TERRY GROSS, host:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.
As the executive editor of the New York Times, my guest Bill Keller has had to make a lot of difficult decisions about if and how to publish the WikiLeaks war logs and diplomatic cables. He tells some of the behind-the-scene stories in the introduction to the Times' new e-book: "Open Secrets: WikiLeaks, War and American Diplomacy."
The book collects all the classified diplomatic cables and war logs posted on the Times website, along with 27 new cables, analysis of these documents, a profile of WikiLeaks' founder, Julian Assange, and an essay about Bradley Manning, the Army private suspected of being WikiLeaks' source. Keller's opening essay was adapted into a New York Times magazine article that was published on Sunday.
Bill Keller, welcome to FRESH AIR. You probably never expected that the publication of your WikiLeaks e-book would coincide with an uprising in Egypt, after an uprising in Tunisia, both of which may be partly connected to the publication of the WikiLeaks documents. Do you think either of those uprisings was inspired at all, connected at all, to WikiLeaks?
Mr. BILL KELLER (Executive Editor, New York Times): Yes, I think the Tunisia one was at least fueled by it, the circulation of the WikiLeaks documents that talked about how the Ben Ali regime lived high off the hog, American diplomats writing about one of his relatives who, in his suburban mansion, kept a live tiger and a swimming pool, and the tiger was fed four chickens a day. I mean, that sort of stuff clearly did circulate widely, and if it didn't start what happened in Tunisia, it certainly fueled it.
GROSS: What about Egypt?
Mr. KELLER: Egypt is not so clear. I mean, there certainly are lots of WikiLeaks documents that relate to Egypt, things from our embassy there, and we've written about some of them more recently. They didn't strike us as terribly interesting the first time we went through, but, of course, now that stuff is happening in Egypt, you look at everything through a slightly different lens.
And there are lots of cables that talk about how, while publicly, the United States government was professing its support for Mubarak as a, you know, a bulwark of stability in the Middle East, privately, they had been pushing him -for a long time, relatively hard - to reform his government and allow greater freedom and allow freer expression, organization of opposition parties, and so on.
But I have not yet seen anything that suggests that that was the spark, or even a major factor in what's happening in Egypt - except I guess you could say a second-order effect. The events in Egypt do seem to have been somewhat inspired by what happened in Tunisia.
GROSS: One of the Obama administration's concerns about the Times publishing the WikiLeaks documents, you say, is that it could discourage candid comments by and about foreign officials, including heads of state, that it would make it difficult for diplomats to be honest, that it would strain relations in countries. And your response was: We were unconvinced by that.
Watching uprisings now, do you still feel unconvinced that this could strain relations?
Mr. KELLER: Well, I'm unconvinced that it would strain relations to a point that it really impeded our ability to operate in the world. I mean, there are a couple things about this.
One is, you know, I certainly do believe that diplomats - ours and other countries' diplomats reading the stories about the WikiLeaks cables - probably tip-toed around their conversations for a while. I mean, there's a sort of short-term reaction.
And we've heard from some of the reporting that our people have done that a lot of meetings with foreign leaders now begin with kind of awkward comments about: Gee, I wonder how this will read when the New York Times publishes it.
But the reality is - and here I take great pleasure in citing as my reference point the Secretary of Defense, Robert Gates - you know, countries don't do business with the United States just because they like us or even because they trust us to keep their secrets. They do business with us because they need us.
GROSS: You know, I've been wondering: Is there room anymore for discreet, confidential communication between diplomats? Should the public have access to all diplomatic cables in instances when it's not about whistle-blowing, when we're not being lied to, when there isn't, like, great deception?
Mr. KELLER: You know, Julian Assange, the WikiLeaks founder, has, on several occasions, talked about, you know, transparency as an absolute principle, and I don't personally believe that. I think that there are lots of areas where governments are legitimately entitled to keep secrets, and that includes, you know, diplomatic relations with allies and with adversaries. A certain amount of that does have to be kept confidential.
And I - you know, you have to pause for a second and say what has happened with these WikiLeaks cables. They were, of course, you know, an astonishing breach of security. There was a quarter of a million embassy cables, and that's not even counting the military dispatches that came out earlier, but, you know, they were only the cables marked secret.
So there's an awful lot of conversation that goes on at higher levels of classification. There's an awful lot of conversation that goes on, you know, person-by-person that isn't put into a cable and sent off. So I don't think this has crippled the ability of American diplomats to do their jobs.
GROSS: So you said that you think that the WikiLeaks cables had something to do with the Tunisian uprising, and the Tunisian uprising seemed to have something to do with inspiring the Egyptian uprising. When you see all of this happening in that part of the world now, what do you say to yourself? Do you say: Wow, what the New York Times did is partially responsible, for better or for worse, this kind of new wave that's overtaking that part of the world? What do you think about how - what kind of feelings of responsibility do you have for that?
Mr. KELLER: Well, believe me, we talk about this a lot around the office: You know, to what extent did we set this in motion? The simple sort of nuts-and-bolts answer to that is, in the case of the WikiLeaks cables in Tunisia, WikiLeaks certainly did make a difference.
I'm pretty sure that the New York Times didn't, because we didn't publish any of those cables until after the uprising was already underway.
You know, there's - we've only seriously reviewed a fraction of those quarter-of-a-million cables. You know, there are a number of things that we're looking at now that suddenly seem interesting because the region is in turmoil. But that - you know, Tunisia was not on our, you know, top 10 list of subjects to search when we got the first batch of cables.
GROSS: Now, I've read that the Times is considering starting its own version of WikiLeaks, a place where leakers can deposit documents. And tell me how much of that is true and what you're thinking about, to the extent that you can make it public.
Mr. KELLER: It's something we're thinking about. It is not something that we've decided we want to do or can do. It's technologically relatively easy to set up a site where, you know, some whistleblower who is just not comfortable making a phone call to the Times Washington bureau or seeking out a reporter in person could do it with another layer of protection.
But there are - you know, there are legal and ethical questions that come into it, and a basic journalistic question, too. You know, it makes it a little harder to verify the actual material that's actually deposited in your drop box if you don't know the, you know, what they call in law enforcement the chain of custody.
So, you know, we're still a ways from having decided to do it. The first question was: You know, could we do it? And if we did, how complicated would it be?
GROSS: There are other organizations that are doing, or are considering doing things along the lines of WikiLeaks. There's OpenLeaks, which was created by a former WikiLeaks person who became disillusioned with Julian Assange. Al-Jazeera has started a similar operation. I know there's others in the works.
And, you know, I personally have felt so conflicted about some of this. I've learned so much from the WikiLeaks documents, the war documents, the diplomatic cables. At the same time, I'm also a little concerned. Is this creating a world with no privacy, no allowance for discretion, a world that just encourages a culture of revelation, including tattling and embarrassment where eventually everybody's email is going to be hacked and made public, too? Do you know what I'm saying? Where there's...
Mr. KELLER: I know exactly what you're saying. I feel like they...
GROSS: Yeah, when there's so much value put on, like, oh, let's make it public. That's a good thing for everybody.
Mr. KELLER: Mm-hmm. I feel the same conflict. But I have to say that I felt it a long time before I'd ever heard of WikiLeaks. I think - I mean, there's been a lot of talk about how has WikiLeaks and OpenLeaks and these other kind of, you know, drop boxes for secrets, how have they changed journalism? And - or how have they changed the sort of state of the world?
And, you know, I think journalism and the state of the world have been changed pretty profoundly in the last few years by the fact that everything is accessible to everyone, all the time. And I think one of the effects has been -I think there are wondrous things to treasure about what the Internet has made available to journalists and the consumers of journalism.
But I think it's also had some effects that are less pleasant. One of them is that it has chipped away at a sense of privacy and secrecy. Another one is that it has created, I think, a kind of polarized, strident tone of much of the national conversation.
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Bill Keller. He's executive editor of the New York Times, and he wrote the introduction to the New York Times e-book, "Open Secrets: WikiLeaks, War and American Diplomacy."
Let's take a short break here, and then we'll talk some more. This is FRESH AIR.
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GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Bill Keller, executive editor of the New York Times, and we're talking about the New York Times e-book of the WikiLeaks documents. It's called "Open Secrets: WikiLeaks, War and American Diplomacy," and Bill Keller wrote the introduction to this new e-book.
Let's talk about the story of how the New York Times got access to the WikiLeaks documents. Describe the phone call that you got from the editor of The Guardian.
Mr. KELLER: Sure. This was last June. Alan Rusbridger, who I know reasonably well from previous contacts, called up and started out with this sort of mysterious request to know whether the New York Times had a secure line or knew how to do secure communications. And I told that we didn't - or I didn't, anyway. And he said: Well, in that case, I'll speak cautiously.
And he, you know, bit by bit, sort of laid out this proposition, which was that an organization had come to the Guardian with a huge trove of military secrets. There were half-a-million or so daily field reports from the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, written by the Americans who were actually waging the war. And there was some intimation that there might be additional documents yet to come. And he asked if I was interested.
And of course I was interested. Within a day or two, we sent Eric Schmitt, from our Washington bureau - Eric's covered military affairs for quite a while, both in the field and in Washington. He's a very smart, unflappable guy who's read his share of secret military communications.
And we sent him over to decide: first of all, does this look like the real deal? And second of all, does it look interesting? Do you see news value in this?
So he flew off to London and spent a few days poring over the military dispatches and called back and said: Yes, these are certainly genuine, and they're really interesting. And that was kind of the beginning of a six-month period that was sort of a combination of cloak and dagger and a lot of drudgery.
GROSS: So Schmitt, Eric Schmitt was the first person from the Times staff to meet Julian Assange, and he described him this way: Assange was alert but disheveled, like a bag lady walking in off the street, wearing a dingy, light-colored sports coat and cargo pants, dirty white shirt, beat-up sneakers and filthy white socks that collapsed around his ankles. He smelled as if he hadn't bathed in days.
With a description like that, did you have any reservations about dealing with him?
Mr. KELLER: Oh, I had reservations even before Eric told us about his initial encounter with Mr. Assange. The New Yorker had, just prior to this, done a long profile of WikiLeaks and Julian Assange, and they had already had one pretty substantial news splash - in April, I believe - when they released footage from the cockpit of an American military helicopter in Iraq that showed two helicopters firing down upon a crowd of people.
It subsequently turned out that two of the people who were killed in that shooting were journalists for Reuters. So, you know, they were not entirely a new phenomenon, and there were a number of things about WikiLeaks that, at the outset, certainly got our guard up.
One was, you know, if you read the New Yorker account, you know, this was a group that began as a kind of hacker - organization of former hackers whose motivation, while a little murky, seemed to be to embarrass the United States and any other powerful institution that they could target.
Also, it was written about at the time, that the - when WikiLeaks released the cockpit footage from that shooting over Baghdad, they also released an edited version, which really felt more like a piece of anti-war propaganda. And that, I think, made a lot of people a little uneasy about what their agenda was. At least it alerted us to the fact that their agenda was not necessarily ours.
GROSS: You say: We regarded Assange throughout as a source, not as a partner or collaborator. But he was a man who clearly had his own agenda. What do you think his agenda was?
Mr. KELLER: Well, as I said earlier, I think it was a little murky. He professes a kind of ideology of transparency, that, you know, information should be free.
He, at the outset, even resisted the idea - when we and the other news organizations put it to him that we were going to redact the names of ordinary Afghans and Iraqis who had talked to the American military because it would put their lives at risk, he seemed quite indifferent to that. And over time, he, I think, came around to the view that at least, from a public relations point of view, it was maybe better to allow for a certain amount of editing out of things that could cost lives.
GROSS: Really? He seemed indifferent to the fact that publication with those names could cost lives?
Mr. KELLER: You know, the Guardian is also publishing its own book on the WikiLeaks episode, mostly a profile of Julian Assange based on their considerably more detailed and extensive interactions with him. And what they report in that book was that - in one of the early conversations, when they said, well, you know, the Times and the Guardian would want to edit out the names of, you know, ordinary Afghans, Assange's reaction was essentially: Well, they're informants. You know, there's no reason for protecting them.
GROSS: Do you think it was you and the editors - like, you and your people and the staff of the Guardian that convinced him that he needed to edit out some names?
Mr. KELLER: I think probably not. I mean, I think we may have played some role, but I think two other factors eventually convinced him to try and redact the documents in that way.
One was there were a number of people within WikiLeaks who felt very strongly that you should not just put this raw material out, that it would get people killed, and they had some raging fights within WikiLeaks over that issue.
Another was that when WikiLeaks posted its first batch of documents, which were the Afghanistan war logs, they did, in fact, include a number of un-redacted names of ordinary Afghans who had spoken to the military. And there was quite an outcry about that - not just from the United States government, which I think Julian Assange could not have cared less about, but from organizations like Amnesty International, which I think he did care about.
GROSS: Well, there was a time when you said that you weren't going to link to Assange's war log because names weren't redacted, and he got really angry at the Times for that.
Mr. KELLER: That's right. I mean, obviously, there was no way that we were going to prevent people from going to the WikiLeaks website to see the original documents, but as a matter of principle, we said - when we published our stories about the Afghanistan documents - that we were not going to link to their website because we feared that it could become sort of hit-list material for the Taliban.
Mr. KELLER: And yes, he - I think that may have been my first conversation with him, actually. We had a number of phone calls over the six months or so of this project. And he was deeply offended that we not - not just that we had not linked to his website, but that we had made a point of not linking to his website.
GROSS: And did he maintain that position, or is that one of the things that inspired him to - that convinced him to redact names?
Mr. KELLER: I don't know what finally convinced him to redact names, but the second, you know, major batch of documents, which was the Iraq war logs, when the WikiLeaks posted those documents on their website, they used a kind of automated redaction system that essentially cut all of the names out of all of the documents. It actually rendered them almost illegible.
GROSS: Now, you write: I anticipate with dread the day we learn that someone identified in those documents has been killed. And I think you're specifically referring there to people in Afghanistan who gave information to American sources and who the Taliban might subsequently be trying to hunt down. Since writing that, have you had any evidence that such a thing has happened?
Mr. KELLER: No. But, you know, it's something that we are concerned about, and we go back from time to time to ask. You know, I don't know that there's anybody, you know, who, in a sort of formal way, is calling the relatives of people whose names were in those documents to find out if they're still alive. But I wouldn't be surprised if some of us undertook such a mission.
GROSS: My guest, Bill Keller, will be back in the second half of the show. He's the executive editor of the New York Times. He wrote the introduction to the Times new e-book, "Open Secrets: WikiLeaks, War and American Diplomacy."
I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.
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GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross back with Bill Keller, the executive editor of The New York Times. He wrote the introduction to The Times new e-book "Open Secrets: WikiLeaks, War and American Diplomacy." The book collects all the classified WikiLeaks documents posted on The Times' website, along with analysis. In the introduction, Keller writes about how The Times came to publish the secret war logs and diplomatic cables and describes some of the difficult decisions he and the papers other editors had to make.
Now at some point you approached the Obama administration before publication and said, you know, we have these documents about the war in Afghanistan. And then you said what, do you want to look at them before we publish? Like what did you offer in that first round of phone calls to the Obama administration, what did you offer them before publication?
Mr. KELLER: Well, the interaction with the administration really sort of changed from one trove of documents to the next. With the two, the first two releases, the military documents, we approached both the White House and the Pentagon. We said we would, you know, entertain any arguments on their part about things that we should omit and we wanted to also get their reaction to some of the sort of broader conclusions that we drew from the documents.
And in those early days the general reaction was that they didn't want to engage with us. I think there was a fear that engaging with us would somehow be read as a sign that they approved or didn't approve strong - didn't disapprove strongly enough of the fact that these documents were being published.
We did manage to, you know, extract some sort of general comments, but there was not a kind of, not the kind of methodical vetting process that we went through later.
With the embassy cables, we were dealing primarily with the State Department, although at various times just about every other agency that deals with international affairs was involved to some degree. And in that case they said we would like a chance to make a case, we'd like to see what you're planning to publish and have a chance to make a case if we feel that something is dangerous. And we agreed to that.
We, after a few preliminary conversations, what it came down to really was a sort of each day over the two weeks or so that we ran our initial series of embassy cable stories, we would send over to the State Department the documents that would form the basis of the stories we were planning to publish a couple of days hence. They would circulate them by the country specialists and then they would call back and say, you know, we have some objections to your publishing particular aspects of this material and then we had a conversation.
And after, you know, clearly, the Obama administration thought this whole thing was torture. I mean it was embarrassing. It was, you know, distracting. You know, it was in some respects a diplomat's worst nightmare.
But I think they made the calculation that they could probably do some good by engaging us and giving us some guidance on things that they thought would be harmful if they were published. And we heard them out. We didn't do everything that they wanted us to do but we did some, and I think that process that we went through made us feel better about what we were making public and I think it probably, in at least a few cases, saved some lives.
GROSS: Do you think that the Obama administration considered at any point an injunction to prevent The Times from publishing the WikiLeaks documents?
Mr. KELLER: I don't know. We never had any indication that they had. I would be surprised if some lawyer, you know, somewhere in the Justice Department or the White House Counsel's Office didn't at least raise the question. It's, you know, it's a kind of natural enough thought.
Back during the Bush administration when we published articles about the National Security Agency eavesdropping on Americans, we heard from pretty reliable sources in the Justice Department that they considered trying for an injunction to stop us. But we haven't heard anything specific to that effect in this case.
GROSS: Can you compare how the Bush administration and the Obama administration handled The New York Times publication of secrets?
Mr. KELLER: Sure. I mean, you know, relations between the Bush administration and the press were testy at times, and there was I think a kind of gulf of mistrust that colored a lot of that relationship, not just in the publication of secrets but, you know, in our experience they were furious. They argued vociferously.
And, by the way, when we dealt with the Bush administration we were dealing with Cabinet-level people and ultimately, with the president himself. They put all of their weight behind trying to prevent us from publishing the story about eavesdropping. And, in fact, you know, we held off publishing for more than a year, in part because of their arguments and in part because of some other factors.
When we did finally decide to go ahead and publish our stories the reaction was just ferocious. We had the vice president and the secretary of Defense and the president all, you know, denouncing The New York Times in the harshest of language. There was this kind of chorus of critics on Capitol Hill who were issuing sort of full-throated cries to apply the Espionage Act, which is - was not designed to be used against newspapers and never has been, but there were people who wanted to stretch the boundaries to do that. And then there was the whole kind of echo chamber of Fox News and the conservative blogosphere that weighed in. It was quite unsettling.
By comparison, you know, the Obama administration kept the discussions at a working level. They were - while there were certainly harsh words and some tense moments, it seemed to me to be professional. They understood that the secrets were coming out. Their question was how do we minimize the damage. And if that means we have to swallow hard and deal with these journalists we will do that. It was a very different tone.
And when we did publish them, while they had plenty of things to say about WikiLeaks, they generally refrained from criticizing the news organizations that wrote about the documents.
GROSS: I'm wondering if during the Bush administration when you published secrets like the secret warrantless wiretapping program which tapped phone calls and emails of Americans, or when you published WikiLeaks documents, and I'll understand if you don't want to answer this, but I was wondering if you or members of your staff received death threats. Because that seems to be how people respond now to things that they don't like.
Mr. KELLER: Not that I'm aware of and not explicitly. There were, in the case of the eavesdropping program, there was one critic who posted photographs of the front of my apartment building, also the publisher's apartment building with a none-too-subtle invitation to people to come, you know, show us what terrorism is all about. If anybody who lives in New York City can appreciate how that went down with our co-op board.
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Mr. KELLER: Now, you know, and at the time it, you know, it was a little scary, and I mean, you know, my wife was very nervous about it and, you know, we did inform the local police precinct. It was not, you know, an explicit, direct death threat.
In this case, there's been a lot of fairly nasty emails from both sides, from people who think that we've, you know, have not dealt respectfully with Julian Assange, who some of them regard as a kind of outlaw cult hero. And from on the other side from people who think that publishing secrets is unpatriotic.
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Bill Keller. He's the executive editor of The New York Times. And The Times has just published an e-book with WikiLeak documents and analysis of those documents. It's called "Open Secrets: WikiLeaks, War and American Diplomacy." Bill Keller wrote the introduction to the book, and he's going to start a column in The Times in March.
Let's take a short break here and then we'll talk some more. This is FRESH AIR.
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GROSS: If you're just joining us, we're talking about WikiLeaks with Bill Keller, the executive editor of The New York Times. And The Times has just published a new e-book called "Open Secrets: WikiLeaks, War and American Diplomacy." It includes WikiLeaks documents, analyses of those documents and an introduction by Bill Keller about how The Times got involved in the WikiLeaks publication.
Now Julian Assange had a written agreement with The Guardian which stipulated that WikiLeaks was just providing The Guardian with the embassy cables for its review and the publication or duplication of those documents was permitted only if WikiLeaks consented to it. And you describe a meeting with Assange, members of The Times and The Guardian, and correct me if I'm wrong here, in which Assange had his lawyers with him at the meeting. This was during a period when I think he was very uncomfortable about The New York Times publishing anymore, again, because of this profile of him that he didn't like.
So was there any threat of lawsuits if The Times actually published the diplomatic cables?
Mr. KELLER: There - yes, there were. There were all sorts of threats of lawsuits which seemed sort of absurd. I mean the idea that he would, you know, sue us for stealing documents that were essentially stolen in the first place is - I mean, you would need a lot of lawyers to make sense out of that.
Assange and his estrangement from us began with the fact that we declined a link to his website and continued with a profile that we wrote of Bradley Manning, the suspect in this great breach of security. Assange called me on that one and objected that we had focused too much on Bradley Manning's youth and the fact that he was a gay man in a military that is not always an easy place for a gay man. And he said that we had, the word he used was psychologicalized(ph) Bradley Manning. And that we had given short shrift to his political awakening. And so he was offended by that.
And then he was very much offended by the profile that we ran of him, which was really an account of the internal rifts within WikiLeaks that many of his colleagues within the organization attributed to his somewhat authoritarian and intuitive management style.
GROSS: Did you officially break ties with Assange?
Mr. KELLER: I'm not sure that we ever officially had ties with Julian Assange. No. And, you know, in fact, if, you know, if he were to call up today and say that he had something really interesting that he wanted to show us, I'd be more than happy to take a look at it.
You know, sources often come with their own agendas, their own characters, their own, you know, baggage. And, you know, what's important is the information, and if the information stands up and if you are confident in it, and if you think you can, you know, render into really useful journalism, then you do that. And you don't have to like the source or you don't have to share the source's opinions about much of anything, and you certainly don't let the source edit your stories or in this case - or in most cases you wouldn't even let a source read your stories before they were in the paper.
GROSS: Let's talk about some of the legal repercussions here. Attorney General Eric Holder has started a criminal probe to see who should be held accountable for the leaks. Darrell Issa plans to hold hearings on WikiLeaks. He's the new head of the House Oversight Committee. Senator Joe Lieberman has said he wants to investigate the role of The New York Times in the WikiLeaks.
Are you concerned that there might be legal actions taken against The New York Times?
Mr. KELLER: Well, I'm concerned that there might be attempts to either interpret the current law or rewrite the current law in a way that would criminalize the publication of secrets. So far I have not seen any indication that the Justice Department wants to do that, and there have been a few kind of passing references from members of Congress, but I don't get a sense that there is a kind of momentum towards doing something like that, which would be a pretty radical thing to do.
But, you know, it does worry me and I think one of the - I should pause to say the Justice Department does not confide in me about what their strategy is on things like this, but I had the sense and we've reported that they seem to be looking for some way to go after Julian Assange that doesn't entail basically criminalizing what newspapers do. And they were having some difficulty doing that under current law.
What we have reported that one thing the Justice Department is looking at is trying to see whether Julian Assange could be culpable if he in some way abetted Bradley Manning in the violation of his duty or somehow induced him to engage in the security breach. I don't know if that's the case but they're clearly looking at a way to do something or at least to be seen as doing something.
But, you know, whatever you say about Julian Assange, I think American journalists and Americans in general should be a little concerned about attempts to pursue him legally for in effect publishing secret information.
GROSS: Well, Bill Keller, I want to thank you so much for talking with us.
Mr. KELLER: You're welcome. Thanks for having me.
GROSS: Bill Keller is the executive editor of The New York Times. He wrote the introduction to The Times new e-book "Open Secrets: WikiLeaks, War and American Diplomacy." The introduction was adapted into a New York Times Magazine essay that was published Sunday. You'll find a link to it on our website, freshair.npr.org.
Coming up, Lloyd Schwartz reviews box sets of CDs and DVDs featuring live performances of James Levine conducting the Metropolitan Opera.
This is FRESH AIR.
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TERRY GROSS, host:
In honor of James Levine's 40th anniversary conducting the Metropolitan Opera, the Met has released two box sets of his live performances on CD and DVD. At 67, he's had some serious health problems, and there have been calls by some for him to step down from conducting.
Classical music critic Lloyd Schwartz says that these new releases prove what a vital figure Levine has been.
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LLOYD SCHWARTZ: James Levine has had a rough couple of years, including several surgeries that have forced him to cancel months of performances, both with the Metropolitan Opera and the Boston Symphony Orchestra, the two major organizations he directs. But instead of eliciting sympathy, his disabilities seem to have angered the press. He returned from his latest surgery, though, apparently pain-free for the first time in years, and he is now conducting again on the highest level.
On one Saturday last fall, shortly after his return, he conducted the live telecast of a Wagner matinee at the Met and flew to Boston to lead the BSO in a Mahler symphony that night. Both were thrilling. He told opening night BSO patrons that if he felt he couldn't do his job, he'd be happy to assist in the search for a replacement. I hope that's many years away.
In the meantime, to honor the 40th anniversary of his Met debut, the Met has released two box sets of DVDs and CDs of 22 of his nearly 2,500 live opera performances - all but two of them available for the first time - and three spectacular concerts. They all vividly demonstrate what a powerful presence he's been since his debut and how irreplaceable.
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SCHWARTZ: Even before you open the packages, you can't help notice the staggering range of Levine's versatility, including many operas he introduced to the Met. Besides the expected Mozart, Verdi, Wagner and Strauss, there are fascinating less-familiar works: Smetana's Czech folk opera, "The Bartered Bride," Puccini's satirical one-act comedy, "Gianni Schicchi" - maybe his best opera - and Berlioz's epic masterpiece, "The Trojans," with the towering Lorraine Hunt Lieberson as the doomed Queen Dido in the single greatest tragic performance I ever saw at the Met.
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Ms. LORRAINE HUNT LIEBERSON (Mezzo-soprano): (as Queen Dido)(Singing in foreign language)
SCHWARTZ: These two sets highlight one of Levine's most significant contributions: his commitment to 20th century music. Both of Berg's operas, "Wozzeck" and "Lulu," for example, turn up in two different productions 20 years apart, as well as two operas Levine commissioned: John Corigliano's "The Ghosts of Versailles" and John Harbison's "The Great Gatsby," with another stellar performance by Lieberson as Fitzgerald's blowsy Myrtle Wilson.
And what a cornucopia of the great opera stars of the past 40 years: Leontyne Price and Marilyn Horne, Anja Silja and Jon Vickers, Placido Domingo and Renee Fleming.
Levine obviously had a special place in his heart for the mercurial and infinitely touching soprano Teresa Stratas, one of opera's best actresses, and with a ravishing voice to boot. She appears here in four different roles, ranging from Corigliano's elegant Marie Antoinette to a Kurt Weill floozy in "The Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny," the Met's first and only production of any of Weill's operas.
(Soundbite of song, "Alabama Song")
Ms. TERESA STRATAS (Soprano): (Singing) Oh moon of Alabama we now must say good bye. We lost our good old mama, and must have whiskey, oh you know why. Oh moon of Alabama we now must say good bye. We lost our good old mama, and must whiskey, oh you know why.
SCHWARTZ: Another singer Levine cherished was the rich-voiced mezzo-soprano Tatiana Troyanos, who appears in two full productions, as well as in a 1982 concert Levine conducted on the Met stage, leading the orchestra he turned into one of the world's great ensembles. It's delicious to watch the young, curly-haired maestro mouthing the words expressively along with his stars.
His conducting has always combined animation and vigor with a secure sense of style and taste, from Verdi's slashing excitement to Berlioz's statuesque grandeur to Puccini's sly innuendos. And he gives the musical complexity of the modern operas a rare lucidity. I wish every aspiring opera conductor would study these discs. Meanwhile, the rest of us can just sit back and enjoy opera at its very best.
GROSS: Lloyd Schwartz is classical musical editor of the Boston Phoenix and teaches English at the University of Massachusetts, Boston. He reviewed "James Levine: Celebrating 40 Years at the Met."
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I'm Terry Gross.
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