WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange held back 15,000 documents from publication at the request of the US government, a court heard today.
John Goetz, senior editor of investigations at NDR in Germany, told the court that WikiLeaks and its media partners took measures to make sure no one was harmed by the release of the documents.
Goetz was speaking on the seventh day of the extradition hearing against Assange at the Old Bailey in London.
Assange has been charged with 17 offences under the US Espionage Act after WikiLeaks published a serious of leaks from Chelsea Manning, a former US Army soldier turned whistleblower.
The 49-year-old defendant faces a further charge of conspiracy to commit computer intrusion and is alleged to have encouraged hacking groups to obtain information for WikiLeaks
The US government has accused Assange of purposely publishing classified documents containing the unredacted names of innocent people who risk their lives to provide information to the US and its allies.
Goetz, who previously worked at Der Spiegel, said he was asked to meet with The Guardian and Assange in June 2010 to work on tens of thousands of leaked documents on the Afghan war obtained by WikiLeaks.
“They were a first-hand eyewitness diary of what was happening in Afghanistan as it was happening,” said Goetz.
Goetz said US cables obtained by WikiLeaks showed how the US had put pressure on Germany not to prosecute Khalid el-Masri, a German citizen kidnapped and tortured by the CIA.
The partnership between rival publishers – The Guardian, Der Spiegel and The New York Times – and WikiLeaks was unorthodox at the time, he said, but had now become standard practice.
Under cross-examination by Mark Summers QC, representing Assange, Goetz said the WikiLeaks founder had been highly concerned with keeping the leaked material secure.
“I remember being very irritated by the constant, unending reminders from Assange that we needed to be secure, we needed to encrypt things, we needed to use encrypted chat. It was the first time I had used a cryptophone,” he said.
Goetz said Assange was very concerned with the technical aspects of trying to find names in a massive collection of documents.
“He and everyone were discussing how to find these sensitive names so that we could redact them and take measures to make sure no one was harmed,” he said.
The media partners agreed that The New York Times would approach the White House for comment in advance of the release of the documents, said Goetz.
Following the meeting, The New York Times sent an email saying the White House was looking for redactions and that WikiLeaks would withhold 15,000 documents
The email said WikiLeaks would entertain suggestions from the International Security Assistance Force in Afghanistan on which names to remove if they could provide technical assistance.
Goetz said he was not aware that any sensitive names were published or had not been picked up by the redaction process.
Goetz said he took a break after the media partners finished work on the Afghan War Diary, but had “remained in the loop” when WikiLeaks and its media partners moved on to publication of the Iraq War Logs.
“The redaction process developed over time. With the Iraq War Logs, WikiLeaks overshot and ended up deleting more things than even the Defense Department did in [in answer to] FOIA requests,” he said.
Goetz, who worked with WikiLeaks and other media partners on a cache of leaked US diplomatic documents, said he did not know of any person suffering harm from the publication of the cables.
“Each media partner would flag documents and pass them to WikiLeaks. There was a regular redaction process,” he said.
Der Spiegel held a conference call with the US Department of State. Officials read the numbers of documents they felt were sensitive, with the understanding that these numbers would be passed to WikiLeaks to redact the documents.
“Of course, we were writing down the documents and quickly looking them up,” said Goetz. “They were giving us an index of the most interesting documents.”
Unredacted documents were ‘republished’
James Lewis, representing the US government, put it to Goetz that WikiLeaks published unredacted documents in late August and early September 2011.
“There were a series of events that started in February 2011 and documents were published on the internet before they were published on WikiLeaks,” he said.
Goetz said the website Cryptome published the unredacted documents first. “In that sense, WikiLeaks republished what was already on Cryptome,” he said.
Lewis read out an article by The Guardian criticising a decision by WikiLeaks to publish its full archive of 251,000 secret US diplomatic cables without redaction, “potentially exposing thousands of individuals named in the documents to detention, harm or putting their lives in danger”.
Goetz agreed that his publication, Der Speigel, was one of the media organisations to criticise WikiLeaks, but he said the full facts were not known at the time of the statement.
“What actually led to the republication of the papers was not known on 2 September when the statement was issued. The whole chain of events came out in the weeks and months to follow,” he said.
Summers asked Goetz if he was aware of any of the US diplomatic cables getting into the public domain containing sensitive names.
“There was a very big redaction process and as far as I know no names came out,” he said.
Summers then asked Goetz about WikiLeaks’ release of about 133,000 cables, which was criticised in an article by Ken Dilanian in the Los Angeles Times.
“As far as I understand, it was unclassified material,” he responded.
Goetz said the issue of harm was discussed in the Chelsea Manning trial. “I don’t know of any case where harm has been shown by the release of documents,” he said.
Goetz earlier said that he had used the material released by WikiLeaks as part of an investigation into claims by Khalid el-Masri, a German citizen who claimed he had been kidnapped from Macedonia, tortured and taken to Afghanistan by the US.
“I had managed to find, through a long and complicated process, the CIA kidnappers who forced him onto an airplane, sodomised him and brought him to Afghanistan,” he told the court.
The Munich state prosecutor issued an order to arrest the CIA agents who had kidnapped and arrested el-Masri.
“What was fascinating about the arrest warrant was that it was never issued to the US when everyone knew that was where the perpetrators lived. I never understood that,” said Goetz.
The diplomatic cables received by WikiLeaks later revealed the extent of the pressure the US brought on the German authorities not to act on the charges.
Read more about Julian Assange’s September extradition hearing at the Old Bailey
- Lawyers for Julian Assange say the US has introduced an 11th hour indictment against the WikiLeaks founder that provides additional grounds for his extradition.
- On the second day of his extradition hearing at the Old Bailey, judge informs the WikiLeaks founder he could be removed and potentially banned from court for interrupting witnesses.
- US journalism historian and investigative journalist Mark Feldstein tells a UK court that use of the Espionage Act against Assange will have wide implications for the press.
- Trevor Timm, co-founder of the Freedom of the Press Foundation, tells a court that if the US prosecutes Julian Assange, every reporter who receives a secret document will be criminalised.
- WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange will be held under special administrative measures if extradited to the US, said Eric Lewis, a US legal expert, effectively placing him in solitary confinement.
- MEPs and NGOs say they have been denied access to observe extradition proceedings against WikiLeaks founder in Central Criminal Court.
Read more on IT for media and entertainment industry
Assange appeals against Priti Patel’s extradition order
WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange can ask Supreme Court to hear extradition appeal
CIA sought revenge against Julian Assange over hacking tool leaks, court hears
‘No-one extradited from UK to US has committed suicide,’ US tells court in Assange appeal