WASHINGTON, March 1 (By Carl Schreck for RIA Novosti) – Two of the most venerable US newspapers may have missed out on the scoop of this young century after the soldier charged with disclosing thousands of classified security documents tried unsuccessfully to tip them off before ultimately handing them to the website Wikileaks.
US Army Private Bradley Manning said in court this week that he contacted the Washington Post and The New York Times in 2010 in an attempt to gauge their interest in a massive collection of confidential US documents, including 250,000 diplomatic cables.
A conversation with a Post reporter about the newspaper’s potential interest in “information that would have enormous value to the American public” yielded no results, and a message left with the Times’ public editor went unreturned, Manning said in his confession before a military court Thursday.
“After these failed efforts I had ultimately decided to submit the materials to” Wikileaks, Manning told the court, according to a transcription of his statement published on the blog of journalist and activist Alexa O’Brien, who attended Thursday’s proceedings in Ft. Meade, Maryland.
Manning pleaded guilty Thursday to 10 criminal counts related to the biggest security breach in US history, leaking hundreds of thousands of classified war logs about US operations in Iraq and Afghanistan to WikiLeaks, an organization that publishes secret information submitted by anonymous news sources and whistleblowers.
He said in his statement that he leaked the information in order to “spark a domestic debate on the role of the military and our foreign policy in general” in relation to US-led military operation in Iraq and Afghanistan, according to O’Brien’s transcript.
Manning could be sentenced to 20 years in prison as a result of his guilty plea, though he faces a raft of more serious charges from the military, including allegations of espionage and aiding the enemy.
He could face life in prison if convicted of the most serious counts.
The New York Times ultimately published some of the materials Manning passed on to Wikileaks as part of an information-sharing arrangement the controversial website worked out with the Times and publications in Britain, France, Spain and Germany.
But when contacted by RIA Novosti, both the Times and the Post said they were unaware of any attempt by Manning to divulge the classified documents to them directly.
“We have no knowledge of him contacting us,” Washington Post spokeswoman Kris Coratti told RIA Novosti on Friday.
A spokeswoman for the Times, Eileen Murphy, said the newspaper has “no record of Bradley Manning trying to contact us prior to Wikileaks.”
Murphy said she could not speculate whether the Times would have published classified materials leaked by Manning had they been passed directly to the newspaper instead of through Wikileaks.
Such a decision would be made only after considering a “range” of factors, including the credibility of the source, Murphy said.
The judge in Manning’s case, Colonel Denise Lind, asked prosecutors in January whether the US Army private would face the same charges if he had given the materials to The New York Times rather than to Wikileaks, the Times reported at the time.
“Yes, ma’am,” the prosecutor, Capt. Angel Overgaard, responded, the newspaper reported.
Kelly McBride, a media ethics expert at the Poynter Institute in Florida, told RIA Novosti that most US news organizations would be open to receiving the type of leaked classified documents Manning was offering but only a few outlets “would have the capacity to analyze them.”
“The New York Times and The Washington Post are certainly among them,” McBride said.
Obtaining the materials directly from the source would be far preferable for a news organization than getting them through a middleman like Wikileaks, regardless of the materials’ illicit provenance, McBride added.
“A newspaper like The New York Times would love to have the opportunity to take a case like that to the Supreme Court and test the tension between the First Amendment and the right to a free press in the United States, and the government’s right to keep some information secret.”