Bill Keller defends role of New York Times in concealing government crimes

Barry Grey

Last Sunday, the web site of the New York Times carried an exchange of comments between the newspaper's former executive editor and current columnist Bill Keller and Glenn Greenwald, the journalist who has played the central role in publishing revelations of illegal National Security Agency spying based on documents provided by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden.

In an introduction and in the course of his comments, Keller presents the exchange with Greenwald as a debate between “traditional” journalism, represented by himself and the Times, and the “more activist, more partisan brand of journalism” that he attributes to Greenwald.

In fact, the exchange is an attempt by Keller to whitewash his role and that of the Times in withholding information at the behest of the government and publishing state propaganda in the guise of “news.”

The Times column appears in the midst of a deepening crisis facing the Obama administration and the entire political and military/intelligence establishment over continuing exposures of massive state spying on the people of the United States and populations all around the world.

The Times and the rest of the establishment media have sought to contain the crisis while attacking Snowden and other whistle-blowers such as Julian Assange and Chelsea (Bradley) Manning, aiding and abetting the efforts of the US government to witch-hunt and silence them. Journalists such as Greenwald who have helped disseminate Snowden's revelations have been vilified as criminals and traitors.

There is immense concern within the ruling class and the state over popular opposition to the police state programs, the discrediting of the entire political system, and the emergence of figures such as Snowden, who are prepared to sacrifice their careers and even their lives to break the official wall of silence and lies and bring the truth to the people. Keller's column appears at this time as part of the efforts at damage control and cover-up being carried out by the government, even as the preparations for mass repression are stepped up.

Keller's basic conceit is the claim that he and the Times embody a tradition of impartial and objective reporting, while Greenwald and his likes distort the news in accordance with a political agenda. The supposed proof is the readiness of Greenwald to publish government secrets without proper deference to “national security” concerns.

Keller seeks to adopt a tone of collegial discussion in the exchange, masking the venomous hatred he and the Times harbor for Greenwald and whistle-blowers who expose US government crimes such as Assange, Manning and Snowden.

This year alone, the Times' chief foreign affairs commentator Thomas Friedman penned a column urging Snowden to turn himself in to US authorities to face prosecution under the Espionage Act, in order to prove that he is not a “traitor,” and Keller himself published a vicious smear of Manning after the young whistle-blower revealed that he had sought to get the Times to publish his documents revealing US war crimes in Iraq and Afghanistan.

In the exchange with Greenwald, Keller disingenuously claims that his modus operandi is to “follow the facts” and let “the evidence speak for itself,” and that as writer and editor he “defined my job not as telling readers what I think, or telling them what they ought to think, but telling them what they needed to know to decide for themselves.”

In his contributions, Greenwald punches gaping holes in Keller's pretense of impartial devotion to the truth, pointing to the Times' role in promulgating Bush administration lies about Iraqi weapons of mass destruction in the run-up to the 2003 US invasion, when Keller was a senior writer. He also noted Keller's personal decision as executive editor in 2004 to withhold until after that year's presidential election a story exposing warrantless NSA spying on Americans that had been authorized by Bush. Keller's decision followed a meeting at the White House at which Bush asked him to suppress the story.

Keller gives no substantive response to these points, other than to cite, without explanation, “national security” as his reason for suppressing the NSA story for more than a year. And when Greenwald implies that the Times has avoided using the word “torture” in relation to waterboarding and other US atrocities in order to accommodate the US government, Keller seeks to dismiss this as an irrelevancy. Significantly, however, he does not deny the accusation.

After claiming, cynically and dishonestly, to be dedicated to the objective presentation of facts, Keller gets down to the heart of his dispute with Greenwald and other honest journalists who place the right of the public to know above the interests of the state. He writes:

“The Times and other major news outlets give serious consideration to arguments that publishing something will endanger national security—that is, might get someone killed.”

In equating “national security” with “saving lives,” Keller parrots the stock-in-trade justification of the CIA, the National Security Agency, the Pentagon and the Obama White House for police state surveillance and war crimes, including drone killings of thousands of civilians. He speaks quite naturally as a representative of the military/intelligence establishment, where, in fact, his true allegiance lies.

At one point in the exchange, he uses the “saving lives” canard to smear WikiLeaks, accusing Assange of “callous indifference” to the fate of “innocent informants” who collaborated with the US occupiers in Iraq and Afghanistan. This is equivalent to denouncing the anti-fascist resistance in World War II for exposing those who spied on their countrymen and collaborated with the Nazi occupiers.

In November of 2010, at the height of the damning revelations published by WikiLeaks on US actions in Iraq, Afghanistan and other countries, Keller published a piece declaring his unconditional support for the “war on terror” and stressing that in considering whether to disclose state secrets, the Times engages in “extensive and serious discussions with the government.” He wrote:

“We agree wholeheartedly that transparency is not an absolute good. Freedom of the press includes freedom not to publish, and that is a freedom we exercise with some regularity.”

As Keller made clear, he considers that his role and that of the Times is to serve the interests of the state and the ruling class, and not the right of the people to know. Rather than a Fourth Estate that assumes an adversarial relationship to entrenched power and defends the democratic rights of the people against the encroachments of the state, Keller practices a brand of “journalism” that would have no problem functioning under a military or fascist dictatorship.

Somehow, according to Keller, support for the “war on terror,” which, as he is well aware, is a catch-all pretext for military aggression abroad and attacks on democratic rights at home, does not constitute a “political” bias. Nor does an embrace of “national security”—a euphemism for the foreign and domestic agenda of American imperialism.

In his introduction to the exchange with Greenwald, Keller lets slip his real attitude toward Greenwald and other journalists who are not, as he is, wedded to the state, and toward the emergence of the Internet as an alternative source of information to the establishment media. He refers to the “disruptive power” of the Internet.

This reflects a long-standing theme of Keller, who has for years warned the powers-that-be about the danger the Internet poses to keeping the public in the dark about the activities of the government.

In a November, 2006 lecture at the University of Michigan, Keller made the danger of “information anarchy” the center of his talk. The Times had come under attack from the Bush administration and Republican politicians for finally posting the story on NSA domestic spying and publishing a separate report on a secret Treasury Department-CIA program to monitor US and international banks.

Keller's entire talk was a thinly disguised appeal to the Bush administration to recognize the value of the Times in vetting the news and concealing state secrets. He said:

“Legions of Internet journalists include at least a few who would feel no compunction about disclosing life-threatening information. If a blogger hostile to the Bush administration managed to document sensitive secrets about the war on terror, would he stop to weigh the consequences of making them public? And once the information had rebounded through the blogosphere, how long would the major news organizations hesitate before picking it up?”

To underscore the point, he added,

“Most of what the country knows about the secret activities of the government, it knows thanks to serious news organizations that still take their responsibilities seriously.”

Thanks, in other words, to news organizations such as the New York Times that are “responsible” to the state and the ruling class, the people remain in the dark about the illegal and politically criminal actions of the government.

At one point in the exchange with Greenwald, Keller notes with evident satisfaction that whistle-blowers who are determined to expose state secrets must possess “a willingness to risk everything.” He writes:

“Manning is serving a 35-year prison sentence for the WikiLeaks disclosures, and Snowden faces a life in exile.”

What Keller does not say is that those brave and principled individuals have to “risk everything” to alert the people about state crimes and conspiracies against their democratic rights precisely because “serious” news organizations such as the Times and pseudo-journalists such as Keller devote their efforts to colluding with the state to keep the people uninformed. This makes them accomplices in crimes against humanity and co-conspirators in the preparations for police state rule.

The author also recommends: New York Times editor touts role of establishment press in “war on terror”

Article published here: WSWS. Photo: © N/A


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