When former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden made the fateful decision to share sensitive documents with reporters revealing secret and mass gathering of the metadata associated with the phone calls made by tens of millions of Americans, he had to figure out which news outfit to trust.
But Snowden already knew the one place he didn’t trust: The New York Times. He went instead to reporters working for The Guardian and The Washington Post, each of which posted the first in a series of breathtaking revelations one year ago. In April, the two news organizations shared the Pulitzer Prize for public service.
The episode represents both a sore point and a signal lesson for the new executive editor of The New York Times, Dean Baquet.
“It was really painful,” Baquet told me just a few hours after the Pulitzer ceremony. “There is nothing harder than, if you are the New York Times, getting beat on a big national security story — and to get beat by your biggest overseas competitor and your biggest national competitor, at the same time. It was just painful.”
He says the experience has proved that news executives are often unduly deferential to seemingly authoritative warnings unaccompanied by hard evidence.
“I am much, much, much more skeptical of the government’s entreaties not to publish today than I was ever before,” Baquet said in a wide-ranging interview.
Snowden’s choice was the bitter harvest of seeds sown by the Times almost a decade ago. In the fall of 2004, just ahead of the November general elections, the Times‘ news leadership spiked an exclusive from Washington correspondents James Risen and Eric Lichtblau, disclosing massive warrantless domestic eavesdropping by the NSA.
White House officials had warned that the results of such a story could be catastrophic.
The Times, in a decision led by then-Washington Bureau Chief Philip Taubman and then-Executive Editor Bill Keller, quashed the story, despite the objections of the two reporters, their editor Rebecca Corbett, and several of their colleagues.
But Snowden believed he could not rely on the newspaper’s judgment, even though it ultimately published the scoop.
Last week, Baquet told me the Snowden revelations yielded two key insights for American journalists. “First off,” Baquet said, “the public wants this information. Secondly, it does not destroy everything if the information comes out.”
In 2005, Keller and other Times officials offered a multilayered explanation for why they had originally withheld the NSA article by Risen and Lichtblau. They focused on the balance between perceived newsworthiness and peril. As Keller put it, top government officials had assured editors in 2004 that “a variety of legal checks had been imposed that satisfied everyone involved that the program raised no legal questions.”
A second rationale, offered internally to increasingly irate reporters, was that the story simply wasn’t ready to go.
Risen decided to force the issue. Antsy that his reporting might never see the light of day, he had decided to incorporate his reporting into a book, called State of War.
Risen’s book, which had been scheduled for publication in early 2006, would reveal secrets that his newspaper had kept hidden. “The editors were furious at me,” Risen told producers of a Frontline documentary that aired on PBS stations in May. “They thought I was being insubordinate.”
And so, in December 2005, just weeks before Risen’s publication date, the Times finally did publish Risen and Lichtblau’s story. Keller said the additional reporting in the intervening months convinced him and other editors that the warrantless eavesdropping had in fact triggered sharp legal divisions inside the Bush White House. And the publication occurred despite a direct Oval Office pitch from President George W. Bush and several of his aides to Times Publisher Arthur Sulzberger Jr., Keller and Taubman. The article’s publication, Keller wrote in a statement to reporters, “was not timed to the Iraqi election, the Patriot Act debate, Jim’s forthcoming book or any other event.”
But as I reported at the time, four Times journalists with knowledge of the decision said the upcoming release of the Risen book directly affected both the timing and the decision to publish at all. A fifth colleague of Lichtblau and Risen recently gave me an additional confirmation of what the others had previously said. All said the question of what Bush administration lawyers believed over the legality of the program had carried too much weight.
Now the two reporters on the NSA story have made the case publicly. In the PBS documentary, Lichtblau and Risen ascribe the article’s appearance to the looming publication of Risen’s book.
“He had a gun to their head,” Lichtblau told Frontline. “They are really being forced to reconsider: The paper is going to look pretty bad” if Risen’s book disclosed the wiretapping program before the Times. Another reporter characterized that scenario to me as “catastrophic.” A third told me the Times “avoided disaster” only because it ultimately published the story.
Reporters and editors with knowledge of the incident were expressly instructed not to talk to people outside the Times about it at the time, so they would only speak to NPR on condition they not be named. It remains a sensitive topic for the newspaper.
In an email to me this week, Keller wrote, “Jim’s impending book put the subject squarely on the table. It didn’t decide the question of publishing or not publishing.”
Taubman, then the Washington bureau chief, said he was caught between exposing a program that his reporters believed to be both newsworthy and unlawful, and protecting a tool that the nation’s highest national security officials told him would be compromised by any such article.
Taubman told me he was ultimately convinced to revisit the issue in late 2005 because of the disclosure of other aggressive and legally dubious initiatives by the Bush administration to combat terrorism, including the prisoner renditions documented by Dana Priest of The Washington Post, and interrogation techniques that fit legal definitions of torture, such as waterboarding.
But he also said Risen’s book played a role. He had the highly unusual experience, for an editor, of being forced to sign a nondisclosure agreement to read his reporter’s handiwork; Taubman took the train from Washington, D.C., to New York City to read the manuscript in the offices of Risen’s publisher. Taubman said he was not allowed to make a copy or take notes, but, after reading the proofs, he recommended that the Times publish the story.
Even so, Taubman said he was ambivalent enough that he would have supported the newspaper’s more senior executives had they decided not to.
“I would have taken a huge amount of heat for that” once the Risen book came out, Taubman said. “I thought that that would have probably led to my having to resign from the Times, and I was ready to do that.”
Back in 2005, several journalists for the Times told me they were frustrated by their newspaper’s original timidity. A few said they were also frustrated by the debate over the story. “It’s done,” one editor told me. “We published the article. People have to get over it.”
As Snowden’s choice shows, not everyone did get over it.
These choices are among the hardest confronting editors. At the time that Keller and Taubman originally decided not to print the story, the country was little more than three years removed from the trauma of the September 2001 terror strikes and about a year and a half into the Iraq War. When administration and intelligence officials warned of danger, the editors had no road map from which to plot a course.
But the words of the Bush administration had already proved to ring hollow for many Americans, given the absence of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq that administration officials (and the Times’ Judy Miller) had predicted. And abuses at Abu Ghraib prison by U.S. armed forces focused attention on the question of whether torture had been somehow sanctioned by American officials. Surely, a significant number of reporters in the Washington bureau said, the public deserved to have known about the NSA story and decide for itself.
Under revisions passed after abuses were revealed in the 1970s, the NSA was required to receive warrants from judges belonging to the so-called FISA court to conduct surveillance on Americans inside the U.S. — a reform process Taubman had covered as a reporter decades ago.
Former New York Times Washington correspondent Neil Lewis, who covered legal affairs, said Taubman and other editors should have known better. “Journalists aren’t supposed to rely on the government’s assurance that a secret program is legal,” Lewis told me. “On its face, the program violated the law, and had they bothered to check with any independent lawyer they would have learned that.”
Lewis added, “Even if all the government lawyers agreed it was legal, it should not have made any difference. That the administration lied about that aspect is irrelevant.”
The Times later brushed aside administration objections to publish a story by the two reporters on the SWIFT program, in which American officials secretly obtained access to vast troves of international banking records. Some of Risen and Lichtblau’s colleagues said the government had a stronger case that no domestic laws were being broken in the program and that harm could ensue from its disclosure. But the newspaper was no longer in a collaborative mood toward the government.
Baquet first joined The New York Times in 1990, rose to be national editor, and then left for the Los Angeles Times for six years, where he was managing editor and then briefly the editor-in-chief. He returned to The New York Times as Washington bureau chief in 2007 — well after the controversy over the Risen/Lichtblau project played out. He became managing editor in 2011 and then last month was named to lead the paper’s news divisions.
In Los Angeles, Baquet faced criticism that he had withheld a piece on the collaboration of the phone giant AT&T with intelligence officers in providing information about domestic calls. He said that story proved overly technical and difficult to verify; he said the subsequent New York Times article on the same subject proved vague and was buried inside the paper.
But in our interview, Baquet did say there were a few instances while he was managing editor in which he regretted holding back details from the public due to ominous warnings from intelligence officials over potential consequences. “The government makes it sound like something really large, and in retrospect, it wasn’t quite as large,” he said.
The Snowden revelations published in The Guardian and The Washington Post, he said, only underscored his conviction.
“I would love to be able to tell you it wasn’t good,” Baquet said. “But it was great. It was important, groundbreaking work. I wish we had it.”