Brazil’s President Rousseff talks to journalists. REUTERS /Ueslei Marcelino
As the Boeing 777 from London arrived at the gate of Guarulhos International Airport in São Paulo on December 2, 2010, its passengers queued up to deplane, many with the local newspaper under their arm. “Brazil fears terrorism at the 2016 Olympics, says US Embassy” blared the headline of the daily Folha de S. Paulo—a front-page story generated from the first of tens of thousands of classified US diplomatic cables obtained and released by the whistleblower website WikiLeaks. Unnoticed among those passengers was a young woman with a backpack slung over her shoulder. Concealed within a bundle of messy clothing inside her bag was a pen drive containing nearly 3,000 sensitive cables to and from the US Embassy and consulates in Brazil between 2003 and 2010—a cache of documents provided by WikiLeaks.
This trove of records covered the two terms of President Inacio “Lula” da Silva’s progressive government and captured the policies, operations and diplomatic efforts of US presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama, as well as those of the Brazilian government itself, at a time when the country was on the rise as a world-class economic and political power. As WikiLeaks-generated stories appeared in the Brazilian media in the ensuing months, the cables would reveal how the Bush White House curried favor with the country’s defense minister and military, how Bush tried to persuade Brazil to spy on Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez, and how the Obama administration became increasingly uncomfortable with Brazil’s close relationship with Iran. Brazilians would learn some startling details about their own government as well.
Beyond the revelations themselves, “Cablegate” in Brazil would have a significant impact on the profession of journalism and strengthen the culture of transparency even as the country was starting to revisit the legacy of its military dictatorship. Brazil was the first South American country to receive the cables—thanks to WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange’s strategic dissemination plan, and to that little pen drive.
I was a member of the team carefully assembled by WikiLeaks in the weeks before the initial publication of the cables on November 29, 2010. The goal was to build a network of local media partners in countries rich and poor that would make the stories go global. A task force of independent journalists would review the cables, write groundbreaking stories for the WikiLeaks website, and devise a strategy for other media outlets to investigate and report on the leaked documents.
Assange, the product of a cyberpunk culture based on collaboration and data sharing, formed his strategy around that philosophy, balancing it with an acknowledgment of the mainstream media’s traditional demand for exclusivity. WikiLeaks’ original partnership was with four major news outlets—the Guardian, Le Monde, El País and Der Spiegel—that received the collection of 250,000 cables months in advance. A fifth, the New York Times, obtained them from the Guardian. These publications agreed to surrender their exclusive control over the material in January 2011. In the end, WikiLeaks was able to partner with more than ninety media outlets around the world.
I was one of the first journalists to reach Ellingham Hall, in Norfolk, England, where WikiLeaks had established its secret headquarters ahead of the “Cablegate” release. For a hectic ten days in November, I—along with other journalists, activists and lawyers—worked secretly around the clock at a table crowded with laptops and cellphones, drafting articles and discussing how to distribute the documents in January.
When it came to Brazil, however, time was of the essence. Lula was leaving office at the end of the year, so I argued that any cables exposing his administration should be brought to light as soon as possible. Assange and the WikiLeaks team agreed.