Press Box

How To Give (and Take) a Leak

Unsolicited advice for Julian Assange of WikiLeaks.

To call the torrent of information about the Afghanistan war released by WikiLeaks a mere leak is to insult the gods of hydrodynamics. This leak was a howling vortex of 92,000 individual reports, most of which were marked “secret.”

Yet for all its volume and detail, the WikiLeaks collection hasn’t wowed veteran military correspondent Tom Ricks, Slate’s Fred Kaplan, a Mother Joneswriter who browsed similar data when he worked as a contractor in Iraq, or the Washington Post. The White House, members of the  House and Senate from both parties, and the Pentagon derided the document dump, with Pentagon press secretary Geoff Morrell summarizing the DoD’s position by telling the Post that “the scale and the scope of this leak” was unprecedented but that “the content of it is neither new or illuminating.”

The New York Times, the Guardian, and Der Spiegel were given the documents, recorded between January 2004 and December 2009, by WikiLeaks on the proviso that they would all hold their stories until July 25, at which point the organization would release the documents on the Web. But even the Times overview story on Page One seemed to downplay the significance of the WikiLeaks archive. It praised the documents for giving observers “an unvarnished, ground-level picture of the war” and called them a “vivid reminder” that the Afghanistan war has been a second-class operation until recently. But that language signaled that the Times had not retrieved stop-the-presses, scoop-worthy material from the stash.

After a big, two-day splash, the story is no longer on Page One of the Times, except for a mention in a piece about the House approving a war-funding bill. At this rate, the WikiLeaks shocker is evaporating faster than the Gulf of Mexico surface oil.

I don’t subscribe to the “there’s nothing new here” line. As a reader, I’ve found too much in the WikiLeaks gusher to drink in two or three sittings—and I’m just talking about thegallons and gallons of Times and Guardian coverage, not the flood of the 92,000 individual reports released by WikiLeaks.

The speed with which the press and the politicians have normalized the material as “nothing new” indicates that WikiLeaks leader Julian Assange may have miscalculated in his desire to get the biggest media bang. He’s been meditating aloud for some time on how to maximize publicity for his material, complaining that media organizations have routinely ignored WikiLeaks postings because nobody gets exclusives on the released material. None would do a document dive for a story if that meant competing with other news organizations.

“When you release something to the world, its scarcity goes from zero to infinity” is how Assange put his complaint in a December interview. “There is not a good incentive for journalists to invest in pulling the material apart and writing up and placing it in context.”

Then Assange came up with a plan to incentivize the press, as this piece by Clint Hendler of the Columbia Journalism Review reports today. Assange told Guardian reporter Nick Davies on June 22 that he was interested in giving the New York Times and the Guardian an advance look at some Afghanistan war material. (Later, he included Der Spiegel in the deal.) By setting an embargo date and giving these publications regional scoop rights, Assange hoped to achieve maximum impact.

But could Assange have milked the material to better effect? I think so. To begin with, and I’m repeating myself here, there was too much material for the newspapers and magazines to swallow on such a short deadline. The publications felt that way, too. As Hendler reports, they asked for and got a week extension on the original Assange embargo date. Perhaps he should have given the three publications—which shared notes about the material but not copy— another month. Lesson learned: Too much is sometimes worse than not enough.

By inundating readers with Assange’s trove, the three news organization broke one of the sacred rules of journalism: If you have a big story—especially one based on a leak like this one—drip, drip, drip it out to your audience rather than showering them with it. The reader can absorb drips better than torrents. Leave the reader wanting more and then deliver the next day. Besides, a drip strategy requires the publication to determine what’s most important in the story. Without looking, can you remember what the most significant part of the Afghanistan story is? The surface-to-air missile report? The stuff about Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence? I’m still dazed by it all. By pouring out the material so quickly, the press caused a flash flood that has already cleared. Lesson learned: Drip irrigation works better than a monsoon.

The added advantage of the discreet drip method is that it bedevils the organization that is suffering the leak. Right now, the U.S. military should have a pretty good idea of who leaked the reports, how they got access, how to prevent future leaks, and how to punish the leaker in a way that will deter future leakers. Discreet leaks are harder to track. They also make the leaked-from outfit paranoid about what else has been leaked. A paranoid card player is a bad card player: More than one reporter has bluffed additional information out of the government with questions implying that he knows more than he really does. But if the government or the corporation you’re investigating knows everything that you know, he’s looking at your cards. Lesson learned: Why do you think they call drip, drip, drip Chinese water torture?

The drip method also encourages other potential leakers who might come forward with their valuable piece of the story if they think the news organizations are interested in every facet of the story. A big, two-day dump, as wonderful as it is, can put the topic off the agenda. Lesson learned: When it rains, it pours.

Obviously other big stories have benefited from the big splash, like the Pentagon Papers in 1971. But the Pentagon Papers succeeded grandly because 1) the anti-Vietnam War rage in Congress and the country made it easy to exploit the papers’ contents (that sort of rage doesn’t exist today); 2) the Nixon administration tried to suppress publication of the papers, thereby creating a second reportorial front; and 3) the Pentagon Papers illustrated that the Johnson administration had, as R.W. Apple Jr. of the New York Times put it, “systematically lied, not only to the public but also to Congress, about a subject of transcendent national interest and significance.” I’ve seen nothing in the WikiLeaks documents that indicates such grand perfidy on the part of the Bush or Obama administrations. (Historical footnote: According to Floyd Abrams, Daniel Ellsberg withheld some of the Pentagon Papers.)

For his next act, may I suggest that Assange bestow a huge data dump upon one media outlet, such as Mother Jones, the Atlantic, Frontline, Slate, or 60 Minutes,and allow them to extract the highest journalistic value over time? I’d be free to discuss my proposals with Assange over a small glass of water anytime.

Addendum, July 29: Tom Ricks writes, “The reason Wikileaks’ [Assange] did a data dump the way he did, I suspect, is that there really is no there there. That is, he probably knew there was no way to drip this out. These report are similar to what you hear as an embedded reporter sitting around a tactical operations center in the middle of the night. They are the beginning of reporting, not the end. You hear something and say, Is it true? How could I determine that? If it is true, is is significant? Does it mean anything? The Pentagon Papers had all that. This stuff doesn’t.”


How To Take a Leak, by Jack Shafer. It would sell millions! Send book title ideas and Fresca notions to Monitor my Twitter for my compensation demands. (E-mail may be quoted by name in “The Fray,” Slate’s readers’ forum; in a future article; or elsewhere unless the writer stipulates otherwise. Permanent disclosure: Slate is owned by the Washington Post Co.)

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