Last week the third son of deposed Libyan leader Mummar el-Gaddafi, Saadi, was in the news after fleeing to Niger where he is now said to be effectively under house arrest. This week, Saadi is again in headlines: US State Department cables recently published by Wikileaks reveal that the New York Times redacted reports of Saadi’s bisexuality. Wikileaks had been releasing collections of documents to the New York Times and four other newspapers including the Guardian and Le Monde until a few weeks ago, when the whistle-blowing site dumped the entire trove of 250,000 leaked documents online.
The New York Times had been working with the State Department to make sure that sensitive information, such as the names of diplomatic informers including human rights activists and journalists, was redacted. An Ethiopian journalist has been forced to flee his home after he was identified as a source in a leaked cable. But, as The Atlantic Wire asks, why did the New York Times remove mention of Saadi’s bisexuality?
Former U.S. ambassador to Libya Gene Cretz discussed Saadi in this March 3, 2009 cable, entitled “BLACK SHEEP MADE GOOD? SAADI AL-QADHAFI’S EXPORT FREE ZONE IN WESTERN LIBYA.” The portion redacted by the New York Times has been crossed out:
Although the Zuwara Free Trade Zone is an ambitious and expensive project, Muammar al-Qadhafi likely views it as a relatively small price to pay if it helps occupy the notoriously ill-behaved Saadi and lend a patina of useful engagement to his otherwise less than sterling reputation. Saadi has a troubled past, including scuffles with police in Europe (especially Italy), abuse of drugs and alcohol, excessive partying, travel abroad in contravention of his father’s wishes
and profligate affairs with men and women. His bisexuality is reportedly a point of extreme contention with his father and partly prompted the decision to arrange his marriage to al-Khweildi al-Hmeidi’s daughter. Creating the appearance of useful employment for al-Qadhafi’s offspring has been an important objective for the regime.
Gawker’s Jim Cook compares the full text of a number of leaked cables along with the New York Times redactions which, again, were made in coordination with the government. Regarding the New York Times‘s editing of the above cable, Cook says:
It’s unclear why the Times would choose to withhold information about Saadi’s sex life. Is it in the business of protecting the privacy of participants in a brutal autocracy? (Saadi appears to have fled to Niger.) The Times declined to comment. Other redacted portions of the same cable show a curious level of sensitivity. The Times held back, for instance, a sentence in the cable’s introduction noting that “Muammar al-Qadhafi likely views [Saadi's latest project] as a relatively small price to pay if it helps occupy the notoriously ill-behaved Saadi and lends a patina of useful engagement to his otherwise less than sterling reputation.” As you can see from the previous quote, though, precisely the same sentiment made the cut when expressed later in the cable.
In examining another cable (March 9, 2009) about Gaddafi’s second son Saif al-Islam hiring Mariah Carey for $1 million to sing at a birthday party, Cook points out that the New York Times removed this paragraph:
The contretemps…coincided with a sharp denial by Saif al-Islam of (incorrect) western media reports that he had paid USD one million to pop singer Mariah Carey for a four song set she sang at a New Year’s Eve bash on the Caribbean island of St. Bart’s. Saif al-Islam was in the UAE and Thailand for New Year’s. Saif’s “Oea” newspaper hotly denied that their boss had been the financier and corrections were printed in western media noting that Muatassim, not Saif al-Islam, was the organizer of the party in question.
Cook’s comparison of a selection of cables published on the Times‘ website to the unredacted versions suggests that the State Department and the New York Times may well need to do some explaining about what they considered “sensitive information” not to be seen by the public eye, or not until it was written up in a New York Times article.
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Photo of billboard of Gaddafi by sludgeulper