February 6, 2013

New York Times Washington Bureau Chief David Leonhardt says that his newspaper “did not consult with any other news organization during any part of the deliberations” over publicizing the location of a U.S. drone base in Saudi Arabia. Leonhardt’s comment, sent via e-mail to the Erik Wemple Blog, appears to address an article in the Washington Post that reported “an informal arrangement among several news organizations that had been aware of the location for more than a year.”

The Post story didn’t specifically allege that the news organizations were consulting among themselves to keep the Saudi location out of the news. Various outlets had their own arrangements with national security officials that they would comply with the Saudi-base-secrecy request.

Like other organizations, the New York Times did report on the existence of the base, and also like other news organizations, it used geographic generalities in its descriptions. Leonhardt:

We discovered in our reporting awhile back that the U.S. had established a drone base in Saudi Arabia. Administration and intelligence officials asked us not to report that information, and they persuaded us that there were potential national-security risks. We instead described the base as being on the Arabian peninsula and said we would continue to revisit the decision.

So, what changed? Why did the New York Times decide to break the silence with a story last night including mention of the Saudi Arabia base? Managing Editor Dean Baquet told news hound-cum-New York Times Public Editor Margaret Sullivan that the decision was connected to the nomination of John O. Brennan to move to the directorship of the CIA; Brennan, after all, was a central figure in establishing the Saudi base.

There’s more to it, notes Leonhardt:

Ultimately, we decided that naming the country did not present enough of a national-security risk to justify withholding the information. There are not many countries on the Arabian peninsula. Some Web reports had already made the connection. We were aware of no specific security risks or threats, and it is widely known that Saudi authorities are aggressively pursuing Qaeda militants in Yemen. The administration continued to object, but we notified them on Monday that we intended to include the location in an upcoming story, which we did.

Bold text added to highlight an interesting wrinkle: Sullivan’s account of the goings-on suggests that toward the end, the government didn’t escalate the matter up the hierarchy at the New York Times:

Mr. Baquet said he had a conversation with a C.I.A. official about a month ago and, at that time, agreed to continue withholding the location, as it had done for many months. More recently, though, one of the reporters working on the story told the government that The Times would reveal the location and said officials should contact Mr. Baquet if they wanted to discuss it further.

“They didn’t call this time,” Mr. Baquet said.

Here’s how Leonhardt describes the balancing act that Washington editors often have to pull off:

Such discussions are part of normal business for us: Government officials occasionally request us not to report information on national-security grounds. We’re sometimes persuaded and sometimes not. Obviously, it’s a delicate balance, because we believe deeply in reporting information to facilitate public knowledge and debate, but we also want to be very careful about any situation involving security.

Erik Wemple writes the Erik Wemple blog, where he reports and opines on media organizations of all sorts.