Date with history: The world learns Guantánamo’s secrets

On April 24, 2011, leaked details of prisoners at the US base were published. The story, with others, transformed the news media, writes James Ball.

The World Today Updated 22 November 2023 Published 31 March 2023 3 minute READ

James Ball

Global Editor, The Bureau of Investigative Journalism

A cache of documents leaked by US army intelligence officer Chelsea Manning began being published across international media in conjunction with the whistleblowing organization WikiLeaks on April 24, 2011. These documents, known as the Guantánamo Files, followed Manning’s leaks the year before – the so-called ‘war logs’ of America’s presence in Afghanistan and Iraq and the 250,000 US state department cables.

Among Afghan civilians held in Guantánamo Bay were people suffering mental illness and an 89-year-old man with severe dementia 

The Guantánamo Files, detailing the treatment of US-held prisoners in Guantánamo Bay military prison in Cuba, were part of a wave of digital leaks orchestrated by WikiLeaks and the Guardian, the New York Times and others that transformed the relationship between the news media and secrecy within governments and big business.

The world had been told that Guantánamo Bay military base housed ‘the worst of the worst’ Al Qaeda terrorists. The documents I saw as a member of the Guardian team working on the story – having joined from WikiLeaks itself – quickly gave the lie to that line. Among those Afghan civilians held there were taxi drivers, local fixers who had been helping the US army, people suffering mental illness and even a doubly incontinent 89-year-old man with severe dementia.

Mirror-world logic

The logs revealed the disintegrating physical and mental health of the base’s inmates, especially under months-long ‘enhanced interrogation’. They also gave glimpses into the mirror-world logic under which the US military operated. US training manuals told soldiers that if an individual was wearing a Casio F-91 watch – the world’s best-selling watch – that was a sign they were an Al Qaeda member, because some had been used as timing devices in roadside bombs.

I worked at WikiLeaks in 2010, when US officials equated us with a terrorist organization

WikiLeaks’ dissemination of the Manning leaks provoked a furious backlash. I worked as an in-house journalist at the organization for a few months in 2010 and at that time senior US officials equated us with a terrorist organization. On the inside it felt very different – a group of mostly young, idealistic, activists then working in the front room of Ellingham Hall, a manor house in Norfolk.

Under the guidance of its founder, Julian Assange, an Australian computer programmer, WikiLeaks’ philosophy was different to most newsrooms: information should be freely available, with minimal redactions. Some even believed nothing should be held back, irrespective of the ethics of traditional journalism.

Before 2010, WikiLeaks had simply posted all its document releases online at once, hoping users would go through them and find stories. It had some success with its earlier releases: in 2009 it published leaks on a toxic waste dump in Ivory Coast and internal documents from Iceland’s failed banks. But the Manning documents were on another scale: more than 91,000 documents in the Afghan leak, 390,000 in the Iraqi cache, and more than 250,000 cables.

The Guardian convinced Assange to publish Manning’s documents as part of a coalition of newspapers, including the New York Times, El País, Le Monde and Der Spiegel. The newspapers brought the documents to a far wider audience, while trying to curb Assange’s activist instincts towards radical transparency, which risked naming US sources, victims of sexual abuse, dissidents in dictatorships and more.

Uneasy alliance

The uneasy alliance had fallen apart by April 2011, riven by differences in culture, the extent of redactions and tensions between strong personalities. However, the Guardian and New York Times still had the Guantánamo documents, and opted to publish them themselves on Easter Monday, ahead of WikiLeaks.

WikiLeaks’ largest subsequent impact came in 2016 when it notoriously published emails hacked from John Podesta, an aide to Hillary Clinton, and the Democratic National Committee in the run-up to the presidential election, which were later revealed to have been obtained by the Russian government. The huge volume of coverage generated by those emails arguably derailed Clinton’s campaign, yet WikiLeaks’ influence with mainstream publications dwindled.

Assange is in UK custody facing extradition to the US for his publication of the leaks that included the Guantánamo files

In part, this was due to Assange’s personal circumstances. Assange had exhausted his legal routes to prevent extradition by the UK to Sweden to answer allegations of sexual assault and rape, which he denies.

After losing his Supreme Court appeal, Assange sought diplomatic asylum in the Ecuadorean embassy in London in 2012 – not over the Swedish case, he claimed, but over potential US extradition. Relations between Assange and his hosts deteriorated until Ecuador allowed Assange’s arrest in 2019.

Today, Assange is in UK custody facing extradition to the US for his publication of the Chelsea Manning leaks – the cache that includes the Guantánamo documents. Even if Assange remains an unpopular figure among mainstream journalists, his possible extradition has been condemned by many leading US and British editors as a threat to free speech.

Changes in law

The lasting impact of WikiLeaks’ 2010 and 2011 publications is on the interaction between mainstream journalism and confidential documents.

Responsible journalists do not publish as much as Julian Assange would like. Assange is alleged by a Guardian journalist to have said in a row over redaction that ‘If an Afghan civilian helps coalition forces, he deserves to die’. He denies the claim. But where journalists once did not publish source documents and frequently deferred to requests for confidentiality, the balance has shifted.

By partnering across borders, traditional media outlets have learnt to emulate WikiLeaks

Had WikiLeaks not existed, it seems unlikely that a series of significant stories would have come to light. For instance, in 2013 the Guardian and Washington Post published stories about the US National Security Agency based on Edward Snowden’s leaked documents. That led to several new European Court of Justice precedents and changes in the law in Britain and America, including the US’s termination of its domestic phone records database in 2015, hailed as the most significant intelligence reform in decades.

This was followed by the publication of a series of leaks about offshore holdings – including the so-called Panama Papers – published by the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists.

The indirect consequences of WikiLeaks’ innovation are widespread – would organizations such as Bellingcat, which uses open-source data to investigate alleged war crimes, exist without the WikiLeaks precedent?  We have also seen attempts to use questionably acquired big data to influence politics: would Cambridge Analytica have sought to use the data it obtained from Facebook users as it did without the example of WikiLeaks?

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In this new era of ethics around leaks, their sources and their disclosure, journalists grapple day to day with what should or should not be amplified in the mainstream.

WikiLeaks never had a particular technological advantage. Instead, it was a publisher of last resort that was virtually impossible to censor. By partnering across borders – and so circumventing national privacy or secrecy laws – traditional media outlets have learnt to emulate that tactic.

The result is mainstream news organizations have been able to pursue greater accountability from governments and business. As for the latter, things could be worse: without the pressure valve of a robust news media willing to publish more than it used to, the demand for more platforms like WikiLeaks might become irresistible.