Now that Wikileaks has been forced by circumstance to release the full, unredacted archive of its 250,000-plus classified diplomatic cables, we can see what the New York Times voluntarily redacted, at the request of the State Department, from the cables that it published. Among the things it hid: Muammar Qaddafi has a bisexual son, and a Reuters correspondent is a source for State Department intelligence.
As it was preparing its series of blockbuster stories based on the cables, the Times’ reporters and editors engaged in what former executive editor Bill Keller described as “daily conference calls” with State Department officials to entertain the government’s requests for redactions. In the end, 47 of the cables published by the Times (of the relative handful that it disclosed) included redactions of varying lengths “to protect diplomats’ confidential sources, to keep from compromising American intelligence efforts or to protect the privacy of ordinary citizens,” as the paper put it. The Times, Keller wrote, acted as a sort of liaison between State Department bureaucrats and Wikileaks (as well as the other newspapers that made up the cartel controlling the cables’ release), relaying the government’s concerns about publication of certain details as well as the paper’s own judgments about those requests.
The Times-imposed “protections” led to some curious gaps in coverage of the Wikileaks cables. Much was made, for instance, about a salacious 2009 cable from American diplomats in Saudi Arabia describing the “fleshly pursuits” indulged at a drug-and-alcohol-fueled Halloween party hosted by a Saudi prince.
[T]he scene resembled a nightclub anywhere outside the Kingdom: plentiful alcohol, young couples dancing, a DJ at the turntables, and everyone in costume. Funding for the party came from a corporate sponsor, XXXXXX, a U.S.-based energy-drink company as well as from the princely host himself.
Wait! What corporate sponsor? Why is the Times (though the cable above wasn’t among those published on Times’ site, the redaction request was presumably relayed by the paper pursuant to the system Keller described) protecting the identity of a corporation that subsidizes Saudi royalty’s drug binges? The company, we now know, is Kizz-Me, a (contrary to the cable’s reporting) Belgium-based energy-drink firm. It’s not earth-shattering information (we would have preferred, say, Four Loko!), but it’s hard to see whose interests aside from Kizz Me’s were served by the rescission.
Using Radek Pilar’s cable viewer, which offers side-by-side comparisons between the original redacted releases and the actual, naked cables, we examined the Times’ redactions. Most of them made sense—the names of State Department sources in autocratic regimes, for instance, were routinely removed. But many of them seemed arbitrary and difficult to justify.
For instance: Muammar Qaddafi’s son Saadi, a hard-partying former pro-soccer player and movie producer, is bisexual, according to former U.S. ambassador to Libya Gene Cretz. Below is an excerpt from a 2009 cable Cretz wrote about Saadi’s attempts to reform his bad-boy image with a new business venture; the portions the Times chose to redact are crossed out:
Although the Zuwara Free Trade Zone is an ambitious and expensive project, Muammar al-Qadhafi likely views it as a relatively small price to pay if it helps occupy the notoriously ill-behaved Saadi and lend a patina of useful engagement to his otherwise less than sterling reputation. Saadi has a troubled past, including scuffles with police in Europe (especially Italy), abuse of drugs and alcohol, excessive partying, travel abroad in contravention of his father’s wishes and profligate affairs with men and women. His bisexuality is reportedly a point of extreme contention with his father and partly prompted the decision to arrange his marriage to al-Khweildi al-Hmeidi’s daughter. Creating the appearance of useful employment for al-Qadhafi’s offspring has been an important objective for the regime.
It’s unclear why the Times would choose to withhold information about Saadi’s sex life. Is it in the business of protecting the privacy of participants in a brutal autocracy? (Saadi appears to have fled to Niger.) The Times declined to comment. Other redacted portions of the same cable show a curious level of sensitivity. The Times held back, for instance, a sentence in the cable’s introduction noting that “Muammar al-Qadhafi likely views [Saadi’s latest project] as a relatively small price to pay if it helps occupy the notoriously ill-behaved Saadi and lends a patina of useful engagement to his otherwise less than sterling reputation.” As you can see from the previous quote, though, precisely the same sentiment made the cut when expressed later in the cable.
Another Libya cable published by the Times contains redactions of material that the paper published gleefully elsewhere. This Times story about the intense rivalries among Qaddafi’s children, for instance, recounts how Qaddafi’s son Saif angrily denied, via a newspaper he owned, reports that he had hired Mariah Carey to sing at a New Year’s party for $1 million. The real culprit, the paper said, was his brother Muatassim. Given that, it’s not clear why the paper chose to wholly redact this paragraph from the cable that it based that story on:
The contretemps…coincided with a sharp denial by Saif al-Islam of (incorrect) western media reports that he had paid USD one million to pop singer Mariah Carey for a four song set she sang at a New Year’s Eve bash on the Caribbean island of St. Bart’s. Saif al-Islam was in the UAE and Thailand for New Year’s. Saif’s “Oea” newspaper hotly denied that their boss had been the financier and corrections were printed in western media noting that Muatassim, not Saif al-Islam, was the organizer of the party in question.
The Times’ version of the same cable also oddly redacts a single word for no apparent reason: In discussing Saif’s battles with his brothers, the cable mentions a speech in which “he strongly criticized the existing Jamahiriya system of governance, (disingenuously) said that most of his proposed reforms had already been achieved, and declared his intention to withdraw from political life to focus solely on civil society issues….” The Times’ version redacted the word “disingenuously.” Who knows why, but the omission suggests that State Department officials performed an extremely detailed, word-for-word scrubbing of the cables and that the Times was willing to indulge them for obscure reasons. It’s impossible to imagine a situation in which the revelation that a U.S. diplomat believed Saif to be disingenuous in a speech could compromise intelligence methods, sources, or innocent lives.
For some reason, most of the inscrutable redactions appeared in cables regarding Libya. A 2006 cable called “Qadhafi Incorporated” included this sentence of pure analysis about how a company owned by Saif Qaddafi’s would soon start marketing foreign publications in the country: “At the same time, it is another example of how the Qadhafi family and other Jamahiriya political favorites profit from being able to manipulate the multi-layered and regularly shifting dynamics of governance mechanisms in Libya.” The Times redacted it.
The same cable holds back mention of a rumor that Muatassim had engineered a failed coup against his father in 2001: “Some rumor that Mutassim was linked with a coup attempt around 2001 and informally exiled to Europe and Egypt, only allowed to return to Tripoli for short trips to visit his mother.” It also features this tantalizing redaction in the Times’ version: “It is believed that millions of dollars are distributed to politically connected Libyans and Libyan expatriates via XXXXXX.” What’s the big secret? “The oil services companies.” The Times similarly held back the fact that the Qaddafi family owns a large share of the Bab Africa Corinthia Hotel in Tripoli.
Often, the Times chose to hold back on the names of foreign reporters who spoke to embassy officials, a decision that at first blush makes sense. It’s hard to argue, for instance, against the paper’s decision not to publish the names of Chinese journalists quoted by a U.S. official in “Open But Not Transparent,” a review of Chinese press controls. Many could face reprisals—indeed, one Ethiopian journalist named as a U.S. source in the cables has been forced to flee his home. But when you reverse the polarity, it becomes trickier: If an American reporter was providing information to Chinese intelligence agents, wouldn’t you want to know about it? Even if the reporter would likely lose her job? Or could face a criminal investigation? The cable redacts not only names, but affiliations—”a Reuters (protect) correspondent told Poloff that he had access to 32 provincial delegation meetings this year compared to just four at the 16th Congress.” Yes, the cable indicated that the affiliation should be protected. But the State Department wanted the entire cable protected. By what logic is it inappropriate to report that a reporter working for a British-based global media corporation is acting as a source for U.S. intelligence officials? Why did the Times protect Reuters?
And why does it protect foreign diplomats engaged in official business? This 2006 cable recounts an official meeting between Liu Jieyi, the North American and Oceanic Director General for the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and U.S. diplomats in Beijing. Liu apparently called the meeting to complain that Google Earth could be used by terrorists to target Chinese facilities. His name and position are held back from the Times’ version of the cable, lending the false impression that he was some sort of source for U.S. diplomats.
The above cases were found just by perusing the selection of cables published on the Times’ web site and comparing them to the unredacted versions. But the Times passed on redaction requests for thousands of cables that it didn’t publish but that Wikileaks did—you can peruse them at Pilar’s site and see what else the State Department, and the Times, didn’t want you to know about.