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NYT casts Assange as 'arrogant' (with a little 'Peter Pan')

My time with Julian

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WikiLeaks is hardly the journalistic enterprise many of its supporters claim, but it will be a sad day for American jurisprudence if the website is prosecuted for spilling government secrets, the top editor of The New York Times says.

In a lengthy behind-the-scenes account of his dealings with Julian Assange, NYT Executive Editor Bill Keller paints the WikiLeaks founder as an erratic figure with “a bit of Peter Pan in him.” Mood swings, temper tantrums and a lack of care that could threaten the safety of Afghan citizens cooperating with US forces all feature prominently.

But ultimately, Keller concludes, prosecuting WikiLeaks for publishing hundreds of thousands of classified US documents would set back more than a century of legal precedents.

“While I do not regard Assange as a partner, and I would hesitate to describe what WikiLeaks does as journalism, it is chilling to contemplate the possible government prosecution of WikiLeaks for making secrets public, let alone the passage of new laws to punish the dissemination of classified information, as some have advocated,” Keller writes in an 8,000-word article defending the NYT's coverage of the WikiLeaks leaks. “Taking legal recourse against a government official who violates his trust by divulging secrets he is sworn to protect is one thing. But criminalizing the publication of such secrets by someone who has no official obligation seems to me to run up against the First Amendment and the best traditions of this country.”

Keller continues: “If Assange were an understated professorial type rather than a character from a missing Stieg Larsson novel, and if WikiLeaks were not suffused with such glib antipathy toward the United States, would the reaction to the leaks be quite so ferocious? And would more Americans be speaking up against the threat of reprisals?”

Those familiar with Assange already have ample evidence that he is an unpredictable figure whose passion for radical transparency is trumped only by his sense of self importance. But with six months of experience dealing with the man, Keller can't help making his own case.

Exhibit A comes from “a bit of Peter Pan” in Assange that spontaneously emerged during an encounter in London with NYT reporter Eric Schmitt and Der Spiegel journalist John Goetz.

“One night, when they were all walking down the street after dinner, Assange suddenly started skipping ahead of the group,” Keller recounts. “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.”

But a darker side soon emerged. After the NYT published a front-page profile of Assange that reported fractures within the WikiLeaks organization, the founder complained to Keller that the piece was a “smear” and demanded a front-page retraction.

After the NYT published articles based on classified documents WikiLeaks provided on the US-led war in Afghanistan, Assange was “angry that we declined to link our online coverage of the War Logs to the WikiLeaks Web site, a decision we made because we feared – rightly, as it turned out – that its trove would contain the names of low-level informants and make them Taliban targets,” Keller writes.

Assange also took umbrage with an NYT profile of accused WikiLeaker Bradley Manning, which Assange complained exaggerated the Army private's isolation as a child and his distress as a gay man in the military.

“Assange complained that we 'psychologicalized' Manning and gave short shrift to his 'political awakening,'” Keller says.

During an eight-hour meeting with the top editor of The Guardian, Assange angrily demanded that the newspaper, which was working with the NYT, stop the collaboration. Guardian Editor Alan Rusbridger and Der Spiegel Editor in Chief Georg Mascolo declined.

“Given that we already had all of the documents, Assange had little choice,” Keller wrote.

A few weeks later, the publications posted articles on a new WikiLeaks dump related to classified US State Department cables.

Keller takes plenty of other jabs at Assange, including the observation from reporters who worked with him that he was “arrogant, thin-skinned, conspiratorial and oddly credulous.” But the real point of the piece is to defend his decision to publish carefully redacted excerpts of the WikiLeaks documents and to counter arguments that the articles threatened national security.

“The journalists at The Times have a large and personal stake in the country’s security,” he writes. "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.”

He concludes: “So we have no doubts about where our sympathies lie in this clash of values. And yet we cannot let those sympathies transform us into propagandists, even for a system we respect.” ®

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