The diplomatic records exposed on the WikiLeaks website this week reveal not only secret government communications, but also an extraordinary collaboration between some of the world's most respected media outlets and the Wikileaks organization, just as US officials target WikiLeaks in a criminal investigation.
Unlike earlier disclosures by WikiLeaks of tens of thousands of secret government records, the group is releasing only a trickle of documents at a time from a trove of a quarter-million, and only after considering advice from five news organizations with which it chose to share all of the material.
"They are releasing the documents we selected," Le Monde's managing editor, Sylvie Kauffmann, said in an interview at the newspaper's Paris headquarters.
WikiLeaks turned over all of the classified State Department cables it obtained to Le Monde, El Pais in Spain, The Guardian in Britain and Der Spiegel in Germany. The Guardian shared the material with the New York Times, and the five news organizations have been working together to plan the timing of their reports. They also have been advising WikiLeaks on which documents to release publicly and what redactions to make to those documents, Kauffmann and others involved in the arrangement said. Each publication suggested a way to remove names and details considered too sensitive, and "I suppose WikiLeaks chooses the one it likes," El Pais Editor in Chief Javier Moreno said in a telephone interview from his Madrid office.
As stories are published, WikiLeaks uses its website to release the related cables. For example, The Guardian published an article Thursday based on diplomatic cables discussing the assassination of former Russian security officer Alexander Litvinenko by radiation poisoning, and WikiLeaks quickly posted three cables on the same subject.
The close arrangement is unusual because it ties the media outlets more closely to WikiLeaks, and reveals an unusual collaboration with an organization facing a U.S. criminal investigation.
"In this case, what you have is news organizations partnering with an organization that very clearly has a different set of values," said Kelly McBride, a journalism ethics professor at The Poynter Institute in St. Petersburg, Florida.
But McBride notes that the unique collaboration also forces some degree of journalistic standards on WikiLeaks, which in the past has released documents without removing information considered sensitive.
New York Times Executive Editor Bill Keller told readers in an online exchange that the newspaper has suggested to its media partners and to WikiLeaks what information it believes should be withheld.
"We agree wholeheartedly that transparency is not an absolute good," Keller wrote. "Freedom of the press includes freedom not to publish, and that is a freedom we exercise with some regularity."
Days before releasing any of the latest documents, WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange appealed to the U.S. ambassador in London, asking the US government to confidentially help him determine what needed to be redacted from the cables before they were publicly released.
The ambassador refused, telling Assange to hand over stolen property. State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley called Assange's offer "a half-hearted gesture to have some sort of conversation."
U.S. officials submitted suggestions to The Times, which asked government officials to weigh in on some of the documents the newspaper and its partners wanted to publish.
"The other news organizations supported these redactions," Keller wrote. "WikiLeaks has indicated that it intends to do likewise. And as a matter of news interest, we will watch their website to see what they do."
While Keller has emphasized to readers that the Times is "not a 'media partner"' of WikiLeaks and that it did not receive the State Department documents from WikiLeaks, his public comments describe a working relationship with the group on the release of the material and decisions to withhold certain information.
Keller told the AP in an e-mail Thursday that advising WikiLeaks about removing names and other sensitive details is the responsible thing to do.
"We have no way of knowing what WikiLeaks will do, no clear idea what they make of our redactions, but if this to any degree prevents WikiLeaks from carelessly getting someone killed, I'm happy to do it," he said. "I'd be interested to hear the arguments in favor of having WikiLeaks post its material unredacted."
US Attorney General Eric Holder said this week there is "an active, ongoing, criminal investigation" into WikiLeaks' release of the material. He said it jeopardized national security, diplomatic efforts and U.S. relationships around the world. He declined to equate WikiLeaks to traditional news organizations that enjoy certain free-speech protections.
"I think one can compare the way in which the various news organizations that have been involved in this have acted, as opposed to the way in which WikiLeaks has," Holder said. He did not elaborate on the distinction he sees between WikiLeaks and the publications.
Although WikiLeaks has said it will ultimately post its trove online, The Times said it intends to publish only about 100 or so of the records. And the other news organizations that have the material said they likely will release only a fraction.
"We are releasing only what is interesting," Le Monde's Kauffman said. "I couldn't tell you the proportion, but the vast majority of these documents are of no journalistic interest." She said there was "no written contract" among the organizations and WikiLeaks on the use of the material. "The conditions were that we could ourselves -- that's to say our journalists and those at the other newspapers -- do our own selection, our own triage," and select which documents to withhold from public view, Kauffmann said.
The media outlets agreed to work together, with about 120 journalists in total working on the project, at times debating which names of people cited in the documents could be published. "With this, I really think we have taken all the possible precautions," Kauffman said. "At times, it comes up that we'll discuss it between us, with the other papers, on some points. One of us struck too much out and another said 'Come on, it's about a high official, we can leave his/her name in. There won't be any reprisals."
Le Monde and El Pais came into the media partnership late, about a month ago. The Times, Guardian and Spiegel had already done quite a bit of work on the documents and shared it, El Pais' Moreno said. Kauffmann declined to say how or when WikiLeaks contacted the publications about the documents. They began sorting through the material after WikiLeaks obtained it.
Some news organizations, including AP and The Washington Post, also have sought access to the documents, but they were denied because of the arrangement between the five media partners. The Post reported this week that WikiLeaks approached CNN and the Wall Street Journal about receiving the documents and asked them to sign confidentiality agreements that would have entitled WikiLeaks to a payment of around $100,000 if the partner broke the embargo. The two news organizations declined.
Kauffman said there was no financial agreement with WikiLeaks. "Never has anyone asked to pay anything, and if they had, we probably, certainly, would not have done so, because we never pay for news."