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Bill Keller’s Latest Petulant Attack on Julian Assange & WikiLeaks

Former NYT executive editor & columnist Bill Keller

Former New York Times executive editor and now op-ed columnist for the newspaper, Bill Keller, has renewed his feud with Julian Assange, founder of WikiLeaks. In his latest column, he attempts to set the record straight on the leaks organization. Keller’s problem is that Assange isn’t going away anytime soon. He is getting his own TV show. Plus, the man still has a number of supporters.

The beginning of the column mentions a time when Assange Skyped in to an event in Berkeley and “pontificated” on the “Western media’s failure to turn the files into a kind of Nuremberg trial of American imperialism.” The characterization of Assange’s talk suggests Assange is wrong to think the press should have done more with possibly the biggest leak of information in world history.

Keller finds it “amazing” that he keeps being invited to panels on WikiLeaks because he is a “bit of a spoilsport.”

My consistent answer to the ponderous question of how WikiLeaks transformed our world has been: really, not all that much. It was a hell of a story and a wild collaboration, but it did not herald, as the documentarians yearn to believe, some new digital age of transparency. In fact, if there is a larger point, it is quite the contrary.

This is the more substantive portion of Keller’s anti-Assange column. WikiLeaks’ “most palpable legacy,” to him, is “that the US government is more secretive than ever.”

But, why is WikiLeaks responsible for this reality? Why is WikiLeaks to blame because it obtained classified information that was released and published on WikiLeaks and, in the end, the material did not push the government toward being more transparent? Why is WikiLeaks wrong because the US government didn’t look at the problem of over-classification and move to address the cancer of secrecy in America?

Without Political Support for Greater Transparency, WikiLeaks is Trivial

WikiLeaks is not composed of US citizens. The organization is not based in the United States. Except for the fact that they can embarrass power, they have little power to influence agendas in the US government.

Further confounding is the fact Keller and the Times played a role in publishing this material, which is the focus of Keller’s criticism.

Didn’t Keller and the Times hope the government would be more open in the aftermath? Didn’t they wish the US government would not further clampdown on whistleblowers in the aftermath?

Keller writes that the releases complicated “the lives of U.S. diplomats. American officials say that foreign counterparts are sometimes more squeamish about speaking candidly, and that it is harder to recruit and retain informants around the world.” But, Keller and the NYT were well aware that this is what US officials would be claiming in the aftermath.

The NYT published an editorial on the “decision to publish” the US State Embassy cables that included the following paragraph:

Government officials sometimes argue — and the administration has argued in the case of these secret cables — that disclosures of confidential conversations between American diplomats and their foreign counterparts could endanger the national interest by making foreign governments more wary of cooperating with the United States in the fight against terrorists or other vital activities.

The newspaper’s editors said they were less likely to “censor candid remarks simply because they might cause a diplomatic controversy or embarrass officials.” Now, Keller brings up the complications the release has created without taking responsibility for the fact that his newspaper was involved in publishing this material too.

What we cannot know for sure is the fate of the many informants, dissidents, activists and bystanders quoted in the American cables. Assange published source names over the strong objections of the journalists who had access to the data (we expunged the names from our reports) and to the horror of human rights groups and some of his WikiLeaks colleagues. I’ve been told that a few exposed sources fled their countries with American help, a few others were detained by authorities, and none are known to have been killed. But would we even know? When I read stories like the Reuters account last week of the three men beheaded in Yemen for giving information to Americans, I worry anew about the many innocent witnesses named in the WikiLeaks cables.

Keller seems to think the Times handled the information in such a cautious manner that none of the content published has complicated diplomatic relations with countries like WikiLeaks. But, that is simply an illogical line of reasoning. It is impossible to prove WikiLeaks’ publishing has had more of a negative impact than the Times coverage of the cables.

Another Restatement of the Baseless Allegation That ‘WikiLeaks Has Blood on Its Hands’

Additionally, Keller’s “WikiLeaks has blood on its hands” argument is made without any concrete evidence. Keller expects us to take him at his word when he says he’s been told, “A few exposed sources fled their countries with American help” and a “few others were detained by authorities.” This is just another restatement of an allegation that is largely pure fabrication.

Who are these “sources”? Keller doesn’t mention that the Associated Press did a review that found no sources were threatened. The State Department refused to “describe any situation in which they’ve felt a source’s life was in danger.” The State Department would not “provide any details on those few cases” of individuals that had been relocated.

Keller may be talking about “sources” who “lost their jobs or suffered major embarrassment.” If they were individuals capable of defending “themselves either through an impartial legal process or through their political or financial power,” they were not people whose names WikiLeaks felt the need to censor. WikiLeaks had a different approach to withholding the names of sources than the Times (something that forms part of the backbone of Keller’s contempt for WikiLeaks).

Keller doesn’t note that when WikiLeaks went ahead and published all the cables in August and September 2011 without any redactions the cables were out in public somewhere for anyone to download. Governments that wanted to read them could theoretically download the file, use a password that had been publicized by former WikiLeaks spokesperson Daniel Domscheit-Berg and begin to hunt down individuals named in the cables. Whether WikiLeaks put them on their site or not, sources were going to face danger so it was best for WikiLeaks to have supporters and human rights groups start going through to notify individuals names so they could get to safety.

WikiLeaks Responsible for Latest Beheadings in Yemen?

Keller insinuates Yemenis might have been beheaded for giving information to WikiLeaks is incredibly irresponsible and lazy.  The Nation’s Jeremy Scahill, who went to Yemen, reported:

…There were three public executions of people that were convicted in the Ansar al-Sharia’s court system of providing intelligence to the Americans to be used in drone attacks, including one person who was executed in the very place where Anwar al-Awlaki’s 16-year-old son, who was a U.S. citizen, was killed in a U.S. drone strike. And they executed this man, alleging that he had provided intelligence to the Americans that had contributed to the death of Abdulrahman al-Awlaki, the 16-year-old son of Anwar al-Awlaki.

Keller’s Cowardly Talk about Pfc. Bradley Manning

Keller mentions Pfc. Bradley Manning, alleged whistleblower to WikiLeaks:

…You don’t have to excuse his alleged crime to think the original sin in the whole drama is that this tormented soul had access to so many secrets in the first place.

His “alleged crime” is something that brought a level of prestige and notoriety to the Times. While it is refreshing that Keller is calling attention to how the government was reckless and bears responsibility for letting the security breach happen, this does not seem like the right conclusion if you truly believe in the concept of an open, free and democratic society.

This remark reinforces the idea that the answer to the security breach is granting soldiers reduced access to information. It reinforces the idea that there be less people with security clearances and that soldiers should have more restrictions on what they can view.

The issue isn’t soldiers having access to secrets. The issue is the secrets, the fact that there are so many and that a lot of this information will be classified without much justification decades after the information could have any impact on national security.

WikiLeaks Has Not Transformed Anything

Finally, along with this idea that continued US government secrecy makes WikiLeaks’ actions condemnable, Keller asserts WikiLeaks did not really transform our world. An entire UN agency that just held a conference on the media after WikiLeaks, which Ian Fisher of NYT participated in, might beg to differ.

The United Nations Education, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) believes WikiLeaks “modified the media landscape and raised crucial questions for journalists.” They find the organization showed the relationship between “citizen journalism” and traditional professional journalism needs reconsideration. They find the organization exposed key problems with international and domestic laws related to privacy, national security, public order and Internet freedom. And, they suggest WikiLeaks ushered in a new era where journalists would be doing more work with “primary source data,” since the Internet makes mountains of material easy to exchange and transmit.

It appears, like many American commentators who work for establishment media, Keller’s column consists of US-centric criticism. WikiLeaks may have changed little in the US press, but, worldwide, WikiLeaks has had a huge impact. WikiLeaks has inspired press organizations to start their own transparency ventures.

That the US government continues to suffer from a disease of secrecy in the aftermath of WikiLeaks may be disappointing, but it does not mean citizens and organizations need to manage their efforts to promote transparency better. The problem is “Top Secret America,” something Keller himself understands.

Times public editor Arthur S. Brisbane wrote:

The Times, like other serious news organizations in democracies, exists to ferret out and publish information — most especially information that government, business and other power centers prefer to conceal. Arming readers with knowledge is what it’s about, and journalists are motivated to pursue that end.

The impulse to obtain and publish inaccessible information is greatly strengthened in an age in which, if anything, government secrecy is growing…

When the Times obtained the cables, the “opportunity to arm readers with hard-to-get information” took on great urgency.” Sadly, Keller cannot empathize with Assange and other staff members of WikiLeaks and admit that this “opportunity” is what would push WikiLeaks to publish as much of the information as possible.

Keller is likely to carry this animosity toward Assange and WikiLeaks to the grave. He, like other pundits, are threatened by organizations like WikiLeaks.

The Times is a gate-keeping media organization. They see their role in society as one that involves deciding what the public needs to know and not know. WikiLeaks questions this process, which most media engage in. WikiLeaks makes it difficult for the news organization by exposing how the organization covers certain stories and ignores other stories.

The US establishment media needs to keep Assange around. He’s a punching bag they can hit whenever they need to remind Americans of their supposed value to society.

WikiLeaks attacks the Times‘ “professionalism,” which they engage in to maintain access to those in the halls of power. That they would question the paper’s deference to power is appalling to members of the establishment press in America.

This is why people like Keller write petulant columns. This is why Keller thinks Assange and WikiLeaks are to blame for political leaders not having the political will to fight for more transparency in government.

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Kevin Gosztola

Kevin Gosztola

Kevin Gosztola is managing editor of Shadowproof Press. He also produces and co-hosts the weekly podcast, "Unauthorized Disclosure."