Wikileaks' 'cloak-and-dagger intrigue' revealed

'New York Times' reveals how media obtained secret cables, and describes Assange’s transformation from smelly backpacker to paranoid ‘chick magnet.’

Assange looking wistful 311 (photo credit: Associated Press)
Assange looking wistful 311
(photo credit: Associated Press)
A lengthy article with an insider’s perspective on “the cloak-and-dagger intrigue” of the WikiLeaks saga was posted on The New York Times’ website on Wednesday.
Written by Times executive editor Bill Keller, it features an explanation of the newspaper’s motives in printing the leaked documents, delineates how it chose which narratives to emphasize within the hundreds of thousands of cables, and profiles WikiLeaks’ “elusive, manipulative and volatile” leader Julian Assange.
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“Assange has been heard to boast that he served as a kind of puppet master, recruiting several news organizations, forcing them to work in concert and choreographing their work,” Keller wrote. “This is characteristic braggadocio – or, as my Guardian colleagues would say, bollocks.”
Keller walks readers through the Times’ part in the WikiLeaks saga, starting in June 2010, when Guardian editor Alan Rusbridger asked him “how to arrange a secure communication.”
Without such an option, Rusbridger then “circumspectly” explained to the Times top editor that WikiLeaks had classified US government cables and military dispatches, which Assange had offered to the Guardian and allowed to be shared with the Times.
The Times sent a correspondent to London, where he met with the Guardian and Der Spiegel and discussed “the complexities of this project”: organization and transportation of the documents, as well as how to maintain journalistic independence and “secure an appropriate distance” from Assange.
“We regarded Assange throughout as a source, not a partner or collaborator, but he was a man who clearly had his own agenda,” Keller said.
Independent of Assange, the journalists from the three publications, with Le Monde and El Pais added later, collaborated on story research and honored WikiLeaks’ request that stories not be published until the documents were posted on the organization’s website. Keller said that this embargo was “the only condition WikiLeaks would try to impose on” the Times, but that other America news organizations “were offered last-minute access...if they signed contracts with financial penalties for early disclosure.”
The Times put together a “team of reporters, data experts and editors” in “an out-of-the-way office” to confidentially deal with the multitude of cables under an “air of intrigue verging on paranoia.”
Lawyers advised the paper that the move was legal, and for moral and ethical reasons, “reporters with considerable experience of handling military secrets” excised names, locations and other “details that might reveal ongoing intelligence- gathering operations, military tactics or locations of material that could be used to fashion terrorist weapons.”
Keller emphasizes the different narratives chosen by the publications to show that they “operated independently,” with the Guardian focusing on civilian casualties, while the Times focused on suspicions that Pakistan was “nodding to American interests while abetting the Taliban.”
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In addition, Keller goes into considerable detail in describing the figure behind the leaks. The depiction of Assange as a paranoid, arrogant hacker is accompanied by four sketches of the Australian national by different artists, one with the words “J’accuse Assange” emblazoned across his face.
Reporters told Keller that Assange was “smart and well educated, extremely adept technologically but arrogant, thin-skinned, conspiratorial and oddly credulous,” as well as “openly contemptuous of the American government and certain he was a hunted man.”
The article describes the 39-yearold Australian’s transformation from “the derelict with the backpack” who smelled “as if he hadn’t bathed for days” to an “outlaw celebrity” and “cult figure” who “was evidently a magnet for women,” and how his “outlaw celebrity” may have led to his investigation on rape charges in Sweden.
“I came to think of Julian Assange as a character from a Stieg Larsson thriller,” Keller wrote. “A man who could figure either as hero or villain in one of the mega-selling Swedish novels that mix hacker counterculture, high-level conspiracy and sex as both recreation and violation.”
Relations between the Times and Assange “had gone from wary to hostile” after the publication of a profile of Bradley Manning, the US Army private who allegedly provided WikiLeaks with the cables as well as a front-page profile of Assange himself, which the WikiLeaks leader publicly denounced as “a smear.”
By October 2010, WikiLeaks gave the Guardian the archive of a million US State Department cables on condition that it not share the documents with the Times. At the same time, Assange seemed to be losing control of the information, with newspapers around the world coming up with “batches of cables,” often obtained from “WikiLeaks dissidents.”
The Guardian and Der Spiegel said no to Assange’s condition, leading him to throw an eight-hour “tantrum” in the Guardian’s offices.
The Times made sure to notify the White House of the impending information dump, leading to a reaction that was “sober and professional,” and meetings that were “tense” but “businesslike.”
The White House did not try to stop the publication of articles on leaked diplomatic cables, which touched on nearly every US embassy in the world, and included details on North Korean and Iranian nuclear programs.
“The administration’s concerns generally fell into three categories,” Keller explained. “First was the importance of protecting individuals who had spoken candidly to American diplomats in American countries... The second category included sensitive American programs, usually related to intelligence...
The third category consisted of cables that disclosed candid comments by and about foreign officials, including heads of state.”
The Times acquiesced to the first request, some of the second, and was “unconvinced” by the third.
Responding to criticism of its “seeming indifference to the safety” of informants, WikiLeaks adopted a “harm minimization” policy, taking cues from news organizations and redacting material that could endanger lives.
Injecting a bit of humor to end an otherwise dark and serious article, Keller relays the contents of a “mock Christmas card” sent by one of Assange’s lawyers: “Dear kids, Santa is Mum & Dad. Love, Wikileaks.”