New Yorker staff writer Raffi Khatchadourian’s first encounter with Julian Assange was as cryptic and elusive as the WikiLeaks operation itself. Last March, Assange instructed Khatchadourian by phone to meet him in Reykjavik, Iceland, where WikiLeaks had been working with politicians and activists to draft a powerful free-speech law. At the time of the call, Assange was traveling in Europe, and he offered few details about how they were to meet. When Khatchadourian pressed him for greater specificity, Assange suggested that a member of the Icelandic legislature serve as an intermediary. “I thought to myself, ‘Really? That’s it? Fly to Iceland and call up a member of parliament?” recalls Khatchadourian. He requested that Assange propose a more concrete plan. “So Julian said that someone would meet me at the bus station, if possible, and that if no one showed up I should go to a certain coffee shop and wait there.” Fortunately, Assange was waiting for him at the station, and a few hours later the two went to a small house (“The Bunker”) that WikiLeaks had rented to work on Project B, the organization’s first leak to garner widespread international attention.
Born on Long Island, New York, Khatchadourian was a Fine Arts major at Trinity College, in Hartford, and he received an MA in International Relations from Columbia University. In 2000, he began his journalism career at The Russia Journal, an English-language, Moscow-based weekly. He left the paper shortly before the 9/11 attacks, and freelanced in the former Soviet Union and in the United States. In 2003, the Village Voice offered him his first big assignment: a multipart series about the construction of an oil pipeline from the Caspian Sea—through Azerbaijan, Georgia, and Turkey—to the Mediterranean. He wrote his first piece for the New Yorker—a 2007 profile of Adam Gadahn, an al Qaeda spokesperson and the first American to be charged with treason in more than fifty years—while working at the magazine as a fact-checker.
Khatchadourian encountered Assange’s organization while working on his July 2009 New Yorker story "The Kill Company", in which he investigated a war crime committed by U.S. troops in Iraq. The WikiLeaks website had posted classified military documents that were relevant to his investigation, and when Khatchadourian showed them to his military sources they confirmed them to be authentic. Khatchadourian had visited the WikiLeaks website before, but corroborating this sensitive material made him want to learn more about the organization.
At the time, not much was known about WikiLeaks; Assange would not disclose basic personal details (such as his age), and rarely spoke about the site’s history and functionality. Curious, Khatchadourian sent him an email with his contact information and a note expressing his interest in writing a story. A week or so later, his cell phone rang, and it was Assange. “You may have come at the right time,” he said. “We’re working on something that has the potential to be explosive.”
Khatchadourian recalls, “We had a fairly good rapport from the outset. Julian appeared to understand the reputation of the New Yorker, and believed the material he had could benefit from an in depth article about WikiLeaks. He was looking for different ways to raise interest in the material. In some ways, inviting the New Yorker into The Bunker may have been his first attempt at a partnership with the mainstream media.”
Assange was extremely cautious during their first telephone call, initially offering only a bare outline of the project. But in subsequent calls he provided greater detail, and by the time Khatchadourian went to Iceland it was clear that WikiLeaks was in possession of a secret video that could be highly newsworthy. Assange had explained that the footage appeared to document a range of troubling military conduct, from callous and morally questionable battlefield judgments to evidence of a war crime. Khatchadourian already found WikiLeaks intriguing, and so the news about the project only added to his interest in pursuing a piece. “I would have done the story even without the video,” he says.
The reporting was intense. Khatchadourian lived with Assange and his associates in The Bunker for a solid week, watching them edit the video that would eventually be released under the title, Collateral Murder. The original footage was rough and difficult to interpret. This presented a journalistic opportunity as author and subject tried to figure out what was going on. Khatchadourian recalled, “Some of the questions I had as a journalist were the same as the ones they were trying to answer: Was that a rocket-propelled grenade someone was carrying, or was it a camera? What was that group of men doing on the street?”
The conditions of Khatchadourian’s access were relatively simple: the video was to be edited in an atmosphere of complete confidentiality, and he wasn’t allowed to talk about it with anyone until after it was screened in Washington D.C. at the National Press Club on April 5, 2010. With the release of Collateral Murder, WikiLeaks received more than two hundred thousand dollars in donations, leading Assange to Tweet: “New funding model for journalism: try doing it for a change.” From start to finish, the piece took two months to report, write and publish. Khatchadourian turned down several offers to write a book about WikiLeaks after No Secrets was published in the New Yorker in June 2010.
By Robert S. Boynton, Director of Literary Reportage Concentration at New York University, and author of The New New Journalism. Raffi Khatchadourian's No Secrets is one of Boynton's selections for The New New Journalism, circa 2011.