The beginning of this week saw more international press reportage than compilers of US Military field reports have probably ever imagined. The first 14 pages of the Guardian, 17 pages of Der Spiegel, and numerous lead stories in the New York Times were devoted to WikiLeaks' publication of the Afghanistan war logs.
"This is not nothing," said Assange. "The world is watching."
If not the whole world perhaps, a vast number of people. So many that WikiLeaks was inaccessible for the best part of a day after the release due to heavy traffic.
Speaking to a full house last night, Assange said that, while it was too early to properly assess the impact of the leaked documents, the impact on the world's press was all too clear.
"We're just starting to see that the New Zealand press is extracting material from this, the Canadian press says it has just discovered that four Canadian soldiers killed in operation Medusa in August 2006, that were previously blamed on the Taliban, were in fact killed as a result of a US bomb dropping on the house that they were in. The press in the Netherlands has started to find it own revelations, the press in Pakistan is really digging through this material and the challenge to the ISI (Pakistan Inter-Services Intelligence)."
The choice to partner with three newspapers in order to prepare and publish this material has obvious advantages for WikiLeaks. Manpower, for one. The newspapers reportedly each assembled teams of investigative reporters, foreign correspondents and data experts in person to try to extract stories from the many documents. Three large national newspapers also amount to a significantly more effective method of distribution than WikiLeaks can manage on its own, and lend the relatively new and unknown organisation much-needed credibility.
"We have done this in the past," said Assange. "We've done this for a long time with individual journalists. What we haven't done before is build a coalition of really impressive press organisations and kept them all together and working happily together, which was a difficult thing to do."
A conscious decision was made by WikiLeaks to work simultaneously with more than one newspaper, Assange said, so as to prevent a single organisation being able to "express its innate biases, to look at the material in particular ways, to just pick the cherries that it was interested in".
Particular ways to look at the material did emerge on publication day, with the Guardian leading with the cover-up of large numbers of civilian deaths at the hands of coalition forces and the New York Times leading with the story that Pakistan's security services had been offering covert support to the Taliban while receiving US aid.
Another significant reason for choosing newspapers in the US, UK and Germany was to create a multi-jurisdictional publication that would make gagging orders more difficult. This international approach to publishing aptly reflects the somewhat stateless nature of WikiLeaks itself, which has no fixed offices or equipment. Media commentator Jay Rosen points out on his blog that next to "location" on WikiLeaks' Twitter profile it says "everywhere". According to Rosen, the whistleblowing site is the "world's first stateless news organisation", one interested not in the traditions of fair play in the conduct of news but in "the release of information without regard for national interest".
It is an assessment Assange corroborated last night: "We are not a national organisation. We do not have national security concerns."
There have been many questions about the national security risks and the dangers posed by this unprecedented leak for both troops and informers. Assange stressed last night that WikiLeaks was "not an organisation about protecting troops" but rather "an organisation about protecting human beings".
"Western troops have extraordinary physical protection in Afghanistan. As individuals, they are probably the most immune groups in the entire country. It is the civilians and aid workers who don't have that sophisticated protection. Those are the people that we are primarily concerned about."
The Guardian too, was keen to stress in its reporting that "the three [newspapers] have published excerpts from the documents which do not pose a risk to informants or military operations".
Despite these claims, the Times' front page reports this morning that "In just two hours of searching the WikiLeaks archive, the Times found the names of dozens of Afghans credited with providing detailed intelligence to US forces. Their villages are given for identification and also, in many cases, their fathers' names. US officers recorded detailed logs of the information fed to them by named local informants, particularly tribal elders.
"Among the documents is a report from 2008 that includes a detailed interview with a Taliban fighter considering defection. He is named, with both his father’s name and village included."
If the Times' report turns out to be true, it will be a damning indictment of those who have released the material and of Assange especially, who has repeatedly emphasised that a key motivation in publishing the war logs was to help protect innocent civilians and informers.
If a little uncomfortable fielding questions about the possible risks to human lives created by WikiLeaks approach to releasing classified documents, Assange was nonetheless confident that this new publication poses no threat to troops or civilians, and that in four years no harm has come to anyone as a result of material made available through the site.
Despite his confidence, he was wary about the future of this success: "Clearly, that can't hold forever."
He also acknowledged that some risks needed to be taken.
"I don't take the view at all, and in fact I condemn the view, that people should do so little as to ensure that they have no chance of causing harm. We can all make no mistakes by doing nothing at all. However, all of you who have done something and been surrounded by people who do nothing understand that that is not something that any sensible person can approve of.
"You have to try to be willing to take the blame."
He left last night's audience with what is probably as close as he has come since Sunday's publication to a frank description of his personal motivations in making this sort of information public.
"Instead of saying to yourself, guarantee that you will never ever do any harm, say to yourself, try to do some good and then work out how to minimise any harm that might come about, because the other paths lead to tremendous inaction. And in the end the failure to do good is, from a different perspective, causing harm."
More on WikiLeaks from Journalism.co.uk
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