[Marxism] NY Times ombudsman upset with paper's silence on wiretapping

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Sun Jan 1 05:16:39 MST 2006

NY Times, January 1, 2006
The Public Editor
Behind the Eavesdropping Story, a Loud Silence

THE New York Times's explanation of its decision to report, after what it 
said was a one-year delay, that the National Security Agency is 
eavesdropping domestically without court-approved warrants was woefully 
inadequate. And I have had unusual difficulty getting a better explanation 
for readers, despite the paper's repeated pledges of greater transparency.

For the first time since I became public editor, the executive editor and 
the publisher have declined to respond to my requests for information about 
news-related decision-making. My queries concerned the timing of the 
exclusive Dec. 16 article about President Bush's secret decision in the 
months after 9/11 to authorize the warrantless eavesdropping on Americans 
in the United States.

I e-mailed a list of 28 questions to Bill Keller, the executive editor, on 
Dec. 19, three days after the article appeared. He promptly declined to 
respond to them. I then sent the same questions to Arthur Sulzberger Jr., 
the publisher, who also declined to respond. They held out no hope for a 
fuller explanation in the future.

Despite this stonewalling, my objectives today are to assess the flawed 
handling of the original explanation of the article's path into print, and 
to offer a few thoughts on some factors that could have affected the timing 
of the article. My intention is to do so with special care, because my 
40-plus years of newspapering leave me keenly aware that some of the 
toughest calls an editor can face are involved here - those related to 
intelligence gathering, election-time investigative articles and protection 
of sources. On these matters, reasonable disagreements can abound inside 
the newsroom.

(A word about my reporting for this column: With the top Times people 
involved in the final decisions refusing to talk and urging everyone else 
to remain silent, it seemed clear to me that chasing various editors and 
reporters probably would yield mostly anonymous comments that the ultimate 
decision-makers would not confirm or deny. So I decided not to pursue those 
who were not involved in the final decision to publish the article - or to 
refer to Times insiders quoted anonymously in others' reporting.)

At the outset, it's essential to acknowledge the far-reaching importance of 
the eavesdropping article's content to Times readers and to the rest of the 
nation. Whatever its path to publication, Mr. Sulzberger and Mr. Keller 
deserve credit for its eventual appearance in the face of strong White 
House pressure to kill it. And the basic accuracy of the account of the 
eavesdropping stands unchallenged - a testament to the talent in the trenches.

But the explanation of the timing and editing of the front-page article by 
James Risen and Eric Lichtblau caused major concern for scores of Times 
readers. The terse one-paragraph explanation noted that the White House had 
asked for the article to be killed. "After meeting with senior 
administration officials to hear their concerns, the newspaper delayed 
publication for a year to conduct additional reporting," it said. "Some 
information that administration officials argued could be useful to 
terrorists has been omitted."

If Times editors hoped the brief mention of the one-year delay and the 
omitted sensitive information would assure readers that great caution had 
been exercised in publishing the article, I think they miscalculated. The 
mention of a one-year delay, almost in passing, cried out for a fuller 
explanation. And the gaps left by the explanation hardly matched the 
paper's recent bold commitments to readers to explain how news decisions 
are made.

At the very least, The Times should have told readers in the article why it 
could not address specific issues. At least some realization of this kicked 
in rather quickly after publication. When queried by reporters for other 
news media on Dec. 16, Mr. Keller offered two prepared statements that shed 
some additional light on the timing and handling of the article.

The longer of Mr. Keller's two prepared statements said the paper initially 
held the story based on national security considerations and assurances 
that everyone in government believed the expanded eavesdropping was legal. 
But when further reporting showed that legal questions loomed larger than 
The Times first thought and that a story could be written without certain 
genuinely sensitive technical details, he said, the paper decided to 
publish. (Mr. Keller's two prepared statements, as well as some thoughtful 
reader comments, are posted on the Public Editor's Web Journal.)

Times readers would have benefited if the explanation in the original 
article had simply been expanded to include the points Mr. Keller made 
after publication. And if the length of that proved too clunky for 
inclusion in the article, the explanation could have been published as a 
separate article near the main one. Even the sentence he provided me as to 
why he would not answer my questions offered some possible insight.

Protection of sources is the most plausible reason I've been able to 
identify for The Times's woeful explanation in the article and for the 
silence of Mr. Sulzberger and Mr. Keller. I base this on Mr. Keller's 
response to me: "There is really no way to have a full discussion of the 
back story without talking about when and how we knew what we knew, and we 
can't do that."

Taken at face value, Mr. Keller seems to be contending that the sourcing 
for the eavesdropping article is so intertwined with the decisions about 
when and what to publish that a full explanation could risk revealing the 
sources. I have no trouble accepting the importance of confidential 
sourcing concerns here. The reporters' nearly one dozen confidential 
sources enabled them to produce a powerful article that I think served the 
public interest.

With confidential sourcing under attack and the reporters digging in the 
backyards of both intelligence and politics, The Times needs to guard the 
sources for the eavesdropping article with extra special care. Telling 
readers the time that the reporters got one specific fact, for instance, 
could turn out to be a dangling thread of information that the White House 
or the Justice Department could tug at until it leads them to the source. 
Indeed, word came Friday that the Justice Department has opened an 
investigation into the disclosure of classified information about the 

The most obvious and troublesome omission in the explanation was the 
failure to address whether The Times knew about the eavesdropping operation 
before the Nov. 2, 2004, presidential election. That point was hard to 
ignore when the explanation in the article referred rather vaguely to 
having "delayed publication for a year." To me, this language means the 
article was fully confirmed and ready to publish a year ago - after perhaps 
weeks of reporting on the initial tip - and then was delayed.

Mr. Keller dealt directly with the timing of the initial tip in his later 
statements. The eavesdropping information "first became known to Times 
reporters" a year ago, he said. These two different descriptions of the 
article's status in the general vicinity of Election Day last year leave me 

For me, however, the most obvious question is still this: If no one at The 
Times was aware of the eavesdropping prior to the election, why wouldn't 
the paper have been eager to make that clear to readers in the original 
explanation and avoid that politically charged issue? The paper's silence 
leaves me with uncomfortable doubts.

On the larger question of why the eavesdropping article finally appeared 
when it did, a couple of possibilities intrigue me.

One is that Times editors said they discovered there was more concern 
inside the government about the eavesdropping than they had initially been 
told. Mr. Keller's prepared statements said that "a year ago," officials 
"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." So the paper "agreed not to publish at that time" and 
continued reporting.

But in the months that followed, Mr. Keller said, "we developed a fuller 
picture of the concerns and misgivings that had been expressed during the 
life of the program" and "it became clear those questions loomed larger 
within the government than we had previously understood."

The impact of a new book about intelligence by Mr. Risen on the timing of 
the article is difficult to gauge. The book, "State of War: The Secret 
History of the CIA and the Bush Administration," was not mentioned in the 
Dec. 16 article. Mr. Keller asserted in the shorter of his two statements 
that the article wasn't timed to the forthcoming book, and that "its 
origins and publication are completely independent of Jim's book."

The publication of Mr. Risen's book, with its discussion of the 
eavesdropping operation, was scheduled for mid-January - but has now been 
moved up to Tuesday. Despite Mr. Keller's distancing of The Times from 
"State of War," Mr. Risen's publisher told me on Dec. 21 that the paper's 
Washington bureau chief had talked to her twice in the previous 30 days 
about the book.

So it seems to me the paper was quite aware that it faced the possibility 
of being scooped by its own reporter's book in about four weeks. But the 
key question remains: To what extent did the book cause top editors to 
shrug off the concerns that had kept them from publishing the eavesdropping 
article for months?

A final note: If Mr. Risen's book or anything else of substance should open 
any cracks in the stone wall surrounding the handling of the eavesdropping 
article, I will have my list of 28 questions (35 now, actually) ready to 
e-mail again to Mr. Keller.

The public editor serves as the readers' representative. His opinions and 
conclusions are his own. His column appears at least twice monthly in this 

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