There is a lot to chew over in Ben Smith’s deep dive into The Washington Post, which — like news (and non-news) organizations everywhere — is struggling with issues of diversity. But let me keep the focus narrow here, because Smith leads with a blockbuster anecdote about something that unfolded during Brett Kavanaugh’s Supreme Court confirmation hearings in 2018. Smith writes in The New York Times:
Bob Woodward, the Post legend who protected the identity of his Watergate source, Deep Throat, for 30 years, was going to unmask one of his own confidential sources. He was, in particular, going to disclose that Judge Kavanaugh had been an anonymous source in his 1999 book “Shadow: Five Presidents and the Legacy of Watergate.”
Mr. Woodward was planning to expose Mr. Kavanaugh because the judge had publicly denied — in a huffy letter in 1999 to The Post — an account about Kenneth Starr’s investigation of President Bill Clinton that he had himself, confidentially, provided to Mr. Woodward for his book. (Mr. Kavanaugh served as a lawyer on Mr. Starr’s team.)
What Kavanaugh allegedly did pretty much defines one of the circumstances under which a reporter might consider exposing an anonymous source: he told the truth (apparently) to Woodward and then lied about it in public. And the stakes were high, as Woodward’s story, if published, could have presented yet another obstacle to Kavanaugh’s confirmation.
But executive editor Marty Baron intervened, according to Smith: “Mr. Baron and other editors persuaded Mr. Woodward that it would be bad for The Post and ‘bad for Bob’ to disclose a source, one of the journalists told me. The piece never ran.”
Among those siding with Baron is Matt Storin, his predecessor as editor of The Boston Globe, where Baron served for nearly more than a decade before moving to the Post. “I’m not in a position to render judgment on a lot of this piece, but @PostBaron absolutely did the right thing on the Woodward issue, supporting any reporter in the future who needs an anonymous source,” Storin tweeted.
I'm not in a position to render judgment on a lot of this piece, but @PostBaron absolutely did the right thing on the Woodward issue, supporting any reporter in the future who needs an anonymous source. https://t.co/2vTHziEbS9
I agree with Storin — and, thus, with Baron. Unless Woodward promised Kavanaugh he’d keep his identity confidential only if he subsequently told the truth in public about their exchange, then Woodward had no business breaking their agreement. It’s a tough call, and the fact that someone of Woodward’s stature wanted to go the other way shows that good people can differ on this. But Woodward, pressured by Baron, ultimately did the right thing.
It’s not like Kavanaugh is the first source to tell a reporter one thing in confidence and then say something else publicly. It’s happened to me, and I’m sure most reporters would tell you the same thing. But that’s one of the risks you take when grant anonymity to someone.
We are in the midst of a book-inspired frenzy over Donald Trump’s the cruelty and mendacity. The legendary journalist Bob Woodward’s latest, “Fear: Trump in the White House,” has renewed our anguished questions over how this petulant, foul-mouthed racist could be elected president.
But though Woodward has described the what and the how of the Trump presidency, we must look elsewhere for the why. Trump did not spring out of nowhere; we had been slouching in his direction for a long time. As former president Barack Obama put it the other day: “It did not start with Donald Trump. He is a symptom, not the cause.” But a symptom of what, exactly?
Attempting to give us some answers is Michiko Kakutani. Her new book, “The Death of Truth: Notes on Falsehood in the Age of Trump,” provides some much-needed context to help us understand what happened to our democracy. The tools wielded by Kakutani, the former weekday book critic for The New York Times, are deep reading and cultural criticism. The result is not entirely satisfying. But she does offer some provocative observations the about social changes that made Trump not just possible, but inevitable. She writes:
It is unlikely that a candidate who had already been exposed during the campaign for his history of lying and deceptive business practices would have gained such popular support were portions of the public not somehow blasé about truth telling and were there not more systemic problems with how people get their information and how they’ve come to think in increasingly partisan terms.
Some of Kakutani’s targets are familiar. The internet, she argues, is partly responsible for a rise in anti-intellectualism that manifests itself in contempt for expertise and an embrace of “the wisdom of the crowd.” In an online universe in which scientific knowledge is too often regarded as elitist, anti-vaxxers and climate-change deniers flourish in their ignorance.
Kakutani is also sharp in her observations about how the media have shifted from a few outlets speaking with authority to a myriad of competing voices catering to every conceivable ideology, with audiences increasingly trapped inside filter bubbles determined by algorithms that we don’t understand.
Oddly enough, Kakutani blames some of these cultural changes on postmodernism, an academic theory generally associated with the left. The essence of postmodernism, Kakutani explains, is that “there are no universal truths, only smaller personal truths — perceptions shaped by the cultural and social forces of one’s day.” This type of thinking, she argues, has since been adopted by the right. It certainly can be seen in President Trump’s use of the term “fake news” to describe journalism he doesn’t like, or in the toxic fiction that Fox News and Breitbart are simply conservative counterparts to the Times and The Washington Post. But it’s hard to draw a connection between an esoteric academic theory and the outrageous conspiracies promoted by the likes of Alex Jones.
The firehose of disturbing news that comes out of the Trump White House on a daily basis is overwhelming. Bob Woodward’s book was preceded by a similar if less credible book by Michael Wolff, “Fire and Fury.” Many of the details offered by Woodward, in turn, were almost immediately confirmed by an anonymous op-ed piece in the Times, written by a “high official” in the administration. The talk these days is of the 25th Amendment and “Crazytown,” of documents filched off Trump’s desk to prevent him from signing them and of obscenity-laced rants demanding that his generals assassinate adversaries like Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad.
At such a chaotic moment, Kakutani’s broader perspective is invaluable. She opens with Hannah Arendt’s warning that totalitarianism arises not from committed ideologues but from “people for whom the distinction between fact and fiction … no longer exist.” And she closes with the late media scholar Neil Postman, who is rapidly becoming the Tocqueville of our era. Postman’s 1980s classic, “Amusing Ourselves to Death,” predicted much of what is unfolding today by examining the effect of television on the public discourse. Kakutani quotes Postman: “Our priests and presidents, our surgeons and lawyers, our educators and newscasters need worry less about satisfying the demands of their discipline than the demands of good showmanship.”
Trump is nothing if not a showman — literally, as he has transitioned from reality-show star to reality-show president. There is little that is real or truthful about reality shows, and there is little that is real or truthful about the Trump presidency. In Kakutani’s telling, the lies that are at the heart of this malign enterprise are not a problem that could be corrected but, rather, their defining feature. It is a dispiriting conclusion, but these are the times in which we live.
Two Fridays ago the 37-year-old New York Times publisher met with President Trump at the White House for what he thought was an off-the-record discussion. Trump, as is his wont, later tweeted out his own dubious version of what had happened. “Spent much time talking about the vast amounts of Fake News being put out by the media & how that Fake News has morphed into phrase, ‘Enemy of the People,’” the president wrote. “Sad!”
Had a very good and interesting meeting at the White House with A.G. Sulzberger, Publisher of the New York Times. Spent much time talking about the vast amounts of Fake News being put out by the media & how that Fake News has morphed into phrase, “Enemy of the People.” Sad!
Which created a dilemma for Sulzberger. Should he act as though their off-the-record agreement was still in effect? Or should he push back at what he regarded as the president’s false characterization of their conversation? He chose the latter.
“I told the president directly that I thought that his language was not just divisive but increasingly dangerous,” Sulzberger said in a statement he issued this past Sunday, which the Times itself reported on. “I told him that although the phrase ‘fake news’ is untrue and harmful, I am far more concerned about his labeling journalists ‘the enemy of the people,’ I warned that this inflammatory language is contributing to a rise in threats against journalists and will lead to violence.”
Sulzberger’s reaction set exactly the right tone. By disclosing what he had said but not what Trump had said, he took the high road. But the Times also reported that Sulzberger and editorial-page editor James Bennet, who was also at the meeting, took “extensive notes” — a clear warning to Trump in the event that he decides to extend his Twitter war with the paper.
Sulzberger became publisher on Jan. 1. He was the latest member of Sulzberger-Ochs family to ascend to the top of the masthead, an unbroken chain that extends back to Adolph Ochs’ purchase of the Times in 1896. His father and predecessor, Arthur Sulzberger Jr., presided over the paper to mixed reviews. As Ken Auletta put it in a tough New Yorker profile in 2005, “Although he occupies perhaps the most august position in the nation’s press establishment, he seems to lack the weighty seriousness of his predecessors.”
A.G., by contrast, has struck observers as both serious and wise beyond his years. “The publisher of the Times sits in direct contrast to the president of the United States: demure, private, vegetarian, self-effacing, and reliant on proving himself through hard work rather than trading on his famous surname,” according to The Washington Post.
The lead author of the Times’ celebrated 2014 innovation report, A.G. is perhaps the ideal publisher to continue the paper’s metamorphosis into a primarily digital news organization. And unlike virtually all of his predecessors, he has a significant background in journalism, having worked as a reporter for The Providence Journal, The Oregonian, and the Times itself.
The Times is far from perfect. Though its coverage of the Trump White House has been admirably tough, the paper still lapses — as I wrote last January — into episodes of normalizing this abnormal president and of succumbing too readily to the temptations of access journalism. For instance, a substance-free story about Ivanka Trump and Jared Kushner that appeared over the weekend was widely derided, with New York University journalism professor Jay Rosen writing that “it feels like a report smuggled out of the summer castle after the ladies in waiting started talking.”
But the continued health of the Times is crucial to democracy. So far, A.G. Sulzberger seems like the right person at the right time to stand up to the Trump White House as well as for journalistic values.
Squint really hard and you can almost see a silver lining
A report issued Monday by the Pew Research Center documents the horrifying drop in newsroom employment over the past 10 years, with newspapers having by far the worst of it. The number of full-time newspaper journalists fell from 71,000 in 2008 to 39,000 in 2017, a decline of 45 percent. A modest increase in the number of journalists at digital-only outlets did not come close to making up the difference.
I’m not going to try to sugarcoat what’s happening. And we should always keep in mind that greedy corporate owners like Digital First and tronc are at least as responsible for the drop as the collapse of newspaper advertising. But I do want to offer a small countervailing data point: Because of technology, reporters today are far more efficient and can produce more useful work in the same amount of time than was previously possible.
A couple of examples from my own career will suffice. When I was a community newspaper reporter in the 1980s, I had to drive to Beacon Hill for campaign-finance reports. Once I had them, my options were to take notes by hand or, if I had enough quarters, make copies, assuming the copy machine was working. (And imagine if you worked in Western Massachusetts rather than 12 miles from Boston, as I did.) Now you can just look them up. Later, as the media columnist for The Boston Phoenix, I once spent an entire afternoon searching through unindexed microfilm for a half-remembered article that I wanted to write about. Today, I would have it in a few minutes.
Again, I’m not trying to argue that the collapse of newsrooms doesn’t matter. It matters a lot, and of course there’s no substitute for having actual human beings to sit through municipal meetings and develop sources. What I am saying is that the effects of this collapse would be even worse without the digital tools that have become available over the past 20 years.
Woodward and Bernstein back on the beat
How cosmically appropriate is it that just as special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into the Trump campaign and related issues nears its conclusion (or not), the two legendary Washington Post reporters who did more than anyone to bring down the Nixon presidency are back on the beat?
Carl Bernstein was one of three CNN reporters whose byline appeared on a devastating report that, according to former Trump lawyer Michael Cohen, the then-candidate knew in advance about a 2016 meeting at Trump Tower at which Russians had promised to reveal “dirt” on Hillary Clinton. And this week we learned that Bob Woodward is wrapping up a book called “Fear: Trump in the White House,” scheduled to be released on Sept. 11.
As I always tell my students: Everything — everything — can be traced back to Richard Nixon.
More than 40 years after he resigned as president, Richard Nixon remains the lodestar for political skullduggery. And so it was when Donald Trump threatened to retaliate against Washington Post owner Jeff Bezos in response to news that the Post is siccing 20 reporters on Trump to look into every aspect of his life and career.
Details about the Post’s Trump project, which will include a book, emanated from the lips of Post associate editor Bob Woodward, a twist that made it all the more cosmically significant. For it was Woodward, along with fellow Post reporter Carl Bernstein, who helped end Nixon’s presidency in 1974—but not before the Post had endured some fearsome attacks from the Nixon White House that threatened not just the newspaper but the First Amendment’s guarantee of a free press.
As you may have heard, Bezos’s day job is running Amazon, the online retailing behemoth that he founded. Trump, the presumptive Republican presidential nominee, told Fox News host Sean Hannity that Amazon has “a huge antitrust problem” and “is getting away with murder, tax-wise.” He added that Bezos is “using the Washington Post for power so that the politicians in Washington don’t tax Amazon like they should be taxed.”
Never mind that there is zero evidence for Trump’s accusation. His implied threat was utterly Nixonian in its stark assertion that he’d use the powers of government to harm Bezos in retaliation for journalism that he doesn’t like.
The roots of Nixon’s hatred for the Post extend back to the 1950s. David Halberstam, in his book The Powers That Be, wrote that it began over the cartoonist Herbert Block. Herblock, as he was known, regularly portrayed Nixon as a malign figure with a perpetual five-o’clock shadow, and his work was syndicated in hundreds of papers around the country. According to Halberstam, Herblock’s cartoons “became part of Nixon’s permanent dossier, reflecting all the public doubts and questions about him.”
It wasn’t until the 1970s, though, that Nixon attempted to translate that anger into action. In 1971, the Post joined the New York Times in publishing the Pentagon Papers, the government’s secret history of the Vietnam War, which showed that American officials had continued the fighting out of political cowardice for years after concluding that it was unwinnable.
According to then-publisher Katharine Graham in her autobiography, Personal History, the Nixon White House issued “a not very veiled threat” that the paper might face a criminal prosecution if it didn’t turn over its copy of the Pentagon Papers to the government. At the time, the Post was on the verge of becoming a publicly traded company, and it would have been devastating to the paper’s plan to raise money from the stock market if it had been convicted of a crime. And as my fellow WGBH News contributor Harvey Silverglate wrote for the Phoenix newspapers some years back, the Nixon administration actually considered prosecuting the Times and the Post even after the Supreme Court ruled in favor of the papers’ right to publish.
Woodward and Bernstein’s reporting on the Watergate scandal brought about perhaps the most infamous threat ever made against a newspaper. When Bernstein asked Nixon henchman John Mitchell to comment on a particularly damaging story, Mitchell responded: “Katie Graham’s gonna get her tit caught in a big fat wringer if that’s published.” More substantively, Nixon allies arose from the swamp to challenge the Post’s ownership of two television stations in Florida—challenges that faded away once Nixon had resigned from office.
“Henry Kissinger told me he felt that Nixon had always hated the Post,” Graham wrote, quoting Kissinger as saying of Nixon: “He was convinced that the Post had it in for him.” As Graham described it, the Post’s reporting on Nixon during the Watergate years became an existential crisis. If the paper hadn’t been able to prove Nixon’s involvement in the Watergate break-in and related crimes and thus force Nixon from office, the Post itself would have been destroyed.
Although the showdown between Nixon and the Post is the most dramatic example of the government’s attempting to destroy its journalistic adversaries, it is not the only one.
In the early days of World War II, after Colonel Robert McCormick’s Chicago Tribune reported that the United States may have cracked Japanese codes, President Franklin Roosevelt considered trying McCormick for treason, which could have resulted in the death penalty. FDR was talked out of it only because his advisers convinced him that such a drastic measure would only serve to alert the Japanese.
More recently, President George W. Bush’s Justice Department raised the possibility that the New York Times and the Washington Post could be prosecuted under espionage laws for reporting on a National Security Agency surveillance program (the Times) and on the rendition of terrorism suspects to countries that engage in torture (the Post).
And, of course, there is President Barack Obama’s relentless pursuit of government officials who leak information to the media—a pursuit that has ensnared a number of journalists, including James Risen of the New York Times. Risen fought the government for seven years so that he wouldn’t have to reveal the identity of the sources who had told him how the CIA had sought to wreak havoc with Iran’s nuclear program. Last year Risen called the Obama administration “the greatest enemy of press freedom in a generation.”
But note that Roosevelt’s, Bush’s, and Obama’s attacks on the press were grounded in legitimate concerns about national security, misguided though Bush may have been and Obama may be. (It’s hard to argue with FDR’s fury at McCormick, whose actions would not be protected by even the most expansive reading of the First Amendment.)
By contrast, Trump, like Nixon during Watergate, would go after the press purely for personal reasons—not by denouncing the media (or, rather, not just by denouncing the media) but by abusing his powers as president. Bring negative information to light about Nixon and you might lose your television stations. Report harshly on Trump and your tax status might be threatened—and you may even face an antitrust suit.
This is the way authoritarians reinforce their power—through fear and intimidation, the rule of law be damned. Despite all the benefit he has received in the form of free media, Trump hates the press. He has threatened to rewrite the libel laws, and now he’s threatened the owner of one of our great newspapers.
Trump is a menace on so many levels that it’s hard to know where to begin. But we can add this: Like Nixon, he is a threat to the First Amendment, our most important tool in holding the government accountable to the governed.
Is The Washington Post “more authoritative” than The New York Times? You might expect investigative reporting legend Bob Woodward to say so. After all, Woodward has spent nearly his entire career at the Post, and institutional loyalty runs deep.
Still, Woodward’s remarks — delivered at a stop on his latest book tour Tuesday night in Harvard Square — come at a time when they’re likely to garner more attention than they otherwise might. Amazon founder Jeff Bezos, who bought the Post from the Graham family nearly two years ago, is sinking money and resources into the paper. And media analysts like Ken Doctor are saying that the Post is making its first serious run at the Times in many years.
Asked by a member of the audience about changes in the media business, Woodward responded with an unsolicited paean to Bezos. “I think he’s helping us as a business,” Woodward said. “It’s a better website. I find things much more authoritative, quite frankly, than The New York Times, to be honest.”
And when asked by his interlocutor, Washington insider-turned-Harvard academic David Gergen, whether newspapers remain committed to investigative reporting, Woodward replied: “I know The Washington Post is, because I asked Jeff Bezos. He has the money. We talked about this. He said I could quote him on this, and I will. He said, ‘Rest assured, Marty’ — Baron, the editor — ‘will have the resources he needs.’”
Woodward will forever be remembered as one-half of the twentysomething reporting duo (with Carl Bernstein) who broke open the Watergate story and brought down Richard Nixon’s presidency. Now a no-longer-boyish 72, Woodward was on hand to promote his latest book, “The Last of the President’s Men.” In it, Woodward tells the story of Alexander Butterfield, the Nixon aide who revealed the existence of the White House taping system before a congressional committee, thus providing the evidence that Nixon really was a crook.
Several hundred people crowded into the First Parish Church for Woodward’s reading, sponsored by the Harvard Book Store. The book is based on some 40 hours’ worth of interviews Woodward conducted with Butterfield, as well as a trove of documents. Butterfield, Woodward said, provided invaluable insights into the inner workings of the Nixon White House, especially of the early years. “For two years, there was no taping system,” he said. “In a sense Butterfield became the tape recorder.”
The event began on a light-hearted note, with Gergen — who served four presidents, including Nixon — asking, “When did you all sense that you were on to something much bigger than you’d thought?” Woodward’s response: “When Nixon resigned.”
The conversation, though, took a darker turn as Woodward described Nixon’s prosecution of the Vietnam War. Perhaps the most disturbing revelation in “The Last of the President’s Men” is that Nixon ordered more and more bombs to be dropped during 1972 — the year he was up for re-election — even though he secretly acknowledged it had accomplished “zilch.” The reason, Woodward said, was that polling showed the bombing campaign was popular with the American public.
“It’s close to a war crime,” Woodward said.
Equally nauseating was Nixon’s response to journalist Seymour Hersh’s revelation in 1969 that American troops had massacred civilians in the village of My Lai. Nixon ordered Butterfield to go after everyone involved in exposing it, including the soldier who blew the whistle, Life and Time magazines and a perceived enemy who Woodward said was described by Nixon as “a liberal Jew.”
The mood brightened considerably when Gergen asked Woodward how he would go about investigating the leading 2016 presidential candidates, Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton. Woodward said he would talk about Trump first, and then brought down the house with this: “Can we ask the audience a question? How many people want the next president to be somebody who has no touch with reality?”
As for Clinton, Woodward turned the tables and questioned Gergen.
Woodward: “You worked with her.”
Gergen: “I did.”
Woodward: “Do you trust her?”
Gergen paused before answering: “I have found — I don’t think she — I don’t think she tells lies. I think she’s careful with the truth.”
Woodward, after the laughs had faded away: “You didn’t get to work for all these presidents for no reason.”
Notwithstanding Woodward’s enthusiasm for Jeff Bezos’ ownership of the Post, his talk was, in some respects, an elegy for the kind of journalism Woodward represents. Whether you prefer the Post or the Times, at their best they stand for a rigor that often seems to be on the wane.
For all the faults of the 1970s-era press, there was something approaching a national consensus that made it possible for a story like Watergate to keep building. These days, the media are too fragmented, with too many so-called news outlets aligned with partisan interests. Fox News chief Roger Ailes would release his flying monkeys to go after the liberal media and it would all end in a standoff.
Though Woodward’s establishment-oriented journalism is sometimes criticized, including by none other than the aforementioned Hersh, he nevertheless represents something important: the power of the press to do good through thorough, indefatigable reporting aimed at rooting out the truth rather than serving some ideological cause.
Thanks for the assist from Kylie Ayal, a third-year journalism student at Boston University, who supplied me with a copy of her audio file of the event after I managed to erase mine by mistake.
I’m most of the way through Robert Caro’s “The Passage of Power,” the latest in his series of Lyndon Johnson biographies. And I’ve been struck by his description of John F. Kennedy’s governing style, and of the similarities to President Obama.
What they share is a daunting intelligence; level-headedness in moments of confusion and anxiety, which served them in good stead when high-stakes foreign-policy decisions had to be made quickly (the Cuban missile crisis, the raid on Osama bin Laden’s compound); and the ability to give a terrific speech, undermined to some degree by their aloof detachment.
The downside? Kennedy comes across as utterly clueless in working the levers of power with Congress, a failing he shares with Obama. Yes, it often appears that the Republicans are going to say no to Obama regardless of what he proposes. But Caro describes a coalition of Republicans and conservative southern Democrats in the early 1960s that was no less intractable than the Tea Party Republicans of today.
Kennedy, Caro writes, concluded that working with Congress was hopeless as he watched his tax-cut bill and civil-rights legislation go nowhere. But when Johnson became president, he engaged in a combination of cajoling, flattery and threats that he mastered in the 1950s as Senate majority leader. What Kennedy had seen as the pragmatic acceptance of reality turned out to be a rationalization of his own shortcomings.
Could Obama have gotten more than he has from Mitch McConnell, John Boehner and Eric Cantor? It seems unlikely. But given Bob Woodward’s description of the president’s hapless dealings with the Republican leadership, perhaps a leader more willing to engage with the opposition could have had better results.
Not to get carried away. It’s hard to imagine a better schmoozer in the White House than Bill Clinton. Yet his tax plan was approved without a single Republican vote — and on health care, Obama succeeded where Clinton failed. (I enjoyed Clinton’s speech last week as much as anyone, but his invocation of the 1990s as a time of bipartisan cooperation was pure fiction. I assume the Big Dog hasn’t forgotten that he was impeached for his personal behavior.)
Still, it’s interesting to think about how the past four years might have been different if Obama was a little less JFK and a little more LBJ.
Photo via Wikimedia Commons, from the U.S. Department of State in the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum, Boston.
Leading news figures this weekend blasted expanding investigations of national-security leaks, detailed the dilemma of dealing with confidential sources and offered ways to restore credibility in a media universe that merges fact with fiction.
New York Times executive editor Jill Abramson said the Obama administration’s widening probes have created an “urgent” problem because it has a “chilling effect” on confidential sources. She said the current Washington environment “has never been tougher and [confidential] information harder to dislodge.”
She said the attorney general’s latest attempts to ferret out leakers raise the question of whether the U.S. Espionage Act “is being used as a substitute for” Britain’s wide-ranging Official Secrets Act.
Using the Espionage Act, the current administration is pursuing six leak-related criminal cases. That’s twice as many as all previous administrations combined brought since the act was passed in 1917 to punish anyone who “knowingly and willfully” passes on information that hurts the country or helps a foreign power “to the detriment of the United States.”
The Official Secrets Act makes it unlawful to disclose information relating to defense, security and intelligence, international relations, intelligence gained from other departments or international organizations and intelligence useful to criminals.
Alluding to recent Times stories about U.S. drone strikes and computer attacks aimed at Iran’s nuclear infrastructure, Abramson said the government’s policy on cyber warfare is an important subject about which the public needs to know.
The vast majority of her paper’s national-security disclosures come from “old-fashioned shoe-leather reporting” and not from leaks, she said. And before they run, she said, “We give all responsible officials a chance to reply” and will hold or cut information if they raise a legitimate security objection.
Times media columnist David Carr called the government investigations an “appalling” attempt to restrict information about significant issues.
“Whistle-blowers aren’t scarce but the people who blow them are,” he said, citing as an example the indictment of a National Security Agency worker who told a Baltimore Sun reporter about a failed technology program.
Before the assassination of Anwar al-Awlaki slips off the media’s radar screen, I hope we insist on one important question being answered: What, precisely, did Awlaki do to warrant his being killed by American forces?
I am not particularly concerned with Awlaki’s U.S. citizenship. He left the United States and joined a terrorist organization, Al Qaeda, against which the United States essentially declared war in 2001. As Bob Woodward reported in the Washington Post 10 years ago:
Since the Ford administration, all presidents have signed an executive order banning the CIA or any other U.S. government agency from involvement in political assassination. Generally speaking, lawyers for the White House and the CIA have said that the ban does not apply to wartime when the military is striking the enemy’s command and control or leadership targets.
And as Scott Wilson wrote in the Post on Friday, “citizenship is not a factor in determining whether a person can be lawfully killed under the laws of war.”
But I think we ought to know whether Awlaki was merely a propagandist for terror or if, as U.S. officials contend, he was actually involved in planning and operations. If any evidence has been released, I haven’t seen it.
Scott Shane wrote in the New York Times on Friday that Awlaki “participated in plots to blow up a Detroit-bound airliner in 2009 and to bomb two cargo planes last year” and “was fighting alongside the enemy in the armed conflict with Al Qaeda.” If those statements are true, I think the White House owes it to us — and to the world — to release whatever proof it has gathered.