William McGowan: Adult supervision? @ The NYT? Part 3

William McGowan is the prominent journalist and author, most recently, of Gray Lady Down: What the Decline and Fall of the New York Times Means for America. The book authoritatively covers the important and interesting subject suggested in its subtitle.

Glenn Reynolds hailed the book in the excellent lead review of the January 24, 2011, issue of National Review. Glenn wrote: “McGowan piles up incident after incident demonstrating beyond dispute that the New York Times of today is very different from, and far inferior to, the New York Times of a generation ago….[He] deploys the sheer repetitiveness of the problems as a way of making clear that they are systemic ones, not just the result of a few bad actors or bad decisions.” Numerous excerpts of favorable reviews are compiled here at the site for the book.

We have invited Mr. McGowan to write a series of columns for us on themes related to the book. In the first column of this series he engaged in a bit of alternate history involving the sting that convulsed NPR. Last week he commenced his examination of the Times‘s treatment of national security issues in posts here (part 1) and here (part 2). Today he continues with part 3, on Bill Keller and Wikileaks, which will conclude in a subsequent post:

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Bill Keller and Wikileaks

Times editor Bill Keller’s decision to enter into a journalistic relationship with Julian Assange and Wikileaks bared his most callow, self-serving and contradictory side, as well as his lack of self- and institutional awareness. These features first appeared after public criticism for the Times‘s cooperation with Assange when Wikileaks’ “dumped” more than 75,000 classified documents related to the U.S. military effort in Afghanistan in late July 2010, followed by another much bigger dump of classified military documents regarding the war in Iraq later in October.

Keller’s justifications for cooperating with Wikileaks’ grew even thinner, more tortured and more contradictory when Assange and his group released a cache of 250,000 U.S. State Department cables, all classified, that had been obtained by Assange through a low-level Army intelligence analyst who yet might be charged with treason.

Wikileaks had been in existence since 2006 and had gained notoriety when it posted documents on the Guantánamo Bay detention operation, the membership rolls of the neo-Nazi British National Party, reports of repression, including extrajudicial killings in Kenya and East Timor and the corker: the contents of Sarah Palin’s personal Yahoo email account.

It gained its greatest exposure, at least at that point when it released a combat video showing American Apache helicopters in Baghdad in 2007 gunning down at least 12 people. Two of the casualties were Reuters journalists. In a move clearly calculated to make the video an anti-American propaganda tool, it released two versions, scrubbing from one an Iraqi militant who was carrying a rocket-propelled grenade, calling this sanitized version “Collateral Murder” for maximum political effect.

In late July 2010 Wikileaks released 77,000 classified documents it had obtained from PFC Bradley Manning, a disgruntled low-level army intelligence analyst in Iraq. These documents were shared with three international news organizations: The New York Times, the British Guardian and Germany’s Der Spiegel.

According to the first Times report generated by this latest round of leaks—a July 25th front pager with the headline, “View is Bleaker Than Official Portrayal of War in Afghanistan,” the documents represented “a six-year archive of classified military documents (which) offers an unvarnished, ground level picture of the war in Afghanistan that is in many respects more grim” than officials had admitted.

In A Note to Readers, Keller and his top editors said that the documents were “records of engagements, mishaps ‘intelligence on enemy activity and other events from the war in Afghanistan,” and were “used by desk officers in the Pentagon and troops in the field when they make operational plans and prepare briefings on the situation in the war zone.” The note continued: “Most of the reports are routine, even mundane, but add insights, texture and context to a war that has been waged for nearly nine years.”

In his note and in a special Question and Answer online feature, Keller tried to make the Times sound responsible in contextualizing and confirming the authenticity of the Wikileaked “War Logs.” But he tried to minimize the gravity of the security breach by claiming that most of the documents were “marked secret,” which was “a relatively low level of classification.”

Keller also declared that “Wikileaks was not involved in the news organizations’ research, reporting, analysis and writing,” when in fact subsequent disclosures by Keller himself clearly indicated that Assange played a key role in helping the news organizations prepare the leaked documents for publication, and was at the table, so to speak, even after relations between him and the Times had soured.

There was also the irony of Keller declaring in the Q&A that the Times doesn’t “discuss our internal editorial and legal deliberations” when the Times was opening up the internal deliberations of the US Army for all the world to see — an irony apparently lost on him. Nor did Keller take on the question of Assange’s clear leftist agenda. As Will Heaven of the London Daily Telegraph said, Assange was hardly politically neutral when he fed his information to left-leaning publications like the Times, the Guardian and Der Speigel instead of releasing the data openly.

In the Q&A, Keller commended Wikileaks for withholding 15,000 of the 92,000 documents it was going to publish on its Web site, describing this move as part of the organization’s “harm minimization process.” But in fact Wikileaks had revealed the names of civilians who had cooperated with U.S. military and intelligence in Afghanistan, publishing their fathers’ names and villages as well. Rep. Jane Harman of the Homeland Security Subcommittee on Intelligence said it “served up a target list and an enemies list to the Taliban.”

Indeed, a Taliban spokesman in Afghanistan using the pseudonym Zabiullah Mujahid said in a telephone interview that the Taliban had formed a nine-member “commission” after the Afghan documents were posted “to find about people who are spying.” He said the Taliban had a “wanted” list of 1,800 Afghans suspected of informing or collaborating and was comparing that with names Wikileaks provided.

Wikleaks, and by extension the New York Times, drew the scorn of a host of international human rights and non-governmental organizations too. Among them were Amnesty International, Reporters Without Borders, George Soros Open Society Institute, the Kabul office of the International Crisis Group and the Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission.

These groups were joined by Steven Aftergood of the Federation of Atomic Scientists. Aftergood, the editor of Secrecy News, is one of the foremost advocates of governmental transparency, which Wikileaks and the Times claimed to stand for too. But Wikileaks, Aftergood wrote, was not an “open government group, an “anti-corruption group” a “transparency group” or a “whistleblower’s site.”

In fact, Wikileaks “must be counted among the enemies of open society because it does not respect the rule of law nor does it honor the rights of individuals….This is not whistle blowing and this is not journalism. It is a kind of information vandalism.” He went on to condemn “the wave of uncritical and even adulatory reporting about the brave ‘open government’ site.”

Whether any cooperative Afghani civilians were killed was an open question, at least until October when the Pentagon said that no one was killed, though many had to be moved out of harm’s way and some reports said Afghani civilians had grown more wary of cooperating with Americans. But military officials did say that Wikileaks exposed battlefield tactics and intelligence sources and methods, and to the extent the Times validated Wikileaks’ work, Keller and crew deserve some blame for that.

In preparing its reports based on the Wikileaks war logs Keller consulted with the Obama administration. He also refused to “link” the Times reports to the Wikileaks site. Not linking, Keller told the Daily Beast, was merely a “gesture.” Obviously, he said, “our decision not to link to the Wikileaks archive would not deter anyone who wanted to find it. All we could do was make this gesture to show we were not endorsing or encouraging the release of information that could cause harm” to “Afghan informants who could now be targets of reprisals by the insurgents.”

Assange was livid about the Times‘s consultations with the White House. It would give Washington “extra lead time to spin the story.” As for not linking to the site, Assange said Keller was being “pusillanimous,” “unprofessional” and “defensive,” instead of “pursuing the real meat of the story.”

It was around this time that Times reporters involved in the project began refuting Assange’s version of their working relationship, insisting they “were not in any kind of partnership or collaboration with him,” as lead reporter Eric Schmitt told the Columbia Journalism Review, despite the long magazine account written by Keller himself which clearly described the relationship as a collaboration in which Assange played a key role.

The Times began to put even more distance between itself and Wikileaks through an unflattering profile of the army intelligence analyst who had leaked the military documents to Assange and an even more unflattering profile of Assange himself. These were efforts that got prominent “play” in the paper and were greenlit by Keller.

The profile of army intelligence analyst Bradley Manning ran in early August under the headline “Early Struggles of Soldier Charged in Leak Case.” As a boy, Ginger Thompson reported, Manning was “a geek” with a gift for “hacking” computers and was made fun of by classmates for being gay. He seemed to have problems with authority. “In his Bible Belt hometown that he once mockingly wrote in an e-mail had “more pews than people,”

Private Manning refused to recite the parts of the Pledge of Allegiance that referred to God or do homework assignments that involved the Scriptures,” Thompson wrote. “And if a teacher challenged his views, former classmates said, he was quick to push back.” Manning also had a bad temper. In school, “Often, with only the slightest provocation, he would launch into fits of rage.” His father kicked him out of the house when he learned he was gay.

Manning joined the army, but his military career was anything but stellar. He had been reprimanded twice, including once for assaulting an officer. Before he went to Iraq though he had found some acceptance and comfort in a group of young people in Cambridge, Massachusetts, including a boyfriend who was an open drag queen. Some of those friends, reported Thompson, now wondered “whether his desperation for acceptance–or delusions of grandeur–may have led him to disclose the largest trove of government secrets since the Pentagon Papers.”

The article closed with an image of Manning lip-syncing to Lady Gaga as he downloaded the leaked video of the helicopter attack and “hundreds of thousands of diplomatic cables.” Thompson quoted an email Manning wrote to the man who eventually turned him in. “Hillary Clinton and several thousand diplomats around the world are going to have a heart attack,” Thompson said Manning boasted. “But even as he professed a perhaps inflated sense of purpose,” she wrote, “he called himself ’emotionally fractured’ and a ‘wreck’ and said he was ‘self-medicating like crazy.'”

The paper’s hatchet job on Assange himself ran in late October and was co-written by John Burns and Ravi Somaiya. “WikiLeaks Founder on the Run, Trailed by Notoriety” read the headline. The profile made Assange out to be paranoid, grandiose, imperious, condescending, insulting, megalomaniacal, dictatorial, uncompromising, and swollen-headed.

The profile depicted his organization as rebelling against him and the U.S. government as readying to prosecute him. The news peg was the impending release of almost 400,000 documents about the Iraq war. These, the Times wrote upon their release, “shed new light on the war, including such fraught subjects as civilian deaths, detainee abuse and the involvement of Iran.”

The reporters described Assange as moving “like a hunted man.” He “pitches his voice barely above a whisper to foil the Western intelligence agencies he fears” and demands “that his dwindling number of loyalists use expensive encrypted cellphones and swaps his own the way other men change shirts. He checks into hotels under false names, dyes his hair, sleeps on sofas and floors, and uses cash instead of credit cards, often borrowed from friends.”

Some of these comrades were defecting “for what they see as erratic and imperious behavior, and a nearly delusional grandeur unmatched by an awareness that the digital secrets he reveals can have a price in flesh and blood.” Assange “alone decided to release the Afghan documents without removing the names of Afghan intelligence sources for NATO troops,” which made them quite upset. When one Wikileaks member questioned Mr. Assange’s judgment Assange told him: “I don’t like your tone,” he said, according to a transcript. “If it continues, you’re out.”

Assange told the colleague that he was “the heart and soul of this organization, its founder, philosopher, spokesperson, original coder, organizer, financier, and all the rest.” If the colleague had a problem Assange told him he should quit. The colleague told the reporters that Assange was “not in his right mind.” To which Assange said: “These are not consequential people.” The reporters described the transcript of an encrypted online chat in which Assange described his colleagues as “a confederacy of fools” and asked one interlocutor, “Am I dealing with a complete retard?”

When the reporters asked Assange about the rifts within Wikileaks, the group’s opaque finances, and the fate of Bradley Manning, who Assange regarded as collateral damage in his struggle against an America that was increasingly militarized and a threat to democracy, Assange called the questions “cretinous,” “facile,” and reminiscent of “kindergarten,” the reporters wrote. As for the rape charges which were pending in Sweden, Assange was quoted as referring to himself as “the James Bond of journalism.” This had gotten him a lot of fans, he told the Times “And some of them ended up causing me a bit of trouble.”

Assange was upset at the Times already for failing to link to the Wiki website; “Where’s the respect?” he asked Keller. He said the profile of Manning “psychologized” the leaker and gave short shrift to his “political awakening.” And according to Keller, “the final straw” was Assange’s own Times profile, which he called “a smear.”

So when it came time for Wikileaks to release yet another batch of classified U.S. documents leaked by Manning, this one 250,000 U.S State Department cables laying bare the inner workings of American diplomacy, Assange cut Keller and the Times out of the deal. But the Times got them anyway, from the Guardian.

According to Keller, Assange was losing control over his stockpile of leaked documents–some were appearing in publications not part of the original deal–and the Guardian felt that this absolved it of the pledge it made to allow Assange control over which news organizations would get them. This was the thinnest of rationalizations on the Guardian‘s part. But Keller did not seem to mind triggering a credibility crisis in American diplomacy during a time of war, the ramifications of which are still not fully evident.

Monday: Adult supervision? @ the NYT? part 4.

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