New York Times editor Bill Keller has spilled the secrets about his paper's dealings with Wikileaks and Julian Assange in a new Times magazine piece. Upshot: Assange is a weird sissy nerd, and he probably eats boogers.
The story will serve as the introduction to Open Secrets: WikiLeaks, War and American Diplomacy, an e-book on the Wikileaks disclosures that the Times is publishing next week. It's a strange account. Much of it has already been reported—how Wikileaks approached the Guardian to collaborate, how the Guardian brought in the Times, how they all worked together in London to process the document caches, how Assange became enraged at the Times' coverage of him. But Keller adds some personal detail that sheds as much light on his personal contempt for Assange as it does Assange's essential weirdness:
[Times reporter Eric] Schmitt told me that for all Assange's bombast and dark conspiracy theories, he had a bit of Peter Pan in him. One night, when they were all walking down the street after dinner, Assange suddenly started skipping ahead of the group. Schmitt and Goetz stared, speechless. Then, just as suddenly, Assange stopped, got back in step with them and returned to the conversation he had interrupted.
When Schmitt, who served as the paper's point man for the Wikileaks relationship, first met Assange, he was "like a bag lady walking in off the street, wearing a dingy, light-colored sport coat and cargo pants, dirty white shirt, beat-up sneakers and filthy white socks that collapsed around his ankles. He smelled as if he hadn't bathed in days." That's interesting, but Keller seems to bring it up only to later contrast it with Assange's later transformation into a "cult figure" who "wore his hair dyed and styled, and ... favored fashionably skinny suits and ties." Mostly, for Keller, Assange was a whiny little thrower of tantrums, full of empty threats and an inflated sense of his own importance.
Which is all true! But there's something unseemly about Keller attacking him so openly and gleefully. This is the man, for better or worse, whose effort and innovation made possible the little e-book Keller is hawking. He had accomplished reporting feats—in terms of sheer breadth and volume—that no one at the Times ever had, or ever will, match. He had something that the Times desperately wanted, and shared it with them, for free. The fact that he's also an asshole doesn't mean Keller ought to go on braying about it, especially after two of his reporters had already done an exceptional job of revealing him as such. At one point, according to Keller, Assange lamely demanded of the Times, "Where's the respect? Where's the respect?" Reading Keller's snide take evisceration of a guy who, in the end, did him a massive and invaluable service, you kind of get his point.
Also: Here's a great illustration of the difference between what Wikileaks was trying to accomplish and the way an establishment institution like the Times works. The Times didn't just alert the State Department to the contents of the cables it hoped to use, it essentially collaborated with the government by hosting what sounds like periodic shadow censorship panels.
Subsequent meetings, which soon gave way to daily conference calls, were more businesslike. Before each discussion, our Washington bureau sent over a batch of specific cables that we intended to use in the coming days. They were circulated to regional specialists, who funneled their reactions to a small group at State, who came to our daily conversations with a list of priorities and arguments to back them up. We relayed the government's concerns, and our own decisions regarding them, to the other news outlets.
In the final scene of Three Days of the Condor, Robert Redford's renegade CIA analyst meets his Agency antagonist outside the (old) Times building to tell him that he's given the paper the whole story. The bad guy looks shocked, but quickly recovers to ask, "How do you know they'll print it?" Fade to black.
So here we have the Times working closely with State Department officials to get clearance, essentially, to publish certain cables. Obviously the Times made the final calls, and the paper has shown relative courage in the past by outing the Bush Administration's surveillance program (after sitting on it for a year) in the face of strenuous opposition. But in the end, the federal government prevailed on the Times not to print certain things that it did not want printed. And those are precisely the things that I most want to read. Julian Assange is an asshole—and Wikileaks' own cable dumps were bizarrely over-redacted—but in the face of Keller's smug paternalism, radical transparency starts looking better and better.
[Photo of Assange via Getty]