What the New York Times could teach WikiLeaks' Julian Assange about printing secrets.

What the New York Times could teach WikiLeaks' Julian Assange about printing secrets.

What the New York Times could teach WikiLeaks' Julian Assange about printing secrets.

Media criticism.
Aug. 3 2010 5:59 PM

The Art of Printing Secrets

What the New York Times could teach Julian Assange about national security.

Illustration by Mark Alan Stamaty. Click image to expand.

No government wants even its most junior secrets divulged. So last week, when the New York Times, the Guardian, and Der Spiegel published stories based on the 92,000-document Afghanistan stash obtained and distributed by Julian Assange's WikiLeaks, U.S. officials obviously deplored the coverage.

But after the stories ran, Assange and WikiLeaks became the target of official ire, not the publications. Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates, White House press secretary Robert Gibbs, White House national security adviser James Jones, and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Adm. Mike Mullen condemned the WikiLeaks founder. Perhaps the only hostile critic of the press—as opposed to WikiLeaks—was Rep. Mike Pence, R-Ind.

The difference between the WikiLeaks treatment of the documents and that of the Times, Guardian, and Der Spiegel was simple: WikiLeaks posted tens of thousands of unredacted pages on its site, exposing the names of Afghan informants and collaborators while the publications concealed the names. As the New York Times informed its readers, "names and other information that could be used to identify people at risk" were removed from documents it posted. The newspaper also explained in its coverage that in addition to self-censoring, it passed along to WikiLeaks a White House request that the organization withhold "harmful material" from its site.

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I don't expect the Pentagon to pin Distinguished Service Crosses on the lapels of the redacting editors any time soon, but the WikiLeaks coverage shows how conscientious the press generally is when publishing information the government would rather keep secret.

How conscientious? Yahoo News' Michael Calderone reported last week that the White House didn't ask the New York Times not to publish its story.

"I think it was clear to them, in our conversations, that we were handling it with care," Times Washington bureau chief Dean Baquet told Calderone.

The Washington Post performed similar due diligence in the publication of its "Top Secret America" package last month, asking government officials whether they had "specific concerns" about what the paper intended to publish. "One government body objected to certain data points on the site and explained why; we removed those items," the paper reported.

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Of course due diligence isn't magic. In 2005, the White House seemed ready to go to war with the New York Times over its publication of a story about the National Security Agency. It made little difference to the Bush administration that the Times had held the story for a year at the White House's request; the administration was adamant that it not run.

Yet the tradition of horse trading between journalists and government officials behind closed doors to both minimize damage to national security and get the story published has a long if not well-known history. New York Times Executive Editor Bill Keller and Dean Baquet, then editor of the Los Angeles Times, laid out in a 2006 op-ed how their two newspapers published sensitive stories. They wrote:

No article on a classified program gets published until the responsible officials have been given a fair opportunity to comment. And if they want to argue that publication represents a danger to national security, we put things on hold and give them a respectful hearing. Often, we agree to participate in off-the-record conversations with officials, so they can make their case without fear of spilling more secrets onto our front pages.

A fuller picture of the give-and-take appears in two papers published by Harvard's Shorenstein Center by Allan M. Siegal, a former assistant managing editor at the New York Times, and the late Jack Nelson, former Los Angeles Times Washington bureau chief. Siegal's paper, "Secrets About Secrets: The Backstage Conversations Between Press and Government," from 2007 (pdf), and Nelson's, "U.S. Government Secrecy and the Current Crackdown on Leaks," published in 2003 (pdf), reveal an ongoing discussion between the press and officialdom about classified information.

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Calling these tête-à-têtes "discussions" sort of soft-soaps the relationship. They can be war. But the Siegal and Nelson papers chronicle the efforts the press and officials have made to understand one another. Nelson writes that in the first year of the Bush administration, reporter Scott Armstrong and Jeffrey H. Smith, former general counsel of the CIA, "enlisted media executives and government officials to engage in an informal, ongoing dialogue about the issue of protecting Government secrets without infringing on the right to report on the Government."

The unofficial group, called "Dialogue," held off-the-record discussions and received "virtually no publicity," Nelson writes. A list of attendees of the 2001 and 2002 Dialogue meetings provided by Nelson includes the legal brass at the National Security Council, the National Security Agency, the Central Intelligence Agency, and the Defense Department, as well as the top public affairs officers at those agencies. National-security journalists from ABC News, the Washington Post, Newsweek, the Los Angeles Times, National Journal, and the Wall Street Journal joined the sessions, as did veteran journalists Bill Kovach, Don Oberdorfer, and Frank Sesno, and former government officials Hodding Carter, John Podesta, and Boyden Gray.

Dialogue continued in spirit if not in name in 2003, when the Aspen Institute convened a similar meeting in Queenstown, Md., attracting Attorney General John Ashcroft as the featured speaker, Siegal writes. The Aspen Institute re-revived the Dialogue idea in 2006 with a retreat at its Wye River conference center. (Siegal lists the 2006 participants in an appendix. They include such heavyweights as Gen. Michael Hayden from the CIA, Rajiv Chandrasekaran of the Washington Post, and Doyle McManus of the Los Angeles Times.)

No sessions have been convened since 2006, say Jeffrey H. Smith and Charlie Firestone of Aspen, both of whom lament the Dialogue's passing.

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"We've wanted to do one [again], but it hasn't been easy," says Firestone, citing a reluctance on the part of the government to sit down with the press. "It hasn't been that different from the last administration."

The Dialogue and post-Dialogue meetings got good reviews from both sides of the press-government divide, according to Siegal's and Nelson's papers, because they allowed each side to pollinate the thinking of the other without a deadline adding to the natural tension and wariness.

But not everybody came away from the 2006 meeting with a Care Bear attitude. Robert L. Deitz, a counselor to the director of the CIA (2006-09), attended the 2006 session and a couple of months later blasted the idea that newspapers had any business vetting classified information for publication in a C-SPAN appearance. Deitz expressed the intelligence establishment's disdain for the press with condescension and sarcasm (transcription by Siegal):

When pressed, the editor of a large metropolitan daily newspaper explained in writing that he goes through a balancing test, balancing potential risk and reader interest. Now, I sort of thought that national elections chose the balancer, and I didn't really grasp the training that senior editors of major metropolitan daily newspapers had which would give them the job skills in order to do an intelligence balancing test. …

One is always put in the category of troglodyte if one suggests that the little dears of the Fourth Estate should curb their enthusiasms for publishing secrets. … What I would suggest is that we need serious reviews by the editors of the newspapers about what they publish ... giving more credit to people in these positions of authority, people such as the heads of NSA, CIA, DIA, and so forth—that these aren't a bunch of corrupt pols who are trying to keep secrets simply to cover their careers, that these are well-intended people who are deeply concerned about keeping the American people safe.

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If the choice is between an operator like Julian Assange, who publishes secret documents in the raw without conversing with officialdom, and the "little dears of the Fourth Estate," who anguish over what information to publish, Deitz and his allies in the government may start waxing nostalgically for the good old days when the little dears held sway.

Had Assange been in direct contact with the U.S. intelligence establishment, as national security reporters are, and had he heard U.S. officials' arguments without any intermediates, would he have published so many raw documents to the Web? I don't think he would have. The normally cocky Australian seemed rattled in an NBC interview when informed that the Times of London had found identifying names in documents WikiLeaks posted, even though he claimed WikiLeaks had withheld 15,000 of the documents to prevent their disclosure. NBC asked Assange, what if WikiLeaks' document dump resulted in "collateral damage"? "If we had, in fact, made that mistake, then, of course, that would be something that we would take very seriously," he said, sounding like a politician.

All the government's chasing of conventional leaks and leakers, nicely captured in this Washingtonianoverview, isn't going to enhance national security if Assange—and his would-be imitators—continue to publish classified documents. Instead of having him outside the tent, pissing in, government should find a way to get him inside the tent, where at least they can influence the direction of his cascade. One way to do that would be to get Dialogue's informal sessions back on the national-security calendar. In the very best of all possible worlds, it will find a way to hold one of the first regroupings in a neutral site where Assange feels no threat of arrest. Iceland, anyone?

Addendum, 7:24: The Daily Beast reports that WikiLeaks has asked the Defense Department for help in redacting the secret documents.

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******

Make sure to invite Adm. Mullen, who won't come. When asked about the prospect of opening talks with Assange, Mullen responded, "I'm not sure why we would. … Do you think he is going to tell us the truth?" Left on the cutting-room floor for the main body of my piece but worthy of inclusion in this sign-off is a positive mention of the 2007 story in the New York Sun by Josh Gerstein about a series of half-day, "off-the-record 'seminars' " the National Security Agency conducted for reporters between 2002 and 2004 ("Spies Prep Reporters on Protecting Secrets"). As described by Gerstein, the sessions sound like they were more about diluting stories than improving them. In other words, it was more dictation than dialogue. In a funny follow-up to the Sun story published in Gawker, Gerstein noted the NSA erred in offering reporters tea and cookies during the seminar. "The best way to a reporter's head is through their stomach," Gerstein told Gawker. "You wonder what the NSA's budget is for catering; it doesn't look like they even got lunch." Send reporter snack ideas to slate.pressbox@gmail.com. Monitor my Twitter for my compensation demands. (E-mail may be quoted by name in "The Fray," Slate's readers' forum; in a future article; or elsewhere unless the writer stipulates otherwise. Permanent disclosure: Slate is owned by the Washington Post Co.)

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