Huge Keller Cover Story Defends Spilling Diplomatic Secrets From WikiLeaks

The biggest laugh line in Executive Editor Bill Keller's proud defense of his paper's publication of secret diplomatic cables from WikiLeaks and Julian Assange: " is our aim to be impartial in our presentation of the news." Yet he clearly preferred dealing with the Obama White House over that of President George W. Bush.
Executive Editor Bill Keller's 8,000-word New York Times Magazine cover story on WikiLeaks founder and anti-social anti-American Julian Assange, "The Boy Who Kicked The Hornet's Nest - Dealing With Julian Assange And His Secrets" is partly an explanation and partly a tick-tock guide of the events leading up to the Times' publishing over several months batches from the vast archive of secret government data hoarded by WikiLeaks and its founder Julian Assange.

The Times drew particular attention after publishing in late November 2010 secret and sensitive embassy cables revealing candid talk behind the scenes of U.S. diplomacy in hot spots around the world.

Assange's wacky and paranoid personality and "glib antipathy toward the United States" (as Keller described it) has colored the reception of his stolen secrets in America. Keller doesn't avoid Assange's unflattering aspects, but proudly defends his paper's participation in Assange's attempt to undermine confidence in the United States.

Keller also plumped for his paper's commitment to impartiality, while clearly preferring his dealings with the "sober and professional" Obama White House to that of George W. Bush. To conservative critics, he claimed it was "chilling to contemplate the possible government prosecution of WikiLeaks for making secrets public."

(Keller's essay is adapted from his introduction to "Open Secrets: WikiLeaks, War and American Diplomacy: Complete and Expanded Coverage from The New York Times," an ebook offered by the Times.)

Keller set the scene (it all started with a phone call from the editor of the U.K. newspaper The Guardian, and the two papers collaborated). The strange Assange floated in and out of the proceedings:

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."


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.

Keller described publication of the first round of Wikileaks material, in July 2010, by positioning the Times as a voice of moderate reason, at least compared to the openly left-wing U.K. Guardian.

If anyone doubted that the three publications operated independently, the articles we posted that day made it clear that we followed our separate muses. The Guardian, which is an openly left-leaning newspaper, used the first War Logs to emphasize civilian casualties in Afghanistan, claiming the documents disclosed that coalition forces killed "hundreds of civilians in unreported incidents," underscoring the cost of what the paper called a "failing war." Our reporters studied the same material but determined that all the major episodes of civilian deaths we found in the War Logs had been reported in The Times, many of them on the front page....

What caused the most outcry was the leaking of sensitive embassy cables in November. Keller described meeting with the Obama White House and casually revealed that if not for White House intervention, the paper may have exposed individuals in foreign countries to danger.

The administration's concerns generally fell into three categories. First was the importance of protecting individuals who had spoken candidly to American diplomats in oppressive countries. We almost always agreed on those and were grateful to the government for pointing out some we overlooked.

Keller clearly preferred working with Obama over the Bush White House.

The tension between a newspaper's obligation to inform and the government's responsibility to protect is hardly new. At least until this year, nothing The Times did on my watch caused nearly so much agitation as two articles we published about tactics employed by the Bush administration after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. The first, which was published in 2005 and won a Pulitzer Prize, revealed that the National Security Agency was eavesdropping on domestic phone conversations and e-mail without the legal courtesy of a warrant. The other, published in 2006, described a vast Treasury Department program to screen international banking records.

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, saying that if we published it, we should share the blame for the next terrorist attack. We were unconvinced by his argument and published the story, and the reaction from the government - and conservative commentators in particular - was vociferous.

This time around, 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....

Keller rose to his paper's defense with a laugh line about the paper's "aim to be impartial."

Much of the concern reflected a genuine conviction that in perilous times the president needs extraordinary powers, unfettered by Congressional oversight, court meddling or the strictures of international law and certainly safe from nosy reporters. That is compounded by a popular sense that the elite media have become too big for their britches and by the fact that our national conversation has become more polarized and strident.

Although it is our aim to be impartial in our presentation of the news, our attitude toward these issues is far from indifferent....


But while I do not regard Assange as a partner, and 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.

Michael Goodwin in Sunday's New York Post was skeptical of Keller's defense, thinking the editor "reveals his personal bias. He writes that, at the request of the Obama White House, 'we agreed to withhold some of this information, like a cable describing an intelligence-sharing program that took years to arrange and might be lost if exposed.' Yet when President George W. Bush had made the same request about key anti-terror programs, Keller writes, 'we were unconvinced by his argument and published the story' even though Bush warned the Times would 'share the blame for the next terrorist attack.'"

You can follow Times Watch on Twitter.