Is Julian Assange, the co-founder and public face of the whistleblower organization/website WikiLeaks, a source for news organizations, a journalist himself, or an activist/provocateur? According to one prominent journalist who worked with him, Assange himself is seldom very sure.
Eric Schmitt, a Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter who covers terrorism and national security issues for the New York Times, spoke about his dealings with Assange during the 26th annual “Law and the Media” seminar Saturday.
The event, dubbed “The WikiLeaks Debate,” presented a range of views on the “legal, ethical and practical implications for WikiLeaks for journalists, lawyers, and the people and institutions” affected by the organization.
Schmitt was sent by his editors to London in 2010 to meet with fellow journalists from The Guardian and the mysterious Assange, who wanted to coordinate the release of thousands of classified U.S. documents on the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq with several major U.S. and European news organizations.
When after a few days Assange finally arrived at the Guardian offices, Schmitt said, the “tall, lanky guy” with a shock of white hair cut a striking figure. “He was both alert and disheveled, like a bag lady off the street.”
Rustling around in a backpack filled with a laptop and assorted equipment, Assange pulled out a small plastic box. “In here are the crown jewels,” Assange told the journalists.
Schmitt described the painstaking process he and his colleagues at the Times and other news organizations (including Germany’s Der Speigel) used to sift through the electronic documents, comprised largely of raw field reports from U.S. commanders, and shape them into journalistic form.
Schmitt said it was immediately apparent that the documents were important, and would help provide context on the war to the public. But, he said, there was almost immediate tension between Assange, who favored posting them wholesale online, and the traditional journalists, who wanted to take a more measured approach, including redacting most of the names and providing context and analysis.
Schmitt said he and his colleagues sought to treat Assange as a traditional source of information. Assange, however, saw WikiLeaks and the news organizations as collaborators, almost like the Three Musketeers.
But not always. Schmitt said that in his meetings with Assange, he tried to tease out the mysterious Australian’s motivations. Depending on the day, he said, Assange would take a different stance on what his role was: sometimes a source, other times a journalist/publisher, and still others an activist dedicated to complete transparency of information with a strong antiwar bent.
Schmitt described Assange’s mercurial nature — technologically brilliant, well-studied in history and law, and “incredibly paranoid, he sees conspiracies everywhere.” But he also has a kind of “Peter Pan quality,” Schmitt said. During a discussion while walking down a London street, he said, Assange suddenly began skipping along the pavement and singing before stopping abruptly to resume the talk.
Schmitt said Assange was angered by the Times‘ insistence on discussion the upcoming stories with U.S. government officials in order to gauge what material might prove harmful to individuals or reveal genuinely critical operations.
That ultimately led Assange to cut his ties with traditional news outlets, which he describes in a current a Rolling Stone interview. (Former Times executive editor Bill Keller describes the relationship here.)
Earlier in the seminar, Geoffrey Robertson, a prominent media lawyer who represents Assange in his efforts to fight extradition to Sweden (where he is being investigated for allegations of sexual misconduct) spoke to the audience via Skype from London.
(Assange maintains that the investigation is a pretext to have him extradited to the United States, where a federal grand jury is investigating WikiLeaks, possibly for violations of the Espionage Act.)
Just as Robertson was beginning to describe some of WikiLeaks’ more inflammatory disclosures, the tenuous Skype connection broke down. (Later, panelist Don DeGabrielle, a former U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of Texas as well as a former FBI agent who now is a defense attorney, joked that he’d received confirmation via his Blackberry that his former government colleagues were responsible.)
Once the connection was resumed, Robertson described the tensions at play as governments (particularly the U.S.) seek to classify ever-increasing amounts of information in a time when technology has exponentially expanded the ways that information is disseminated. Robertson laid out four principles he said should govern the new media landscape in democratic society.
First, he said, the public’s right to know about the workings of the goverment that acts in its name must be paramount. Second, the government and its agents have the sole responsiblity to protect legitimately classified information. Third, outsiders who receive classified information should not be prosecuted, unless they’ve received it by means of fraud, bribery or duress. Lastly, governments must not use “national security” as a pretext against the exposure of human rights violations or other criminal acts.
In the final panel, Lucy Dalglish, executive director of the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, David Adler, a federal criminal defense attorney and former federal prosecutor, and DeGabrielle discussed the implications of WiliLeaks and like-minded groups and individuals for jounalists and government agencies.
Dalglish said that as the WikiLeaks disclosures continued, it seemed to her that Assange was likely being advised by his lawyers to act more “responsibly” in order to buttress his position that he is acting as a journalist.
She the WikiLeaks phenonemon is much like the “Pentagon Papers” controversy of the early 1970s, with one critical difference: the “speed and volume” of information available to the public through electronic technology.
For journalists who cover national security issues, Dalglish said, the opportunities that technology offer also come with increased risk. She related a private conversation with government officials who told her agencies no longer need to seek supoenas for information about contacts between journalists and sources.
“We know who you’re talking to,” one of the officials told her, she said. [NOTE: See this related Poynter Institute post.]
Today, Dalglish said, journalists must avoid using email, cell phones and the like to contact confidential sources. They need to go back to the model of famed Watergate reporter Bob Woodward, who used the movement of potted plants to arrange secretive meetings with “Deep Throat” (now-deceased FBI official Mark Felt) in an undeground parking garage.
Adler, referring to the recent charges against former CIA agent John Kiriakou of disclosing classified material, including the name of a fellow agent involved in the interrogations of prisoners at Guantanamo Bay, stressed the level of betrayal felt by intelligence personnel against those within their own circle who disclose information to the press — particularly if it appears the whistleblower’s main agenda seems to be to gain publicity.
“People in the intelligence community are saying ‘Enough of this. This is getting out of hand,'” Adler said. [UPDATE: On Jan. 25, 2013, Kiriakou was sentenced to 30 months in federal prison.]
The “Law and the Media” seminar at the South Texas College of Law was presented by the Houston Bar Association, the Houston chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists and the Houston Press Club.
UPDATE: In July 2012, WikiLeaks claimed responsibility for creating a fake column by former New York Times executive editor Bill Keller.
Copyright © 2012 Ken Fountain. All rights reserved.