NYT Editor On The Decision To Post Leaked Cables
ROBERT SIEGEL, host:
And now what The New York Times says about its decision to publish the leaked diplomatic documents.
Bill Keller is the paper's executive editor. He joins us now from New York. Welcome to the program once again.
Mr. BILL KELLER (Executive Editor, The New York Times): Thank you.
SIEGEL: And first, people who read the paper this morning would have seen in an editor's note that The Times received these from a source who insisted on anonymity, who had received them from Wikileaks. Later, the Guardian, the British daily said that Wikileaks gave it the documents. Is it correct to say The Times gained access through the Guardian?
Mr. KELLER: Yes, thats correct.
SIEGEL: And so far as you know, the other publications all got them through the Guardian.
Mr. KELLER: I dont know about the others. I think some of them got it directly, some of them may have gotten it through the Guardian. The distinction is that they all got it with the permission of Wikileaks, whereas we got it sort of over the transom.
SIEGEL: You know the criticisms that have been voiced here: Diplomatic cables are meant to be confidential; kings, prime ministers dont use language with American envoys on the assumption that theyll end up quoted verbatim on the front page of The Times.
Mr. KELLER: Sure.
SIEGEL: Whats the public's interest in seeing these unvarnished cables?
Mr. KELLER: Well, it's history in real time. I mean, you know, the best way to answer that question is to direct people not to the sort of fact that a bunch of cables have been released, but to the stories that we are writing and publishing, and will be publishing for the next week or so based on those documents.
You know, the stories today I think provided the fullest account that I've seen anywhere of America's attempt to rally a coalition against Iran and its nuclear ambitions. And it included a fascinating story about the extent to which American diplomats are being enlisted to gather intelligence on their counterparts in other countries, down to things like credit card numbers and frequent flyer numbers.
SIEGEL: But if, indeed, the government had come to you and you asked the Obama administration for their guidance, for what they thought here. If they said release of that could indeed jeopardize maintaining the very coalition against Iran that we've been trying to assemble. Would The Times say, well, if you're right we won't publish that? Or thats your job, our job is to publish things.
Mr. KELLER: Well, it's not quite stark as that. Although, you know, the bottom line is in this, you know, strange system we work in with a free press and a democracy, it does come down to our choice whether or not to buy the administration's argument.
I mean, what I would say specifically about that case is, first of all, yes, some foreign leaders may be embarrassed and upset that the United States didnt do a better job of protecting their privacy. But the reason that they do business with us and forge relationships of mutual interest is out of self-interest.
They want our aid. They want our trade. They want our cooperation in resisting common enemies. And I dont think a bit of embarrassment trumps their own national and personal interest.
SIEGEL: Youve described the rationale for publishing. In some cases youve withheld some diplomatic cables or redacted names in others. Whats the rational for withholding? Whats the line youve developed at The Times for figuring that one out?
Mr. KELLER: Well, it's admittedly a fuzzy line and sometimes a subjective judgment. Some calls are very easy. We've redacted any names of people whose lives could be put in danger, who'd be in danger of being thrown in prison if they were identified. And that includes, you know, both informants, dissidents, human rights activists, academics in some countries who would be in trouble if their names were known. We redacted those.
We passed our recommendations along to the other news organizations and to Wikileaks at the State Department's request. So far, they seem to be following our lead for the most. So those are the easy ones.
There are others where publication of a document could reveal American military capabilities that would be useful for an adversary to know - we've withheld those. Things of that sort.
The easy calls on the other side are if it's just something thats going to embarrass somebody, you know, or cause a bit of diplomatic controversy. That probably is not justification for deciding that readers aren't entitled to see it.
SIEGEL: Well, Bill Keller, thank you very much for talking with us.
Mr. KELLER: You're welcome.
SIEGEL: That's Bill Keller, executive editor of The New York Times.
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