KARACHI: It was the beginning of the last week of April when I received a call from the Editor Dawn asking me to come in for a meeting. “There`s a project I think you might be interested in working on but we can`t discuss it over the phone.” Intrigued, I went in for the meeting the next day and learnt what I and the project team would willingly give up our waking hours and days off for the next month or so.Dawn had signed an agreement with Julian Assange, editor-in-chief of the by-now world famous WikiLeaks, to be a partner media organization for the global anti-secrecy organization. The agreement had been inked after a complicated process of negotiations which had culminated in a hush-hush meeting between the Editor Dawn and Assange outside London a few days earlier. As a consequence, Dawn Media Group would have exclusive first use access within Pakistan to a trove of secret US diplomatic cables related to the country. The project involved sifting through the enormous reams of hitherto unpublished data for possible elements of interest and writing stories to make them accessible to a wider reading public.
Ironically for an anti-secrecy organization such as WikiLeaks, the sensitivity of the matter - these were, after all, previously confidential internal documents only for the eyes of those within the American government leaked by a whistleblower - and some of the explosive revelations contained within the cables, necessitated remarkable levels of security. The data had arrived in encrypted form and Assange had recommended that it be accessed only on computers that were disconnected from the internet, to prevent any attempts to hack into it to steal or alter it.
Once I signed on, an operations room in Dawn was established, rejigged with a computer network completely disconnected from the net. Access to the room was also severely limited and only a select few even within Haroon House, the Dawn building, knew what was being worked on. Veteran Herald reporter Idrees Bakhtiar, already tapped to be part of the project team, had been dispatched abroad to do a crash course in the secure software required to liaise with WikiLeaks.
The first order of business was to get a handle on the quantity and nature of data we had been presented with. There were more than 4,700 cables - of lengths varying from one page to over 10 pages - on our hands which had to be mainly perused in a matter of a couple of weeks to meet deadlines. After two days of going through the data and randomly reading about a hundred cables, I was able to devise a tentative process for tackling the information based on a simple prioritization of their possible importance.
WikiLeaks had been unable to get their hands on cables marked `Top Secret`, the most secure level of classification and whose access is limited to a very select group of people within the US government. However, of the data accessed, the cables were classified, in descending order of confidentiality as `Secret-NoForn`, `Secret`, `Confidential-NoForn`, `Confidential` and `Unclassified`. `NoForn` indicates the material is too sensitive to be shared with foreign governments. We decided to begin with the highest classifications and work our way down. We would discover as we went along that this assumption of importance would not always hold true - many a times, we would find telling tidbits of information in cables that were ostensibly marked under a lower classification.
The next step was thoroughly reading the cables themselves. A small team of analysts was assembled who could be counted upon not only to understand the issues and flag relevant portions but also be trusted to not divulge outside what we were working on. In addition to Dawn`s Cyril Almeida who was called in from Islamabad, Herald`s Madiha Sattar, Dawn.com`s Qurat ul ain Siddiqui and former DawnNews staffer Sophia Saifi were brought in to work on the project. Some senior members of Dawn`s editorial staff were also taken into confidence regarding the project. Timelines were drawn up, processes for sharing information among the team were worked out and potential topics to explore were flagged. As an added precaution, it was agreed that nobody would discuss details of the project even on the phone or over text messaging.
We began the ponderous (and yet exciting) process of sifting through the cables the same day that news broke of Osama bin Laden`s killing in Abbottabad. While most outside the room were glued to breaking news, we were able to keep a track of developments only through the television in the room. But we had to press on, knowing full well that we had too little time to read all that needed to be read. We did not want to miss even the smallest bit of interesting information or comment, which could perhaps be buried inside an otherwise banal cable reiterating what everyone already knew. Of course, to glean information, we were also reading between the lines and double checking against publicly known events and statements around the time of the confidential missives.
As the days wore on, keeping track of all we had read, marked as worthy of being written on, and cross-referenced through various unrelated cables became a great challenge. An even bigger challenge was ensuring that the entire team was in sync with each other, particularly since the person writing a particular story may not be the one who had initially read a telling cable that could form a part of it. Meeting both challenges was perhaps the team`s greatest achievement. — Hasan Zaidi