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Who Needs Mass Surveillance When NYT Power Lunch Lets State Department Determine Ground Rules?


A September 8, 2011 U.S. State Department memorandum obtained by NYT eXaminer, entitled "NYT 'Publisher's Lunch' (note: a light lunch will now be served)," portrays a seemingly benign scene. The memorandum released to NYT eXaminer (NYTX) (available online) constitutes two pages of a 65 page document prepared by The Bureau of Public Affairs and Policy Planning Staff for Executive Secretary of the Department of State, Stephen D. Mull. The purpose of the document is to brief Mull in advance of a regular lunch with Arthur Sulzberger Jr., Chairman and Publisher of the New York Times and other prestigious NYT journalists. 

The memorandum was obtained through a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request NYTX made to the Department of State. We asked for communication between the Department and Times regarding WikiLeaks and Chelsea (then Bradley) Manning for the period from January 1, 2010 to December 31, 2011. Our request was made after reading Bill Keller's January 2011 New York Times Magazine article "Dealing With Assange and the WikiLeaks Secrets."

 

Why we made the request 

In that January 2011 article, Keller, then Executive Editor of the Times, proudly declared how the Times sought clearance from the Obama Administration to publish WikiLeaks' Cablegate data. Keller explained that Washington bureau chief Dean Baquet and two others from the Times "were invited to a windowless room at the State Department" where they met with representatives from the White House, the State Department, the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, the C.I.A., the Defense Intelligence Agency, the F.B.I. and the Pentagon and "Others, who never identified themselves" who "lined the walls." Keller is emphatic in illustrating these meetings as important depictions of the Times responsibly consulting government departments on the publication of journalistic material. 

NYTX asked James C. Goodale how he would advise the Times today on consulting the Obama administration in relation to sensitive material. Former vice-president and general counsel for the New York Times in 1971 – during which he played a leading role in the Pentagon Papers case – Goodale explained, "Well, I'm an old fashion type. I don't like to talk to government. My preference would be to look at the material in question and make a common sense judgment." Goodale, who is author of Fighting for the Press: The Inside Story of the Pentagon Papers and Other Battles, explained that "My view is the old fashion way. Don't talk to the government. The more you talk to the government the worse it's going to be for you … if I were to have a choice I guess I wouldn't do it." 

The Times' decision to consult the Obama Administration resulted in their publication of only a fraction of the Cablegate documents which numbered more than 250,000. We should also remember that the Guardian gave the Times WikiLeaks' Cablegate documents outside of any contract with WikiLeaks. Against the wishes of WikiLeaks the Times carried out its consultations with the Obama Administration. 

This may raise concerns about how the Times might interact in their current partnership with the Guardian relating to Edward Snowden's leaked NSA documents. The partnership is underpinned by the Times' agreement to publish primarily those documents that the UK government forced the Guardian to destroy. The Times previous treatment of leaked documents has been problematic. Will the Times now consult the NSA or others in the U.S. government's National Security network about which of these new documents they should publish? If a government department decides a document is not-fit-for publishing, will the Times blindly oblige or seek further information as to the basis of classification? 

The idea of a free press serving the interests of the public, rather than those in power, were ideals consolidated by U.S. Supreme Court Justice Hugo Black in his opinion on the Pentagon Papers. Discomfort abounds at the thought of leading, supposedly independent, news media and U.S. government officials quietly deciding what is in the public's interest; with powerful news media itself willingly compromising the independence of the Fourth Estate.

 

What the memorandum says 

The memorandum released to NYTX in response to its FOIA request does not seem to account for the meetings Keller alludes to in his piece. Instead, the document conveys Bureau of Public Affairs and Policy Planning Staff advising Mull to use the "'Publisher's Lunch'" to "briefly discuss the frame recently developed regarding America's leadership in the world" generally. The advice of the sub-departments is little surprise given their mandate. The Bureau of Public Affairs engages domestic and international media to further U.S. foreign policy and national security interests at home and abroad, and the Policy Planning Staff's goal is to prepare strategic recommendations for the Secretary of State to advance U.S. interests. 

But U.S. leadership and interests have been widely questioned in recent years. Not least by Chelsea Manning and Edward Snowden's leaks. There seems to be increasing acknowledgment that the U.S. does seek to maintain its leadership in the world and will not hesitate to infringe upon basic freedoms of its own citizens and the sovereignty of other nations – as recently leaked NSA documents about U.S. mass surveillance on Europe, the UN, and other countries suggest. The U.S. lead March 2003 invasion of Iraq raised questions about the way in which the U.S. uses national security and human rights concerns to further its own geopolitical interests. Information about the number of governments, many of which democratically elected, that the U.S. has overthrown has become more widely known as many have sought information from independent news outlets that will cover these events. 

The close relationship between government and mainstream media has cast doubt beyond U.S. leadership and onto media too. Mainstream media reasoning for the Iraq invasion was based on false claims such as those the Times reported, for example, through publishing Michael Gordon and Judy Miller articles who, by relying on many anonymous government sources, claimed "evidence" that Iraq was harboring "Weapons of Mass Destruction." In their book, The Record of the Paper: How the New York Times Misreports U.S. Foreign Policy, Howard Friel and Richard Falk illustrate that the anonymous sources who Gordon and Miller cite in their September 8, 2002 article "Threats and Responses: The Iraqis; U.S. Says Hussein Intensifies Quest For A-Bomb Parts," made claims that were neither true nor accurate. Yet by repeating government anonymous sources without questioning, the Times and other media published articles that helped pave the way for the U.S. to lead the world into a disastrous war with devastating human consequences that reverberate today. 

It was widely reported last May that the Obama Administration "secretly seized two months of phone records for reporters and editors of The Associated Press." It is not beyond the government to conduct mass surveillance of journalists. The revelations of the Edward Snowden NSA leaks, suggest that, in reality, deep forms of embedded surveillance are in operation – and are worse than previously thought. 

Surely in this context, there should be a heightened desire for the mainstream media to demand independence. Instead, the mainstream media seems quite content to allow governments to increasingly dictate the parameters of their freedom to publish information. While the released memorandum does not refer exactly to the interactions that NYTX sought further clarification of (meetings between the Times and various government agencies in dark rooms), it does mention other liaisons with the paper. The document indicated that Sulzberger also hosted Executive Secretary Mull for lunch in September 2010. It also refers to Editorial Board meetings. No documentation in relation to these Board meetings has been disclosed to NYTX under our FOIA request. Indeed, the full 65 pages of the memorandum and other material that may document these interactions have not been disclosed either.

 

The Light Publisher's Lunch 

The meeting between the NYT and Executive Secretary of the Department of State, Stephen D. Mull should be contextualized. The Department established the position of Executive Secretariat in 1947 to "regulate the flow of information within the highest levels of the Department." 

Stephen D. Mull, a career diplomat who is currently U.S. Ambassador to Poland, served as Executive Secretary of the Department of State from June 21, 2010 until October 5, 2012. During the period June 21, 2010 to October 5, 2012 Poland came under increasing scrutiny from the international community for being complicit in the CIA's program of extraordinary rendition, secret detention and torture, including for hosting so-called "High Value Detainees" in CIA run secret prisons, detained in the context of the "War on Terror." Many of these detainees were removed from Guantanamo Bay by Bush officials who feared that the U.S. courts may grant these individuals, detained without charge, habeas corpus rights. In 2010, the United Nations General Assembly published a report stating that at least eight individuals were held in Poland. 

On June 7, 2007, Dick Marty, rapporteur of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, issued a second report which confirmed CIA black sites in Romania and Poland. He argued that the U.S. targeted these countries because they were economically vulnerable and dependent on U.S. support. Secrecy, and so restricting the flow of information, was a necessary component of the program. In fact the CIA program of extraordinary rendition, detention and torture was built upon, and predicated upon, secrecy. Today, a Polish investigation into secret CIA prisons is apparently being suppressed because it will embarrass the top echelon of the country's government. Perhaps Mull did such a good job at restricting the flow of information while in the State Department, and in his relationship with mainstream media, he was sent to Poland where the importance of quelling investigations for accountability, and restricting the public's right to truth, was key. 

The secret prisons are an example of what is wrong when so-called "democracies" operate by concealing information from the public and disenfranchise citizens from real decision-making. Regulating the flow of information at the highest levels is the purpose of the Executive Secretary of the Department of State. But this role is at odds with Thomas Jefferson's widely quoted claim that "Information is the currency of democracy." This implies that democracies should be built upon political participation of the masses, having direct engagement in the decisions that affect their lives. And, state power should be accountable. But it can only be accountable when the requisite information is made available in a full and transparent way.

WikiLeaks began publishing 251,287 leaked U.S. embassy cables that dated from 1966 to February 2010. At the same time Executive Secretary of the Department of State, Mull tasked the Department with coordinating its crisis response to "Cablegate" leaks. The leak, which began on November 28, 2010, was the "largest set of confidential documents ever to be released into the public domain." The Department's crisis response included the creation of a "24/7 WikiLeaks Working Group." According to June 7, 2012 court transcripts of the Motion Hearing "U.S. v Pfc. Bradley Manning," made available by journalist Alexa O'Brien, Director of the Operations Center at the U.S. Department of State Rena Bitter explained that the "24/7 WikiLeaks Working Group" "started the last week of November 2010." 

In his Statement Before the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs, Under Secretary for Management Patrick F. Kennedy explained that the Department of State created the "24/7 WikiLeaks Working Group" composed of senior officials from throughout the Department and their regional bureaus. Kennedy also explained that the Department created a "Mitigation Team" to "address the policy, legal, security, counterintelligence, and information assurance issues" presented by the publication of WikiLeaks' documents. 

According to Bill Keller's account in the Times, Washington bureau chief Dean Baquet gave the White House advance warning on Nov. 19, 2010. This is just days before the creation of the "24/7 WikiLeaks Working Group" in the last week of November. WikiLeaks began publishing their Cablegate documents just days later on November 28, 2010. The creation of the "24/7 WikiLeaks Working Group" would overlap for the duration of the Times' meetings that Keller describes with representatives from the White House, the State Department, the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, the C.I.A., the Defense Intelligence Agency, the F.B.I. and the Pentagon and "Others, who never identified themselves" and who "lined the walls." These meetings began before WikiLeaks began publishing Cablegate. 

It is possible that the Times' meetings with State Department Officials served a purpose more than simply vetting specific Cablegate documents for Times publication. They could have also helped to provide various government agencies with advance notice of the upcoming leaks, helping them prepare and informing Executive Secretary Mull's "24/7 WikiLeaks Working Group." The memorandum obtained by NYTX lists Dean Baquet as one of those attending the "'Publishers Lunch'." The memorandum also suggests a close relationship between Times' high-level Editors and journalists, including its Publisher Arthur Sulzberger Jr., with the Executive Secretary. NYTX has submitted FOIA's to each of the agencies Keller claims the Times to have met with, and to those who he explains the Times regularly consulted. We hope that responses to these FOIA requests provide more information about the extent to which the Times is willing to flitter away its own independence. Who needs mass surveillance when mainstream media outlets are potentially liaising with and preparing government departments? 

Chris Spannos is Editor and Founder of NYT eXaminer (NYTX). 

For the purpose of disclosure, readers should note that Julian Assange, Founder of WikiLeaks, is an NYTX Advisory Council member. However, Julian Assange plays no role in deciding or otherwise influencing material that NYTX publishes. 

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