WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange and Daniel Ellsberg, a former Pentagon analyst best known for leaking key memos about the Vietnam War 40 years ago, led a packed forum at London's Frontline Club last night to discuss the fallout over the non-profit group's disclosure of approximately 400,000 US Army files documenting the Iraq War. While the two men predictably levelled forceful criticism at the Pentagon, their main target for most of the evening was actually the New York Times.
Assange fumed openly about John Burns and Ravi Somaiya's expose from this past Sunday's Times that characterized the WikiLeaks mastermind as increasingly paranoid, erratic, and dangerously egotistical. "It's a smear piece, and more tabloid behavior by the Times," Assange said of the article. "Is it that only journalists with bad character work for the Times?" he added, before quickly shifting gears to argue that that the paper is beholden to the US military-industrial complex and, as a result, too often confuses a false sense of balance with accuracy. WikiLeaks, Assange maintained, is free from the political constraints that tie the hands of a mainstream media organization like the Times, and so does not have to make editorial concessions to the Pentagon that could compromise its accuracy.
For Assange, the Times's allegedly compromised sense of accuracy clearly extends to the "terrible" article by Burns and Somaiya that seeks to analyze -- though, he would say impugn -- his character and motives. "Mr. Assange has come a long way from an unsettled childhood in Australia as a self-acknowledged social misfit who narrowly avoided prison after being convicted on 25 charges of computer hacking in 1995," reads the beginning of one damning passage.
Assange has acknowledged, and even accepted, that he has become part of the story he was trying to tell. "There is a market demand for information about us, that's not surprising," he said, seeming to acknowledge the level of secrecy in which the WikiLeaks operation is shrouded. But then he quickly returned to the Sunday Times article. "And, into that vacuum," he said, referring to the limited information about him and his organization available in the public domain, "steps people who make that up."
"And if you make stuff up about dissidents and lone heroes whose going to stop you?" Assange said. "You don't need to fact check when writing about that," he added, before turning the microphone over to Ellsberg.
Ellsberg, a source for the Burns and Somaiya article, was unequivocal in his support of Assange and what he sees as his mission to expose the dirty underbelly of a "lying" Pentagon (and, one could assume, of the Times).
Ellsberg is, of course, most famous for having distributed the so-called Pentagon Papers to the Times in 1971 -- and he did not miss an opportunity to join Assange in ridiculing the news organization. Going off on one of many tangents, he chided the paper for failing to support him when he was being prosecuted for treason by the US government, and for their policy of not revealing sources even after a source has outed himself. "Everyone knew it was me; I was being prosecuted!" Ellsberg joked.
The Times, of course, as it did with the Pentagon Papers, has proved to be an instrumental and influential outlet for WikiLeaks, bolstering the group's leaked documents -- including this most recent batch of Iraq War Logs -- with both context and a broad readership.
While Assange did not deny this, he suggested that the Times had pursued a political agenda in the way it had reported on war documents provided by WikiLeaks. In the case of the Afghan War Diaries, Assange noted that the two other news organizations that were leaked the reports, Der Spiegel and the Guardian, led with stories about Task Force 373, a NATO special forces unit charged with hunting down and killing senior Taliban officials. The Times, meanwhile, initially focused on those documents pertaining to Pakistan's involvement in Afghan conflict.
This did not stop WikiLeaks from using the Times for its most recent dispatch of war memos. Though, Assange was again disappointed in the way the paper reported on the material. He argued that the Times's coverage of the Iraq documents centered on the sections that highlighted Iran's funding of Iraqi militias, rather than the revelation that thousands of Iraqi civilian casualties had gone unreported. (For the record, on October 22 the paper published an articled entitled "Leaked Report Details Iran's Aid for Iraqi Militias," as well as one called "A Grim Portrait of Civilian Deaths in Iraq.") Assange did not comment on whether he would work with the news organization when circulating other leaked documents down the road, but rather emphasized that WikiLeaks would try to work with "broader coalitions" comprised of mainstream media, non-profit organizations, and human rights groups.
More to the point, as a result of the barrage of media attention directed at him and WikiLeaks since the release of the Afghan War Diaries in June, Assange may no longer need a news organization like the Times to help him get his message out.
In danger of being prosecuted by the US government under the Espionage Act, Assange is a man "on the run," as Burns and Somaiya noted on Sunday. But unlike most fugitives, he has a giant megaphone -- and he's not afraid to use it. "It's always a privilege to speak and have people listen," Assange said in response to a question about how he has been affected by criticism in the media.
"In so far as these attacks have given more of an audience, that's a good thing," he added.