behind the news

Strange Eruptions from the WikiLeaks Saga

Bill Keller offers new details on e-mail hacking
February 4, 2011

Last night, The Columbia School of Journalism played host to Bill Keller and Alan Rusbridger, the top editors at The New York Times and The Guardian who worked together in 2010 on three sensational WikiLeaks document releases.

Beyond the novelty of seeing them on stage together, nothing much emerged that hasn’t been covered in either Keller’s detailed article in last weekend’s New York Times Magazine, the Guardian’s serialization of their upcoming WikiLeaks book, and reporting by many others on the collaboration. (A video of the event is here.)

One exception would be in Keller’s description of suspicious and unauthorized e-mail activity that he has connected to the ongoing WikiLeaks saga.

In his magazine article, Keller thinly and vaguely mentioned activity that “suggested” that three people “associated with the project” had had their e-mail accounts hacked “at a point when relations between the news organizations and WikiLeaks were rocky.”

Keller drew a somewhat sharper picture of what he knows about this in response to an audience question asked by Time’s Barton Gellman.

“I don’t want to say very much about this, because we are still in the process of investigating it, which is extremely complicated,” Keller began. “It involves getting access to some places that are difficult to get access to.”

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“There were three individuals—one in the U.S., one in the U.K., and one in Germany—who all had virtually identical, uh, eruptions, shall we say, of their e-mail accounts. They were all the same e-mail server.” Keller continued.

“The forensics expert who looked at ours said that it was clearly hacked, but they didn’t leave any fingerprints that are readily available,” Keller continued. “So we’re sort of taking it to the next level.”

While relaying the claim from the Times’s computer forensics specialist that the emails were “clearly hacked” is good deal more concrete of an assertion than Keller had previously ventured, his comments left much unanswered. He provided no date for this event, nor did he specify who held the accounts, or even if they all worked for the Times—a possibility that his phrasing pointedly leaves open.

When pressed on what he meant by “eruptions,” Keller smiled and offered a chuckle—but no more detail.

Clint Hendler is the managing editor of Mother Jones, and a former deputy editor of CJR.