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The curious case of Glenn Greenwald vs. Wired magazine

I love a good blog fight as much as anyone, but after reading several thousand words of accusations and counter accusations being slung between Salon blogger Glenn Greenwald and Wired's Evan Hansen and Kevin Poulsen, I'm left scratching my head trying to figure out what, exactly, this particular dispute is all about.

For those of you who haven't been paying attention, first of all: congratulations. Second, here's a quick synopsis: On June 6, Poulsen and his colleague Kim Zetter broke the sensational story that a young Army intelligence officer, Bradley Manning, had been arrested for disclosing classified information to WikiLeaks, including a video showing a U.S. helicopter gunship killing three civilians in Iraq and more than 250,000 State Department cables. Wired's main source was Adrian Lamo, a former hacker who says he turned Manning in to U.S. authorities after the latter confessed to the deed in a Web chat. As Lamo explained his motivation: "I wouldn't have done this if lives weren't in danger."

Four days later, Poulsen and Zetter published a new article on Manning, as well as an incomplete transcript of Lamo and Manning's chats, which had begun on May 21 and continued for a few days. "The excerpts represent about 25 percent of the logs," they wrote. "Portions of the chats that discuss deeply personal information about Manning or that reveal apparently sensitive military information are not included."

That same day, the Washington Post published its own article on Manning's arrest, quoting from the logs, which the paper said it had received from Lamo. Some of the quotes do not appear in Wired's excerpts. Wired also continued to follow the story.

On June 18, Greenwald wrote a long blog post raising questions about Poulsen's scoop and about Lamo. He said he found the story "quite strange," called Lamo an "extremely untrustworthy source," and accused Poulsen of being "only marginally transparent about what actually happened here."

What was curious about Greenwald's post was that he didn't challenge any specific facts in Wired's reporting; he just pointed to what he saw as inconsistencies in the story, as well as Lamo's account, and condemned the ex-hacker's actions as "despicable." He didn't suggest outright that Manning had not actually confessed to Lamo. He didn't try to argue that Manning hadn't broken the law. He didn't say the log excerpts were fabricated. He did, however, complain that Lamo had told him about conversations with Manning that were not in the chat-log excerpts published by Wired, and called on the magazine to release them. Poulsen said he wouldn't be doing so, telling Greenwald: "The remainder is either Manning discussing personal matters that aren't clearly related to his arrest, or apparently sensitive government information that I'm not throwing up without vetting first."

Still with me?

Then, on Monday, several weeks after the cables had begun trickling out, Greenwald again returned to the issue. In a torqued-up post titled "The worsening journalistic disgrace at Wired," he excoriated the magazine and Poulsen for refusing to release the full logs, calling Poulsen's behavior "odious" and "concealment" of "key evidence." Greenwald appears to have been motivated to weigh in anew by Firedoglake -- a left-leaning website whose members had been obsessively trolling the Web for stories about Lamo and Manning, and even pulled together a handy, color-coded expanded transcript from the logs -- as well as by a flawed New York Times article reporting that the Justice Department was trying to build a conspiracy case against WikiLeaks frontman Julian Assange. Presumably, the logs would be an important part of the prosecution's argument.

Wired responded to Greenwald Tuesday night with twin posts by Evan Hansen, the magazine's editor in chief, and Poulsen. Greenwald fired back with two angry posts of his own today (1, 2). Long story short: Wired reiterated its refusal to release the logs (Poulsen: "[T]hose first stories in June either excerpted, quoted or reported on everything of consequence Manning had to say about his leaking"), Greenwald rejected that explanation, and both sides traded some nasty barbs about each other and made competing claims about the nature of Poulsen's relationship with Lamo.

What still remains a mystery to me is what, exactly, Greenwald thinks is being covered up here. What is he accusing Wired of doing, and why? Does he think that the full transcript of the logs would somehow exonerate Manning, or prove Lamo a liar? And if he catches Lamo telling a journalist something that wasn't in the logs, what then?

Ironically, Wired seems most worried about protecting Manning, whom Greenwald is ostensibly trying to defend. The magazine has hinted all along that what's not been made public is mainly stuff that Manning would not want to see on the front page of the Daily Mail. Hansen writes:

To be sure, there's a legitimate argument to be made for publishing Manning's chats. The key question (to us): At what point does everything Manning disclosed in confidence become fair game for reporting, no matter how unconnected to his leaking or the court-martial proceeding against him, and regardless of the harm he will suffer?

In other words: Be careful what you wish for, Glenn.

UPDATE: Over Twitter, Greenwald responds. Here are three tweets put together:

To answer your question, I want the logs because it'll show if Lamo's claims are *true* - isn't that what journalism is? You seem confused because I don't know whose cause will be helped by disclosure - it'll help the cause of truth. Lamo made lots of fantastical claims about what Manning said - Wired can say if those claims are true. Why shouldn't they???

I know Glenn is looking for a normative answer, but I'm going to answer this in a roundabout way. Reporters generally don't consider it their business to fact-check claims made by sources in other publications. They look for ways to advance a story, or move on to other topics if there doesn't seem to be any "news" to be had. They also generally do weigh the harm that will come of too much disclosure against the value of the information to be disclosed. And they judiciously husband their scarcest resource: time.

I think some combination of all that is what is going on here, in addition to the bad blood that has been generated by Greenwald's unfortunate impugnment of Poulsen's integrity and his motives. Would it be relatively easy for Wired to take a look at the specific claims Lamo has made and check them against the logs? Probably. Would it be worth someone's time there? Maybe. Do I wish Poulsen would just directly address the seeming contradictions in Lamo's statements, in a way that protects what shred of privacy Manning has left? Yes. (In fact I emailed him this morning hoping to talk with him about it myself.) But at this point, I doubt it will happen.

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Today in unverifiable North Korea news

Almost every day, there's a completely bonkers, factually dubious story in the South Korean press about North Korea (which admittedly is a pretty strange place). Today is no exception. Here's Joong Ang Daily with an article about how a train supposedly bearing birthday gifts for Kim Jong-un, the heir to the Kim family dynasty, went off the rails:

The train was comprised of more than 40 train coaches, and eight of them were derailed, the radio station [Open Radio for North Korea] reported. The train was filled with presents for Jong-un’s upcoming birthday, which falls on Jan. 8, including luxury goods such as wristwatches and televisions in bulk, it said.

And here's a story in Yonhap, the South Korean wire agency, about the latest consumer crazes up north:

Skinny jeans, blue crabs, pig-intestine rolls and even human manure were some of the hottest items among North Korean consumers this year, according to a South Korean professor who has interviewed recent defectors from the communist country.

Kim Young-soo, a political science professor at Seoul's Sogang University, said in a conference on Tuesday that adult movies, television dramas and instant noodle "ramen" made in South Korea are also selling "like hot cakes" in North Korea.