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From the Archives, but Still News

By Michael Getler
Sunday, February 20, 2005; Page B06

The New York Times has many thousands of readers in the Washington area, and when that paper has a story that some readers here view as important and that the hometown Washington Post doesn't have, or doesn't appear to treat as important news, I hear from people about it. There are also many times, I'm sure, when Post editors don't agree with the other paper's news judgment, and many times when The Post has a story that readers of the Times wished was in their newspaper.

On Feb. 10, the Times had a front-page story about a previously undisclosed report from the Sept. 11 commission that documented, among other things, 52 intelligence warnings to leaders of the Federal Aviation Administration between April and September 2001 about activities, mostly overseas, by Osama bin Laden or the al Qaeda terrorist organization. Some of the reports specifically warned against airline hijackings and suicide operations. The commission said aviation officials had been "lulled into a false sense of security" and that "intelligence that indicated a real and growing threat leading up to 9/11 did not stimulate significant increases in security procedures."

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The newly disclosed document was intended as a more detailed addendum to the full commission report published in July. But it was held up by the White House for classification review and then finally released in an unclassified 120-page version by the National Archives. The Post used a 400-word wire service account about it on Page A2 a day after the 1,200-word Times story.

Then on Feb. 12, the Times published another 1,200-word, front-page story disclosing further details about a memo -- dated Jan. 25, 2001, five days after President Bush took office -- from then-White House counterterrorism chief Richard A. Clarke to then-national security adviser Condoleezza Rice warning about the al Qaeda threat and outlining proposals for dealing with it.

Like the Sept. 11 commission's addendum on the FAA, the general thrust of Clarke's memo had been discussed in the Sept. 11 hearings, where it was at the center of disputes between Clarke and Rice, and in the published commission report last summer.

But the full contents and details had not been disclosed until the National Security Archive, a private library of declassified documents in Washington, obtained them through the Freedom of Information Act and put them on its Web site Feb. 10. Aside from the story, the Times published lengthy excerpts of the Clarke memo. The Post used a 350-word wire service story on Page A20, the back page of that A-section and a place that even hard-core newshounds can easily miss.

Only a handful of other newspapers did substantial stories on these two documents, and only a handful of readers complained. Their main point was that both memos struck them as front-page news, certainly compared with what else was available, and especially because both documents were classified or otherwise unavailable to the public until after the election.

Post editors say that some mundane things, such as the absence of a key reporter, were factors in the decision. And because the general contours of these stories had been known, they felt wire stories were okay at the time. In hindsight, they say they should have done more with the story about Clarke's memo.

I'm with the readers on this one, even though there were not many complaints, and even if some of those were from critics of the Bush administration.

To me, it is a discouraging lapse for a paper as serious as The Post, and with its resources, not to have done contextual, staff-written stories on what more these two new documents tell us about one of the monumental periods of our time. I tip my hat to the Times on this one.

The events, questions and controversies surrounding Sept. 11, 2001, and the subsequent war in Iraq, are like bones in the throat for millions of people. For many, they are also seen as a partisan issue. But for others, they are not partisan. It is a matter of wanting to know everything we can about what was known, said and done. That's the journalist's role. Every piece of the puzzle deserves to be looked at and reported on by journalists who have followed these events closely. These two documents added to the historical record and merited more attention.

Many more readers were exercised last week about the bizarre case of James Dale Guckert, aka "Jeff Gannon," the conservative "reporter" who worked for such organizations as Talon News and GOPUSA, and who managed to get himself regularly cleared into White House news briefings, and who asked a question at a presidential news conference about Democrats who he said "seem to have divorced themselves from reality."

Here's how one reader put it: "I don't understand why The Post has turned the 'Jeff Gannon' story into yet another piece about bloggers. The story happened to be broken by bloggers, to their credit. But the story has two serious elements that The Post should report out on its own: 1) How is it that in an era when we have to take our shoes off to get on an airplane, a guy gains access to the White House with an alias on his ID badge? I don't believe that has yet been answered; 2) To what extent was granting 'Gannon' access another form of buying or manipulating the news? These are important questions." I agree.

Michael Getler can be reached by phone at 202-334-7582 or by e-mail at ombudsman@washpost.com.

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