Paradigm Shift: Wikileaks and the New York Times

Friday, January 28, 2011

View of the Interpol 'wanted' page for WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange taken in Washington on December 3, 2010. (NICHOLAS KAMM/AFP/Getty)

Welcome to Politics Bites, where every afternoon at It's A Free Country, we bring you the unmissable quotes from the morning's political conversations on WNYC. Today on The Brian Lehrer Show, John Burns, London bureau chief for the New York Times, discusses his paper's love-hate relationship with WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange.

Wikileaks has had a tumultuous, and at times, contentious relationship with The New York Times as the newspaper worked through the decisions about which of the 25,000 leaked documents to publish. That relationship is the focus of a story coming out in this Sunday's New York Times Magazine, in which executive editor Bill Keller calls Wikileaks a source, rather than a partner, and says Wikileaks should be shielded, like any news organization, from prosecution. 

The uprising in Tunisia is evidence, said Burns, of the profound effects of printing the Wikileaks State Department cables.

My guess is that [the pro-democracy movements] will shift the paradigm on prosecution of Wikileaks or condemnation of Wikileaks… If the net effect of those State Department cables.. is to move the Middle East closer to a more open government — let us hope a more democratic government — then it seems to me it will further complicate the calculation of those who would like to see criminal prosecution of Wikileaks.

State department cables showed the United States' contempt of Tunisia’s corrupt leadership, emboldening the local calls for change.

The release of those cables told people in Tunisia that people in the United States would have a lot of sympathy for any sort of movement against an autocratic movement in Tunisia. It tells us something about the way the world still sees the United States, at least the respect for which American power is held, and...the respect for the persistent American support for open and democratic government around the world.

Burns believes Assange himself was largely responsible for the weakening of Wikileaks.  Assange's contentious nature splintered the organization, as many original members left and some started their own anti-secrecy sites. The United States contributed to Wilileaks' problems also, by presuring Paypal and other companies on which Wikileaks depended to discontiinue their support. The complex network of servers around the world that Wikileaks needs to encrypt documents has been diminshed, and some of the original core members have broken ranks. 

An article Burns wrote in October criticizing Assange was the last straw in their fragile alliance. Just before releasing the State Department cables, Assange broke off relations with the Times. Burns said that by then, it hardly mattered.

It was a moot point anyway because we obtained the cables independently and partly, I dare say, as a result of this fracturing of Wikileaks, somebody who had been associated with Wikileaks who had those documents agreed to let us have them… That infuriated Assange, who, not for the first time, in effect complained loudly about his documents getting leaked which you might think is a little bit ironic.

There is no love lost between the two organizations. 

There’s no question that Mister Assange dislikes me quite intensely, I don’t think he likes Mr. Keller very much anymore... It’s not exactly an embrace.

Burns stressed that the distinction Keller made between a source and a collaborator is an important one. Wikileaks, he said, was a source.

We don’t get to choose our sources, and if we were to shun sources on the base of character assessment, that would be a major shift. It does make us wary; it probably intensifies our determination to verify the authenticity of documents but the fact that Assange is a complex, somewhat contradictory, imperious character, as I have experienced him, would not, of course, alone be reason for shunning the documents which he has obtained.

The Times has faced criticism for its decision to write about Assange himself, rather than limiting coverage to only the content of the documents, but Burns defended the choice.

We could hardly have disguised from the leadership of The New York Times what we had come to know about Assange and Wikileaks that would have been meretricious, so we tried to balance the two, but I don’t think we’re going to get into the business of shunning material because we don’t like the source.

While Assange ultimately agreed to adhere to The New York Times standards in what to redact in the State Department cables, Burns called the time leading to the decision a “moment of great crisis.”

After the release of the initial documents on Afghanistan, when they had rushed the fences and had broken Assange’s own undertaking to redact those documents to remove the names of informants and others whose lives might be at risk, [Assange] in effect broke with that [and] blamed the Pentagon, oddly, saying that they had refused to help him redact the documents. There was such an outcry about that, including from within Wikileaks itself, [and] this was one of the points which caused the fracturing of the Wikileaks leadership. He then became very much more careful about the redaction in the second round of releases relating to the Iraq war. It’s significant, I think, that of these several hundred thousand documents...only a minority have ever actually posted by Wikileaks and one of the reasons for that is that [Assange] lacks the redact them in a hurry.

Assange threatened to release all the documents if he was harmed or arrested, and that is a threat that Burns believes Assange could easily see through.

He holds the key.. to the encryption, and it’s a threat that he’s made a number of times. It’s a threat that, if you ask my opinion, is contradictory to many of the values that he has espoused. If you talk about open information, a world .. of information without borders where there are no secrets, and no state secrets certainly, and not much privacy either, then it seems somewhat contradictory to start saying ‘Actually there’s another consideration in all this and that’s whether it suits my interest or not.’ Assange... places himself in the position of being the decider as to what the world should know and what they shouldn’t know, which I would have thought was a direct contradiction of the principles on which he founded Wikileaks.

While Wikileaks may have been founded as a nonpartisan anti-secrecy organization, Burns said Assange has become increasingly hostile to the United States. 

There is a very, very angry polemic in much of what Assange has to say. He regards the United States, as he says on public platforms, as being the greatest threat to democracy in the world... He doesn’t use the words exactly but he talks about it in effect as being a kind of military dictatorship.


John Burns


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Comments [11]

Lenore from Upper West Side

Sorry, I didn't even listen to this since I was watching CNN International and Amy Goodman and had previously read John Burns' meanderings at the NYT. The comments already written confirm the wisdom of my decision.

Brian, why didn't you query this guy? I notice that the interviewers on BBC world service are much more aggressive and much less sycophantic than ours. You must not like Wikileaks much. You also fell over yourself to give Robert Baer full rein to lament the loss to diplomacy created by Wikileaks. What nonsense!

Jan. 28 2011 01:32 PM
maureen from rockland county.

The New York Times has become an uncritical mouthpiece for US self interest.This is a game of propaganda and your guest is a master of it.Sorry but I just don't believe much that is coming out of his mouth this morning.

Jan. 28 2011 10:28 AM

Burns has an English accent, it's okay if he dissembles. Also, too, the Iraq war was a fantastic idea, and glorious. "Liberating Angels", and so forth.

Jan. 28 2011 10:27 AM

He said the secret govt in the US was a threat, not the US itself.

Can't Mr. Burns make his case without these repeated distortions, and if not, why can't Brian call him on them instead of assisting him?

Jan. 28 2011 10:25 AM

The Times has _repeatedly_ set itself up as arbitrating authority on what Americans should know. It did so through the reporting of hacks like John Burns and Judy Miller. It did so when it sat on news about American torture, American spying, American denials of due process.

Jan. 28 2011 10:23 AM

He didn't say "if he was arrested or charged", he said: if something happened to him, which I and others took as: if he were dropped into one of the black sites the NYT covered up for a year.

Jan. 28 2011 10:21 AM

Curious.... The New York Times had _20 YEARS_ of concerns about the reporting of Judith Miller, but stood by her despite numerous criticisms.

The Times raised no skeptical voice about Bush claims regarding Iraq until the rest of the world had reported widely -- proving the Times to be a toadying liar in the service of the US government.

Keller and the Times sat on facts about Iraq, about torture, about domestic spying until Wikileaks and others had reported them.

Again, Burns and Keller are grossly biased on this.

And Brian Lehrer is not challenging Burns in the slightest. A sad commentary on the deplorable state of US journalism.

Jan. 28 2011 10:21 AM
Robert from NYC

Assange imperious, heh. That makes two of you I guess, Mr. Burns.

Jan. 28 2011 10:18 AM

The US government - with the direct approval of Barack Obama and Eric Holder - are suborning perjury, torturing Bradley Manning to implicate Julian Assange. This is a constitutional violation on their part.

It is quite plausible that the US is doing the same thing it has done in the past (and continues to do today) -- trying to accelerate, aggravate dissent in organizations that the US opposes.


It is comical to hear Burns offering his grossly self-serving account. He has biased. It cannot be pretended otherwise -- he has a vested interest in the debate.

Jan. 28 2011 10:17 AM
sp from nyc

One would have to be certifiably insane to assume anything circulated to half a million people could possibly be kept secret. Anything else aside, I fear for the effects of the sheer incompetence, or alternatively, unmitigated arrogance, of the U.S. government.

Jan. 28 2011 10:13 AM

Is is disgraceful that WNYC should have John Burns on about Wikileaks. Burns has made his opinion of Julian Assange very clear and many defending Wikileaks have directly criticized Burns for both his terrible record on Iraq and Afghanistan and on Wikileaks.

He is a grossly biased. But he is no doubt trying to save face, much as Bill Keller is, after a deplorable spinelessness on Wikileaks.

Also -- no surprise that Brian Lehrer should fail to mention the al-Jazeera publication of the Palestine papers which show the disgusting conniving of the Israeli government, the US government and the Palestinian Authority to deprive Palestinians of their natural rights.

Jan. 28 2011 10:11 AM

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