NYT Magazine Preview: Julian Assange

Dealing With Assange and The Secrets He Spilled

The Times has published a fascinating account of its dealings with the man behind WikiLeaks, Julian Assange… some select quotes…

Assange was transformed by his outlaw celebrity. The derelict with the backpack and the sagging socks now wore his hair dyed and styled, and he favored fashionably skinny suits and ties. He became a kind of cult figure for the European young and leftish and was evidently a magnet for women. Two Swedish women filed police complaints claiming that Assange insisted on having sex without a condom; Sweden’s strict laws on nonconsensual sex categorize such behavior as rape, and a prosecutor issued a warrant to question Assange, who initially described it as a plot concocted to silence or discredit WikiLeaks.

I came to think of Julian Assange as a character from aStieg Larsson thriller — a man who could figure either as hero or villain in one of the megaselling Swedish novels that mix hacker counterculture, high-level conspiracy and sex as both recreation and violation.

Another time he called to tell me how much he disliked ourprofile of Bradley Manning, the Army private suspected of being the source of WikiLeaks’s most startling revelations. The article traced Manning’s childhood as an outsider and his distress as a gay man in the military. Assange complained that we “psychologicalized” Manning and gave short shrift to his “political awakening.”

Because of the range of the material and the very nature of diplomacy, the embassy cables were bound to be more explosive than the War Logs. Dean Baquet, our Washington bureau chief, gave the White House an early warning on Nov. 19. The following Tuesday, two days before Thanksgiving, Baquet and two colleagues were invited to a windowless room at the State Department, where they encountered an unsmiling crowd.

Unlike most of the military dispatches, the embassy cables were written in clear English, sometimes with wit, color and an ear for dialogue. (“Who knew,” one of our English colleagues marveled, “that American diplomats could write?”)

And it was important to remember that diplomatic cables are versions of events. They can be speculative. They can be ambiguous. They can be wrong.

The broader public reaction was mixed — more critical in the first days; more sympathetic as readers absorbed the articles and the sky did not fall; and more hostile to WikiLeaks in the U.S. than in Europe, where there is often a certain pleasure in seeing the last superpower taken down a peg.

Although it is our aim to be impartial in our presentation of the news, our attitude toward these issues is far from indifferent. The journalists at The Times have a large and personal stake in the country’s security. We live and work in a city that has been tragically marked as a favorite terrorist target, and in the wake of 9/11 our journalists plunged into the ruins to tell the story of what happened here. Moreover, The Times has nine staff correspondents assigned to the two wars still being waged in the wake of that attack, plus a rotating cast of photographers, visiting writers and scores of local stringers and support staff. They work in this high-risk environment because, while there are many places you can go for opinions about the war, there are few places — and fewer by the day — where you can go to find honest, on-the-scene reporting about what is happening. We take extraordinary precautions to keep them safe, but we have had two of our Iraqi journalists murdered for doing their jobs. We have had four journalists held hostage by the Taliban — two of them for seven months. We had one Afghan journalist killed in a rescue attempt. Last October, while I was in Kabul, we got word that a photographer embedded for us with troops near Kandahar stepped on an improvised mine and lost both his legs.

A free press in a democracy can be messy. But the alternative is to give the government a veto over what its citizens are allowed to know. Anyone who has worked in countries where the news diet is controlled by the government can sympathize with Thomas Jefferson’s oft-quoted remark that he would rather have newspapers without government than government without newspapers.

The intentions of our founders have rarely been as well articulated as they were by Justice Hugo Black 40 years ago, concurring with the Supreme Court ruling that stopped the government from suppressing the secret Vietnam War history called the Pentagon Papers: “The government’s power to censor the press was abolished so that the press would remain forever free to censure the government. The press was protected so that it could bare the secrets of government and inform the people.”

Ninety-nine percent of what we read or hear on the news does not profoundly change our understanding of how the world works. News mostly advances by inches and feet, not in great leaps. The value of these documents — and I believe they have immense value — is not that they expose some deep, unsuspected perfidy in high places or that they upend your whole view of the world. For those who pay close attention to foreign policy, these documents provide texture, nuance and drama. They deepen and correct your understanding of how things unfold; they raise or lower your estimation of world leaders. For those who do not follow these subjects as closely, the stories are an opportunity to learn more. If a project like this makes readers pay attention, think harder, understand more clearly what is being done in their name, then we have performed a public service. And that does not count the impact of these revelations on the people most touched by them. WikiLeaks cables in which American diplomats recount the extravagant corruption of Tunisia’s rulers helped fuel a popular uprising that has overthrown the government.

He spun out an elaborate version of aU.S. Justice Department effort to exact punishment for his assault on American secrecy. If he was somehow extradited to the United States, he said, “I would still have a high chance of being killed in the U.S. prison system, Jack Ruby style, given the continual calls for my murder by senior and influential U.S. politicians.”

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