Julian Assange’s WikiLeaks: Ten Days That Changed The World
First Posted: 12/ 5/11 02:56 PM ET Updated: 12/ 5/11 03:37 PM ET
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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