Morning Report 12/17/05
Spying and Spinelessness

Stop the presses: It's another book deal.

Harkavy (image from the 1946 film Despotism)

I don't know what's worse: the New York Times's revelation yesterday that the National Security Agency is illegally spying on Americans or the New York Times's keeping secret in yesterday's revelation that there's a book deal involved.

Go ahead and read the fine coverage of this latest scandal at the formerly great paper by the Washington Post's Paul Farhi ("At the Times, A Scoop Deferred") and Salon's Tim Grieve ("How Long Did the Times Hold Its News?").

But here's something they don't have that you may have forgotten: James Risen, the reporter in the middle of this disgraceful episode of the paper's delaying this "scoop" for at least a year, was involved in a similar (and similarly hinky) deal three years ago with another U.S. spy agency, the CIA.

In fact, the CIA's copy desk wound up editing half of Risen's 2002 book The Main Enemy, as Allan Wolper reported nearly three years ago in Editor & Publisher. Wolper led his January 14, 2003, story with questions for the Times back then that are even more relevant today:

    What would Americans think if they knew that their best newspaper, the New York Times, had allowed one of its national-security reporters to negotiate a book deal that needed the approval of the CIA?

    What would they say if they knew the CIA was editing the book while the country is days or weeks away from a war with Iraq and is counting on the Times to monitor the intelligence agency?

    They would be properly horrified.

    One of the golden rules of journalism is that you can't let your source control your content. Another is that you must avoid making financial deals with the people you cover. The reasons are obvious. Reporters turn themselves into pretzels to prove their reporting isn't compromised. And their credibility becomes a casualty of their relationships.

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Good point then, and good point now. However, it's past time that we withdrew the "best newspaper" tag from the Times. Such labels are meaningless, but if you have to pick an overall best at timely digging under the surface of officialdom's news, you could paste the "best" label on either the Washington Post (except for Bob Woodward) or the Wall Street Journal. The Times is still perhaps the most influential, at least when it comes to the people who run other big-media newsrooms and TV outlets. But it's not the best.

Anyway, this is now, as the Washington Post reports this morning on the Times's long-delayed revelation yesterday of NSA domestic spying:

    The Times 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.

Exactly how long was the delay? The Times says "for a year," but is that more or less?

Come off it. It's clear that this story was ready for publication before the November 2004 election — and it could have changed the results.

Too bad the Times didn't delay its Judy Miller WMD stories back in 2002. Those carelessly published pieces of agitprop were rushed into print and fueled the fooling of American pols and public about the "need" to invade Iraq. If all it takes is a book deal to make the Times hold back publication of timely news, I would have scraped together some cash for Miller in '02.

Back to James Risen: To be fair to him, there are indications that he wasn't the one responsible for the delay in the Times's publishing the NSA story. Farhi's Post piece notes:

    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."

Outrageous, especially the crap from Keller.

The paper continues to make the tragic mistake of looking out for the administration's interests instead of guarding the public interest. That's why I derisively refer to the Times as our version of the Soviet-era Pravda — it's our establishment organ. The used-to-be-great paper, which still houses many fine reporters, has a thoroughly cavalier and snobbish attitude toward the public, as my colleague Paul Moses has noted in his exposé of the paper's slimy real-estate deal with New York City officials, and as I've noted in parsing even its purported ombudsman's snooty attitude toward readers.

There is no way that Bill Keller survives this episode. He was a short-termer when the Judy Miller crap really hit the fan a short time ago. Look for him to soon make what will be portrayed as a graceful exit from the Times.

Meanwhile, the mainstream media's mainstream protectors are circling the wagons, as Farhi's story notes, after giving us some more of Keller's bull:

    In the ensuing months [while the Times held onto the story], 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."

Bullshit, Rosenstiel. We already knew the "context." The "news peg" is the size of the Washington Monument. The Patriot Act, in its various incarnations, has been a bone of contention ever since 9/11 — especially concerning its provisions that allow the government to spy on its own citizens. American citizens who happened to be Muslims had already been swept off the streets by John Ashcroft.

The confirmation hearings nearly a year ago for Alberto Gonzales to replace Ashcroft would have been perfect timing for publication of the NSA spying story. But the Times couldn't have done it then, because there would have been an outcry about why it didn't publish only a few months earlier — before the November 2004 election.

As for the Times's desire not to hamper the U.S. government, the public would be better served if the paper focused instead on the several thousand unanswered questions about the government's downright strange relations with spies and terrorists who aren't American citizens.

One thing I'm referring to is our current CIA director, Porter Goss. On the morning of 9/11, as I pointed out in August 2004 (I didn't break the story), Goss was eating breakfast in D.C. with a Pakistani official who, as it turned out, had been the bag man for 9/11 hijacker Mohammed Atta.

I haven't seen much of anything about that. Guess we'll just have to wait for the book.


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