William McGowan: Adult supervision? @ The NYT? Part 4

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.

In a series of previous posts Bill has examined the Times‘s treatment of national security issues. Bill’s examination of the Times‘s treatment of national security issues continues in this post today today and one later this week. He will also take a concluding look at other issues of adult supervision at the Times:

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Bill Keller and Cablegate

The third round of Wikileaks came in late November. It involved the release of 250,000 classified U.S. State Department communiques from around the world and came to known as “Cablegate.” As a journalist and as a citizen, I admit to mixed feelings on this one. Some of this information was good for the Times to help bring to a broader public. Much was not, however, especially during a globe-spanning war on terror in which the confidentiality of diplomatic discussions about allies and enemies alike is essential.

But Times editor Bill Keller’s self-serving, shifting, and contradictory rationales for publicizing this particular set of Wikileaks, and the way Keller glibly minimized the damage of the leaks even as he pompously exaggerated their civic importance underscored the paper’s leadership deficit. Not to mention the Times‘s inability to define the true nature of the Times‘s working relationship with Julian Assange, Assange’s real ideological agenda, the Times‘s waffling reluctance to declare whether Wikileaks was a legitimate journalistic organization or not, and the way Keller threw Assange under a bus as soon as the leakmeister become dispensable. This last, even as Keller publicly voiced anxiety about Assange being prosecuted under U.S espionage laws.

Like the NSA and SWIFT exposes before it, the Times‘s actions in Cablegate seemed more a matter of using the idea of the public’s right to know as a cover to flex its journalistic muscles, especially reckless in a time of war. Keller’s institutional myopia came through in its most pure form in remark he made on NPR’s “On the Media.” “There are lots of things that governments have the right to keep secret,” he told host Bob Garfield. “It’s their job to keep it secret. [But] It’s not the press’s job to do that” (italics mine). Answering the Times Pubic Editor Art Brisbane’s questions, Keller acknowledged the legal and logistical challenges Wikileaks represented. “But none of that ever overcome the excitement of a great story” (italics again mine).

“State’s Secrets” which was what the Times called this multi-part series, launched on November 29 under the headline “Leaked Cables Offer a Raw Look Inside U.S. Diplomacy.” The lead paragraph said the cables provided “an unprecedented look at back-room bargaining around the world, brutally candid views of foreign leads and frank assessments of nuclear and terrorist threats.” Keller later wrote that the cables “covered the entire globe — virtually every embassy, consulate and interest section that the United States maintains. They contained the makings of many dozens of stories: candid American appraisals of foreign leaders, narratives of complicated negotiations, allegations of corruption and duplicity, countless behind-the-scenes insights. Some of the material was of narrow local interest; some of it had global implications. Some provided authoritative versions of events not previously fully understood. Some consisted of rumor and flimsy speculation.”

Secretary of State Hilary Clinton called the leaks an attack on America and the international community. She said the leaks were not “whistleblowing” at all because they exposed no official wrongdoing. In anticipation of the leaks and the Times publicity for them, State had launched a mad scramble to get out ahead of the controversy by briefing allies what was to be disclosed.

One of the more scathing condemnations came from Max Boot, of the Council on Foreign Relations. “There was a time when editors and reporters thought of themselves as citizens first and journalists second,” as in WW II, Boot wrote in Commentary. But “[w]e now seem to have reached a moment when the West’s major news organizations, working hand in glove with a sleazy website, feel free to throw spitballs at those who make policy and those who execute it. This is journalism as pure vandalism. If I were responsible, I would feel shame and embarrassment. But apparently, those healthy emotions are in short supply these days.”

In a special “Note to Readers” Keller stressed the Times‘s responsibility in redacting and contextualizing the raw documents, depicting this as a public service for which they should be given plaudits. As a general rule, the Times protected operational intelligence and the capabilities of American weapons, which adversaries might find useful. Yet at the same time, the Times was less likely” to censor candid remarks simply because they might cause a diplomatic controversy or embarrass officials.”

At points he sounded embarrassingly pompous. “For the Times to ignore this material would be to deny its own readers the careful reporting and thoughtful analysis they expect when this kind of information becomes public……As daunting as it is to publish such material over official objections, it would be presumptuous to conclude that Americans have no right to know what is being done in their name.” In a separate online Q&A to answer readers’ questions, Keller said the alternative “is to give the government a veto over what its citizens are allowed to know,” —i.e., the veto the government exercises in authoritarian and totalitarian regimes.

In his communications with readers, Keller minimized the impact of the leaks on foreign allies, declaring they see advantages in cooperating with the U.S. “that transcend embarrassment.” He also insisted that Wikleaks was not a “media partner of the Times,” which Julian Assange would later hotly contest.

Times readers, usually dependably loyal and liberal were having little of it. In the online Q&A, one called the Times‘s decision-making “pathetic” and its reasoning “ridiculous.” Another, who said he was neither a Tea partier nor a Republican, implied he was canceling his subscription. Still another called Julian Assange nothing more than “a narcissist posing as a moralist.”

As weeks passed, some of the information the Times disclosed was probably good for the public to learn, such as the fact that North Korea has provided Iran with missile technology that might make it possible for Tehran to threaten Russia and Western Europe, although other credible news organizations insisted otherwise; that China doesn’t have very much knowledge about or influence over the “Hermit Kingdom,” but is skillful (and insecure enough) to hack into Google China; that Pakistan is a dubious ally, playing a “double game” with the Taliban, “nodding to American interests,” as Keller put it, “while abetting the Taliban;” and that access to classified information needs to be more tightly restricted. As Victor Davis Hanson put it: “That the young private Manning was even near a computer with such confidential material is insane.”

But some of the disclosures did material damage to U.S. interests or threatened to. One cable quoted the American ambassador to Pakistan worrying about Pakistani nationalists learning about a U.S. technical team operating inside the country. The team was trying to remove highly enriched uranium from a reactor which could be used to make a bomb. This would “scuttle the operation,” the ambassador wrote. “Consider it scuttled,” Peter Beinart observed. And cables from the U.S. Ambassador to Pakistan disclosing that Pakistan shared information on the terrorist attacks on Bombay with its arch-rival India, in a secret agreement brokered by the U.S., certainly didn’t help either side with its respective militants.

Cables from Yemen quote President Ali Abdullah Saleh telling General David Petraeus that Yemen would take responsibility for drone missiles actually fired by the U.S. He was also quoted as saying he didn’t mind the smuggling of whiskey into his country as long as it was “good whiskey.” This made Saleh sound both like an American toady and insufficiently Islamic in a deeply conservative country, which could give Al Qaeda advantage. As a senior American military officer recently told the New Yorker‘s Dexter Filkins about the chaos that had now engulfed Yemen: “If Saleh goes the two likeliest outcomes are anarchy or a government that is not friendly.”

Yes, Wikileaked cables about the corruption and decadence of Tunisia’s President Ben-Ali helped spur the popular uprising there, which sparked the same in Egypt. But if this brings to power the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood, whose idea of democracy is “one man, one vote, one time,” history may see that leak more ambiguously.

A cable from Mexico reported that a deputy minister for domestic security asserted there was a deadline of 18 months to go after the narco-traffickers but that after that the effort would be hard to sustain into the new administration. This telegraphed to the narcos that they should simply “wait it out,” much U.S. military officials worried about the message to jihadists and militants that would be sent by announcing deadlines for troop withdrawals in Iraq and Afghanistan.

But the most damaging aspect of the revelations was the way they stripped away the necessary veils which diplomacy needs to function.

As Gabriel Schoenfeld wrote in National Review Online, “Democracies like ours have a vital need for secrecy in the conduct of foreign affairs and war. And Wikileaks, which appears to be beyond the reach of our laws, is engaging in an assault on democratic governance.”

Philip Terzian, a former member of State Department policy planning staff now with the Weekly Standard wrote that the greatest danger of episodes like this is the damage to “free and unfettered communication on matters of war and peace, life and death. If an ambassador or military officer knows that his honest answers to questions from superiors will soon be in the public domain, he will begin to furnish dishonest answers-or no answers at all. How any news organization can conclude that this is in the public interest is beyond me.”

In justifying the disclosure of classified cables, Keller took pains to minimize their import, saying that most were marked “secret” which was a low level of classification. Later, in the magazine piece about the Cablegate episode, Keller wrote that much of the communication between Washington and its diplomatic outposts is usually marked top secret or higher and “was thus missing from this trove.” The Times editorial page echoed this, saying that Hilary Clinton’s claim that the leaks were an attack on the U.S. and the international community was “exaggerated.”

The news report echoed that minimization effort too. In an early December story far too premature to really assess an impact: “Leaked Cables Stir Resentment and Shrugs” said, “There is, so far, no evidence of any deep damage to American diplomacy – with many nations, in public anyway, brushing off the sometimes embarrassing revelations. Their own interest in a relationship with the United States, some suggested, trumps momentary awkwardness.” Meanwhile the Washington Post ran a report headlined “Foreign Governments Say Wikileaks Revelations Undercut relations With U.S.”

Demonstrating a profound lack of historical and institutional memory, Keller and others at the Times, including his managing editor, Jill Abramson, likened the cables to the 1971 Pentagon Papers, which, Abramson pointed out, were even more highly classified than most of the Wikileaked diplomatic materials. Indeed, the reporters who wrote the October hatchet job on Assange, noted in my last post, reached out to Daniel Ellsberg, who told them: “I’ve been waiting 40 years for someone to disclose information on a scale that might really make a difference.” Ellsberg saw Pfc. Bradley Manning and Julian Assange as “kindred spirits” because they were willing to go to prison, even to be executed “to put out this information.”

But as Floyd Abrams, who has represented the Times in many First Amendment cases, pointed out, Ellsberg withheld four volumes of the Pentagon Papers “describing the diplomatic efforts of the United States to resolve the war.” Not at all coincidentally, Abrams explained, “those were the volumes that the government most feared would be disclosed” because they contained “derogatory comments about the perfidiousness of specific persons involved, and statements which might be offensive to nations or governments”—i.e., exactly the information that Keller dismissed as merely embarrassing.

As Ellsberg himself later explained in a 1972 book, “I didn’t want to get in the way of the diplomacy.” Abrams too was scalding. The Pentagon Papers “revealed official wrongdoing or, at the least, a pervasive lack of candor by the government to its people. WikiLeaks is different. It revels in the revelation of “secrets” simply because they are secret. It assaults the very notion of diplomacy that is not presented live on C-Span…. Taken as a whole, however, a leak of this elephantine magnitude, which appears to demonstrate no misconduct by the U.S., is difficult to defend on any basis other than WikiLeaks’ general disdain for any secrecy at all.”

And as noted by histories of the Times, such as Alex Jones and Susan Tifft’s The Trust, the Times only went into print with the Pentagon Papers when publisher “Punch” Sulzberger was convinced no “live” military secrets would be disclosed.

Coming soon: Adult supervision? @ The NYT? part 5.

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