Tuesday marks exactly one year since WikiLeaks, which had been around for three years but earned only sporadic notice in America, stirred wide controversy around the world with the release of its Collateral Murder video, which showed the killing of Iraqi civilians, including two Reuters staffers, from U.S. helicopters. This would be the first of four important leaks from WikiLeaks in the following months—the Iraq and Afghanistan "war logs" and Cablegate, all allegedly passed along by Pvt. Bradley Manning, who still sits in his Quantico cell in near-isolation.
So let’s return to how the Collateral Murder — and The Year of WikiLeaks — came to be. An excerpt from my new book, Bradley Manning: Truth and Consequences.
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The first hint of what was to come came early in the year, when WikiLeaks at its Twitter feed made a public request for help in decrypting a video it described as “US bomb strikes on civilians.” For some reason, it suggested March 21 as a possible release date.
The organization, however, was scrambling for funds. Julian Assange, 38, had pleaded for donations so he could prepare what he described as hundreds of thousands of pages of documents relating to “corrupt banks, the US detainee system, the Iraq war, China, the UN,” and other topics.” A German foundation reportedly collected about $1 million for the WikiLeaks account, easing the way for a very busy 2010.
Intrigued by WikiLeaks’ activities, New Yorker writer Raffi Khatchadourian had e-mailed Assange, and then chatted with him on the the phone, establishing a certain level of trust. Assange mentioned the video, in somewhat vague terms. The writer knew it would make a splash if released. He’d wanted to write about WikiLeaks anyway and so, with an okay from his editor, he flew off to frigid Reykjavik, Iceland, in late March. Khatchadourian, author of The Kill Company (on Operation Iron Triangle in Iraq) and a profile of Adam Gadahn (an American who joined Al Qaeda), must have seemed to Assange like a good man for this job.
At a newly rented house soon dubbed the “bunker,” Khatchadourian found a team of half a dozen volunteers had joined the tall, silver-haired Assange, and were readying the release of the thirty-eight-minute cockpit video from Iraq, which they labeled Project B. Assange had told the owner of the house they were journalists covering the volcanic eruption then disrupting air travel in Europe. He had chosen Iceland for his secret task after spending time there helping to draft a law with strong free-speech provisions. Some people involved in that fight, including a member of parliament, Birgitta Jonsdottir, now were engaged with Project B.
Also involved was Rop Gonggrijp, a well-known Dutch hacker and businessman, who knew Assange well. As Khatchadourian described it in his lengthy New Yorker report two months later, Gonggrijp “became the unofficial manager and treasurer of Project B, advancing about ten thousand euros to WikiLeaks to finance it.”
The video, on a hard drive in the bunker, was still in the early stages of editing. Assange would not identify his source for the video, Khatchadourian later wrote, saying only that the person was unhappy about the helicopter attack in Iraq.