Times executive editor Bill Keller has a 7,900-plus word piece in Sunday’s magazine called “Dealing with Assange and the Secrets He Spilled,” in which he takes us behind the scenes of negotiations with WikiLeaks and the Times’s WikiLeaks reporting, describes interactions with Julian Assange, and answers his critics—both those who say the Times ran soft coverage and those who say they should not have ran any at all. Agree with him or not, it’s a must-read.
A few points of interest.
If you think the Times is about to backpedal on its pretty brutalAssange profile—Assange called it a “hit piece”—think again. Assange is likely to be very ruffled by a few paragraphs in Keller’s piece.
On the fourth day of the London meeting, Assange slouched into The Guardian office, a day late. Schmitt took his first measure of the man who would be a large presence in our lives. “He’s tall — probably 6-foot-2 or 6-3 — and lanky, with pale skin, gray eyes and a shock of white hair that seizes your attention,” Schmitt wrote to me later. “He was alert but disheveled, like a bag lady walking in off the street, wearing a dingy, light-colored sport coat and cargo pants, dirty white shirt, beat-up sneakers and filthy white socks that collapsed around his ankles. He smelled as if he hadn’t bathed in days.”
It doesn’t stop at “bag lady.”
Schmitt told me that for all Assange’s bombast and dark conspiracy theories, he had a bit of Peter Pan in him. One night, when they were all walking down the street after dinner, Assange suddenly started skipping ahead of the group. Schmitt and Goetz stared, speechless. Then, just as suddenly, Assange stopped, got back in step with them and returned to the conversation he had interrupted.
To show that the boy never did grow up:
Over the course of an eight-hour meeting, Assange intermittently raged against The Times—especially over our front-page profile—while The Guardian journalists tried to calm him. In midstorm, Rusbridger called me to report on Assange’s grievances and relay his demand for a front-page apology in The Times. Rusbridger knew that this was a nonstarter, but he was buying time for the tantrum to subside. In the end, both he and Georg Mascolo, editor in chief of Der Spiegel, made clear that they intended to continue their collaboration with The Times; Assange could take it or leave it. Given that we already had all of the documents, Assange had little choice. Over the next two days, the news organizations agreed on a timetable for publication.
It is also intriguing to see how Get Smart things got at the Times.
We used encrypted Web sites. Reporters exchanged notes via Skype, believing it to be somewhat less vulnerable to eavesdropping. On conference calls, we spoke in amateurish code. Assange was always “the source.” The latest data drop was “the package.” When I left New York for two weeks to visit bureaus in Pakistan and Afghanistan, where we assume that communications may be monitored, I was not to be copied on message traffic about the project. I never imagined that any of this would defeat a curious snoop from the National Security Agency or Pakistani intelligence. And I was never entirely sure whether that prospect made me more nervous than the cyberwiles of WikiLeaks itself. At a point when relations between the news organizations and WikiLeaks were rocky, at least three people associated with this project had inexplicable activity in their e-mail that suggested someone was hacking into their accounts.
While Keller gets points for vigorously defending the value of the leaks—“They deepen and correct your understanding of how things unfold; they raise or lower your estimation of world leaders…”—his defense of the paper’s poor reporting on Iran’s allegedly obtaining missiles feels as weak as the paper’s rewrite at the time.
One of our first articles drawn from the diplomatic cables, for example, reported on a secret intelligence assessment that Iran had obtained a supply of advanced missiles from North Korea, missiles that could reach European capitals. Outside experts long suspected that Iran obtained missile parts but not the entire weapons, so this glimpse of the official view was revealing. The Washington Post fired back with a different take, casting doubt on whether the missile in question had been transferred to Iran or whether it was even a workable weapon. We went back to the cables—and the experts—and concluded in a subsequent article that the evidence presented “a murkier picture.”
Finally, while Keller says he thinks of WikiLeaks as he would a source, and in no way as a partner, he offers another strong defense on its behalf.
it is chilling to contemplate the possible government prosecution of WikiLeaks for making secrets public, let alone the passage of new laws to punish the dissemination of classified information, as some have advocated. Taking legal recourse against a government official who violates his trust by divulging secrets he is sworn to protect is one thing. But criminalizing the publication of such secrets by someone who has no official obligation seems to me to run up against the First Amendment and the best traditions of this country.
Joel Meares is a former CJR assistant editor.
Tags: Afghanistan, Bill Keller, Iraq, New York Times, WikiLeaks