Bill Keller: Colluding With WikiLeaks Was Fun at First, Then Annoying

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Photo: Keller: Photo by Scott Gries/Getty Images; Assange: Photo by Ben Stansall/AFP/Getty Images

The Times just posted a lengthy article by executive editor Bill Keller, which tells the story of last year's WikiLeaks dumps through the eyes of the Gray Lady. The piece will appear in this coming Times Magazine, but it's really worth reading now. The whole thing is interesting, from its depictions of WikiLeaks leader Julian Assange (he went from a being a disheveled "bag lady" or "derelict" who smelled "as if he hadn't bathed for days" to a stylish "cult figure" who was "evidently a magnet for women") to its lengthy explanation and eloquent defense of the Times' motives. It walks readers through how, and why, the paper chose to highlight the narratives it did. It reveals how polite were the interactions between the paper and the government, despite all the controversy — and points out the difference between the Obama administration in this regard and the Bush one. And it lays out in detail how the paper's relationship with Assange went "from wary to hostile." (After unflattering profiles of Assange and purported leaker Bradley Manning, Assange attempted to deny the Times access to a second round of leaks. The Guardian, who had partnered with the Times to dissect and publish the first round of leaks, shared the information.) As if to underscore this plot line, @WikiLeaks has already tweeted: "NYTimes does another self-serving smear.Facts wrong, top to bottom.Dark day for US journalism."

But the most entertaining part of Keller's piece is the beginning — both of the article and the actual process itself. It's fascinating to learn how the two papers, along with Der Spiegel, worked together to figure out how to handle the massive dump of information. And, amusingly enough, Keller lets the reader see how fun it was to do it:

An air of intrigue verging on paranoia permeated the project, perhaps understandably, given that we were dealing with a mass of classified material and a source who acted like a fugitive, changing crash pads, e-mail addresses and cellphones frequently. 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.” When I left New York for two weeks to visit bureaus in Pakistan and Afghanistan, where we assume that communications may be monitored, I was not to be copied on message traffic about the project. I never imagined that any of this would defeat a curious snoop from the National Security Agency or Pakistani intelligence. And I was never entirely sure whether that prospect made me more nervous than the cyberwiles of WikiLeaks itself. At a point when relations between the news organizations and WikiLeaks were rocky, at least three people associated with this project had inexplicable activity in their e-mail that suggested someone was hacking into their accounts.

Reporters got hacked? COOL! Even Assange himself was giddy at first. "One night, when [Assange and the lead reporters] were all walking down the street after dinner, Assange suddenly started skipping ahead of the group," Keller describes. "Then, just as suddenly, Assange stopped, got back in step with them and returned to the conversation he had interrupted." Of course, that camaraderie itself ended nearly as abruptly when Assange slicked up and turned against them.

Keller's depiction of the "outlaw celebrity" is a bit patronizing and even jerky. "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," he complains. "This is characteristic braggadocio — or, as my Guardian colleagues would say, bollocks." But then, what is WikiLeaks itself if not a willfully jerky operation? The piece ends with a funny kicker, which I'll steal under the pretense that you won't read it all the way to the end. Apparently someone at the organization's central command sent out a Christmas card this year. All it said was: "Dear kids, Santa is Mum & Dad. Love, WikiLeaks.”

Dealing With Julian Assange and the Secrets He Spilled [NYT]