Times reporter talks Wikileaks, Obama Doctrine

By Middlebury Campus

“Little competes with the last six months — the political world has changed,” David Sanger, the chief Washington correspondent for the New York Times, explained to a large Middlebury audience in his powerful lecture titled “Wikileaks and the Toppling of Middle East Dictators: Covering the Winter of Global Surprises.” The talk, sponsored by MCAB, took place in Mead Chapel last Wednesday.

Sanger explained the process the Times went through when planning the controversial release of the secret governmental documents discovered by the whistle-blowing website Wikileaks. He also discussed his view of the both the recent protests in the Middle East known as the “Arab Spring” and the Obama presidency.

Times correspondent David E. Sanger addresses students and faculty in Mead Chapel last Wednesday. Photo by Eleanor Horowitz, Photo Editor

As the chief Washington correspondent since 1994 and a Times writer for 26 years, Sanger is presumably one of the most educated individuals on these issues. He also has a connection to Middlebury as he was on the Harvard Crimson, with Schumann Distinguished Scholar Bill McKibben.

“I thought Sanger did a great job of [bringing] the issues surrounding controversial topics like Wikileaks and the Stuxnet worm down to a level that an average student could understand and intelligently discuss,” said Lucy Jackson ’12.

Sanger explained that the Wikileaks documents first came to the Times from the Guardian, a British newspaper. The Guardian had received the documents from Julian Assange, the Australian founder of Wikileaks. Based on this fact, Sanger expressed that the documents would have come out even if the Times did not publish them.

But before releasing them to the public, Sanger explained, the Times reviewed each of the 250,000 documents. During this process the ineffective nature of the United States’ system of classification became evident. Everything is stamped with “secret,” but Sanger explained that many of those documents were not secret at all.

After reviewing and creating a database of the documents, the Times gave the U.S. Government two days to review the 250 documents that the Times deemed important and worth releasing. This happened, Sanger recalled, during the week of Thanksgiving 2010. The process assured the removal of individuals’ names in order to protect their safety.

However, Sanger made it clear that the Times and the U.S. government did not see completely eye-to-eye.

The two parties, Sanger said, agreed that the U.S. government’s ongoing efforts should be protected. However, Times intended to print candid comments by American government officials, an action to which the government was opposed.

Ultimately, the Times decided not to hold back simply to avoid the embarrassment of U.S. diplomats.

“It was enlightening to hear about the Wikileaks revelations from the man who coordinated their release,” said Colin Gibson ’11, who is a co-chair of the MCAB Speakers Committee, which brought Sanger to Middlebury. “I personally heard a few new things about the rationale for releasing the documents in the Times, and how they were selected.”

By releasing the documents, some argue that there was “harm done for no reason.” Sanger countered this criticism by explaining that in releasing the documents, the Times did try to keep individuals mentioned safe. Furthermore, since the Wikileaks documents were released, the Arab press has begun writing more and more about the Iran nuclear program.

The documents also showed President Zine E. Abidine Ben Ali of Tunisia to be a corrupt leader, according to U.S. intelligence. This could have, in some part, served as a catalyst for the Tunisian uprisings that then spread to many other Middle Eastern countries.

“The science of predicting is poor — no one saw this coming,” Sanger explained as he pointed out that before the Middle East catapulted into such intense revolutions, Iran was the biggest struggle for the U.S. It was even a country that the U.S. attempted to use cyber warfare against, with the use of Stuxnet, in order to track the country’s nuclear plans.

In the future, Sanger believes that Iran will re-emerge as the single most important country in the Middle East in relation to the U.S.

Regarding these events, and on a larger scale, Sanger believes the Obama presidency to be quite pragmatic. His campaign may have been based on idealism but his response to the revolutions in the Middle East have been very realistic in trying to maintain U.S. allies. And now, at least, “no one is shouting ‘We hate America,’” Sanger commented.

Alison Stanger, professor of International Politics and Economics and chair of the political science department, thought that the lecture was “a wise and enlightening tour of the central challenges facing contemporary American foreign policy.”