequence of leaks. He has not agreed to do so.

Behind today’s revelations lie two distinct stories: first, of the Pentagon’s attempts to trace the leaks with painful results for one young soldier; and second, of the Guardian’s operation to get there first – and then to create a unique collaboration with the New York Times and Der Spiegel magazine in order to sift the material for public interest and to distribute globally the untold stories of the world’s most powerful nation at war.

The Pentagon was slow to engage. The evidence which they have now collected suggests that it was back in November last year that somebody working in a high-security facility inside a US military base in Iraq started to copy secret material. On February 18th, Wikileaks posted a single document – a classified cable from the US embassy in Reykjavik to Washington, recording the complaints of Icelandic politicians that they were being bullied by the British and Dutch over the collapse of the Icesave bank; and the tart remark of an Icelandic diplomat who described his own president as ‘unpredictable’. Some Wikileaks workers in Iceland saw obvious signs of their being followed after this disclosure.

But the Americans evidently were nowhere nearer to discovering the source when, on April 5, Julian Assange held a press conference in Washington DC to reveal US military video of a group of civilians in Baghdad, including two Reuters staff, being shot down in the street in 2007 by Apache helicopters: their crew could be heard crowing about their ‘good shooting’ before destroying a van which had come to rescue a wounded man and which turned out to be carrying two children on its front seat.

It was not until late May that the Pentagon finally closed in on a suspect, and that was only after a very strange sequence of events. On Friday May 21st, a Californian computer hacker called Adrian Lamo was contacted by somebody with the on-line name Bradass87 who started to swap instant messages with him. He was immediately extraordinarily open: “hi… how are you?… im an army intelligence analyst, deployed to eastern bagdad… if you had unprecedented access to classified networks, 14 hours a day, 7 days a week for 8+ months, what would you do?”

For five days, Bradass87 opened his heart to Lamo. He described how his job gave him access to two secret networks: the Secret Internet Protocol Router Network, SIPRNET, which carries US diplomatic and military intelligence classified ‘secret’; and the Joint Worldwide Intelligence Communications System, which uses a different security system to carry similar material classified up to ‘top secret’. He said this had allowed him to see “incredible things, awful things… things that belong in the public domain and not on some server stored in a dark room in Washington DC… almost criminal political backdealings… the non-PR version of world events and crises.”

Bradass87 suggested that “someone I know intimately” had been downloading and compressing and encrypting all this data and uploading it to someone he identified as Julian Assange. At times, he suggested he himself had leaked the material: “i want people to see the truth.” He dwelled on the abundance of the disclosure: “its open diplomacy… its Climategate with a global scope and breathtaking depth… its beautiful and horrifying…  It’s public data, it belongs in the public domain.”

At one point, Bradass87 caught himself and said “i can’t believe what im confessing to you”. It was too late. Unknown to him, two days into their exchange, on May 23, Lamo had contacted the US military. On May 25, he met officers from the Pentagon’s Criminal Investigations Department in a Starbucks cafe and gave them a print-out of Bradass87’s on-line chat. On Wednesday May 26, at US Forward Operating Base Hammer, 40 kilometers outside Baghdad, a 22-year-old intelligence analyst named Bradley Manning was arrested, shipped across the border to Kuwait and locked up in a military prison.

News of the arrest leaked out slowly, primarily through Wired News, whose senior editor Kevin Poulsen is a friend of Lamo’s and who published edited extracts from Bradass87’s chatlogs. Pressure started to build on Julian Assange: the Pentagon said formally that they would like to find him; Daniel Ellsberg, who leaked the Pentagon Papers, said he thought Assange could be in some physical danger; Ellsberg and two other former whistleblowers released a statement warning that US agencies would “do all possible to make an example” of the Wikileaks founder. Assange cancelled a planned trip to Las Vegas and went to ground. And just then, I set out to find him.

I started contacting people who were close to Assange in the hope that some of them would have a secure communication link to him. After four days, one of them of called to say that Assange was going to try to fly into Brussels to speak at the European Parliament. With help from the Guardian’s Brussels correspondent, Ian Traynor, I met him in a cafe near the parliament building.

Assange volunteered that Wikileaks were in possession of the US military’s own internal diary of its last six years in Afghanistan. They were putting the finishing touches to an accessible version of the data which they were preparing to post immediately on the Internet in order to preempt any attempt to censor it. After six hours of negotiation, we agreed that if we could work quickly and discreetly, we could do something much better than that.

The Guardian would set up a research bunker in the newspaper’s London office and bring in the New York Times and Der Spiegel. Staff from the three organisations would work together on the Afghan logs: this would maximise our chances of finding meaningful stories in the huge collection of data. And we would publish simultaneously in three different jurisdictions which would maximise our chances of avoiding any attempt at supression. Assange would have no influence at all on the stories we wrote, but he would have a voice in timing. He would place the data in encrypted form on a secret website. I would access it with a user name and password constructed from the commercial logo on the cafe’s napkin.

Today’s stories are based on that material. Wikileaks have simultaneously published the raw data which supports those stories, although they have taken steps to weed out material which could jeopardise human sources. In the five weeks since we negotiated our agreement, the Americans – whether through ignorance, indifference or tactical choice – have made no attempt to intervene in any way, although Wikileaks workers in several countries have reported obvious signs of physical surveillance.

There is also evidence of low-level attempted smearing of Wikileaks. Online stories accuse Assange of spending Wikileaks money on expensive hotels (at a follow-up meeting in Stockholm, he slept on an office floor); of selling data to mainstream media (the subject was never mentioned); or charging for media interviews (also never mentioned). There is no evidence as to whether these stories flow from a spiteful loner or some official information war. Earlier this year, Wikileaks published a US military document which disclosed a plan to “destroy the center of gravity” of Wikileaks by attacking its trustworthiness.

Meanwhile, somewhere in Kuwait, Bradley Manning has been charged with improperly downloading and releasing information, including the Icelandic cable and the video of Apache helicopters shooting civilians in Baghdad. He faces trial by court martial with the promise of a heavy jail sentence. Daniel Ellsberg has described Manning as ‘a new hero of mine’. In his online chat, Bradass87 looked into the future:”god knows what happens now…. hopefully, worldwide discussion, debates and reforms.”


SIDEBAR STORY, How we worked with the war logs:

The Afghanistan war logs series of reports on the war in Afghanistan published by the Guardian is based on the US military’s internal logs of the conflict between January 2004 and December 2009. The material, largely classified by the US as secret, was obtained by the whistleblower website Wikileaks, which has published the full archive. The Guardian, along with the New York Times and the German weekly Der Spiegel, was given access to the logs before publication to verify their authenticity and assess their significance.

But taken together, the logs provide a revealing and important picture of how the war is being conducted: the continuing escalation of the conflict; the weakness of much coalition intelligence; and the gap between the polished account of the war offered for public consumption and the messy reality experienced by commanders on the ground. This is one side’s raw, immediate first-hand account of the conflict as it happened.

Although the material has a relatively low level of secrecy classification, the Guardian has taken care not to publish information that could identify intelligence sources, expose unknown intelligence-gathering techniques or place coalition forces in danger. For that reason we have not made available the full database. Instead we have published a selection of the logs relating to significant events in the paper and a number more on the web. The website has a glossary tool which makes them easier to read.

The Guardian, the New York Times and Der Spiegel agreed to publish their reports simultaneously, at the same time as Wikileaks released the full database online. The Guardian has no direct knowledge of the original source of the material.