How unseemly for New York Times executive editor Bill Keller to look down so disdainfully at WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, with a nasty ad hominem portrayal in last Sunday's New York Times Magazine, "Dealing With Assange and the WikiLeaks Secrets." Someone should count how many disparaging descriptions Keller slips in about Assange's personal appearance and ask how that's important to the issues of the factually-verified documentation that WikiLeaks has revealed relating to war crimes, civilian killings, deceitful foreign policies and major frauds.
Can "shooting the messenger" reach any lower depths than Keller's disdain for the brainy, but allegedly dirty-socked Assange?
Removing all the irrelevant belittlement, Keller apparently views Assange as little more than a difficult "source," not someone engaged in "real" journalism. Keller's long-winded article reads like a sadly typical maneuver common among Establishment journalists who try to place themselves under the safe umbrella of the First Amendment while leaving "whistleblowers" out in the stinging rain.
In doing so, Keller reveals how dismissive he is about factual correctness (truth), which depends on such "sources," knowledgeable insiders or others with access to sensitive information who have the courage to share it with the press and the public. (I get a little sensitive about this after having my own "whistleblowing" once lumped in with FBI spy Robert Hanssen's selling secrets to the Soviet Union.)
Yet, while portraying Assange as a somewhat unstable and unreliable fellow, Keller leaves out his own background which would be relevant for readers evaluating why Keller might take such a dismissive attitude toward WikiLeaks' revelations of war crimes in Iraq. Though you wouldn't learn it from reading last Sunday's article, Keller was one of the prominent American journalists who jumped on President George W. Bush's pro-Iraq War bandwagon when that was the "smart" career move.
In February 2003, Keller declared himself a member of "The I-Can't-Believe-I'm-a-Hawk Club," justifying Bush's planned invasion. "We reluctant hawks may disagree among ourselves about the most compelling logic for war -- protecting America, relieving oppressed Iraqis or reforming the Middle East -- but we generally agree that the logic for standing pat does not hold," Keller wrote.
Keller expressed pride that his pro-invasion contingent was led by the "eloquent" British Prime Minister Tony Blair and included "op-ed regulars at this newspaper [the New York Times] and The Washington Post, the editors of The New Yorker, The New Republic and Slate, columnists in Time and Newsweek."
In other words, many of the top careerist journalists (as well as politicians) -- many of them "baby-boom liberals," as Keller noted -- had finally seen the light. They were ready to cheer on Bush's war of choice even if it did violate international law. After all, at the time, there was no career downside in going with the pro-war flow.
Rationalizing his decision to join the war-hawk club, Keller also managed to get nearly every imaginable point wrong. Keller praised Secretary of State Colin Powell's "skillful parsing of the evidence" on Iraq's WMD. But that speech to the United Nations turned out to be replete with lies and distortions, so much so that Powell later deemed it a "blot" on his record.
Keller wagered that Bush would win a second U.N. vote authorizing the invasion. However, facing overwhelming defeat in the Security Council, Bush pulled the draft resolution and opted instead for his "coalition of the willing."
Keller envisioned scenes on Al Jazeera showing "American soldiers being welcomed by Iraqis as liberators. The illicit toxins are unearthed and destroyed. Persecuted Kurds and Shiites suppress the urge for clan vengeance." Events didn't exactly work out that way.
What's also remarkable about Keller's article is that he joined the war-hawks club with full knowledge that he was advocating violations of international law. "Almost all of the hesitant hawks go out of their way to disavow Mr. Bush's larger agenda for American power even as they salute his plan to use it in Iraq," Keller wrote. "What his admirers call the Bush Doctrine is so far a crude edifice built of phrases from speeches and strategy documents, reinforced by a pattern of discarded treaties and military deployment. It consists of a determination to keep America an unchallenged superpower, a willingness to forcibly disarm any country that poses a gathering threat and an unwillingness to be constrained by treaties or international institutions that don't suit us perfectly."
So, even knowing that the Iraq invasion would be illegal -- that it would involve "discarded treaties" and rejection of international standards "that don't suit us perfectly" -- Keller embraced it. Further, he understood that the endorsement of Bush's actions by himself and other mainstream media figures would strengthen Bush's hand in violating the law with impunity, by providing him public-relations cover. "Thanks to all these grudging allies, Mr. Bush will be able to claim, with justification, that the coming war is a far cry from the rash, unilateral adventure some of his advisers would have settled for," Keller wrote.
As Keller was settling in with his "hawk club" in those heady days of late 2002-early 2003, the Bush administration was further buying off the New York Times and other major media outlets with the Pentagon's plan to embed approved journalists with U.S. troops. Victoria Clarke, the Assistant Secretary of Defense for Public Affairs, later boasted that the embedding idea worked like a charm in getting the mainstream media to switch to full-steam-ahead support for Bush's invasion. (Ironically, the Times dispatched reporter Judith Miller to travel with a special military unit searching for Iraq's WMD, a false justification for the war that Miller and the Times had promoted.)
In last Sunday's article about Assange, Keller continued to reflect the compromises that the Times apparently feels it must make in positioning itself vis-à-vis the Washington powers-that-be. He reduced many issues relating to WikiLeaks to political side-taking, calling the Guardian newspaper in the UK "openly left leaning," while explaining how his paper must worry about criticism from "conservatives," such as when it divulged Bush's warrantless wiretapping in December 2005.
However, Keller failed to mention that the Times' warrantless wiretap disclosure came only after the newspaper's top brass had agreed to keep the illegal monitoring secret for more than a year, until after Bush had safely secured a second term. The Times only published the story in December 2005 because its reporter James Risen was about to reveal the secret in his own book, State of War, which was coming out in January 2006.
However, at least Keller did tell the truth when he acknowledged that "leaking" of classified information happens all the time with much of it "authorized." Indeed, "authorized leaking" to outlets like the Times is a useful tradition which Keller understandably does not want to jeopardize, since such government-approved information gives the Times a jump on its competitors (or at least prevents them from getting a jump on the Times). Of course, such leaking is done for a political purpose, less about informing the public than controlling public opinion. At times, such leaks can involve outright lying as happened in the lead-up to the Iraq War or they can be more benign, giving a favored news organization an inside glimpse of how some policy was made.
"Authorized leaking" (as opposed to unauthorized whistleblower-type disclosures) is safe sport and part of the lucrative news game in which Keller and the Times profit by playing along with the puppet masters.
But Keller acknowledged that he and his newspaper can sometimes get taken. "I'm the first to admit that news organizations, including this one, sometimes get things wrong. We can be overly credulous (as in some of the prewar reporting about Iraq's supposed weapons of mass destruction)," he wrote. Still, Keller conveniently left out details about how the Times was manipulated by the Bush administration to give credibility to its false intelligence about Iraq's WMD, failures that -- not coincidentally -- matched up with the pro-war biases of the "reluctant hawks" in the editorial board rooms of the Times.
Nor did Keller mention the names of key Times journalists who crafted those bogus stories, the likes of Michael Gordon and Judith Miller, the pair that collaborated on the phony tale about Iraq's aluminum tubes being used for uranium enrichment. Yet, a reader might consider that kind of detail relevant to the Assange article because, as Keller reported, when it came to sending three reporters to London to check out the WikiLeaks documents, one was none other than Michael Gordon. (Miller resigned in 2005 when the scandal over her collaboration with senior Bush officials regarding WMD grew too embarrassing for the Times management.)
So, given this background, it is valid to ask: Is the New York Times committed to informing the American people about the actions of their government or is it more concerned about keeping its place at the table of the powerful?
As Keller admits in his Assange article, "the journalists at the Times have a large and personal stake in the country's security." He says they are "invested in the struggle" against terrorism, a strategy that Keller insists is aimed at "our values and at our faith in the self-government of an informed electorate." That sounds a lot like a reprise of Bush's old canard that the terrorists "hate our freedoms," rather than the more rational explanation that they hate the long history of U.S. interference in the Middle East.
But the point may get close to the real reason for Keller's disdain for Julian Assange -- because Assange and WikiLeaks represent a much purer commitment to the core tenets of journalism, including the principle of objectivity, than does the New York Times. The Times sees itself inextricably -- and justifiably -- intertwined with the various strands of American power. Assange and WikiLeaks see themselves committed to getting out the facts.
For those who share Julian Assange's vision of a fully informed people, demonstrations in support of WikiLeaks are planned for Monday, Feb. 7.
(This article first appeared on Consortium News.)