BROOKE GLADSTONE: Before Bradley Manning leaked documents to WikiLeaks, he says he tried to leak those documents to the Washington Post and the New York Times. A Washington Post reporter put him off by saying that she'd have to get a senior editor involved. The New York Times never called Manning back. In this week's New York Times, columnist and former Executive Editor Bill Keller imagines what would have happened if the Times had returned that call.
BILL KELLER: First of all, we would have done the stories. I doubt that we would have initiated a great sharing program with The Guardian and DerSpiegel, partly for competitive reasons and partly because I think the lawyers would have been concerned that that would worsen our legal jeopardy and Bradley Manning’s legal jeopardy.
But we would have done pretty much what we did with the material that we got through WikiLeaks, which was give it to a bunch of reporters and said, find the stuff in here that’s really interesting and be careful to leave out the stuff that might get somebody killed, and we will publish stories.
The other thing that I think would not have been different is probably Bradley Manning's legal liability. The military was going to come after him. The New York Times, and I would argue WikiLeaks too, have the protection of the First Amendment, but he took an oath to protect the government’s secrets that were entrusted to him, and so legally he would have been just as liable if he’d come to the New York Times.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Daniel Ellsberg was more or less informed of that by Max Frankel when he brought the Times the Pentagon Papers, that he was going to be on his own.
BILL KELLER: I’m not sure what the conversations were between Max and Dan Ellsberg at the time, but it was certainly clear in the minds of people at the Times that, you know, the relationship between a source and a news organization only goes so far because sources come to you with agendas, they want to put their own spin on the material, and you have to keep enough distance so that you're applying impartial judgment to the information that the source brings.
We quite often agree to protect the identity of sources who come to us, and we honor that to the extent of some reporters having gone to jail. But when it comes to the law, the source and the recipient are in different places. The recipient has the protection of the First Amendment and the source generally does not.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: The Guardian has said it’s felt a certain responsibility towards Bradley Manning. They have been very, very active in writing about his treatment and his confinement. The Times not so much?
BILL KELLER: Not so much, but not not at all. The Times editorialized very strongly against Bradley Manning’s treatment when he was kept for an inexcusable amount of time in solitary confinement, some of it without his clothes.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: The Times came a little bit late to that party.
BILL KELLER: Yeah, I think so. You know, we had no relationship with Bradley Manning. As far as I know, nobody at the Times has ever met him. And at the point when we got these documents from WikiLeaks, we were dealing with WikiLeaks and with these other news organizations. Bradley Manning was already in custody. So he’s a bit of a distant figure and a bit of a mysterious figure. And yes, the Times was a little late to that issue. And, I think, you know, as our public editor pointed out recently, a little slow in covering his trial.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: If the Times had worked with Manning and if Manning had the Times imprimatur, do you think he might not be facing the aiding the enemy charge he's facing now?
BILL KELLER: Well, this is completely speculation on my part, but I, I wonder. You know, while I regard WikiLeaks as entitled to exactly the same First Amendment protections that the New York Times is entitled to, the fact that he chose to deliver his material to an organization that clearly has an attitude about America, that talks about wanting to embarrass the imperialist power, in the subconscious or maybe even in the conscious of a prosecutor in the military justice system, it may very well have had some bearing on their decision to bring the overkill charge of aiding the enemy against him. And I would not be shocked if it had some bearing on the sentencing.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Do you think we know more about government misdeeds because Manning worked with WikiLeaks and not exclusively with the New York Times?
BILL KELLER: I think we know a lot more – I don’t know about government misdeeds but about how the government operates in different countries. And that's partly because WikiLeaks shared the information with a number of other news organizations. And stories that interest El País or Le Monde may not be the same stories that interest the New York Times. And since that initial splash of stories, WikiLeaks has been methodically taking information around to local newspapers and they’ve been writing stories in Lebanon, in India, in Brazil that are of – very much of local interest but would never probably attract the attention of the Guardian or the New York Times. So there's a lot more of the Bradley Manning leak that has gotten public attention as a result of the fact that it went to WikiLeaks.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: So it was worth it.
BILL KELLER: What was worth what? [LAUGHS]
BROOKE GLADSTONE: [LAUGHS] The tradeoffs of sharing this material widely so that areas directly affected by the information in those cables were able to see them?
BILL KELLER: Absolutely, absolutely. Look, you know, I – I’ve had had disagreements with WikiLeaks along the way, and some of them have been vociferous on both parts. But, complicated as it was sometimes dealing with WikiLeaks, I think it would have been more complicated to have to deal, you know, with this walk-in source who was offering us this huge database, and deciding exactly how to proceed, what our relationship with this young soldier should be, we were spared because WikiLeaks did that piece of work. I think it actually was a good thing that we got this through WikiLeaks.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Bill, thank you very much.
BILL KELLER: Anytime.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Bill Keller is an op-ed columnist for the New York Times.