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For New York Times, a Complex Relationship With WikiLeaks, Government

January 28, 2011 at 5:44 PM EDT
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Jeffrey Brown talks to Bill Keller, executive editor of The New York Times, about the decisions the newspaper faced in negotiating with WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange and the U.S. government over publishing classified government information.
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JIM LEHRER: Now a new inside look behind the WikiLeaks documents and stories.

And to Jeffrey Brown.

JEFFREY BROWN: July 26, 2010, The New York Times carries a series of articles under the title “The War Logs,” based on the unauthorized release of thousands of classified government documents from the Afghan war.

Times, collaborating with The Guardian of London and the German Der Spiegel, received the documents from an organization called WikiLeaks, founded in 2006 to publish sensitive material anonymously and headed by an Australian named Julian Assange.

In October, the “War Logs” articles continued, this time gleaned from 400,000 leaked documents related to the Iraq war. And, on Nov. 29, the paper began what it called a raw look inside U.S. diplomacy: stories based on 250,000 leaked U.S. embassy cables.

The cables have led to further reports revealing private, sometimes embarrassing, details of U.S. relations with countries around the world, including, just today, insights into the upheavals in Egypt.

Last June, federal authorities arrested Army intelligence specialist Bradley Manning, who is suspected of being the source for WikiLeaks’ documents. On Monday, The Times is releasing an e-book titled “Open Secrets: WikiLeaks, War and American Diplomacy.”

And the story of the paper’s involvement with WikiLeaks is told in this Sunday’s magazine by the man who oversaw the coverage, New York Times editor Bill Keller.

And Bill Keller joins us now from the Times newsroom.

Mr. Keller, amid what you call a wholesale security breach, you had to make some immediate decisions about whether to proceed and how to deal with all this material. What was the key thing right off the bat in making those decisions?

BILL KELLER, executive editor, The New York Times: Well, the first thing was really two things. It was, is this stuff legitimate, is it real, and is it of public interest?

And we sent one of our best military correspondents to London to look at the stuff, somebody who — a guy named Eric Schmitt, who had seen a lot of confidential military dispatches. And he took some time to read through a lot of them and assured us that, yes, these were the real deal, and yes, they were quite interesting.

JEFFREY BROWN: Did you ever consider early on or even later not going ahead, not publishing? Was there — was there any argument, dissent about that at The Times?

BILL KELLER: No. There was considerable discussion of which cables we would publish and which — and what material we might excise from those cables. But, from early on, it was clear that we had something that was of enormous public interest.

JEFFREY BROWN: Julian Assange is — he remains a mysterious person for most of the world. What — what do you think his motivations were? What did you come to think of him, to make of him?

BILL KELLER: I think his motivations were essentially — I don’t want to try to label them as anarchistic, but they were initially to embarrass big governments, especially the American government — I’m not sure he succeeded quite in doing that — but then also to promote a kind of ideology of transparency.

He said on several occasions that sort of transparency, total transparency is an ultimate good. And that’s his belief. That’s his agenda.

JEFFREY BROWN: And did you or do you consider him to be a journalist? How — what do you label him?

BILL KELLER: I have labeled him an activist, a kind of anti-secrecy vigilante. You know, I think people like me should be a little humble about deciding who gets to be called a journalist.

And I have not used that. He’s at least not the kind of journalist that I am used to. I do, however, think that the proposals to go after him in legal — in a way that would criminalize the publication of secrets to some extent put him in the same boat with us. I think he should be, you know, defended against those kinds of expansions of legal crackdown on the publication of secrets.

JEFFREY BROWN: Did you ask about the source of the material? How much did you actually know about where this was coming from?

BILL KELLER: Firsthand and even secondhand, I don’t know anything. And our partners at The Guardian did ask about the source of the material, and he was coy about it.

On the other hand, we have assumed all along that it probably came from Bradley Manning, that — the Army intelligence private who has been accused of it. While WikiLeaks and Julian Assange have not said explicitly that it came from that source, their website includes slogans about freeing Bradley Manning. And they have spoken up very strongly in his defense.

JEFFREY BROWN: Now, you describe bringing what you were doing to the attention of the administration.

How much pushback did you get? You talk about them trying to get you not to publish some things because of concerns over intelligence secrets, over, oh, you know, embarrassing things between — especially with the embassy cables. How strong was the pressure there, and how did you make decisions about what to go ahead with?

BILL KELLER: Well, you know, they were initially, of course, furious at this kind of breach of security.

I think they were more upset by the diplomatic leaks than the military leaks, because diplomacy is so inherently sensitive and because it covered such a wide range of subjects that it just felt, I think, overwhelming to them and embarrassing.

So, there was initially a fair amount of tension in the conversations, which they quickly resolved, I think, in favor of engaging us. I think they decided that they could actually do some good by talking to us about specific things that they wished we wouldn’t publish, rather than just sort of washing their hands of it and saying, we disavow this whole enterprise that you are engaged in.

JEFFREY BROWN: You…

BILL KELLER: They — we talked to them. Particularly when we got to the quarter-of-a-million State Department cables, we developed a kind of process where a few days in advance of the stories we were going to run, we would send them the cables that we intended to cite.

They told us what they wished we would not use. We agreed with some and not with others.

JEFFREY BROWN: You did say, though, that you got a lot of flak from the outside world…

BILL KELLER: Yes.

JEFFREY BROWN: … people talking about that tension and that historic tension, really, between the press and government over letting your — your feeling that you want to let the public know and the government’s right to protect the rest of us.

And you wrote that people wrote, “How dare you; what gives you the right?” meaning how…

BILL KELLER: Yes.

JEFFREY BROWN: … what gives you the right to leak these secret?

What is the answer to those people?

BILL KELLER: I mean it’s a natural and understandable feeling that people have, particularly, I think, post-9/11, when there is a general feeling of vulnerability that maybe wasn’t there before.

And it’s a battle that has gone on for decades — or more than decades — between governments, which have a legitimate right to try to protect their secrets, and the press, which tries to ferret out the secrets and publish them.

You know, and it’s the government’s job to keep its secrets. It’s not our job to do it for them. But I think in a responsible, journalistic organization, you try to do your best to make sure that you are mitigating any collateral damage, that you are — that you are making sure that you are not putting lives at risk when you publish the sorts of information, and that you’re trading off — that you are making a calculation that this is really worth it.

JEFFREY BROWN: Another criticism you faced and you wrote about is that, by doing business with an organization like WikiLeaks, The Times and other news organizations compromised — or potentially compromised — your impartiality and your independence.

And, as you wrote, Assange himself boasted at one point that he acted as a kind of puppet master manipulating the coverage.

BILL KELLER: Mm-hmm. Yeah, he did. He said a lot of things. And not all of them were true.

And he — except for the fact that we agreed to an embargo on the timing of the release, he had no input and no influence whatsoever on what we chose to publish and what we — you know, what angle we chose to take on the subjects that we wrote about.

JEFFREY BROWN: But in terms of your — the impartiality or independence question that you — the criticism that you got?

BILL KELLER: Right.

You know, every source who brings you information, whether it’s secrets or not, you know, has some kind of an agenda. They very rarely come to you with the pure — for the pure joy of having information made public. And you have to sort out the motivation from the source from the quality of the material, which I think we did a pretty good job of on this — in this respect.

I mean, one example, you know, Julian Assange made clear that he hoped these diplomatic cables would be a major embarrassment to the United States. He at one point said that Hillary Clinton should resign as a result.

I think, for a lot of people, the impact was quite different. It was that this showed a lot of diplomats, public — as public servants doing their jobs. It also showed that they can write pretty well.

JEFFREY BROWN: This also raised, of course, larger questions, which you address at the end of your article, about how WikiLeaks and other such sites change or potentially change the nature of journalism today, the world that the Internet has opened up, where so much flows without verification, for example.

I read that it’s — that the report — or you said that The Times is looking at possibly opening up such a site to allow people to feed in information. Are you worried at all about this new world? You have the power, the resources to check a lot of what comes to you, but not everybody does.

BILL KELLER: Sure.

You know, as a sort of general matter, I think the world has changed. It changed before WikiLeaks. You know, it’s not just that secrets seep out. It’s the acceleration of everything and the sort of rapid spread of information.

The world is different. The Internet has made it a different world for journalists and has changed the way we practice. It means that some news organizations are rushed and not as careful as they should be. Facts don’t get checked as thoroughly as they should.

Yes, all of that is cause for concern. But they are issues that we can deal with, I think. At least, at The Times, we’re certainly trying to.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right, Bill — Bill Keller, editor of The New York Times, thank you very much.

BILL KELLER: You’re welcome.