Spotlight: NYT Chief on Wikileaks Saga

This article is from the archive of our partner .

Wednesday, The New York Times published executive editor Bill Keller's full account of the paper's dealings with Julian Assange and WikiLeaks online, intended for the NYT Magazine's cover story this weekend. Apparently, when Keller got a phone call from his counterpart at British newspaper The Guardian in June, asking him if he had secure way to communicate, he had no idea what to expect. Alan Rusbridger, the editor of the Guardian proceeded to tell him about an organization called WikiLeaks lead by an eccentric--now practically a household name--and wanted to know if the Times was interested in sharing a cache of over half a million documents from the military in Iraq and Afghanistan. The source had given the ok. Was Keller interested?

Of course he was. And Wikileaks first big scandal was about to hit: the release of the "War Logs." The Wikileaks saga has gone on from there, a stunning narrative featuring a former computer hacker turned paranoid visionary and digital provocateur with a trail of sex crimes in his wake, the stubborn but embarrassed US government, a complex entanglement of between government officials, the military, foreign officers, informants, the press and a handful of international hell-raisers. The next target is purported to be a large multinational bank--speculation has focused on the Bank of America--with Julian Assange facing charges and his organization continually under threat, nobody really knows what will happen next.

Recommended Reading

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.

A Story 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.'

Later 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.

Paranoid 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.

Only 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.

Secrecy 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.

Fallout With Assange

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 Leaks

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 Times.

Tunisia Uprising Spurred by Wikileaks

WikiLeaks cables in which American diplomats recount the extravagant corruption of Tunisia’s rulers helped fuel a popular uprising that has overthrown the government.

An Uncomfortable Meeting With The Government

Before 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.