Reporter's View: How The WikiLeaks Story Developed Reporter Mark Mazzetti was one of several reporters from The New York Times who sifted through the 92,000 secret military documents leaked by WikiLeaks. He explains how the Times worked to verify the information in the documents -- and what the information means for the future of the war in Afghanistan.
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Reporter's View: How The WikiLeaks Story Developed

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Reporter's View: How The WikiLeaks Story Developed

Reporter's View: How The WikiLeaks Story Developed

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This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

My guest, Mark Mazzetti, is one of the New York Times correspondents who sifted through and analyzed the classified military documents about the war in Afghanistan that were released on the Internet this week by the group WikiLeaks.

The Times was one of three publications, along with the British newspaper the Guardian and the German magazine Der Spiegel, that were given advance access to the documents by WikiLeaks, under the condition that they not publish the story until July 25th.

We're going to talk about the content of these documents and what the editorial process was like at the Times, including dealing with WikiLeaks and the White House. These nearly 92,00 documents cover January 2004 through December 2009.

WikiLeaks is an organization that describes itself as practicing principled leaking. It publishes documents from leakers and whistleblowers and is dedicated to protecting them. The Pentagon has begun a criminal investigation into the source of these leaked documents.

My guest, Mark Mazzetti, covers national security for the New York Times and shared a 2009 Pulitzer Prize for reporting on the intensifying violence in Pakistan and Afghanistan and Washington's response.

Mark Mazzetti, welcome to FRESH AIR. Tell us one or two of the biggest revelations for you from the material that was leaked.

Mr. MARK MAZZETTI (New York Times): For me, the most interesting and biggest revelation was the level of detail about Pakistan's spy service, the ISI, and its involvement in the Afghan insurgency.

This is not blockbuster news. We've been reporting for several years that the American intelligence community believes that the ISI helps training and financing militant groups in Afghanistan. But what was striking to us was the level of detail about named operatives in Pakistan working with groups like the Afghan Taliban, the Haqqani Network, and naming specific meetings and the dates and the times and the places.

And even when we threw out some of this information because we didn't think it was credible, we were still left with a body of evidence that we thought was - was very credible, and we then ran this by various U.S. officials.

And they said that while they couldn't vouch for each individual intelligence report, it broadly does track with what the American intelligence community believes Pakistan's spy service is up to.

GROSS: So these documents detail how Pakistan has helped recruit and train suicide bombers, how Pakistan has given safe haven to insurgents who have attacked in Afghanistan. So it paints a portrait of Pakistan being both our ally but also our enemy, giving haven to the people attacking us and also aiding them.

Mr. MAZZETTI: Yes, and it's been very difficult over the last several years to try to sort all these things out and try to get a sense of what is and is not happening on the Pakistan side of the border.

There's no question that Pakistan is very worried about what happens in Afghanistan in the future, if the United States were to leave, and with the deadline approaching of July 2011, I think there's greater concern in Pakistan that, you know, if the United States leaves, then what?

And I think most senior people in the intelligence and military establishment believe that Pakistan hedges its bets. Pakistan will maintain contacts with some of the groups, even the very groups fighting the United States, because those might be long-term relationships they need.

Pakistan will also need some place at the table for any kind of future settlement in Afghanistan. In other words, if this all ends in a big negotiation, which since it's Afghanistan, it's likely to, the Pakistanis want their own sphere of influence and they want the people that they can control, and right now those are Pashtuns in the south of Afghanistan, and that means the Taliban.

So some of it is not just nefarious, that they, you know, would like to tank the United States' war effort. I think it's that they would like to maintain influence in the years to come.

GROSS: But in the meantime, it's such a Catch-22 because in part Pakistan has been supporting the Taliban because they're hedging their bets. Say the United States pulls out - then the Taliban would be attacking Pakistan, if Pakistan wasn't already aligned with them.

So by Pakistan supporting the Taliban, hedging their bets in case the U.S. pulls out, it's kind of forcing the U.S., in a way...

Mr. MAZZETTI: To pull out.

GROSS: pull out, because how can they maintain a credible relationship with Pakistan?

Mr. MAZZETTI: That's correct, and that's another head-scratcher in all of this. The people, the smart people that we try to talk to to make sense of this, think that Pakistan wants to do just enough to keep their influence, just enough to tamp down Indian influence in Afghanistan and sow enough instability that they can be able to control the whole region, but not so - make it so unstable that Afghanistan devolves into chaos and then that becomes a real problem on their Western border. So it's also a bit of a - seems a bit of a dangerous game that they're playing.

GROSS: Now, a lot of the people who have been closely following the war in Afghanistan say that one of the genuine new details released in these documents is that the Taliban have used heat-seeking missiles to shoot down allied aircraft. Is that really important, that information? And if so, why?

Mr. MAZZETTI: It's important in the sense that it shows that the Taliban have had a new capability or a capability that the United States has not publicly admitted to.

The heat-seeking missiles in another form, the Stinger missiles, were what famously brought down the Soviet Union in Afghanistan. The CIA and the ISI helped arm the mujahedeen in Afghanistan against the Soviets, and the sort of real turning point in the war, many historians believe, was the introduction of Stinger missiles into the theater.

So there's not - there's no evidence that we found in these documents that the exact same Stinger missiles that the U.S. provided in the '80s are now being used against the United States.

However, it shows that the Taliban have a pretty high level of capability in their ability to shoot down American helicopters, drones, and it also shows to some extent that the United States has been trying to hide this fact.

One of our correspondents working on this project, Chris Chivers, who has spent a lot of time in Afghanistan, said he's told repeatedly by American military officials that the Taliban did not have heat-seeking missiles and that sometimes when helicopters were brought down, they make it sound like it was small arms fire, in others words AK-47s.

So he was quite struck by these documents that show that they did, in fact, have heat-seeking missiles.

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Mark Mazzetti. He's a correspondent for the New York Times who's covered national security from the Washington bureau since 2006, and he's one of the reporters from the Times who sifted through and analyzed the 92,000 documents leaked by WikiLeaks.

Having read and covered these documents, do you think you were ever misled by the Bush or Obama administrations about what was happening in Afghanistan or Pakistan?

Mr. MAZZETTI: No, I don't think that there was a deliberate effort to mislead in any big way. I think governments will always try to put a positive spin on any situation and will try to emphasize - accentuate the positive out of a situation, whether it's Iraq or Afghanistan or Pakistan.

I think that, though, that this document release gives this completely unvarnished view of the war that shows not that there's been a deliberate effort to mislead but that things are just a lot more violent, a lot worse, and that the enemy is just a lot more vicious and a lot stronger than we had been led to believe.

And so it's maybe a matter of degree, but I think that what's so illuminating about these documents is just the sort of soldier's eye view and even the general's eye view out in the field of what is going on all around the country, from helicopter shoot-downs to IEDs to suicide bombings to both successful and failed attempts at reconstruction.

It's kind of unprecedented in the sense that we haven't had this kind of look at this level of a war before, I think.

GROSS: What do you think these leaked WikiLeak documents that the New York Times published, partially published, and analyzed, reveals about what the Obama administration is up against now in Afghanistan?

Mr. MAZZETTI: One thing that struck us was that over the years, from these reports, it seems that the Taliban gets stronger and smarter, that their tactics get better, their ability to thwart American countermeasures against them increase, improve.

So if the Obama administration is facing something, you know, as this surge goes on, it is that the Taliban over eight years of fighting have become pretty good at it and that it is then the question of whether properly resourcing the war, as they say at the Pentagon, in other words sending more troops to the field, will be able to counteract that ability of the Taliban to adapt over time.

GROSS: Of all the secret documents that you sifted through, do you have a favorite, so to speak?

Mr. MAZZETTI: There's a lot - I mean, there's a lot of really grim reports there, and there's a lot of reports of civilian deaths and children dying.

I think the one that I found quite striking, and maybe because it is not so grim, was just the minutes of a report between the head of Afghanistan's spy service and military commanders in Bagram Air Base in 2008.

And the head of the Afghanistan spy service, the NDS, is Amrullah Saleh, and he's giving this sort of long briefing to American officials, and at the end he - according to the minutes - he then sort of makes this plea for help, and he says, you know, our service has been basically bankrolled by the CIA for eight years, and we haven't had to worry about our budget.

But starting next year, starting next fiscal year, the Afghan government is taking over our budget, and that means we're going to get about a 30 percent budget cut. And so if you have any spare AK-47s or boots or ammunition, you know, send them our way.

And it was an illuminating document because he - first of all, it was widely assumed but not known that in fact the CIA had been totally bankrolling Afghan's spy service for a number of years. But also just this window into what it means when the Afghans take over, the Americans leave, and the sort of money spigot dries up.

And his concern, this is Afghanistan's top spy, is whether his guys have enough boots.

GROSS: So what does that say to you?

Mr. MAZZETTI: Well, it says that when the drawdown happens, which the White House says it is happening over time, there is a big question about the ability of Afghanistan to stand without American troops and without the millions and billions of dollars that go to Afghanistan annually.

I think the big question is about Afghanistan's security forces and Afghan police and whether they can, as they used to say in the Bush administration, you know, stand up when the U.S. stands down.

So I think that even a year from now, when the so-called pullout begins, that is - that's still going to be a big question.

GROSS: Now, one of the things these documents reveal is that a lot of Afghan people hate the Afghan police and that the police are often brutal in their treatment.

Mr. MAZZETTI: Yes, there's reports of rapes by Afghan police forces, no question corruption, real brutality on the part of the Afghan police force. And that's a problem, and it's been a recognized problem within the U.S. government for a number of years, that the army of Afghanistan is considered on a course to be able to sort of stand up whole divisions or brigades and be able to - and is fighting in battle.

The police force is considered much more corrupt. There's a high incidence of drug abuse in the police force, and as you said, brutality, and that is something that, you know, many say for counterinsurgency, which is the strategy we're employing now, police force is more important even than the army because these are the police forces who are in the villages, who pick up, who walk the beat, so to speak, and pick up threat reports and try to protect the local population.


GROSS: Do you see these leaked documents as being a game-changer for the Obama administration's way of waging war in Afghanistan?

Mr. MAZZETTI: I think the Obama administration can make a case, or they are making the case, that, well, all of these documents end in December, 2009, when we announced our new strategy. We are sending more troops to the field. So this is all in the past. We have a new strategy in place that these documents don't reflect.

That is something that they can point to when you say the way of waging war - this sort of counterinsurgency effort I think is still - it's still unclear whether it'll work or not. It's still being put into place in Afghanistan.

So in terms of a game-changer, I don't think that they're going to change the strategy at all because of these documents. I think they now have a new commander, General Petraeus, who is carrying out the strategy put in place by Stanley McChrystal, and that there's still more troops coming to Afghanistan.

So they say it'll be at least through the summer and through the fall before they can really start making an assessment of their current strategy.

GROSS: Now, I know some people are interpreting these documents as proving that there's no such thing as winning in Afghanistan, that you've got corruption in the government, you've got corruption in the police, you've got Pakistan supporting insurgents, and that there's really nothing that America can do that will change these underlying problems.

And I just wonder what you think, if you're willing to give your opinion on that.

Mr. MAZZETTI: Well, I think that - well, one of my colleagues, I won't name him, but he said, you know, you go through these documents, it gives this impression that, you know, the U.S. is holding onto a steering wheel that's not connected to anything, it's not connected to the motor.

And so you can steer, and you can think you're adjusting the situation, but there's so much else going on that it's a sort of false sense of control over a situation because it's such a complicated country.

I don't know what winning in Afghanistan will look like. I think that the expectations of what can come out of Afghanistan are a lot different than they were in 2001 and 2002, when they were talking about a stable democracy, a kind of Western democracy in Afghanistan. I don't think anyone is expecting that.

I think winning for the Obama administration, as it's been defined by the Obama administration, is taking away any kind of a refuge for al-Qaida. It's building up Afghan security forces so that they can keep any al-Qaida sanctuary out and be able to protect a form of central government. It won't be a strong central government, but there's - I think the assumption among the people who are doing this business now in government is that there's going to be some kind of negotiation. There's going to be a reconciliation of a lot of Taliban. There's going to be some - the Taliban are not going to be wiped off the battlefield. They are going to be part of some future of Afghanistan.

Now, it's not going to necessarily be Mullah Omar and his inner circle, but it's going to be people who fought for the Taliban in the south; they're largely Pashtuns. You cannot cut them out of a future of Afghanistan, or you're just inviting a future civil war.

GROSS: Although the Obama administration is opposed to these leaks from WikiLeaks, the New York Times reports that some people in the Obama administration are anonymously saying that this will really make it easier to pressure Pakistan because now Pakistan's cooperation with the Taliban is out in public, the American people know about it, and so diplomats can confront it in a more head-on way. What do you make of that?

Mr. MAZZETTI: I think it's possible. I think that having these documents out, and as much as Pakistan's government wants to say they're bogus accounts, I mean, there is a certain amount of power of having the actual documents, more than just having a story in the New York Times saying American officials believe Pakistan's doing X, Y or Z - having documents there does make a little bit of a more forceful case.

That being said, the Pakistan - the U.S. has been trying to browbeat Pakistan for a number of years to cut these ties off and tried various carrots and various sticks. And none have been quite successful in cutting off this behavior.

You know, as I said, the documents end in the end of '09, but we talked to some officials to sort of get their sense about whether this support for the Taliban and other militant groups by the Pakistan spy service is still going on, and they say yes, it is.

And I think that there is a - to some extent a resignation among American officials that this will continue. As I said earlier, Pakistan sees this as the future, and they are paranoid about an American withdrawal coming up, and they think that if the Americans left, like they say the Americans did right after the Soviets were kicked out, if that happens again, then they're left holding the bag, and they've got to manage all the different players.

So I think that there will be a continued effort by the Obama administration to lean on Pakistan to cut this off, but how successful it is, it's unclear. I mean, in many ways if you look at it from Pakistani - Pakistan's viewpoint, you know, why would you stop this?


GROSS: The Obama administration says there are secrets in these leaked documents that should not have been made public. Do you agree?

Mr. MAZZETTI: There are aspects of the whole trove of documents unredacted that we were not comfortable putting in the paper, that we were not comfortable posting online. And so we did some of our own redaction in terms of what we decided to post in terms of the raw documents. There are a lot of named people in these documents - not public figures, but, for instance, you know, Afghan sources who are helping NATO troops. They actually name Pakistani operatives for the ISI, active duty ISI operatives. Now, maybe these are nom de guerres or some kind of phony names, but we still weren't comfortable putting some of those names in.

So I don't know the extent that WikiLeaks has - they say they've kept thousands of documents off their website because of their concerns about security. But yeah, these are pretty unfiltered reports, and so we had to do our own assessment about what we were putting in the paper and putting online and the impact it could have on security.

GROSS: I'd love to hear the story about how you were approached by WikiLeaks.

Mr. MAZZETTI: Well, I have to say that I may not even know the whole story. We - I was brought into the project after I think the initial approaches had been made. My understanding of it is that The Guardian in London had a relationship with Julian Assange, the head of WikiLeaks -or if not a relationship, they knew him and they knew how to contact him. And it had been reported for several weeks that, you know, WikiLeaks may have access to troves of documents and American military and State Department documents. And I believe it was The Guardian that first approached him and convinced him to use some - to have his documents come out after they had been looked at by a couple news organizations. So I believe it was The Guardian.

And then the New York Times came in after The Guardian. And one of my colleagues went to London to begin looking at the documents and quickly found that this was far more than a one-person job, and then they brought a team of about five of us in to begin looking through them. So it was kind of an interesting case study in journalism in that you had a couple different news organizations - which are normally very competitive - had access to all the same documents.

Now, what we didn't do was share all of our analysis or conclusions, or make sure that we all were on the same page in what we were concluding on the documents. We came to our own conclusions, and I think that sort of shows in the sometimes different coverage in the three news organizations, which was The Times, The Guardian and the German magazine Der Spiegel.

GROSS: How do you think The New York Times standards about what documents should be made public and which should not compares to WikiLeaks' standards about what to make public?

Mr. MAZZETTI: Well, I don't actually have a firm grasp on what WikiLeaks' standards are. I mean, they have said in the past that they are committed to putting everything out there, as much as possible, you know, whatever the consequences might be. In this case, I do think that they seem to be making an effort, sifting through I think about 10 to 15 thousand documents, to make sure that they're okay to post. So I think that that shows some responsibility on their part.

For The Times, it's something we kind of go through every day. We - if you cover national security, you're always coming across very sensitive information and have to have a lot of serious discussions internally about what we want to put out and what we don't want to put out. We err on the side of disclosure. That's our job. We want more information out, as opposed to less. But we are also willing to listen to cases be made, sometimes by the government, about how a specific piece of information might do damage - more - you know, damage that we might not even be able to think of. So we're open to those arguments, and we always listen. And in some cases, we take things out, and sometimes we don't.

GROSS: Well, in fact, you met at the White House with - who? About the WikiLeaks story?

Mr. MAZZETTI: We met with Robert Gibbs and two members of his staff last Thursday, more as a - we wanted to tell them we had the documents, but we also wanted to - we gave them a series of specific questions that came from the documents that we wanted to have answered. We wanted to actually speak to a - some senior White House officials about the documents, to sort of get their responses to what we were concluding from the documents. So we really - we did it for a more - to start a discussion about the documents and what they said. And then what happened was on, I believe it was Saturday or Sunday, the White House just sent us a few statements.

GROSS: What did you want to know?

Mr. MAZZETTI: Well, the first question we had asked them was on Pakistan, was with - you know, in light of all this evidence, this very detailed evidence about Pakistan's spy service, how does the White House come out and continue to proclaim Pakistan to be an ally? And why does -how do you justify giving a billion dollars a year annually in military aid? I think it's a pretty straightforward question, because, you know, when you look at it, if you look at these documents, you see, you know, the spy service of your ally helping out the guys you're fighting in Afghanistan. And that does raise puzzling questions about why you're giving a billion dollars each year to Pakistan. So we kind of wanted to put that question bluntly to them.

GROSS: And what kind of response did you get?

Mr. MAZZETTI: We got a response that - we didn't get a direct response. They emailed us a response a couple days later. They said that, you know, the Pakistan - the U.S. relationship with Pakistan is far from perfect. They said that the status quo, as they said, is not acceptable, but Pakistan is taking great steps to cut its ties to militants and they're sort of moving in the right direction, and that aid to Pakistan would continue.

GROSS: How do the public comments coming from the Obama administration about the WikiLeaks story compare to what members of the administration told you in private before you published?

Mr. MAZZETTI: Well, you know, they're certainly very angry about - the public statements have been very angry about the release, calling it a, you know, breach of law and have said that, you know, this is incredibly unhelpful to, you know, for the war effort. In fairness to them, they didn't have the documents when we approached them. We didn't give them to them. And so they were in discussions, I mean, their discussions with us were sort of around whether we are going to get any White House officials to talk to or not, and if not, you know, when their statements are going to come out.

We didn't have extensive discussions. We went in. We told them we had the documents. We told them what we were asking for, and they said they'd get back to us. And so, I mean, I do think that the White House -and I think that the White House has said over the weekend that they thought that The Times handled the situation responsibly in the sense that they - in that The Times was not putting every single piece of information out. And I think they appreciated the heads-up that we gave them that we had the documents.

And we didn't do it just to give them a heads up. We wanted actual information. We wanted to speak to them and have them answer questions about what these documents revealed.

GROSS: Do you consider Julian Assange of WikiLeaks to be an activist or a journalist, or some combination of the two?

Mr. MAZZETTI: He certainly seems to be an activist. The statements he made yesterday about the Afghanistan war were not anything you saw in The New York Times. He has very definite viewpoints about the war and comes out and says them, which is his right. We treated him as a source, or treated WikiLeaks as a source, like we treat a lot of other sources. We will take information from almost anyone. But it's our job to sift through the information to make sure it's credible, to make sure it's newsworthy. And in both cases, we thought the answer was yes.

So, you know, so it's - sometimes we have very complicated relationships with sources, and no sources are perfect at all. And we don't choose who we - sometimes we don't choose our sources. The sources come to us. But we're in the business of information, and we want more information. And we will take the information, as we did in this case, and present it our own way. So that's kind of, I think, how we approached this project.

GROSS: What did you have, about a month between the time the documents were leaked to you and the time you actually published the story?

Mr. MAZZETTI: I think it was about three weeks to a month. My colleague Eric Schmitt went over to London, I think, about a month ago and then -but it was really around two-and-a-half to three weeks of really solid research that we were doing in New York before the stories were published on Sunday.

GROSS: So during the few weeks that you had to actually read through, digest and analyze the leaked documents, what caused you to lose sleep, because you were worried, confused, not sure what to do?

Mr. MAZZETTI: Well, as a reporter, you're very rarely confronted with this amount of information, and so it's almost - it's the reverse of the situation you're normally in, which is too little information. Here, we are confronted with such a volume of information that it's hard to make sense of it and it's hard to know how to - which parts to emphasize and which parts not to. I mean, we were - I didn't lose sleep over the idea that we would be putting people in harm's way directly, because I was confident that before all was said and done, we would do a good job through our own process of taking out things that we thought were directly harmful.

I think that, as a competitive journalist, I worried that we've had three weeks to look through 92,000 documents and we're going to post everything online. And then someone else is going to uncover some great scoop that we missed. That was one thing that I lost sleep over. But more substantively, also, I think that you just don't know the impact that something like this will have on an overall - on the war.

I mean, you know, you have no idea how it's going to ricochet around Washington, how it's going to ricochet in Afghanistan and in Pakistan. I mean, this is the sort of centerpiece of American foreign policy, now, is the war in Afghanistan. And so the impact of this project, we couldn't really predict. And I think that was what we all were just holding our breath about, I guess.

GROSS: And is it still too soon to know?

Mr. MAZZETTI: It's still too soon to know, I think, because, you know, this is a lot of information to digest. I'm sure a lot of people haven't even sifted through the documents themselves. And so I think that, you know, it may be, you know, months or years before we know. Because I think that one value of this trove of documents is that historians will be able to have a sense of the Afghanistan war. People will write dissertations about these documents. Now, they're hard to read and they're really dense, and as I said, there's a lot that's not really all that interesting or illuminating in them. But there is. It's an amazing ground-level view of the war, and I think that it will be some time before we really know what the impact is.

You know, in the last day or so, there's been a lot of comparisons thrown around - not by The Times, but people talking about, is it the Pentagon Papers? Is it not the Pentagon Papers? And I just don't think there's an easy parallel to this, because they're very different than the Pentagon Papers. The Pentagon Papers were a very polished study done by the Pentagon about senior-level decision making during the Vietnam War. This is much more unpolished, very raw, and at a much lower level. But it's still incredibly fascinating, because it shows how - it's what we call the sort of daily diary of the war, and it's how the military sees the war as it's going on. And I think that's what makes it fascinating.


GROSS: Now, you had said that you and several other people from the Times met at the White House with Robert Gibbs and a couple of other people from the Obama administration before publishing, and basically, you wanted information from them. You weren't asking for permission to publish. But...

Mr. MAZZETTI: No. Right.

GROSS: And - nor did they ask you to not publish.

Mr. MAZZETTI: They did not ask us not to publish.

GROSS: Right. But there was another time when you had a story and you did want some consultation about whether to publish or not. And I'm thinking about a story from February of 2010, when you had information about the capture of a Taliban leader who was the top military commander in the Afghan Taliban, and he was captured in Pakistan. Why did you go to the White House for that story?

Mr. MAZZETTI: Well, actually we didn't. They called us in. We went to them for comment, like we always do - every story we do for the paper, we will always ask for comment from whether it's the CIA, the White House, the Pentagon or the State Department. We had information that Mullah Baradar had been captured in Pakistan by the CIA and that he was in custody in Pakistan. And we were solid - me and my colleague, Dexter Filkins, were very confident in the story. And so we, I think, emailed the White House for comment. And then that's what escalated it.

They contacted my editor in Washington and said please come in, we want to talk to you. So that's when this process started of them asking us to delay publication. So what we did was go to them for comment and they then put together a strategy to try to keep us from ever publishing it.

GROSS: From ever publishing it?

Mr. MAZZETTI: Well, they wanted a significant delay. I think they were looking for several weeks. We agreed that we would go on a day-by-day basis, but we were never expecting that we were going to hold it for that length of time. I think in the end it was three days that we held the story.

GROSS: What was their case for holding the story?

Mr. MAZZETTI: Their case for holding the story was that the - they first of all said yes, you're right, he is in custody. But it doesn't appear that the Taliban know that he is in custody. In other words, we've got him but his own colleagues don't know he's captured, so that there's some value in watching the Taliban operate as they still think one of their commanders is still in the field. They didn't provide us - they didn't tell us whether they had captured any kind of communications equipment with him or whether they were able to monitor any kind of radio or cell phone or anything like that, we never got that sense. But they made it sound that it was particularly sensitive at that moment to publish information that he was captured because it would dry up some very valuable stream of intelligence.

Within a couple days, though, it was starting to get out in the field. Some of our stringers in Kabul and Kandahar were starting to pick up word that maybe this guy was in custody, so we believed it was out in the open at that point and we went to the White House and we said we're planning to publish and they didn't put up an objection, and so we went with the story a couple days afterwards.

GROSS: Now, your colleague James Risen, at The New York Times - I think you've actually collaborated on some articles - was subpoenaed in April and is risking prison if he doesn't turn over his sources for a chapter in his book. And it was Risen who broke the story about the National Security Agency conducting warrantless wiretapping. So he's in a difficult situation now. And as you watch him, I'm wondering how you grade the Obama administration for freedom of the press?

Mr. MAZZETTI: I'm a little wary of giving them a grade or making it sound like I'm giving too much of my own opinion on this front. I mean I think that Jim's case - Jim Risen's case - shows that the government remains very aggressive about clamping down on security information -national security information leaking out.

I would say it does not seem that there's been a real distinction between the Bush administration and the Obama administration on this issue. And I think, you know, Jim was quite surprised that a subpoena that had expired at the end of the Bush administration was then renewed under the Obama administration.

So I think that it's a fact that in this sort of post-9/11 age that the government is going to try its hardest to keep sensitive information from coming out. The press is going to try to be as transparent as possible with its readers and with its viewers, and even as they keep in mind, you know, the danger of some of the information coming out - and then we'll have to make our own judgments about harm.

So, you know, I think that there's a - I think that it's pretty tense right now between the press and the government on a lot of these issues.

GROSS: Do you think the American people should have the information that WikiLeaks has leaked?

Mr. MAZZETTI: I think that a vast amount of the information is in the public's interest. It's important to - for the public to have a window into this war, from all fronts - the good, the bad and the ugly. And I think that there is not a - necessarily a public interest in having, you know, specific names of informants, that type of stuff that we found to be particularly sensitive. But I think the vast majority of these documents are in the public's interest and that the public does have a right to know.

GROSS: Mark Mazzetti, thank you very, very much for talking with us.

Mr. MAZZETTI: Thanks for having me.

GROSS: Mark Mazzetti is a national security correspondent for The New York Times. You can find links to the entire New York Times series on the leaked documents on our website,

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