Exactly one year ago this week, Julian Assange and a crew of WikiLeaks volunteers — including Birgitta Jonsdottir, who has since become a critic — assembled in Reykjavik, Iceland, to edit and add subtitles to a video of a 2007 incident in Baghdad that Assange himself would title, “Collateral Murder.”
At that point, WikiLeaks and Assange were far from household words in the U.S., despite three years of leaks that intermittently gained notice. Of course, everything has changed since.
A U.S. Army intelligence analyst, Pvc. Bradley Manning was arrested within weeks and eventually charged with leaking the video, and so much more that would put WikiLeaks in the headlines worldwide to this day: classified documents on the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, and then “Cablegate.” Manning now is incarcerated in near-solitary conditions at the Quantico base in Virginia. He’s the subject of my new book and e-book, Bradley Manning: Truth and Consequences, which also explores the “Collateral Murder” leak.
A little more than a year ago, intrigued by WikiLeaks’ activities, New Yorker writer Raffi Khatchadourian 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.
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