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Bill Keller Ponders What Would Have Happened if NYT Published Information from Bradley Manning

(update below)

Creative Commons-licensed photo of Bill Keller

Former executive editor and current columnist of the New York Times has published an op-ed on Bradley Manning. Keller, who was executive editor when WikiLeaks obtained information from Manning and partnered with the newspaper to publish the disclosures, outlines what he believes could have happened.

Keller piously writes:

In his statement to the military court, Manning said that before he fell in with the antisecrecy guerrillas at WikiLeaks, he tried to deliver his trove of stolen documents to The Washington Post and The New York Times. At The Post, he was put off when a reporter told him that before she could commit to anything she’d have to get a senior editor involved. At The Times, Manning said, he left a message on voice mail but never got a call back. It’s puzzling to me that a skilled techie capable of managing one of the most monumental leaks ever couldn’t figure out how to get an e-mail or phone message to an editor or a reporter at The Times, a feat scores of readers manage every day. [emphasis added]

It is almost as if Keller is blaming Manning for the Times‘ failure to respond to his message. He was on “mid-tour leave” for a short amount of time. He also was thinking every day about what would happen next if a publication did decide to take his information. He wanted it to be easy and did not want to call any place multiple times. If an organization was not going to respond favorably on the first try, he was going to move on as he did until he ultimately arrived at submitting information to WikiLeaks.

“What if he had succeeded in delivering his pilfered documents to The Times? What would be different, for Manning and the rest of us?” Keller asks. He has not pled guilty to “pilfering” any documents or violating a federal larceny statute so a better choice of words is called for here. He had access to the documents. It is not disputed that he made unauthorized disclosures, but it is up in the air whether he actually “stole” the documents or not.

Keller suggests the Times would have taken the Iraq and Afghanistan military incident reports and “assigned journalists to search for material of genuine public interest, taken pains to omit information that might get troops in the field or innocent informants killed, and published our reports with a flourish.” (Notice he does not say the source material would be published.)

He acknowledges there would have been something lacking:

 I’m pretty sure that if we had been the sole recipient we would not have shared Manning’s gift with other news organizations. That is partly for competitive reasons, but also because sharing a treasury of raw intelligence, especially with foreign news media, might have increased the legal jeopardy for The Times and for our source. So our exclusive would have been a coup for The Times, but something would have been lost. By sharing the database widely — including with a range of local news outlets that mined the material for stories of little interest to a global news operation — WikiLeaks got much more mileage out of the secret cables than we would have done. [emphasis added]

The benefit gained from multiple organizations being able to go into source material and produce stories based on their media organization’s interests would not have existed with the “war logs” stories that were published.

Keller continues, “If Manning had connected with The Times, we would have found ourselves in a relationship with a nervous, troubled, angry young Army private who was offering not so much documentation of a particular government outrage as a chance to fish in a sea of secrets.” This phrase “sea of secrets” is important. Legal counsel for the Times would most certainly have wanted to give the government a heads-up that they had this archive, as they did with the US State Embassy cables.

There would have been no obligation for the Times to protect Manning’s identity. Like Pentagon Papers whistleblower Daniel Ellsberg, he would be on his own. They would have protested the “aiding the enemy” charge and the “brutality of his solitary confinement,” but that would have been the most they could do. (Keller writes Manning “spilled the story of his leaking in long instant-messenger chats with an ex-hacker, who turned him in.” So, perhaps, in retrospect, any efforts to protect his identity would be futile?)

…[I]f Manning had been our direct source, the consequences might have been slightly mitigated. Although as a matter of law I believe WikiLeaks and The New York Times are equally protected by the First Amendment, it’s possible the court’s judgment of the leaker might be colored by the fact that he delivered the goods to a group of former hackers with an outlaw sensibility and an antipathy toward American interests. Will that cost Manning at sentencing time? I wonder. And it might explain the piling on of maximum charges. During pretrial, the judge, Col. Denise Lind, asked whether the prosecution would be pressing the same charges if Manning had leaked to The Times. “Yes, Ma’am,” was the reply. Maybe so. But I suspect the fact that Manning chose the anti-establishment WikiLeaks as his collaborator made the government more eager to add on that dubious charge of “aiding the enemy.” [emphasis added]

I do not disagree with Keller’s assessment, mostly because there would have been no carrot of government access that the Obama administration would dangle in front of WikiLeaks to encourage them to share their plans and perhaps be delicate with certain stories so government policies or programs would not be dragged into scandal or controversy. And so, despite what was said in military court, I do have doubts about whether an additional “aiding the enemy” charge would have been pursued if Manning had given the war logs to the Times.

However, it is worth noting this is a kind of self-serving counterfactual for Keller because he sees WikiLeaks as “antisecrecy guerrillas.” One could scarcely imagine a more elitist label enabling of government prosecution.

Keller concludes had the Times worked with Manning “maybe we would better understand” him.

…Lionized by WikiLeaks and his fan base as a whistle-blower and martyr, cast by his prosecutors as a villainous traitor, he has become dueling caricatures. Until the court proceedings, the only window into Manning’s psyche was the voluminous transcript of his online chats with the ex-hacker, Adrian Lamo, published by Wired magazine. It portrays a young man, in his own words, “emotionally fractured” — a gay man in an institution not hospitable to gays, fragile, lonely, a little pleased with his own cleverness, a little vague about his motives. His political views come across as inchoate. When asked, he has trouble recalling any specific outrages that needed exposing. His cause was “open diplomacy” or — perhaps in jest — “worldwide anarchy.”

At Fort Meade, Manning delivered a more coherent explanation of what drove him. Appalled by the human collateral damage of counterterrorism and counterinsurgency, he says, he set out to “document the true cost of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.” Intrigued by his reading of State Department cables, he felt a need to let taxpayers in on the “backdoor deals and seemingly criminal activity” that are the dark underside of diplomacy. Was this sense of mission there from the start, or was it shaped afterward by the expectations of the Free Bradley Manning enthusiasts? The answer would probably make no difference to the court. But it might help determine history’s verdict. [emphasis added]

Actually, Manning’s views on the information in his statement are nearly identical to some of the views in the chat logs. What he said in messages to Lamo may be harder to follow than the statement because he was not methodically describing each disclosure, the information’s significance, the motivation for why he wanted to disclose that information and how he came across this material in his work as an analyst. But, there should be no rhetorical questions about whether “Free Bradley Manning enthusiasts” inspired him to say what he said.

One aspect of Manning’s case that Keller neglects to address is what would have happened next. Manning released multiple sets of documents. He also released a video of an Apache helicopter attack in Baghdad in 2007 that WikiLeaks called “Collateral Murder.” After he released the war logs, would the Times have continued to accept disclosures from a lower-level who they knew was violating military codes of conduct? Who they knew was putting himself at risk for a leaks prosecution?

It is an interesting exercise for Keller. Most of what he said is rational and, knowing Keller’s history, he could have been more venerating in his description of how the Times would have handled Manning.

What I wrote after Manning’s statement still applies: There may be no single person at fault at the Times for failing to respond. The staff involved may be able to say the public editor receives eighty to one hundred messages a day. Only about ten seconds of each are listened to before deleting and moving on to the next message because many are from crazy people. John the Conspiracy Theorist may call thirty times a day with no real news tips and someone needs to skip through all of them. Regardless, if this is the way things are, it suggests dysfunction that should be worked out so that lower-level individuals in the government or military (like Manning) do not wind up being ignored.

Keller can craft whatever sanctimonious tale he wants about how Manning might be better understood now if he had given information to the Times and how the Times would have done their best to protect his identity, but the reality is one Keller does not acknowledge (perhaps, because he was not in the courtroom when Manning pled guilty to some charges and read his statement): Manning was nervous. He said himself he did not want to go to the Washington Post‘s office in person. He was not going to call the Times multiple times. And, ultimately, it seems he went with WikiLeaks because he could submit anonymously and have less worry about being tracked.

Update 1

Greg Mitchell of The Nation has a post where he notes:

…Keller charges that we knew little about Manning’s motives in leaking, what evils he saw, because in his chat logs with Lamo, “When asked, he has trouble recalling any specific outrages that needed exposing. His cause was ‘open diplomacy’ or — perhaps in jest — ‘worldwide anarchy.’”

This is false, as I detailed in my two books on the case.   Manning, in fact, told Lamo about U.S. crimes in Iraq and Afghanistan, some that he witnessed himself, others that he observed via that helcopter video, and more…

Update 2

Nathan Fuller of the Bradley Manning Support Network contacted Keller to challenge his characterization of Manning’s motivations and Keller responded:

Sorry, but it really seems to me that some people who have decided Manning is a hero have assembled a coherent political motivation by fishing here and there in the Lamo file. Reading the whole transcript, I found tidbits of political motivation scattered among a host of other motivations. The handful of incidents Manning described as troubling (e.g. The helicopter video) might have explained selective leaks — but they do not explain a clear motivation for releasing 700,000 documents. At least, not to this reader.


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Kevin Gosztola

Kevin Gosztola

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