Keller's story is long, detailing the Times' fraught relationship with Assange and the complex set
of decisions involved in publishing and reporting on the somewhat
unprecedented release of material. It's a story fit for what's sure to
be a film someday. We sifted through it it for the choicest details for you.
Involving Just About Everybody
The adventure that ensued over the next
six months combined the cloak-and-dagger intrigue of handling a vast
secret archive with the more mundane feat of sorting, searching and
understanding a mountain of data. As if that were not complicated
enough, the project also entailed a source who was elusive, manipulative
and volatile (and ultimately openly hostile to The Times and The
Guardian); an international cast of journalists; company lawyers
committed to keeping us within the bounds of the law; and an array of
government officials who sometimes seemed as if they couldn’t decide
whether they wanted to engage us or arrest us.
Assange Was a
Source, Not a Collaborator
We regarded Assange throughout as a source,
not as a partner or collaborator, but he was a man who clearly had his
own agenda.... I will not say 'a source, pure and simple,' because as
any reporter or editor can attest, sources are rarely pure or simple,
and Assange was no exception. But the relationship with sources is
straightforward: you don’t necessarily endorse their agenda, echo their
rhetoric, take anything they say at face value, applaud their methods
or, most important, allow them to shape or censor your journalism.
First Impressions of Assange From a Veteran Reporter in London
'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 [Keller] 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.'
Transformed By His 'Outlaw Celebrity'
The derelict with the backpack
and the sagging socks now wore his hair dyed and styled, and he favored
fashionably skinny suits and ties. He became a kind of cult figure for
the European young and leftish and was evidently a magnet for women.
With A Vengeful Streak
Assange was openly contemptuous of the American
government and certain that he was a hunted man. He told the reporters
that he had prepared a kind of doomsday option. He had, he said,
distributed highly encrypted copies of his entire secret archive to a
multitude of supporters, and if WikiLeaks was shut down, or if he was
arrested, he would disseminate the key to make the information public.
Condition the Times Agreed On Was 'Embargo'
Assange provided us the
data on the condition that we not write about it before specific dates
that WikiLeaks planned on posting the documents on a publicly accessible
Web site. The Afghanistan documents would go first, after we had a few
weeks to search the material and write our articles. The larger cache of
Iraq-related documents would go later. Such embargoes — agreements not
to publish information before a set date — are commonplace in
journalism. Everything from studies in medical journals to the annual
United States budget is released with embargoes. They are a constraint
with benefits, the principal one being the chance to actually read and
reflect on the material before publishing it into public view.
at the Times
An air of intrigue verging on paranoia permeated the
project, perhaps understandably, given that we were dealing with a mass
of classified material and a source who acted like a fugitive, changing
crash pads, e-mail addresses and cellphones frequently. 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.
Times Was Behind Efforts to
Censor Sensitive Details in the Material
From the beginning, we agreed
that in our articles and in any documents we published from the secret
archive, we would excise material that could put lives at risk. Guided
by reporters with extensive experience in the field, we redacted the
names of ordinary citizens, local officials, activists, academics and
others who had spoken to American soldiers or diplomats. We edited out
any details that might reveal ongoing intelligence-gathering operations,
military tactics or locations of material that could be used to fashion
terrorist weapons....If a dispatch noted that Aircraft A left Location B
at a certain time and arrived at Location C at a certain time, [C.J]
Chivers edited it out on the off chance that this could teach enemy
forces something useful about the capabilities of that aircraft.
The Times’s relationship with our source had gone from
wary to hostile. I talked to Assange by phone a few times and heard out
his complaints. He was angry that we declined to link our online coverage
of the War Logs to the WikiLeaks Web site, a decision we made because
we feared — rightly, as it turned out — that its trove would contain the
names of low-level informants and make them Taliban targets. 'Where’s
the respect?' he demanded. 'Where’s the respect?'....The final straw was
a front-page profile
of Assange by John Burns and Ravi Somaiya, published Oct. 24, that
revealed fractures within WikiLeaks, attributed by Assange’s critics to
his imperious management style. Assange denounced the article to me, and
in various public forums, as 'a smear.'
The Diplomatic Cable
In October, WikiLeaks gave The Guardian its third archive, a
quarter of a million communications between the U.S. State Department
and its outposts around the globe. This time, Assange imposed a new
condition: The Guardian was not to share the material with The New York
Tunisia Uprising Spurred by Wikileaks
in which American diplomats recount the extravagant corruption of
Tunisia’s rulers helped fuel a popular uprising that has overthrown the
An Uncomfortable Meeting With The Government
they posted some of the embassy cables, the newspaper informed officials in
Washington. Two reporters from the Times subsequently "were invited to a windowless
room at the State Department, where they encountered an unsmiling crowd.
Representatives from the White House, the State Department, the Office
of the Director of National Intelligence, the C.I.A., the Defense Intelligence Agency, the F.B.I.
and the Pentagon gathered around a conference table. Others, who never
identified themselves, lined the walls. A solitary note-taker tapped
away on a computer.
Obama White House Much Different Than Bush's
I have vivid memories of sitting in the Oval Office as President George W. Bush
tried to persuade me and the paper’s publisher to withhold the
eavesdropping story [The Times' own investigation in 2006] saying that
if we published it, we should share the blame for the next terrorist
attack....The Obama administration’s reaction was different. It was, for
the most part, sober and professional. The Obama White House, while
strongly condemning WikiLeaks for making the documents public, did not
seek an injunction to halt publication. There was no Oval Office
lecture. On the contrary, in our discussions before publication of our
articles, White House officials, while challenging some of the
conclusions we drew from the material, thanked us for handling the
documents with care.
Issue of Free-Speech
I would hesitate to
describe what WikiLeaks does as journalism, 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.
This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.