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Intimidating the Press

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By Dan Froomkin
Special to washingtonpost.com
Thursday, April 3, 2008; 2:14 PM

It's a case study in how the Bush administration intimidated the press after 9/11.

The publication of a new book by Eric Lichtblau, one of the two New York Times reporters who in late 2005 broke the story of the Bush administration's warrantless surveillance program, is calling attention to how the White House successfully persuaded the Times to suppress its expose in the fall of 2004 -- when it might have had a profound effect on President Bush's reelection hopes.

In an interview with Terry Gross that aired yesterday on NPR, Lichtblau spoke about the paper's decision.

"Why didn't it run then?" Gross asked.

Lichtblau: "Well, this was obviously a decision made by the top editors at the paper, and I think it was a very tough one. I think you got to remember, these were somewhat different times for the media in 2004. We were only, at that point, a couple of years after 9/11. I'm not sure, in hindsight, there were many newspapers that would've gone ahead and published that story, given the intense, intense pressure and the claims that were made by the White House. Our reporting had shown a lot of things about the cracks in the program, about the concerns about the legal foundations. The White House was armed and ready to refute every single one of those with what, in hindsight, turned out to be, I believe, misstatements about how every lawyer at the Justice Department, for instance, had found this program to be legal. We certainly know that now in hindsight not to be true.

"But, you know, in 2004, those were difficult things for the newspaper to refute; and we had the White House, at the highest levels, insisting that this program would harm national security were we to write about it. And I think the concern from the editors--and I didn't necessarily agree, you know, I pushed for publication, I don't think that's any secret. The concern from the editors was would we be merely outing an operational program that was on a firm legal foundation, and they made the decision that we could not do that at that point."

But is there a happy ending here? Did the Times's decision to run the piece in 2005 -- even after a personal warning from Bush that it would be responsible for the next terrorist attack -- signify the end of a period of fear and intimidation?

In an excerpt from his new book " Bush's Law: The Remaking of American Justice" published in Slate last week, Lichtblau writes about the terrified, credulous environment in the nation's top newsrooms that lasted for several years after the 9/11 attacks that the White House was able to exploit. He writes that "a healthy, essential skepticism . . . was missing from much of the media's early reporting after 9/11, both at home in the administration's war on terror and abroad in the run-up to the war in Iraq."

The 2005 decision to publish the story, by contrast, reflected "the media's shifting attitudes toward matters of national security--from believing the government to believing it less," Lichtblau writes. But he also indicates that a major factor in that decision was that his co-author, James Risen, had announced that he was going to expose the program in his own book.

That announcement led to additional reporting, and by late 2005, Lichtblau wrote: "Our reporting brought into sharper focus what had already started to become clear a year earlier: The concerns about the program - in both its legal underpinnings and its operations - reached the highest levels of the Bush administration. There were deep concerns within the administration that the president had authorized what amounted to an illegal usurpation of power. The image of a united front we'd been presented a year earlier in meetings with the administration - with unflinching support for the program and its legality - was largely a fa├žade. The administration, it seemed clear to me, had lied to us."

But as Lichtblau notes: "Jim and I had already learned about much of the internal angst within the administration over the legality of the NSA program at the outset of our reporting, more than a year earlier in the fall of 2004."

Times executive editor Bill Keller spoke at some length about his decision-making process in an interview with PBS's Frontline in 2006. He was asked if the changing times made him more comfortable publishing.


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