By Paul Farhi
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, November 29, 2010; 7:57 PM
This time, the New York Times didn't get the goods from WikiLeaks. Instead, on Sunday, the newspaper began reporting a bombshell - the contents of thousands of private State Department cables - as a result of a leak of a leak.
The Times was the only American news organization to receive a massive cache of government documents that were released by WikiLeaks, the "stateless" Internet organization that specializes in exposing government secrets through leaked information.
But the Times wasn't on WikiLeaks' list of original recipients. The newspaper got its hands on the trove of about 250,000 cables thanks to the Guardian newspaper of Great Britain, which quietly passed the Times the raw material that it had received as one of five news organizations favored by WikiLeaks.
WikiLeaks had worked with the Times this summer in releasing about 90,000 documents prepared by U.S. military sources about the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
But the group pointedly snubbed the Times this time around, offering the State Department cables to two other American news outlets, CNN and the Wall Street Journal. Both turned WikiLeaks down, deciding that its terms - including a demand for financial compensation under certain circumstances - were unacceptable.
Bill Keller, the Times' editor, wasn't certain why WikiLeaks and its founder, Julian Assange, chose not to work with his newspaper on the latest leaks. But he suggested it might be related to a hard-hitting profile of Assange that the Times published in October. The story, which described Assange as "a hunted man," said that "some of his own comrades are abandoning him for what they see as erratic and imperious behavior."
The Times was also tough on Bradley Manning, the U.S. Army private who is suspected of stealing the classified military and State Department documents and passing them to WikiLeaks. In August, the newspaper reported Manning's relationship with "a self-described drag queen" and said that as a teenager "classmates made fun of him for being a geek . . . [and] for being gay."
Keller described the Guardian's releaking of the documents to the Times as an act of both friendship and journalistic necessity. The two newspapers, along with the German newsweekly Der Spiegel, were the original recipients of the Afghan and Iraq war logs, and all the news organizations "had an understanding that we would be colleagues throughout this whole series of data drops."
The Guardian initially requested that the Times keep the source of the material secret - apparently to remain in Assange's good graces - but the request was lifted Sunday evening as the stories began to break.
At the same time, the Times offered "expertise and perspective" on American diplomacy for the British newspaper, Keller said. The Times also vetted the most sensitive material with the U.S. State Department and redacted information that might have compromised the security of American personnel.
The Times agreed to coordinate the release of its stories about the cables with the Guardian and three other news organizations that received WikiLeaks' blessing: the French newspaper Le Monde, the Spanish paper El Pais and Der Spiegel. The release was moved up a few hours on Sunday when early copies of Der Spiegel were spotted by a man in Switzerland, who began tweeting its revelations.
WikiLeaks asked CNN and the Wall Street Journal to sign confidentiality agreements that would have entitled WikiLeaks to a payment of around $100,000 if the partner broke the embargo, according to people briefed on the agreement who asked not to be named because they weren't authorized to disclose the information publicly. The agreement also stipulated that WikiLeaks could enforce the terms of the agreement in a court of WikiLeaks' choosing.
A spokeswoman for the Journal, Ashley Huston, said her newspaper turned down WikiLeaks because "we didn't want to agree to a set of pre-conditions . . . without even being given a broad understanding of what these documents contained."
A spokesman for CNN declined to comment on specifics of what the network deemed unacceptable.
However, the Times' Keller said his newspaper never signed agreements with WikiLeaks when it first worked with the organization.
The Washington Post wasn't offered access to the State Department cables, said Marcus Brauchli, the newspaper's top editor. Brauchli said The Post contacted the Guardian to explore a cooperative arrangement before the documents' public release, "but they declined to share [documents] with us." Representatives for the Guardian could not be reached for comment.
Assange, in an interview with Forbes magazine in July, was critical of a Post profile in May that compared WikiLeaks to "Baghdad Bob," Saddam Hussein's former information minister. People at The Post also believe Assange was peeved by the newspaper's failure to post leaked video footage of a U.S. military helicopter attack on civilians in Iraq. But the newspaper never had the footage.