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WikiLeaks Coverage Roundup, Again

A look at coverage from The New York Times, The Guardian, Der Spiegel, and elsewhere
November 29, 2010

On Sunday, the online secret-sharing site WikiLeaks began the process of releasing approximately 250,000 previously classified U.S. Department of State documents pertaining to American diplomatic activity across the world. As with their last two document dumps, WikiLeaks shared the documents with a number of news organizations before they were widely released. Here’s a basic rundown of the initial coverage from those outlets and others.

The New York Times

The New York Times might have been left out of the WikiLoop this time around had The Guardian’s investigations executive editor David Leigh not handed them copies of the 250,000 cables dumped by WikiLeaks yesterday. In an editorial, the sole American paper to have early access wrote that it decided to report on the cache and publish select cables because “the documents serve an important public interest, illuminating the goals, successes, compromises and frustrations of American diplomacy in a way that other accounts cannot match.” If that sounds a little tepid next to some of the editorial explanations and exhortations coming from their European counterparts, you may think similarly of some of the reporting.

As we have already noted, a leading Times piece splashed across today’s front page on the increased intelligence-gathering expectations being placed on diplomats and state department personnel glosses over a key—and pretty damning—point the Europeans have made much more of: the state department’s order to effectively spy on UN officials as high up as Ban Ki-moon. The Times’s lead piece, “Leaked Cables Offer Raw Look at U.S. Diplomacy,” leans a little heavily on gossipy inter-embassy burns—“When the head is rotten it affects the whole body” is one leveled at Pakistani president Zardari—and an extraneous-feeling description of a lavish wedding in the Caucasus. And those who feel the paper has oversold the dangers of Iran in previous dumps will find much to rile them here. However, the paper does lay out in more detail than most a formidable catalogue of revelations found within the logs, from the tight relationship between Putin and Berlusconi to American diplomatic efforts to secure resettlement for Guantanamo detainees.

What the Times does best is string together numerous cables to create strong, overarching, multi-year narratives of clandestine meetings and diplomatic assessments around big issues—on day one of the reporting on the leaks, these focused on the path to and concern over Iran’s nuclear ambitions and North Korea’s material support for them. This passage from “Around the World, Distress Over Iran,” is typical of the kinds of narratives, laden with previously unreported detail, the Times pieces together.

Regional distrust had only deepened with the election that year of a hard-line Iranian president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

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During a meeting on Dec. 27, 2005, with the commander of the United States Central Command, Gen. John P. Abizaid, military leaders from the United Arab Emirates “all agreed with Abizaid that Iran’s new President Ahmadinejad seemed unbalanced, crazy even,” one cable reports. A few months later, the Emirates’ defense chief, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed of Abu Dhabi, told General Abizaid that the United States needed to take action against Iran “this year or next.”

The question was what kind of action.

Previously, the crown prince had relayed the Emirates’ fear that “it was only a matter of time before Israel or the U.S. would strike Iranian nuclear facility targets.” That could provoke an outcome that the Emirates’ leadership considered “catastrophic”: Iranian missile strikes on American military installations in nearby countries like the Emirates.

Now, with Iran boasting in the spring of 2006 that it had successfully accomplished low-level uranium enrichment, the crown prince began to argue less equivocally, cables show. He stressed “that he wasn’t suggesting that the first option was ‘bombing’ Iran,” but also warned, “They have to be dealt with before they do something tragic.”

The paper publishes eighteen redacted cables online, organized in topics that correspond to its big stories published today: “Candid and Frank Assessments,” Iran’s Nuclear Ambition,” and “Diplomats Helping American Spies.”Joel Meares

The Guardian

The Guardian’s online coverage of “The U.S. Embassy Cables” leaked by WikiLeaks is very thorough and, as my colleague Joel Meares has already pointed out, a bit harsher towards the U.S. in its framing of the documents than other outlets.

The coverage includes a gossipy feature on Prince Andrew’s reported “rudeness” and a lengthy, more serious piece about how damaging all this is to America’s reputation abroad and how futilely Clinton and other officials are scrambling to repair it. Separate sections within the overall coverage include “The spying game” and “Iran,” so we can expect more pieces on those topics as the cables trickle out this week. Also worth checking out: a mini video documentary about the overall significance of this leak, and an interactive map that helps readers explore the cables by country.

Another particularly interesting (albeit not entirely new) piece is a behind-the-scenes story by David Leigh on how Bradley Manning stole the documents in question. An excerpt:

It was childishly easy, according to the published chatlog of a conversation Manning had with a fellow-hacker. “I would come in with music on a CD-RW labelled with something like ‘Lady Gaga’ … erase the music … then write a compressed split file. No one suspected a thing … [I] listened and lip-synched to Lady Gaga’s Telephone while exfiltrating possibly the largest data spillage in American history.” He said that he “had unprecedented access to classified networks 14 hours a day 7 days a week for 8+ months”.

The Datablog invites readers to download the dataset, do their own analysis, and then upload their own visualizations and mashups. The data only includes the date, time, sender and tags for all of the cables, though; the body text of each has been removed. This, and the fact that the server is so overloaded with download requests that it’s giving many people an error message, is inspiring many Datablog readers to sound off in the comments section about censorship. Perhaps when more people are able to download and digest the data, we’ll see some good interpretations of it, but so far the Datablog’s Flickr page for such user-generated projects isn’t showing much action on the WikiLeaks front.

Probably the most compulsively clickable feature of the Guardian’s coverage is its most low-tech one—namely, the live blog keeping up with reaction to the leaks: from politicians and diplomats, from think tank analysts, and from (ha!) the front page of the New York Post. It’s a great aggregation of international discussion, and quite comprehensive. The blog refreshes automatically every minute, and often features The Guardian’s snide commentary. One entry:

6.46pm GMT: And now we go over to the White House briefing room, where Robert Gibbs is telling journalists how terrible these Wikileaks cable disclosures are. “The stealing of classified information is a crime,” says Gibbs, and notes that President Obama “was not pleased”.

And being the White House press corps, the next question is some Washington inside baseball about a meeting between Obama and the Republican leaders tomorrow.

Meanwhile, Guardian media columnist Roy Greenslade gives a quick rundown of the coverage of the story in other major publications in the UK, and asks why so many of their editors seem to be taking the British government at its word that this leak is dangerous and irresponsible. – Lauren Kirchner

Der Spiegel

The German magazine has some English-language coverage up today, a day after it released its first reporting on the state department leaks in print. As with the two previous WikiDumps, Der Spiegel reports on the “explosive revelations” found in the leaks with much color and outrage and a very strong point of view. “If one were to believe the gloomy reports from the embassy in Ankara, Turkey is on a slippery slope to volatile Islamism,” one article says; a piece on the State Department’s orders to gather information from the UN suggests the request goes “well beyond the usual range of diplomatic interests.” Much of the criticism is directed not at the state department or the U.S. government as faceless entities, but at Secretary of State Hillary Clinton as an individual—requests for information about the UN described as “Clinton’s Wish List.”

Naturally, there is a lengthy report devoted to the 1,719 reports that came out of the U.S. Embassy in Berlin. Much of this coverage centers on revelations of German diplomats criticizing each other, U.S. criticisms of Chancellor Merkel—“‘She is risk averse and rarely creative,’ noted one report from March 24, 2009”—and revelations that a source was reporting directly to the embassy on negotiations to form Germany’s current coalition government in October of 2009. A Q&A with the U.S. ambassador to Berlin, Philip Murphy, in which he responds to some of the revelations, was posted on the Der Spiegel website today.

The dominant interest in Der Spiegel’s coverage seems to be to use the cables to define a current “True US Worldview,” a phrase that comes up several times in the magazine’s reporting. What is that worldview?

The State Department’s emissaries abroad cultivate a clear-eyed view of the countries they are posted to, a view that is at times incredibly dark. Viewed through the eyes of the US diplomats, entire states—Kenya for example—appear as mires of corruption.

We’ll keep track of what Der Spiegel does during the rest of the week. – Joel Meares

El País

Spanish newspaper El País leads its WikiLeaks package with an analysis of 3,620 diplomatic documents from the U.S. Embassy in Madrid, ranging from 2004 to 2010, a period of time that coincides with the administration of current prime minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero, a socialist. The most interesting material is the wealth of information on U.S. diplomats’ efforts to understand and deal with Zapatero. One cable disparages the prime minister’s outdated and romantic ideology; another speculates that Zapatero primarily uses his rhetoric to score domestic political points.

Other stories cover the same material being reported in other outlets: that the U.S. will revise its document classification guidelines in the wake of the leak; that American diplomats gathered “human intelligence” about certain figures at the United Nations, including Ban Ki-moon; and so on. The paper’s what-it-all-means pieces are underwhelming: one story predicts that the United States’s reputation will suffer in the wake of the revelations of espionage at the UN (you think?); another crows that the leaks have laid bare America’s foreign policy secrets, like the fact that America worries about China, Iran, and Vladimir Putin. Stop the presses!

Earlier today, the newspaper’s editor-in-chief, Javier Moreno, answered questions from readers about the leak. Moreno demurred on whether WikiLeaks was itself practicing journalism, but said that the leaks have allowed other people to do the sort of great journalism that is increasingly needed in a world where states and politicians are increasingly trying to prevent information from being made public. Asked whether his newspaper had given any thought to the government’s point of view when considering whether to run the story, Moreno was blunt: “Newspapers have many obligations. Protecting governments and the powerful from embarrassing situations is not one of them.” – Justin Peters

Le Monde

Reporting that the release of the State Department cables has sparked “une panique diplomatique,” Le Monde leads its latest coverage of the WikiLeaks dump with an overview of the documents’ principal revelations. Among these: that many Arab countries fear the prospect of a nuclear Iran; that U.S. diplomats were asked to surreptitiously gather information about various personages at the UN; that the U.S. suspects China of hacking Google and regularly penetrating American networks; that French diplomat Jean-David Levitte once called Hugo Chavez a fool.

In an article explaining why they decided to publish the documents, Le Monde argues that since Assange was going to leak them one way or another, the paper felt compelled to journalistically analyze and present the material as a service to its readers. Le Monde offered U.S. officials an opportunity to respond to the leak, and Ambassador Charles Rivkin took them up on the offer, penning a wounded op-ed that decries the leak. “We support and encourage the exchange of ideas on critical public policy questions,” Rivkin writes. “But disseminating material lightly, without regard for the possible consequences, is not the right way to engage in this debate.” – Justin Peters


NPR’s Morning Edition today had an interview with The New York Times’s David Sanger focusing on the leak’s revelations about Iran’s weapon capabilities, and an interview with Le Monde editor in chief Silvie Kauffmann about the reaction in France. Elsewhere on the show, Cokie Roberts was brought in for analysis of reaction in Washington, and she made this observation:

What is somewhat refreshing is that this doesn’t appear, at least at the moment, to be a partisan argument: you, for once in Washington, have the Democrats and the Republicans both on the same side, of course the side of denouncing WikiLeaks.

The NPR website devotes a text story to the reaction from the White House to the leaks, but farms out a lot of its online coverage of WikiLeaks’s latest. The coverage features two editorial cartoons about the leak, and embeds a banal but informative interactive timeline, created by the AP, providing the history and impact of the WikiLeaks organization since 2006, and putting Julian Assange in historical context with the likes of W. Mark Felt and Daniel Ellsberg.

In partnership with Foreign Policy, also published a piece by international politics professor Daniel Drezner asserting that “There are no Big Lies” in this latest Wiki-Dump: nothing to see here, folks. He riffs:

U.S. officials don’t always perfectly advocate for human rights? Not even the most naive human rights activist would believe otherwise. American diplomats are advancing U.S. commercial interests? American officials have been doing that since the beginning of the Republic. American diplomats help out their friends? Yeah, that’s called being human.

Drezner then goes on to quote Don Draper from the television program Mad Men to really drive his point home. He sides with blogger Rob Farley in saying that the only harmful impact of this leak will be on government transparency itself; the U.S. will surely tighten its security systems to prevent further leaks as a result of this one.

The most viewed feature on NPR at the moment, though, is a story about a very different type of “staggering cache”—that of 271 original Picasso pieces discovered in France. – Lauren Kirchner


Politico, as expected, has been covering the leaks early and often. Ben Smith had the first word early on Sunday afternoon, emphasizing in particular that leaks about a widespread determination to end Iran’s nuclear program “will undoubtedly affect policy, even if it’s not entirely clear how.” The overview story—still published hours ahead of the document release—framed the leaks as ”explosive,” “damaging,” and “deeply embarrassing” to the U.S., more so than the previous two sets of war logs from Afghanistan and Iraq, which “contained few surprising details.”

Follow-up articles focused on the leaks’ revelations about Iran, Obama’s weakening power, and reactions to the leaks from the Pentagon, Secretary of State Clinton, and basically every other politician and pundit in Washington, D.C. One short blog post collects the various insults that the WikiLeaks “burn book” lobbies against various world leaders:

Kim Jong-Il is a “flabby old chap” (according to a diplomatic source)….

Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi is “feckless, vain, and ineffective as a modern European leader” (according to a U.S. diplomat in Rome).

Robert Mugabe is simply “the crazy old man”.…


Politico’s pop-out video player features a fast-moving video mashup of reactions on network and cable TV news, feeding the soundbyte beast with even more candy. – Lauren Kirchner

CJR Staff is a contributor to CJR.