Paradigm Shift: Wikileaks and the New York Times

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View of the Interpol 'wanted' page for WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange taken in Washington on December 3, 2010.

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.