Julian Assange: Bag Lady or Puppet Master?


The New York Times Sunday Magazine published a brilliant essay today by Executive Editor Bill Keller, "The Boy Who Kicked The Hornet's Nest" that describes an evolving relationship between news media outlets and their source and the complex balancing act between the freedom of press and a government's responsibility to protect. It portrays a fascinating behind the scenes view of how several normally competing news organizations worked collaboratively with the source, Julian Assange, to make sense of mountains of disparate, arcane pieces of data in multiple forms.

One of the major sources for Assange allegedly was Private First Class Bradley Manning, described by The New York Times as "disillusioned," but by Assange as someone who has experienced a "political awakening." By all accounts, Pfc. Manning appears to have broken the law many times.

There has been much ado about Wikileaks, but Bill Keller provides a different perspective:

Ninety-nine percent of what we read or hear on the news does not profoundly change our understanding of how the world works.

...these documents provide texture, nuance and drama. They deepen and correct your understanding of how things unfold...

I am no fan of WikiLeaks; dumping hundreds of thousands of documents with little or no meaning to the public (much of it, according to Bill Keller, is in "clunky patois of military jargon and acronyms") seems to have minimal value at best - all at a potential price of nothing less than national security. After all, it took several computer experts to accomplish the basic task of assembling the vast data into searchable format. The public had to rely on the best journalists in the world, ranging from The New York Times, to The Guardian to Der Spiegel, to provide meaning and context.

And very telling:

Several news organizations, including ours, reported this dangerous lapse, and months later a Taliban spokesman claimed that Afghan insurgents had been perusing the WikiLeaks site and making a list.

I highly recommend this article as a case study of the tension between a free press and the government. According to Max Frankel:

For the vast majority of 'secrets,' there has developed between the government and the press (and Congress) a rather simple rule of thumb: The government hides what it can, pleading necessity as long as it can, and the press pries out what it can, pleading a need and a right to know. Each side in this 'game' regularly 'wins' and 'loses' a round or two. Each fights with the weapons at its command. When the government loses a secret or two, it simply adjusts to a new reality.


Bill Keller's description of the devolving relationship between The Times and Assange was fascinating, particularly in light of the dramatically different views each had of the other. I have attempted to summarize this below, using quotes from each party:

The New York Times description of Assange, following the narative of Keller's essay:

"a bit of Peter Pan"
"disheveled, like a bag lady"
"losing control of his secrets"
"raged against The Times"

Assange, according to Assange:

boasted that he served as a "puppet master" of several news organizations

"Where's the respect?" (To The Times)

I "created scientific journalism"

Readers - I look forward to your comments and opinion regarding this important article by Bill Keller.

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This points out the sloppy way security is handled by our goverment .the gov thank this guy for pointing this out. a former security worker.

This "dumping hundreds of thousands of documents" is crappy propaganda. It hasn't happened like that.

By Vince Whirlwind (not verified) on 30 Jan 2011 #permalink

Please provide documentation to challenge the assertion by The Times and other outlets. Or does this reflect your opinion?

Is it that hard for writers who disagree with wikileaks to understand that they did NOT "dump" hundreds of thousands of documents into the public domain? As of this writing they have made 2850 available on their site. Please, in the interest of accuracy in journalism (on a science blog no less), prominently correct this falsehood or let this post stand as an example of why we're better off getting news from unfiltered sources such as wikileaks.

Yes, the only reason why MSM keeps repeating the lie that hundreds of thousands of documents have been leaked, is so they can paint Wikileaks as dangerous, irresponsible and "not journalism" - just defending their turf with a lie. Under outrage and pressure by listeners, at least NPR corrected and apologized - most other media organizations did not, and some still repeat that canard.

You would have known this a long time ago if you followed media-watchers like Glenn Greenwald or @jayrosen_nyu on Twitter - this is old news.

Generally, if I find that "my opinion" is at odds with something that has appeared in any of the Murdosh-owned rags, I am reassured.
In any case, "my opinion" has nothing to do with it - you call yourself a scientist, so do two things:
- assess The Times for credibility based on past performance
- cross-check their claims

Then, perhaps, read a counter-opinion to Murdoch's characteristically innacurate propaganda. For example, what does Daniel Ellsberg have to say?

In any case, the "recklessly dumped 100s of thousands of files" meme is an invention of the right-wing propaganda machine. Shame on you for falling for it.

By Vince Whirlwind (not verified) on 30 Jan 2011 #permalink

If you had read the linked article, you could see that they did recklessly dump tens of thousands of files... at least in the case of the afghanistan and iraqi war diaries. After the problems found therein, restraint has been exercised when it comes to the leaked cables, and those are only being leaked as information based on them is published. Note that the newspapers have all hundreds of thousands of them already.

The "invention of the right-wing propaganda machine" to which you refer {do you include The New York Times?} is perplexing. Per Keller's article: here is just one example of a WikiLeaks release, at 92,000 reports. I chose not to refer to their release as "reckless," - certainly a matter of opinion.

"The reporters had begun preliminary work on the Afghanistan field reports, using a large Excel spreadsheet to organize the material, then plugging in search terms and combing the documents for newsworthy content. They had run into a puzzling incongruity: Assange said the data included dispatches from the beginning of 2004 through the end of 2009, but the material on the spreadsheet ended abruptly in April 2009. A considerable amount of material was missing. Assange, slipping naturally into the role of office geek, explained that they had hit the limits of Excel. Open a second spreadsheet, he instructed. They did, and the rest of the data materialized â a total of 92,000 reports from the battlefields of Afghanistan."

I'm puzzled as to why Beezy and Ckoturnix say that Wikileaks has not posted hundreds of thousands of documents. Here is their current front page.

On it, they clearly state that they have released 391,832 reports from the Iraq war. Oddly enough, if you click on the link for the Afghanistan War logs, they give you a link for 391,000 documents pertaining to both the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, released October 22, 2010, so I'm not sure just what the percentages of released documents are for each war, but it does seem as if, yes, hundreds of thousands of documents have in fact been released.

"Dumped" is a very pejorative word, and one I am not using, but I am impressed that they were able to go through that many documents and make sure to take out any information that might, you know, get someone killed, before posting them all on the Internet for all to see, including the Taliban and al-Qaeda. Good for Wikileaks!

I think I may have misunderstood this post - the mention of Manning closely followed by the line "dumping hundreds of thousands of documents" led me to believe that you were claiming the material some believe was supplied by Manning (diplomatic cables) had been 1, "dumped" 2, "hundreds of thousands", neither of which is true.

Previous material released by Wikileaks is a different story, but again, I fail to see how it can be described as "dumped" - my understanding is that Wikileaks offered the US government the opportunity to help sanitise the documents before they were released - this would seem to contradict the subjective implications of the word "dumped".

Finally, the obvious security implication is this: if Manning and Assange have these documents, then those documents are just as likely to be held in Tel Aviv and Moscow, and therefore also potentially accessible to any government-sponsored terrorist anywhere else.
The US government's focus on Assange, therefore, is clearly nothing more than a PR exercise, because he is not reponsible for their security woes though he is obvious their favoured target for scape-goating.

By Vince Whirlwind (not verified) on 31 Jan 2011 #permalink

Who pays your salary? You are very biased. Bradley Manning is a victim of American military torture and is a prisoner of conscience. You must be unaware that in this country where we still supposedly have freedom of the press, that Pfc Manning is a political prisoner of conscience and GAVE the documents away. He didn't try to sell them or profit from them in any way. He rather thought the American people had the right to know that their government is murdering innocent civilians in their name. What planet do you live on? And, did your parents teach you what love is? It appears they did not. As for Assange, he has done more for freedom of the press than anyone has since Daniel Ellsberg and the Pentagon Papers. He has also broken infinitely more important stories than all of the mainstream investigative press has in more than 30 years. And I am sorry to say Mr. paid pundit sitting in your ivory tower, is a fact. You are just going to have to live with that fact. For such a supposedly smart man, you sure are ignorant.

By Victoria Parks (not verified) on 31 Jan 2011 #permalink

@Victoria Parks

Manning (allegedly) released hundreds of thousands of classified documents that were his duty to protect. Yes, there were documents that indicated potential war crimes, but do we know if Manning ever elevated these up the chain of command? If he did, and no action was taken, then he would be justified in leaking the necessary documents, not thousands upon thousands.

He had to know that if he got caught he'd be in deep trouble. That said, the isolation he's currently being held is rather excessive.

By The Gregarious… (not verified) on 31 Jan 2011 #permalink

I don't know what all this Manning-worship is all about - he was an unreliable employee who broke the law as well as his moral and ethical duty towards his employer.

Not all of what he did was wrong - releasing the blackhawk footage (if that was him) was an excellent case of whistleblowing which, even if not protected by any US law, was morally correct and in fact a public duty.

The fact is that any documents held by Assange can't possibly be considered confidential any longer as Assange has no clearance to hold them. The US government should be dealing with the dangers posed by the insecurity within their own organisation, not engaging in futile attempts to keep their security breaches secret. Dealing with their internal problems may help them improve their security.

Silencing Assange will do nothing to make the US military more effective and secure, all it does it keep the public in the dark as to the military's incompetence and unreliability.

By Vince Whirlwind (not verified) on 01 Feb 2011 #permalink