New York Times editor Bill Keller details his paper's rocky relationship with WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, as well as the backstory of the Times' publication of the secret documents that WikiLeaks provided, in a new essay for the New York Times magazine.
The essay is excerpted from Keller's introduction to a special Times e-book about WikiLeaks called "Open Secrets." The book will be published on Jan. 31st. Below, read some of the highlights from Keller's essay, and be sure to read the whole essay at the Times website.
How the Times first got involved: Keller writes that, last June, Alan Rusbridger, editor of The Guardian, called and told him that WikiLeaks had offered his paper the secret documents that came to be known as the Iraq and Afghan "war logs." Rusbridger had convinced Assange to let the Times share the exclusive story. "Was I interested?" Keller writes. "I was interested."
What Keller and the Times thought of Assange: Keller makes clear that he and his paper "regarded Assange throughout as a source, not as a partner or collaborator, but he was a man who clearly had his own agenda." Eric Schmitt, the reporter who Keller sent to London to look at the war logs in the offices of The Guardian, wrote him after he met Assange for the first time:
"He was alert but disheveled, like a bag lady walking in off the street, wearing a dingy, light-colored sport coat and cargo pants, dirty white shirt, beat-up sneakers and filthy white socks that collapsed around his ankles. He smelled as if he hadn't bathed in days."
Keller said that the reporters from the various newspapers who were working on the WikiLeaks material came to see Assange as "smart and well educated, extremely adept technologically but arrogant, thin-skinned, conspiratorial and oddly credulous." He was also "certain that he was a hunted man." However, he placed no constraints on the news outlets as to what they wrote using the documents.
Keeping quiet: Keller details some of the methods the Times team working on the WikiLeaks project used to keep such an explosive story under wraps:
"We used encrypted Web sites. Reporters exchanged notes via Skype, believing it to be somewhat less vulnerable to eavesdropping. On conference calls, we spoke in amateurish code. Assange was always "the source." The latest data drop was 'the package.'"
Keller also came to suspect that people inside WikiLeaks were hacking into the email of Times staffers after at least three of them reported suspicious activity in their accounts.
The relationship deteriorates: Assange, Keller writes, became angry that the Times refused to link to the WikiLeaks site. "Where's the respect?" he said in a phone call. "Where's the respect?" He also complained about the paper's profile of Bradley Manning, the suspected leaker of the secret documents, and was outraged at an unflattering profile of himself.
After The Guardian went behind Assange's back and shared the diplomatic cables he had barred them from giving the Times, a deputy Times editor met with Assange in London. At the end of their uncommonly calm meeting, Assange asked the editor, "tell me, are you in contact with your legal counsel?" The editor said that he was. "You had better be," Assange said.
The government weighs in: Keller writes that the Times' Washington bureau chief Dean Baquet told the White House on Nov. 19 that the paper would be publishing the secret cables. The next Tuesday, he says, "Baquet and two colleagues were invited to a windowless room at the State Department, where they encountered an unsmiling crowd. Representatives from the White House, the State Department, the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, the C.I.A., the Defense Intelligence Agency, the F.B.I. and the Pentagon gathered around a conference table. Others, who never identified themselves, lined the walls. A solitary note-taker tapped away on a computer."
Read the whole essay here.