NY Times considers creating an ‘EZ Pass lane for leakers’

Michael Calderone
The Cutline
New York Times front page on Iraq
New York Times front page on Iraq

The New York Times is considering options to create an in-house submission system that could make it easier for would-be leakers to provide large files to the paper.

Executive editor Bill Keller told The Cutline that he couldn't go into details, "especially since nothing is nailed down." But when asked if he could envision a system like Al Jazeera's  Transparency Unit, Keller said the paper has been "looking at something along those lines."

"A small group from computer-assisted reporting and interactive news, with advice from the investigative unit and the legal department, has been discussing options for creating a kind of EZ Pass lane for leakers," Keller said.

It should add to the intrigue over the leaking of government information, if the Times follows the model of Al Jazeera. Earlier this month, the Qatar-based network essentially created a WikiLeaks-style "anonymous electronic drop box" but with the promise of vetting by a news organization.

Like WikiLeaks, the Al Jazeera Transparency Unit allows users to submit files through an encrypted system that does not record any of their personal information. Al Jazeera launched the initiative earlier this month, but it's been getting a lot more attention since the network began reporting Sunday on more than 1,700 classified files in the network's possession, part of the biggest classified leak related to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

The New Yorker's Raffi Khatchadourian — who profiled WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange before the Afghanistan, Iraq and State Dept. megaleaks — asked Monday whether Al Jazeera had "taken the first step in a journalism arms race to begin acquiring mass document leaks."

"It would be surprising if other large news organizations are not already at work on their own encrypted WikiLeaks-style portals," Khatchadourian wrote. "The New York Times and Guardian, for instance, have every incentive to follow in Al Jazeera's footsteps and give people a way to submit sensitive material directly to them rather than through an intermediary, such as WikiLeaks."

Will news organizations try cutting out the middleman -- and, more specifically, Assange?

Last year, WikiLeaks provided the Times and Guardian with hundreds of thousands of classified U.S. documents, allegedly supplied by Army Pvt. Bradley Manning (who remains in solitary confinement). For the news organizations and WikiLeaks, it appeared to be a win-win.

The Times and Guardian — along with other publications, such as Der Spiegel, El Pais and Le Monde — published numerous articles on the leaked documents that offered many revelations about international diplomacy and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Assange, who had been frustrated with news organizations not aggressively following up on documents and videos that were posted directly on WikiLeaks' site, now had major news organizations amplifying WikiLeaks' revelations while media outlets worldwide followed up.

But there was a downside. Both the Times and Guardian ended up having problems with Assange, who publicly blasted the Times' "tabloid" coverage of him and reportedly threatened to sue the British paper. For that reason, news executives may see an advantage in creating an in-house system that might make them less reliant on WikiLeaks. Still, potential leakers — perhaps more sympathetic with WikiLeaks' mission than the New York Times — may opt to go with the anti-secrecy organization instead of a traditional news outlet.

WikiLeaks has evolved over the past year, and after publishing hundreds of thousands of documents relating to Afghanistan and Iraq, the organization has been much more restrained with the State Department cables. So far, WikiLeaks has published only about 1 percent of its cache of 251,000 (most of which were also published by mainstream news outlets). The difference, however, is that WikiLeaks doesn't have the same reporting capabilities as a news organization.

Al Jazeera, in its appeal to leakers, promises that "all submitted content is subjected to a rigorous vetting and authentication process that encompasses respect for individual privacy, contextualization, and fierce adherence to our tradecraft commitment of 'journalism of depth.'" Presumably, other major news organizations could offer a portal for leakers with similar pledges.

Washington Post executive editor Marcus Brauchli, when asked whether his paper would consider a system like Al Jazeera's, told The Cutline that he "wouldn't rule it out."

"People do contact us regularly with material they think we should see," Brauchli said. "Given U.S. laws, news organizations would want some certainty that they weren't exposing sources to risk or making themselves subpoena targets."

So it remains to be seen whether the Times, Post or other major newspapers follow suit. But Khatchadourian raised a few good questions if potential leakers begin dumping files anonymously in the electronic inboxes of traditional news outlets: "In a future where in-house WikiLeaks portals are common to mainstream news organizations, is there a role for the original site? Will Julian Assange's creation become a victim of its own success? And if his movement is taken over by established news organizations, how might it change?"

As if there weren't enough questions about WikiLeaks' future.