Sunday, October 31, 2010

Sharing Secrets at Arm's Length


October 30, 2010

Sharing Secrets at Arm’s Length


THE two stories stood side by side: one said that Julian Assange, the founder of WikiLeaks, was on the run, in fear of Western intelligence agencies and seen by some colleagues as “delusional,” “erratic” and “imperious.” The other story? A chilling account of war in Iraq, for which Mr. Assange and his organization were the primary source.

In publishing its latest installment of “The War Logs,” which appeared in print last Saturday and Sunday, The Times confronted a stark duality. The case for reporting on nearly 400,000 classified documents was compelling, while the character of its primary source appeared increasingly sketchy.

Managing its relationship with Mr. Assange and WikiLeaks was only one of The Times’s challenges in this exceptional chapter in journalism history.

As in its coverage of the Pentagon Papers, the Cuban missile crisis, surveillance by the National Security Agency and other stories involving secrecy, The Times had to choose whether to cover, how much to cover and when to publish.

The stakes were high. Just as it did in the Pentagon Papers case, when Justice Department lawyers invoked the Espionage Act to try to quash publication, The Times had to consider the possibility that the government would strike back.

More fundamentally, the newspaper had to conduct a fateful cost-benefit analysis that asked: Does the public interest in having this information outweigh the risks to coalition forces and intelligence-gathering in the war zones?

The choices were set in motion early this summer when Bill Keller, The Times’s executive editor, got a call from the editor in chief of The Guardian, a British newspaper. WikiLeaks had offered The Guardian a cache of military field reports and had asked it to invite The Times, and later the German magazine Der Spiegel, to have access as well. Mr. Keller sent Eric Schmitt, an experienced war correspondent, to London to take a look at the giant trove, which included 92,000 individual military field reports from Afghanistan and more than 391,000 reports from Iraq.

Mr. Keller said no conditions were placed on the news organizations’ use of the material, except that they were obligated to synchronize publication with WikiLeaks’s publication online. The Times mapped out its own coverage.

“We chose the documents that struck us as most interesting,” Mr. Keller said in an e-mail message. “We did our own analysis of the material. We decided what to write. We did not discuss any of those matters with WikiLeaks, or give them an advance look at our stories.”

He emphasized, in other words, The Times’s independence from WikiLeaks. The issue emerged as a definitive one in my conversations with veteran journalists, a legal expert and a retired general.

Some say that what’s important is the material itself. Whether or not Julian Assange is a rogue with a political agenda, what matters most is that The Times authenticates the information.

“They did exactly the right thing to establish an arms-length distance,” said Paul Steiger, editor-in-chief of the news organization ProPublica. “WikiLeaks is not the A.P.”

David Rudenstine, a Cardozo Law School professor and author of “The Day the Presses Stopped: A History of the Pentagon Papers Case,” said, “If The Times makes the judgment that this is the real thing, I don’t think it matters much” who it is dealing with.

Another view holds that it is impossible to separate the legitimacy of the material from its source. In this situation, the challenge is compounded because The Times’s source, WikiLeaks, obtained the material from its own source — a leaker whose identity remains uncertain.

“Did the source select which documents to turn over?” asked Bill Kovach, of the Project for Excellence in Journalism, in an e-mail message to me. “What was the nature of the transaction between WikiLeaks and the source(s)? Did WikiLeaks turn over only some documents and not others?”

Mr. Keller said the documents deserved attention, “whatever you think of WikiLeaks as an organization.” He added that Times staffers scrutinized the material to satisfy themselves that it had not been manipulated.

More fundamental than the relationship between The Times and WikiLeaks is the basic question of whether it was right to publish the material at all. Most of those I spoke to echoed the comments of Leonard Downie Jr., former executive editor of The Washington Post, who called WikiLeaks’s archive “newsworthy and of public interest.” But there is an argument to the contrary.

Thomas E. Ricks, author of “Fiasco: The American Military Adventure in Iraq” and now contributing editor to Foreign Policy magazine, believes The Times put those in the field at great risk, with little public gain.

“What you have here is thousands of, basically, the equivalent of telephone logs, situation reports,” he said. “These are not policy statements. These are not Rumsfeld ordered ‘X.’ It is one officer said this or heard this. It is the lowest form of information. It is crappy information being given a status it doesn’t deserve, and it carries great risk.”

To address the risk to troops and informants, The Times took pains to remove names and other information from the documents it published. Nevertheless, a retired Army general, who asked for anonymity to avoid bringing controversy to the civilian organization he now serves, said the field reports enable Al Qaeda and the Taliban to learn much about the operational practices and mind-set of the coalition’s fighting forces.

“Analysis is not nearly as damaging as reports,” he said, drawing a distinction between the Pentagon Papers and the WikiLeaks material. Field reports like these make it possible “to get into the mind of the enemy. Anytime you do that you gain a tremendous advantage.”

These are powerful arguments. Ultimately, the case presented circumstances that stubbornly defied decision-making templates of the past. Daniel Ellsberg, who exposed the Pentagon Papers, needed a major news organization to publish his material. WikiLeaks, with or without The Times, could publish its material on the Internet. So The Times’s choice was whether to use its resources to organize and filter material that was going public, one way or another.

The Times, in my opinion, did take a reputational risk in doing business with WikiLeaks, though it has inoculated itself somewhat by reporting independently on the organization.

The ultimate risk, of course, is to the fighting forces in the field. And I’m sure that wasn’t an easy call for The Times’s editors. Perhaps the decision wasn’t unlike the one that A.M. Rosenthal, then executive editor of The Times, made in the Pentagon Papers case. As Professor Rudenstine related it: “He didn’t think he should play God and decide what was best for the nation. So he decided the question on its news value.”

The Times faced some very tough decisions in this situation and took some risks. I think it did what it had to do.


Copyright 2010 The New York Times Company

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"The master class has always declared the wars; the subject class has always fought the battles. The master class has had all to gain and nothing to lose, while the subject class has had nothing to gain and everything to lose--especially their lives." Eugene Victor Debs


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