At the Times, a Scoop Deferred
Saturday, December 17, 2005
The New York Times' revelation yesterday that President Bush authorized the National Security Agency to conduct domestic eavesdropping raised eyebrows in political and media circles, for both its stunning disclosures and the circumstances of its publication.
In an unusual note, the Times said in its story that it held off publishing the 3,600-word article for a year after the newspaper's representatives met with White House officials. It said the White House had asked the paper not to publish the story at all, "arguing that it could jeopardize continuing investigations and alert would-be terrorists that they might be under scrutiny."
The Times said it agreed to remove information that administration officials said could be "useful" to terrorists and delayed publication for a year "to conduct additional reporting."
The paper offered no explanation to its readers about what had changed in the past year to warrant publication. It also did not disclose that the information is included in a forthcoming book, "State of War: The Secret History of the CIA and the Bush Administration," written by James Risen, the lead reporter on yesterday's story. The book will be published in mid-January, according to its publisher, Simon & Schuster.
The decision to withhold the article caused some friction within the Times' Washington bureau, according to people close to the paper. Some reporters and editors in New York and in the bureau, including Risen and co-writer Eric Lichtblau, had pushed for earlier publication, according to these people. One described the story's path to publication as difficult, with much discussion about whether it could have been published earlier.
In a statement yesterday, Times Executive Editor Bill Keller did not mention the book. He wrote that when the Times became aware that the NSA was conducting domestic wiretaps without warrants, "the Administration argued strongly that writing about this eavesdropping program would give terrorists clues about the vulnerability of their communications and would deprive the government of an effective tool for the protection of the country's security."
"Officials also assured senior editors of the Times that a variety of legal checks had been imposed that satisfied everyone involved that the program raised no legal questions," Keller continued. "As we have done before in rare instances when faced with a convincing national security argument, we agreed not to publish at that time."
In the ensuing months, Keller wrote, two things changed the paper's thinking. The paper developed a fuller picture of misgivings about the program by some in the government. And the paper satisfied itself through more reporting that it could write the story without exposing "any intelligence-gathering methods or capabilities that are not already on the public record."
Tom Rosenstiel, executive director of the Project for Excellence in Journalism, said it was conceivable the Times waited to publish its NSA story as the Senate took up renewal of the Patriot Act. "It's not unheard of to wait for a news peg," he said. "It's not unusual to discover the existence of something and not know the context of it until later."
Yesterday's article was a dramatic scoop for a newspaper whose national security coverage has been marked by some turmoil in recent years. The Times admitted last year that much of its reporting on Iraq's weapons programs before the war was flawed. The principal author of those stories, Judith Miller, later spent 85 days in jail to protect the identity of an administration source in the CIA leak case.
More recently, the Times has been scooped by the Los Angeles Times on a story that the U.S. military has been secretly paying to run favorable stories in the Iraqi media, and by The Washington Post on the revelation last month of a secret network of CIA prisons for terrorism suspects in foreign countries. The Times announced last week that it was replacing its deputy bureau chief in Washington, which outsiders read as a sign of the paper's dissatisfaction with its Washington coverage.
The Post was in contact with senior administration officials before publication last month of its story on the CIA prisons. But officials did not seek to stop publication of the article, only to remove information that could jeopardize national security, said Leonard Downie Jr., The Post's executive editor.
The story said the officials argued that the disclosure might disrupt counterterrorism efforts in those countries and could make them targets of terrorist retaliation. The Post honored one request by not publishing the Eastern European countries that permitted the prisons.