Timing of the NSA Surveillance Story
James Rainey reports that the curious timing of last Friday’s New York Times story was designed, not to trample on the good news from Iraq as some conservatives contend, but to prevent being scooped by a book written by its own reporters.
The New York Times first debated publishing a story about secret eavesdropping on Americans as early as last fall, before the 2004 presidential election. But the newspaper held the story for more than a year and only revealed the secret wiretaps last Friday, when it became apparent a book by one of its reporters was about to break the news, according to journalists familiar with the paper’s internal discussions.
It should be noted that Michelle Malkin called this one right away.
Politicians, journalists and Internet commentators have feverishly aired the debate over the timing of the New York Times story in the last four days Ã¢€” with critics on the left wondering why the paper waited so long to publish the story and those on the right wondering why it was published at all. Conservatives suggested the Times had timed the story to persuade members of Congress to oppose reauthorization of the Patriot Act, the federal law that granted the government sweeping surveillance powers. They also charged that the newspaper wanted to short-circuit good news for the Bush administration Ã¢€” Iraq’s high-turnout, relatively violence-free elections.
Times Executive Editor Bill Keller rejected those alleged motivations and also the suggestion that the timing of the story was linked to next month’s scheduled publication of “State of War: The Secret History of the CIA and the Bush Administration,” the book by Times reporter James Risen that includes information on the National Security Agency spying program. “The publication was not timed to the Iraqi election, the Patriot Act debate, Jim’s forthcoming book or any other event,” Keller said in a statement. “We published the story when we did because after much hard work it was fully reported, checked and ready, and because, after listening respectfully to the administration’s objections, we were convinced there was no good reason not to publish it.”
The newspaper had reported Friday that it held publication of the story for “a year” because the White House had argued that it “could jeopardize continuing investigations and alert would-be terrorists that they might be under scrutiny.” In a statement over the weekend, Keller said the paper printed the story after more reporting, which uncovered additional “concerns and misgivings” about the surveillance and also persuaded Times editors that they could proceed and “not expose any intelligence-gathering methods or capabilities that are not already on the public record.”
The initial Times statements did not say that the paper’s internal debate began before the Nov. 2, 2004, presidential election Ã¢€” in which Iraq and national security questions loomed large Ã¢€” or make any reference to Risen’s book, due out Jan. 16. But two journalists, who declined to be identified, said that editors at the paper were actively considering running the story about the wiretaps before Bush’s November showdown with Democratic Sen. John F. Kerry of Massachusetts.
Top editors at the paper eventually decided to hold the story. But the discussion was renewed after the election, with Risen and coauthor of the story, reporter Eric Lichtblau, joining some of the paper’s editors in pushing for publication, according to the sources, who said they did not want to be identified because the Times had designated only Keller and a spokeswoman to address the matter. “When they realized that it was going to appear in the book anyway, that is when they went ahead and agreed to publish the story,” said one of the journalists. “That’s not to say that was their entire consideration, but it was a very important one of them.”
Both of the journalists said they thought that Times editors were overly cautious in holding the story for more than a year. But they said they thought the delays appeared to be in good faith, with the editors taking to heart the national security concerns raised by the Bush administration.
Kevin Drum observes,
So not only was the timing not intended to hurt Bush, it’s far more likely that the timing helped him considerably. After all, if this firestorm had been made public before the election, do you think a hundred thousand people in Ohio might have decided to change their votes?
It’s hard to say. After all, the president’s poll numbers are up since the story came out.
Still, Kevin’s right that the Times was clearly not motivated by malice in holding the story. On the other hand, we can rest assured that they weren’t trying to help Bush’s reelection chances, either. I did the backward math for my initial post on the matter:
ItÃ¢€™s December 16, 2005. So, theyÃ¢€™ve delayed it since [at least] December 16, 2004. The election was November 2, six weeks prior. Presumably, the time it took to set up and conduct the meeting with the administration and to make the decision took quite some time. Presumably, too, it took a while to do the first round of investigations. So, at a minimum, itÃ¢€™s quite likely the NYT was working on this story during the last days of the campaign.
and noted that, the fact
That the NYT actually acceded to [administration’s request to delay publication]–during a tight election campaign, no less–is indication that they took it seriously, though.
Indeed, the more evidence that drips or way, the more likely it is that there is some major aspect to the program, presumably involving technology related to sources and methods, than the papers have reported.
Previously at OTB:
- Defending the Constitution
- The Rockefeller Letter on NSA Spying
- F.B.I. Watched Activist Groups, New Files Show
- Barbara Boxer and John Lewis Start Impeachment Talk
- The Need for Speed
- Why DidnÃ¢€™t Bush Ask Congress?
- Catch Them, but Do Not Watch Them!
- Gonzales Says Congress Authorized Spying
- NY Times Endangers American Security (Stotch)
- Bush Acknowledges Approving Eavesdropping
- Official: Bush Approved Eavesdropping
- Specter and McCain Call for Investigation of NSA Spying
- Bush Allowed Warrantless Phone Surveillance After 9/11