A Partial Defense of Bill Keller’s Column on Manning

Late Sunday, former New York Times Executive Editor Bill Keller put up an op-ed column at the NYT website on the state of Bradley Manning’s case, his perception of Manning’s motivations and what may have been different had Manning actually gotten his treasure trove of classified information to the Times instead of WikiLeaks. The column is well worth a read, irrespective of your ideological starting point on Mr. Manning.

Bradley Manning has ardent supporters and, predictably, they came out firing at Keller. Greg Mitchell immediately penned a blog post castigating Keller for not sufficiently understanding and/or analyzing the Manning/Lamo chat logs. Kevin Gosztola at Firedoglake also had sharp words for Keller, although, to be fair, Kevin did acknowledge this much:

It is an interesting exercise for Keller. Most of what he said is rational and, knowing Keller’s history, he could have been more venerating in his description of how the Times would have handled Manning.

Frankly, many of the points Mitchell and Gosztola made, which were pretty much representative of a lot of the chatter about Keller’s op-ed on Twitter, were fair criticism even if strident. And part of it seems to simply boil down to a difference in perspective and view with Keller, as evidenced in Keller’s response to inquiry by Nathan Fuller, where he indicates he simply views some things differently.

This is all healthy give and take, difference in view and sober discussion by the referenced individuals. That cannot, however, be said to be the case with a journalist on Twitter by the name of Greg Palast. Palast blasted out this tweet early this morning:

NY Times’ Keller says Manning should get prison time for the stories published by the Times! As a reporter, this makes me puke.

Palast’s comment is patently duplicitous. Keller said nothing of the sort in his op-ed and a read of his piece will prove that. In fact, the closest comment to sentencing recommendations Keller got was an indication that the NYT would, as they did with Daniel Ellsberg, be pleased if any prosecution of Manning failed. I wonder if Mr. Palast even bothered to read Keller’s op-ed before firing off his scurrilous missive? I tried asking him on Twitter, but without any meaningful response. Either way, it does neither Mr. Manning, nor his greater cause, any favors for supporters like Palast to engage in such patently false statements.

Which brings me to the real point of this post: Despite the quite arguable validity of many of the critiques of Bill Keller’s column, as noted above, there was also actually much to like for Manning supporters. Keller stated:

First of all, I can say with some confidence that The Times would have done exactly what it did with the archive when it was supplied to us via WikiLeaks: assigned journalists to search for material of genuine public interest, taken pains to omit information that might get troops in the field or innocent informants killed, and published our reports with a flourish. The documents would have made news — big news.

Establishing that much of the same result would have occurred with a traditional news outlet as did with WikiLeaks is key to mitigation in Manning’s case, whether in the case in chief as to the espionage charge, or in sentence mitigation. But Keller went yet a step further and placed WikiLeaks within the same journalistic First Amendment sphere as the New York Times:

But if Manning had been our direct source, the consequences might have been slightly mitigated. Although as a matter of law I believe WikiLeaks and The New York Times are equally protected by the First Amendment, it’s possible the court’s judgment of the leaker might be colored by the fact that he delivered the goods to a group of former hackers with an outlaw sensibility and an antipathy toward American interests. Will that cost Manning at sentencing time? I wonder.

Granted, Keller could have omitted the gratuitous editorializing as to the nature of the WikiLeaks organization (it really was unnecessary), but the firm statement on the journalistic equivalence under First Amendment consideration is important for both Manning and any future consideration by the government as to prosecution of WikiLeaks and/or Julian Assange. It is an extremely important concept for both the DOJ and Judge Lind to see and understand, and for Keller and the NYT to print in the “paper of record”.

Lastly, Keller blasted the espionage charge levied at Manning and his deplorable initial confinement conditions:

Once he was arrested, we’d surely have editorialized against the brutality of his solitary confinement — as The Times has already done — and perhaps protested the disturbing overkill of the “aiding the enemy” charge. (If Manning’s leak provided comfort to the enemy, then so does every news story about cuts in defense spending, or opposition to drone strikes, or setbacks in Afghanistan.)

Disturbing overkill of the “aiding the enemy charge” indeed. That is exactly right and, again, it is important that Keller and the NYT are on record taking this position. Mr. Manning will not be facing a jury, his fate is in the hands of the government and Judge Denise Lind. It seems unlikely at this point that the government will reconsider the imposition of said charge, but there is time between now and the conclusion of trial to change that. A voice like Keller’s, and the Times, is large in making that argument.

So, while commenters like Kevin Gosztola, Greg Mitchell, and most others, were right to take issue with some of Keller’s op-ed, not to mention that Keller did occasionally engage in gratuitous editorializing that weakened his overall effect, there were several powerful positives that came out as well. The criticism is more than fair, but a measure of credit is also due.

25 replies
  1. Mark Erickson says:

    Fair enough on the post. Pet-peeve only. I hate it when “by the name of” is used. Besides the awful passive voice, it is basically a subtler way to say “who the f is this guy?” Palast happens to be a fine journalist with many important scoos to his name. He made a mistake on twitter, fine. Btw, how do you blast out a tweet? I can only press the “Tweet” button.

  2. P J Evans says:

    Grammar nitpicking:
    what may have been different should be what might have been different

    It grates on my grammar-noticing brain. (Probably because I had to explain that particular fine point to the third-year German class – in German – as one of the two fourth-year students, in HS.)

  3. mspbwatch says:

    I don’t think Keller appreciates the stresses whistleblowers go through, and the ambivalence they (we) have toward MSM journalists, who in turn are not all that receptive of whistleblowers either.

  4. bmaz says:

    I write an article on the hot button topic of Manning, WikiLeaks and NYT and….all anybody has are grammar and phraseology nitpicks? Come on man.

  5. John B. says:

    The Times should have been agressively supporting Manning from the moment he was arrested and tortured ( and please don’t try to argue that what he has been through isn’t a form of torture). The fact that it takes this long for Keller and the Times to write an op-ed in support of whistle blowing via Manning and Wikileaks is mind numbingly typical of today’s press.

  6. bmaz says:

    @John B.: Well, of course it is not the first time the NYT has spoken out; for instance see here where their opinion page gave a forceful rebuke to the government regarding his treatment and analogized it to torture. You can say they should do more I guess, but not that they have not done any. There have been opinion pieces along the way, and they actually did cover the detention conditions issue pretty well, in articles by Savage et al. prior to Manning’s relocation to Ft. Leavenworth where those issues were ameliorated.

  7. P J Evans says:

    Hey, it’s a good article.

    (I hope the NYT doesn’t decide that shilling for government is more lucrative than actually reporting.)

  8. JTMinIA says:

    But an op-ed is not an editorial. I don’t see an op-ed by anyone – including a former editor – as defining the position of a paper. If the NYT wants this to be their position, they need to publish it on the editorial page, not on the page opposite to it.

    An op-ed, to me, is a glorified letter to the editor. Am I wrong about this?

  9. TarheelDem says:

    The NYT gets looked at more critically because of its cozy role in promoting the government’s positions in the face of reality. Keller’s role in this has made him a reflexive target of progressive ire.

    How long will it be before some progressive blogger argues that Keller’s editorial is as trial balloon by the administration? My take is that it isn’t because the administration prefers to use Politico.

  10. Frank33 says:

    Words have power. “Ardent…strident…duplicitous…patently false statements…Mr Manning”

    It is Private First Class Manning. If he was a civilian, he might not be gagged. He has to be silenced by this Kangaroo Court controlled by torturers and spies.

    The Irak and Afghan Wars were crimes from the beginning based on lies. It is necessary to reveal the truth about these war criminals. The oppressors put Bradley Manning to work in a Fusion Center, that supported a military occupation.

    Those same war criminals have brought the wars home, and the fusion centers and the torture and the indefinite incarceration and the secret Petraeus assassins. Irak was just practice for an American police state.

    One particularly oppressive rule governing the Manning trial has barred not only all video or audio recordings of the proceedings, but also any photographs being taken of Manning or even transcripts made of what is said in court. Combined with the prohibition on all press interviews with him, this extraordinary secrecy regime has meant that, in the two-and-a-half years since his arrest, the world has been prevented, literally, from hearing Manning’s voice.

    Glenn Greenwald and Greg Palast are embedded in the Revolution.
    Bill Keller is embedded in the large intestine of a bloody, failed neo-con adventure.

  11. bmaz says:

    @TarheelDem: Nope, wouldn’t go that far at all. I would, however, like to encourage and give cover with the public for MSM to make some of the points made that I pointed out more often. It really could help the situation for the White House and DOD to see that pushback.

    @JTMinIA: Well, Keller is the former Exec Editor and is still a powerful voice and employed writer at the NYT; for the opinion page to feature that column so prominently is fairly big.

  12. orionATL says:


    this would have been your first comment bmaz. but somehow it couldn’t run the emptywheel electronic gauntlet:

    i have no problem giving keller credit if he deserves it.

    but there is a meta-argument needing to be made for characters like keller that colors, or should color, everything that keller writes or says now as a sinecured columnist.

    that meta-argument is about keller’s politics and values and, as a consequence of those, about the stories that keller authorized, or killed, while he was executive editor of the nit-wit times.

    keller was, how to say it politely, an easy lay – very easy – when it came to bowing(?) to presidential power, most specifically to bush/cheney authoritarianism.

    – torture was not to be described by times reporters with the word “torture”.

    – judith miller was given unchecked license to publish a series of sensational, but inaccurate and propagandistic, stories.

    – james risen’s tory on the bush admin’s illegal spying on americans was held back until after the 2004 election.

    – julian assange, who really should be recognized as a hero of our time, was mercilessly criticized, in one case very personally by keller, and mocked by times employees for doing what the times itself should have been doing but failed to do, to whit, publishing government documents that let citizens understand what was really going on under the u.s. gov’s veil of secrecy.

    i have wondered if keller were not pushed out of the executive editor position.

    so, again,

    if keller defends manning fairly, fine.

    but keller has a personal background (oil company baby) and a long history of being, shall we say, always on the right side (or under) of power.

  13. bmaz says:

    @What Constitution?: I long ago opined that ten years with credit for time served would be a pretty favorable result for the defense. I am sticking with that, though at this point I would say it looks overly optimistic. Unfortunately, “Time served/commutation/pardon” will never happen with this Administration, nor would it have with any other administration in history either.

  14. bmaz says:

    @orionATL: Those are fair points; but mine here is that, for Manning’s current interest, those kind of things make statements such as I highlighted in the post by Keller all the more powerful. If more national press outlets could do the same, more often, it actually might have an effect. That is why I think giving it a little credit, which none of Mr. Manning’s other supporters seem willing to do, is important.

  15. Frank33 says:


    I long ago opined that ten years with credit for time served would be a pretty favorable result for the defense.

    You are such as opiner for the Government. Stop trying to “help” Manning. You have admitted you are an “insider” and you are friends of Manning’s persecuters. Do they share advice? Are they helping you with your opines?

    You should admit that you hate Manning. Ten years in the Gulag is a death sentence. Fuck your fascist opines.

  16. orionATL says:


    I agree.

    Furthermore i think it as is very important that mannings supporters, of which i am one, remain analytical as possible and avoid, in particular, self-righteousness.

    That said, i read keller’s column as a defense of himself and the times while he was its administrative head.

    In his recent statement, manning said he had tried to give the tapes to the nyt and wapo and neither would take them.

    Keller was at pains to provide a distraction for why the manning docs did not initially make it to the times (they eventually did thru julian assange) – some times employee did not return manning’s phone message – simple as that.

    Keller’s references to manning as a source were as cold and distancing as it is possible to be.

    That does not mean that keller’s statement may not be valuable to manning’s defense as you assert.

    The bottom line for me re this editorial is that it is typical of the exculpating evasion and slyness of which keller is a highly practiced master.

  17. Frank33 says:

    You are welcome. And thank you for promoting me to an official Bradley Manning Hanger On.

    You still want to keep your conversations with members of the Kangaroo Court secret?

    As I said, it is a revolution, choose sides.

  18. Frank33 says:

    The Twitterverse seems to be exploding again. There is some classified “tape” of Bradley Manning causing great excitement. Let Bradley speak.

    Why is he muzzled like an animal? Who are the censors? Is Manning too eloquent? Does he have knowledge of too many crimes and atrocities. Let Bradley speak.

  19. Brenda Koehler says:

    Keller’s been such a total asshole regarding Wikileaks and Assange, stooping to sordid personal remarks in print, that I really have no desire to take seriously anything he has to say,or even to read anything he has to say. Plus the whole Judith Miller debacle.

  20. Laurie Dobson says:

    Keller apologized for not doing enough to be critical in the iraq war leadup. We took him at his word. I see no proof that he has changed. Calling manning a low-level intelligence……geek. using words to profile. Showing contempt for his defense, saying it was molded after the fact. What dont we understsnd about this warning to future whistleblower s? The Times is not your friend. But profit from your leaks they will.

  21. Catherine Fitzpatrick says:

    Oh, come now. It’s “gratuitious over-editorializing” when Bill Keller properly describes the nature of WikiLeaks — a characterization you simply don’t share — and it’s never gratuitious editorializing when the entire left accuses them of indifference to Manning’s case if they didn’t send a reporter to every single hearing (and a victory in pressuring the ombudsperson Sullivan into conceding this under massive movement agitation doesn’t change the facts of editorial judgement) — or if they whine that the NYT and Washpo missed Manning’s call — as somehow a comment on their perfidy — and not his curious ineptitude.

    So you have nothing to say about the massive over-editorializing that occurred not only from Bradley Manning Defense, Firedoglake and other bloggers trying to whip the NYT and Washpo for somehow “missing the call” i.e. being indifferent to a bumbling confused private who couldn’t make up his mind how to tell the story in real life as he contacted his then boy-friend, the MIT hacker, and his hacker friends, and yet who had many skills in fact in telling it online — see the Lamo chat logs — that still reveal his emotional distress and mixed motives.

    You don’t mention Keller’s rightful calling out of young Manning’s strangely intermittent skills:

    “It’s puzzling to me that a skilled techie capable of managing one of the most monumental leaks ever couldn’t figure out how to get an e-mail or phone message to an editor or a reporter at The Times, a feat scores of readers manage every day.”

    That’s not gratuitious; that’s the journalistic question to ask about this entire constructed story in Manning’s defense statement, which he had three years to think about and lots of help to prepare.

    And it really does matter, the nature of the leaking group and Keller really is right to portray it as a hacker group bent on destruction, not the noble purpose of reform through leaking. A leaking group that is bent on state destruction as an anarchist premise is not a whistle-blowing group. It’s been pointed out that Manning could have accomplished what he ostensibly wished to do legally, as other military have done, with lawful whistle-blowing channels.

    Nobody ever covers the fact that the incident that led to Manning’s determination to do this hack — the Iraqi printing press — was never published by Assange or Manning — and Manning says Assange rejected it.




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