As Julian Assange continues his fight against extradition to Sweden, a collaborator tells for the first time the story of the group that gathered a year ago to prepare the biggest leak in the history of journalism.
By Natalia Viana
Thirteen months ago, Julian Assange and his WikiLeaks were still relatively unknown. They had never made the headlines in Brazil, where I live, and even less in the Amazon, where I was doing freelance reporting at the time. Secret US documents were the last thing on my mind when I was first contacted on November 14, 2010.
"Hello Natalia, I'm with a very influential organization, and I wanted to offer you a job," said a female voice who claimed to have worked with me some years ago. "We are working on a huge project that is going to have enormous repercussions around the world. All my phones are tapped, so it's not safe to tell you details. But I am sure that any journalist would like to be involved," she explained.
It sounded like something straight out of a James Bond movie, but I was hooked. I called Gavin MacFadyen, a common friend and a director of the Centre for Investigative Journalism in London, who told me I should trust the woman. So off I went, with no time to think or pack, which resulted in a very bad selection of clothes, some of which were to become famous. To London, with only an address where I should meet her. No names, no details, no questions.
As I arrived at the airport in London, I tried my best to sound blasé, since I had no reasonable explanation for being there: "I'm only on vacation, I'm going shopping," I told the immigration officer. It worked.
I met her at the Frontline Club, a journalist meeting point. She was a beautiful thirty-something lady, with full lips, boyish clothes, and anxious blue eyes. "I'm so sorry, dear, but did you see what happened today? They issued a warrant for his arrest." The plan would be delayed by some hours, then. We needed to be extra careful, she said.
Some months earlier, the Pentagon had sent out a clear warning: WikiLeaks should return all the secret documents and delete them from its site, or the United States would "seek alternatives to force them to do the right thing."
A few blocks away, upstairs in a house on an unsuspicious cobblestone alley, I met my colleagues for the first time.
Julian was there, sitting at a big table where laptops, papers, and glasses filled every empty space. He looked serious and spoke little as he passed me some unusual vodka -- from Iceland.
On the other side of the table, the good-looking, 50ish-year-old Kristin Hrafnsson smiled subtly and complained about his country's vodka, while next to me a young man drank with abandon. "I'm not going to drive anyway," said the skinny boy with a quiff and thick glasses.
They continued with a seemingly never-ending conversation about who would drive. The choice was between a half-drunk Icelander, a half-blind African, or an Englishwoman who had not driven in years. "As you can see, we're a very efficient organization," she said, when she gave up and decided to drive.
When they left, Julian called me over. He handed me a piece of paper with scribbled writing: "Don't say anything." It read, in his small handprint, "250,000 telegrams from American embassies from 1966 to 2010. 1/10 aren't worth a thing, 1/50 are important, and 1/250 are very important."
I've never been so silent in my life as I lit a last cigarette before getting in the car.
"Are you okay?" Kristinn asked.
"I am. I would like to be able to ask questions."
"When we're on the road," he said.
I was quite surprised when I was asked to take off my coat -- a navy blue piece trimmed with green balls -- so that Julian could come down and get in the car.
In a couple of minutes his assistant came running down, trying to stifle a belly laugh with her hand. "I swear I'm not going if he comes dressed like that." When he finally came down, we all broke into laughter. He was dressed in a satin bandana on his head, my belted coat, glasses, a strange hump bulging at the back. We did a quick photo session before he interrupted us: "Let's go, let's go!"
I was not able to talk to Julian before we were deep into the country. We'd reached a roadside stand and the others were buying food.
He told me I was one of a number of independent journalists who'd help release of the cables in different countries. Since neither the core team nor any of the first-time partners -- The Guardian, The New York Times, Le Monde, El Pais and Der Spiegel -- had extensive knowledge about local affairs, it was more than fair to have local independent journalists reviewing the material.
My task would be to read all the Brazilian files, write articles in Portuguese ("we have many supporters in Brazil") and find trusted partners in the Brazilian media. He opened his little laptop, where a text file glowed green and black. He typed "Brazil": 3,000 documents.
"You're going to have a lot of work," he said. "We're launching on the 28th."
Ten days ahead. That's when I realized working with WikiLeaks means trying to accomplish the impossible. In the days to come I'd learn that everybody in the organization was as idealistic, passionate, and eager to put up a good fight as myself. But then again, I was used to doing that on my own.
"During times of universal deceit, telling the truth becomes a revolutionary act," by George Orwell, is one of their favorite mottos.
An organization like that is either naive, or revolutionary. Or both.
As we drove off, Julian told us turn off our computers, mobiles, and take out all batteries. When it comes to digital security, Julian decides, end of story. The following day, he would personally "shield" all of our equipment.
Soon the road gave way to winding stretches surrounded by large plantations and mansions, the old homes of dukes and duchesses. That’s where Ellingham Hall is, and that was the first time the team arrived to stay -- for much longer than they'd ever imagined.
Because of the legal battle against his extradition to Sweden -- where he is to be interrogated but faces no charges -- Julian was to stay under house arrest for a full year in the manor, with the dynamic WikiLeaks team coming and going, but always besides him.
Ellingham Hall has 10 rooms and 4 floors linked by a spiral staircase. I shared my room with a Latin American girl who arrived days later. In the room, we confided our fears of being raided by the British Secret Service, or the CIA. "We'll say we are just the cleaning ladies!" she joked.
While the Internet functioned slowly and poorly, the place was a secure haven. It was in the middle of an enormous 650-acre field, isolated, and discreet. We would have journalists coming and going from many countries to write about the cables. Our trips to the city would have to be rare and made in small groups. And the passengers would always watch for tails.
We only talked about the Swedish case once or twice. We knew that if Interpol issued an international arrest warrant, things would get complicated, as Julian never considered being a fugitive.
"I regret not having started WikiLeaks as a company," he said wearily. "If we were a for-profit company, we could sell information quickly about the documents and everyone would respect us." This was a strikingly honest thing for him to say, I thought. It was a typical rationale from Julian, insightful, original and unexpected. And of course, as is typical at WikiLeaks, it was vigorously disputed among the staff from the early morning until dinner.
For me it was fascinating to see the arguments going to and fro. It got especially exciting when Julian and a young English fellow, James Ball with his posh accent, got into a quarrel. It was fun to watch the a never-ending battle between a traditional old Brit trapped in the body of a 25-year-old and a 40-year-old Australian hacker with no regard for the traditional and a passion for pushing boundaries.
Months later, Ball joined The Guardian to lead a campaign against WikiLeaks, complaining about the organization's "erratic" style, the fact that we didn't get much sleep, and Julian changing his mind. "It was a group of young activists without any professional training," he once wrote, referring to us.
I received two Excel tables with about 3,000 US embassy cables from Brazil. As I started reading them -- oh well -- James Ball was right: I could not sleep for five days straight.
This was an unprecedented report about our recent history. Through them, Brazilians would learn how foreign policy is conducted, with all the names, the dates and the details. I was amazed, for example, by the cooperation between Brazilian intelligence and Americans in anti-terror operations. And that the US transferred DEA agents expelled from Bolivia for spying to Brazil -- against the will of our Foreign Ministry.
It was also striking to see that the former Defense minister, Nelson Jobim, was a close contact to the US ambassador -- sometimes he would openly complain about the "anti-American" position of the Brazilian foreign ministry.
"My God!" I remember yelling at one point. "The Defense minister told the Americans that Bolivia’s president Evo Morales had a tumor."
But the room was silent. The truth is that, with so many revelations from all over the world, I was the only one who cared. Everybody had lots to do.
We worked in a nice cozy living room in which old portraits of the family's ancestors were hanging in front of a fireplace; on the three sofas, five, six people engrossed in their laptops while the maid brought watery coffee and wood each hour to keep the fire lit. We slept badly, poorly, and often traded day for night. It was never that light anyway -- at least by Brazilian standards. Around the house, everything was covered with snow.
Dinners were our relief, with good conversation and good port wine, a tradition that we followed every night. Collaborators came from everywhere -- French, Swedes, Americans, British -- and added a spice of multiculturalism to the oppressive atmosphere. We were quite solemn, yet light considering the circumstances, with a lot of cigarette smoking and watching funny clips on YouTube in between. The situation, of course, was tense. But I suspect some love stories managed to spring up during those days.
The fact is, we were not doing anything different in Ellingham Hall than the teams at The Guardian, Le Monde or El Pais were doing in their own offices. But we were the only ones who had something to fear. "These documents are worth much more than my life, or the life of anyone at this table," Julian said one night after dinner. A deathly silence followed.
The seriousness of the situation did not prevent Julian, a few days before the biggest leak in history, from insisting on going to London for Gavin's wedding.
In his 60s, Gavin was about to marry his girlfriend, and had insisted on choosing Julian as his best man. But by then, with the prospect of the leak and an imminent arrest warrant, the entire world was asking where the hell he was. An assistant supported him: "It's so romantic!" I argued that it would be the first place they'd look for him. It sounded plain stupid. But then again, I am only a Brazilian, I joked.
He decided not to go, at last. Julian was in good spirits; he kept pacing and would suddenly approach us: "What did you find? What did you find?", he asked, and was pleased to hear the answers.
Meanwhile, one argument went on for days: What would the project be called? Julian rejected the idea of something as bureaucratic as "embassy cables." And we all agreed that we should avoid something left-wingish like "dispatches from the empire." The discussion went on and on. But one morning Julian came in to the living room with an unusual glow on his face. "I've got it: Cablegate."
Most of us did not like it much.
But no one could think of anything better.
A couple of days before the scheduled release, the news was out that a new leak was in the works. The New York Times had gone to the US government, and soon Hillary Clinton was calling every allied government around the world to apologize in advance. The leak would "put lives at risk," a Secretary of State spokesman said. "It does put national interests at risk."
Soon the Internet was flooded with guesses about what we were doing in that very cold room. Julian no longer spoke to anyone; everything was about finishing the details.
The team developed an ingenious scheme that effectively forced every partner outlet to read the documents before publishing them. That’s how they ensured that all sensitive names would be removed for safety.
The English lady spent hours discussing details with the developers, a couple of guys in their 30's that would rotate shifts after a 24-hour marathon. She squealed with joy: "I love you, you're fabulous, you're a legend."
On Saturday the 27th, Gavin's wedding went on without any major hitches. Two journalists went to London to represent us. The best man, although absent, was the main attraction, and a toast was made in his honor. The bride, a joyful American lady, didn’t mind.
As for us, in Ellingham Hall, we could feel the tension coming from Julian’s laptop screen. There was a silent battle going on between the five newspapers that simply were not used to trusting one another or sharing the glory. Who would get "the scoop of the century"?
Ensuring the publication embargo -- Sunday at 9:00 pm -- now seemed quite impossible. Julian and some others spent the previous evening chatting furiously with one, two, three newspapers at once. No one should scoop anyone else because, of course, the WikiLeaks site was far from ready.
But, on Saturday afternoon, Der Spiegel struck. For a few minutes only, they published on their website a report about the leak: 251,287 documents from U.S. embassies around the world, 15,652 secret, 101,748 confidential. The Germans soon took it off the air, saying it had been a mistake. But the story was out.
For us in the cold Ellingham Hall room, it didn't really matter who would scoop whom -- that's a way of thinking that belongs to the traditional media.
For WikiLeaks, what mattered was that the story had impact. The documents should be read widely, reproduced, discussed, fed to newspapers, TVs, magazines, academics, activists, politicians, and citizens from all over the world.
I myself was touched when I saw some stories I had gathered during nights in front of the fireplace coming to life in Brazil, and being debated on newspapers, radio, TV. While famous political commentators were betting on what was yet to be published, I was the only one with the answers. A young journalist, with no boss, no vehicle, tied to no one.
A sign of the times we live in -- definite and with no return.
At 6 am on Sunday, three hours earlier than expected, El Pais released the news, immediately followed by the others. It felt like a real flood. On Twitter, the users were frenzied. Lines of text sprung up hysterically, hundreds of entries per second, making it impossible to read one single Tweet.
At last: The biggest leak in the history of journalism.
It was almost morning when finally we popped a giant, 5-liter champagne bottle. We cheered loudly, "To WikiLeaks!"
After the release I spent another couple of days in Ellingham Hall. I took the documents with me to Brazil, of course, in a Brazilian, improvised manner: tucked the USB inside a worn sock, together with my bag of dirty clothes. And I hung to it tightly as I boarded the train. "We're going to miss you," they told me.
Five days later, Julian went to the police, and a week afterward he was under house arrest in that same manor, for a full, long year. A year on, he had still not been charged, but continued to live under severe conditions.
Even so, with the organization under a financial embargo by Visa, Mastercard, PayPal and Bank of America, the team managed to establish agreements and deliver US embassy cables to over 70 media outlets in a number of countries all over the world.
They counted on dozens of local journalists like myself to help out, and managed to reach populations of often forgotten countries like Haiti and Costa Rica. It was an unprecedented accomplishment, a bolder project than any other independent journalistic organization has ever dreamed of.
But of course this was only one of the unprecedented things WikiLeaks has done -- and will keep doing in years to come.
Natalia Viana is a Brazilian journalist and director of the investigative nonprofit Publica, whose journalism you can support here. Viana translated this article from the original Portuguese.
Photos by Eliza Capai.
Correction: A previous version of this post misstated the age of Gavin MacFadyen.
Timeline of events: