DECEMBER 5, 2012
Last week, in a Grisham-like courtroom scene, Bradley Manning—the Army private charged with leaking hundreds of thousands of classified war logs and State Department cables to WikiLeaks—testified publicly for the first time since his arrest in May of 2010. For more than five hours, Manning described the two months he spent in a “cage” inside a dark tent in Kuwait and the nine months that followed in 23-hours-a-day solitary confinement on a Marine Corps Brig in Quantico, Virginia. In one theatrical moment, Manning got up from the stand and paced inside a 6 by 8 tape outline on the courtroom floor to demonstrate the size of his prison cell. In another, he donned the suicide smock he had to wear.
Manning’s testimony was the climax of a week of pre-trial hearings about his experience at Quantico, which, his lawyer argued, was illegal and grounds for dropping the charges against him. The details about Manning’s captors revealed in the hearings—they called his underwear, which they removed at night so he wouldn’t hang himself by the waistband, “panties”; penned a poem about his presumed suicidal tendencies inspired by Dr. Seuss’s Green Eggs and Ham ("I can wear them in a box / I can wear them with a fox / I can wear them in the day / I can wear them so I say / But I can't wear them at night / My comments gave the staff a fright"); and ignored a psychiatrist’s recommendations for fewer restrictions—made dispatches read more like a scene from The Lives of Others than a court proceeding in the United States.
There was, however, a notable absence in the courtroom: The New York Times. The paper did not cover the hearings, picking up only one dispatch from the Associated Press. This is odd, especially considering the Times benefited as much as anyone from the material that Manning leaked. After partnering with WikiLeaks to release the cables in July 2010, the Times continued to rely on the documents Manning leaked to Assange in its reporting. In April 2011, an analysis in The Atlantic Wire showed that 54, or nearly half, of the newspaper’s 115 issues so far that year, had contained stories that “relied on WikiLeaks documents as sources.”
“It’s really crazy,” says Michael Ratner, a human rights lawyer from the Center for Constitutional Rights who has been defending Julian Assange. “[T]he key leaker in U.S. history in the last decade, and they don’t cover his treatment? He’s the one whose materials they used and they don’t cover it? I don’t get it. [T]hey had to make a decision not to do it.”
The Times has covered Manning’s trial to some degree--in early November, the paper published a story about Manning’s plans to plead guilty to some charges and the Times’ editorialized against Manning’s poor treatment at Quantico back in March of 2011. But last week’s hearing, with Manning’s direct testimony, seemed especially newsworthy--outlets including CNN, The Washington Post, The New Yorker, and New York Magazine covered it. The Guardian, another newspaper that collaborated with Wikileaks and the Times, sent veteran reporter Ed Pilkington, the chief reporter for Guardian U.S. and a former national and international editor for the paper. Pilkington called his decision to cover the hearings in depth “pure news judgement,” when we spoke.
The Times has always had a rocky relationship with WikiLeaks, Manning, and other leakers of state secrets. After publishing the cables, Bill Keller, the Times executive editor at the time, wrote an 8,000-word New York Times Magazine story in which he compared Julian Assange to a “bag lady.” “We regarded Assange throughout as a source, not as a partner or collaborator,” he wrote. The Guardian, on the other hand, sought “partnership between a mainstream newspaper and WikiLeaks: a new model of cooperation aimed at publishing the world's biggest leak,” as Yochai Benkler described it in the Harvard Civil-Rights Civil-Liberties Law Review. (My emails to Times executive editor Jill Abramson, Washington bureau chief David Leonhardt, and Keller, were not answered.)
The Times’ attitude towards Assange and Manning is, at least, consistent with its treatment of leakers in the past. Even though the Times had to defend itself in court for publishing the Pentagon Papers, Daniel Ellberg told me over the phone that the paper’s lawyers refused to offer him even the smalles amount of help with his criminal case (which was eventually dismissed). In Ellsberg’s telling, A.M. Rosenthal, then the editor-in-chief of the Times, told him there was no policy at the paper regarding prosecutions of sources: Ellsberg was, after all, the first person ever prosecuted for leaking classified government documents to the press.
“Editors and reporters have a good deal of ambivalence towards their sources, especially in the national security field,” Ellsberg told me. “They all thought I had broken the law, and a lot of them may have thought I was a traitor even though they used the material.” When Assange expressed his shock to Ellsberg over a critical profile the Times published about him, Ellsberg told him “don’t take it personally, they didn’t treat me any better.”
Ellsberg says Manning’s treatment by the Times reminds him of his own treatment. “The New York Times got amazing, fantastic, unparalleled material for news stories from Bradley Manning,” he says, noting the Times’ was no more willing to come to his aid when he was the source. Then, one of the paper’s lawyers bristled at a suggestion that they might help, in Ellsberg’s recollection, saying, “Representing the New York Times is one thing. Representing a traitor is another.”
Manning’s case is different than most whistleblowers because he broke an oath to the military, but if the government pursues the most egregious charge against him and he is sent to prison for life, his case will go a long way to silencing federal whistleblowers of all stripes, without which, newspapers like the New York Times would suddenly see their source of so much Pulitzer-prize worthy material dry up. For journalists, readers, and lovers of democracy, that’s a scary thought.