By Dan Kennedy • The press, politics, technology, culture and other passions

Questions about the spying story

Paul Fahri of the Washington Post today sheds a bit of light on the New York Times’ decision to wait a year before publishing yesterday’s blockbuster article that the Bush administration has been using the National Security Agency (“No Such Agency”) to conduct no-warrant wiretapping inside the United States.

Fahri notes that Times executive editor Bill Keller, in a statement, made no reference to the fact that the information will be included in a forthcoming book by James Risen, the lead reporter on yesterday’s story. Drudge was much taken with this, suggesting that the Times was helping to promote Risen’s book, “State of War,” at the expense of national security.

It’s hard to take Drudge seriously. At the same time, I’m sure that Keller didn’t want to be scooped by his own reporter’s book. So it’s not inconceivable that the book had something to do with Keller’s decision to break his paper’s year-long silence.

Here is a key passage in Fahri’s Post article:

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.”

In the ensuing months, 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.”

Here are some questions that Keller should answer — like today, on Byron Calame’s rarely updated blog, or tomorrow on NBC’s “Meet the Press.” To wit:

1. You’ve said that you delayed publication out of national-security considerations and to conduct more reporting. Which was more important? If you knew then what you know now, would you have gone to press a year ago?

2. One of the Times’ more shameful historical moments took place in 1961, when it held back on the details of the forthcoming Bay of Pigs invasion. (The Times actually published a lot more at the time than the myth-makers would have it, but never mind.) If the lesson of that episode was that journalists should not hop into bed with the White House, why is this different?

3. Conversely, if you really did have serious national-security concerns about publishing this story a year ago, have things really changed that much? Or were you influenced by the looming publication date of Risen’s book?

Of course, President Bush has a lot more to explain than Keller does. Bush didn’t even begin to do that in his interview with Jim Lehrer last night. Here is one question for Bush that has been bugging me since I read Risen’s story yesterday: As Risen describes it, the administration could have done all the domestic spying it wanted to if it had simply directed the FBI to obtain warrants from a secret court under the terms of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA). Such warrants are rarely turned down.

Therefore, the White House’s decision to conduct such searches through the NSA rather than the FBI, without a warrant, suggests one of two possibilities: (1) the reasoning behind the spying requests was so dubious that administration officials didn’t dare approach even a normally compliant FISA judge; or (2) as Scott Shane writes in today’s Times, administration officials — and particularly Vice President Dick Cheney — are so obsessed with extending the power of the presidency that they’d rather stretch the law to (or past) the breaking point than follow the rules.

Another fiasco. And judging from the initial reaction, this one isn’t going to get swallowed up in the media miasma.

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  1. Lis Riba

    One further question. I tend to assume phrases like “one year ago” are estimates. How much of this story did they have before the presidential election?

  2. Bill Baar

    It was certainly timed for the book and extension of the patriot act.It didn’t take a court order to for Venona to wade through American Citizen and Communist Party USA Chairman Gus Hall’s messages to Moscow. I’m not 100% certain NSA needed one to wade through Arabic language traffice between the US and whereever and not certain how they would figure out which intercept invovled a US citizen or not.Nothing captured this way would be useful in court either. It would all be thrown out.What ever is gained this way only protects an Amercian from legal action by contaminationg any evidence. It’s only useful in the context of wratime intelligence.My take.

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