As if there isn’t enough intrigue around Wikileaks and its enigmatic founder, a Norwegian daily that laid hands on the same US classified documents says it has infuriated Julian Assange by playing his own game.
Since last December, the daily Aftenposten, the Nordic country’s paper of reference, has been “leaking” the Wikileaks diplomatic secrets but according to its own choice and pace — independent of the script set by Assange in a deal with five world-renowned papers.
Only three staff members know how Aftenposten obtained the documents — thought exclusive to Wikileaks — and won’t let on.
“This took quite a lot of work,” news editor Ole Erik Almlid told AFP. “Let’s just say that we didn’t get it through an email that went astray.
“But we did not pay for it, no conditions have been attached and we can publish exactly what we want following our regular strict editorial criteria,” he said.
At the paper’s cosy offices in the heart of Oslo, a team of some 30 journalists trawl through the gargantuan database of 250,000-odd confidential US cables.
Their “scoops” have put a hitch in Assange’s bid to carefully orchestrate how and where the secrets concerning US diplomatic exchanges and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are released.
The 39-year-old Australian reacted by saying Aftenposten’s access to the cables was intentional.
The paper is “a media partner” of WikiLeaks, Assange, who is now free on bail in Britain, told Norwegian financial daily Dagens Naeringsliv in early January.
That is something Aftenposten categorically denies.
“According to our information, Julian Assange is, to put it mildly, not very pleased that Aftenposten, too, has obtained … the 251,287 US diplomatic cables from a source,” the paper’s chief editor Hilde Haugsgjerd wrote on January 4.
Under Assange’s plan, Wikileaks made a deal with five major publications — The New York Times, Le Monde, El Pais, The Guardian and Der Spiegel — to gradually release the diplomatic cables, although the terms of the agreement are not known.
Aftenposten itself has created its own network to help pore over the cables, cooperating with three major papers: Die Welt in Germany, Svenska Dagbladet in Sweden and Politiken in Denmark.
In recent weeks, the Norwegian daily, with a circulation of 240,000, has filled its pages with information extracted from the documents.
Israel, it reported, deliberately choked Gaza’s economy, and Germany aimed to develop a secret spy satellite with the United States under the guise of a commercial programme. Another article said Syria backed attacks on Scandinavian embassies in Damascus as violent protests erupted in early 2006 over the publication of caricatures of Islam’s prophet.
The paper systematically backs up its reports by posting the US diplomatic documents it quotes on its website, www.aftenposten.no.
And the daily’s WikiLeaks leaks have not been without consequence.
Berry Smutny, the head of German firm OHB Systems which is working on Europe’s Galileo satellite navigation system, was recently suspended after a WikiLeaks cable cited him as describing the system as a “stupid idea.”
“Even if there is no big scoop in the documents, we will remember these cables as fascinating,” Almlid said.
The immense stash of cables should in any case provide Aftenposten with enough material to fill its pages “for another year, if not two,” Almlid said.
The paper, however, has vowed not to hit readers with a constant barrage of leaked cables or to mix up historians’ work with that of a journalist — the latter would require linking documents often several years old to current news events.
“When the WikiLeaks documents first started appearing in the big international newspapers, the angle was really ‘Here are the cables. This is what the United States thinks of the rest of the planet’,” Aftenposten journalist Lars Inge Staveland said.
“But today we are in a new phase: we are using the documents as a springboard for much broader articles that are backed up by other sources,” he told AFP.
“It is no longer always the US embassies’ opinion that provides the angle for our pieces,” he said.