Bill Keller vs Wikileaks: Goodnight, Julian Assange, And Bad Luck

I’m loath to write again about Wikileaks, or about its pig-to-man founder, Julian Assange. Not because I’ve run out of things to say, but because the response is so predictable when I do.

Within minutes, the Assange fanboys – the Wikiliebers, if you like – will swarm into the comments, accusing me of unfairly slandering their hero. “He’s sticking it to The Man!” they’ll cry, “he’s disrupting the mainstream media!” they’ll holler, “it was a honeytrap!” they’ll protest, until inevitably someone will accuse me of being in the pay of the US government and the whole thing will descend into farce.

No forest of Vanity Fair and New Yorker profiles or unrelated criminal allegations or hubristic statements about having “two wars I have to end” will convince the Wikiliebers of the truth: that Assange is an arrogant computer genius who began Wikileaks with the best of intentions but has since lost sight of his principles in the relentless pursuit of personal celebrity. (I say that like it’s a bad thing)

But if I take some flak for my relatively inconsequential badgering of Assange, I can only imagine how much Bill Keller must be getting right now. After all, Bill Keller is the man who is about to put Wikileaks out of business once and for all.

Keller, for the benefit of media non-nerds, is the executive editor of the New York Times. He is also a former Pulitzer prize winning journalist and the poor bastard who oversaw the paper’s relationship with Assange and Wikileaks. He also wrote the brilliant introduction to the Times’ very first ebook: ‘Open Secrets: WikiLeaks, War and American Diplomacy‘ (Kindle, iBooks, Nook, Kobo, Google, Sony) which takes all of the newspaper’s Wikileaks coverage – the reporting, the analysis and the comment columns – and serves it all up as one giant, yet somehow entirely manageable banquet.

For me – and I suspect for many TechCrunch readers – one of the more interesting parts of the book concerns the fight between China vs Google. Perhaps I hadn’t been paying proper attention but I’d always understood the animosity between Beijing and Mountain View to be the result of Google’s unwillingness to censor its search results to the satisfaction of the Chinese Politburo, or the fact that Gmail was routinely being used by anti-government dissidents.

Not so, says the Times. In fact the root cause of the falling out apparently came when Li Changchun, China’s propaganda chief, learned how to Google himself. What he discovered – a torrent of abuse about himself and his family – made him so angry that he personally oversaw an unprecedented, and sustained, campaign of cyber-warfare against the search giant. In addition to the hacking, Li went after Google’s financial interests, ordering three Chinese telecoms giant to sever their commercial ties with the company. I thought I was harsh on trolls. I got nothin’ on Mr Li.

The section also covers Beijing’s other electronic battles against America; battles which range from the laughably ineffective to the laughably effective. On one occasion, we’re told, the Chinese “patriotic hackers” used a Trojan horse document titled “salary increase – survey and forecast” to steal 50mb of data including all of the usernames and passwords from one unnamed US government agency. We’re also told that the Chinese government believes the Internet to be “fundamentally controllable”. That view might sounds ridiculous to us in the West but, as we’ve seen in Egypt this week, China isn’t the only government to hold it.

The China revelations, though, form just one small part of what is a remarkable compendium of journalism: a collection of reporting and writing that’s well worth the $6 asking price, even if the bulk of the material has already appeared in print. Just as Times reporters were able to sift through hundreds of thousands of raw cable and war logs and filter them down into headlines suitable for the masses, so Open Secrets filters that reporting down still further. In one long sitting a reader could go from knowing nothing about the Wikileaks saga to knowing it all.

No matter which side of the “Wikileaks: Good or Evil?” debate you’re on, the book will likely offer you some comfort. Those of us who worried that Wikileaks would cause a breakdown in relations between American diplomats and the rest of the world are told – in essence – to stop being so silly. In his introduction, Keller quotes Defense Secretary Robert Gates’ reminder that foreign diplomats “cooperate not because they necessarily love us or trust us to keep their secrets… but because they need us”. Wikileaks won’t change that fact.

Meanwhile Scott Shane’s essay “Can the Government Keep a Secret?” reassures us that the Wikileaks scandal has resulted in a lock down of low-level communications: USB ports have been cemented up, read/write access to Department of Defense computers has been restricted: in short everything that should have been done years ago to foil low-level leakers like Bradley Manning has finally been done. Thanks Julian!

The Wikileaks supporters are thrown a few bones too. For a start, the Times stands firmly by its decision to publish the documents (much to the frothing anger of Michael Goodwin in the New York Post who describes the book as a “sloppy defence of Wikileaks… and Julian Assange, the anti-American anarchist behind WikiLeaks”). And to those who would try to downplay the value of the information in the leaks, the Times replies “that’s not the point”. The “immense value”, Keller argues, is not that Wikileaks exposed major secrets (of the 251,287 documents, only 11,000 were marked secret, and none were classified top secret) but rather that “they provide texture, nuance and drama. They deepen and correct your understanding of how things unfold, they raise or lower your estimation of world leaders”.

Finally, those concerned about American hegemony in world affairs will be reassured to learn that its diplomats are far from all-powerful. In fact they seem to spend much of their time making concessions to avoid further inflaming anti-American sentiment around the globe. But then again, that might be the opposite of what Assange’s supporters want to hear. After all, further inflaming anti-American sentiment around the globe is basically Wikileaks’ mission statement. Suggesting that the organisation has achieved exactly the opposite is unlikely to win Keller any friends amongst the Wikiliebers.

But that’s last point is kind of moot because most Assange fanboys will have been unable to get beyond the description, early in Keller’s intro, of Assange as “arrogant, thin-skinned, conspiratorial and oddly credulous”. In fact the sound you hear is a million Wikiliebers throwing down their Kindles and storming off to their rooms in a sulk.

Which is a shame, because after that line, Keller really gets stuck in: describing how, when the Times refused to link its online coverage to the Wikileaks website (because Assange failed to keep his promise to redact the names of civilians) Assange flew into a rage, yelling “where’s the respect?” And how, when the paper printed unflattering profiles of both himself and self-alleged Wikileaker, Bradley Manning, Assange demanded a front page apology from the Times and ordered the UK’s Guardian newspaper to stop sharing information with Keller’s team. The Guardian ignored the demand, not least because it soon emerged that Assange had been secretly sharing his documents with rival news organisations and reporters. What happened next was well covered by Sarah Ellison’s Vanity Fair piece – the headline, though, is this: Wikileaks founder threatens to sue newspaper in order to keep documents secret.

The creatures outside looked from Assange to The Man, and from The Man to Assange, and from Assange to The Man again…

And yet, and yet… none of the above is why Bill Keller is going to bring down Wikileaks. As with the leaks themselves, there’s very little in Open Secrets that we didn’t already know. American diplomats sometimes lie. Jullian Assange is a dick. Bears shit in the woods.

No, it’s not what the book says that will destroy Wikileaks, but rather what it represents. Every single page of Open Secrets reminds us of how much value professional journalists bring to the table, and how little is offered by Wikileaks and Assange. You could read through the raw cables between now and doomsday, but without the Times’ curation and independent reporting to make sense of it all, you might as well be a dog flicking through a book of Magic Eye pictures.

That was, of course, precisely the reason why Assange – prompted by the Guardian’s Nick Davies – formed a partnership between Wikileaks and the mainstream media in the first place. The former provided the raw data and the latter sifted, curated and investigated it. And yet, Keller takes pains to insist that at no point did the Times regard Assange as a partner. Rather he was treated as a source, pure and simple – no more or less important than anyone else who has offered the paper information, although certainly more annoying.

That point is further driven home by the inclusion in the book of a profile of Bradley Manning which follows directly after Assange’s profile. It’s Manning, we’re reminded, who – for good or ill – took the bulk of the risk in leaking the documents, finally ending up in Quantico for his apparent sins. For all Assange’s bombast, and the distracting sideshow of his impending (and unrelated) extradition hearing – Wikileaks is shown as little more than a geeky middleman whose one value-add was a promise to keep leakers’ identities safe (again: Manning ended up in Quantico).

In fact, reaching the end of Open Secrets, you’re left wondering why Wikileaks is needed at all. Assange’s only contribution to the process seems to have been to decree which newspapers could publish what documents – and when – and then threatening to sue when they refuse to show him “the respect”. If anything, the book offers a comprehensive and compelling set of reasons why, far from being a disruptor, Wikileaks is itself ripe to be disrupted.

And sure enough, that potential disruption is starting to emerge from a number of directions.

First there’s Openleaks, the rival site launched this week by former Wikileaks operatives after they became disillusioned with Assange’s management style. Unlike Wikileaks, Openleaks won’t publish or control documents itself. Instead it will simply act as a conduit: blindly distributing leaked material to a wide range of media outlets, charities and special interest groups, while protecting the identity of the leaker. You know, like Wikileaks was supposed to do.

Ironically, though, it’s possible that Wikileaks’ most disruptive rival could come from the mainstream media itself, perhaps in the form of Bill Keller’s New York Times. Openleaks’ big promise is that, like Wikileaks, it distribute leaks widely so as to avoid the biases inherent with leaking to a single publication. But that overlooks the fact that many leakers are driven by political and ideological biases of their own. Bradley Manning certainly was, and maybe had he been able to anonymously leak his cache of documents to a like-minded publication able to provide the psychological and legal support he so obviously needed post-leak, there’s a chance he would have taken that route as opposed to using Wikileaks. We’ll never know.

But next time we will. No sooner had Open Secrets hit the virtual shelves than Keller confirmed in an interview with Howard Kurtz at the Daily Beast that the Times has been working on exactly that kind of secure drop-box for low-level leaks (the assumption is that high level leaks will continue to come directly to trusted reporters). Way on the other end of the spectrum, Al Jazeera has done the same, already scoring its first coup: the so-called “Palestinian Papers” . The Guardian is likely to follow suit too (it also has its own Wikileaks book due for publication in February) as is any other paper that doesn’t want to be left behind.

Once enough of these Wikileaks alternatives have launched, leakers will be able to make their choice: either to give their information to an individual publication that’s sympathetic to their cause, or to use Openleaks to share it between all of them. And at that point, Wikileaks and its control-freak, middle-man founder will have nothing left to add, save for sound and fury. The disruptor will become the disrupted, and Bill Keller can enjoy the last laugh.