Critics Question Timing of Surveillance Story

Times Staff Writer

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.

The Times report has created a furor in Washington, with politicians in both parties and civil libertarians saying that President Bush was wrong to authorize the surveillance by the National Security Agency without permission from a special court.

Bush and his supporters have fired back, saying that the eavesdropping was needed to protect Americans after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. On Monday, the president called the public reports on the once-secret surveillance “shameful.”

Politicians, journalists and Internet commentators have feverishly aired the debate over the timing of the New York Times story in the last four days -- 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 -- 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 -- in which Iraq and national security questions loomed large -- 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.

Times management and journalists reacted with particular disgust to the claim, put forward by Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas) over the weekend, that the story had been held, in part, “as part of a marketing campaign for selling the [Risen] book.”

Risen declined to comment on any aspect of the story, but one of his colleagues called the allegation absurd.

Keller said in his statement that the Times had given Risen a leave to write the book but that the paper “otherwise has no connection to it.”

Simon & Schuster Inc., the book’s publisher, is not owned by the New York Times Co.

Daniel Okrent, the former public editor at the New York Times, said the disclosure of wiretaps without court authority was an important story and one the newspaper deserved plaudits for bringing into the public debate.

But the story also put the newspaper in a difficult position, he said.

“You are damned if you do and damned if you don’t,” said Okrent, who often wrote critical reviews of the Times before leaving in May to write a book. “For the right, this information never should have come out. And for the left, it never could have come out early enough.”

Kathleen Hall Jamieson, director of the Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania, said readers would like to have more information to judge why the paper waited more than a year to publish the story.

“If the concerns were strong enough they didn’t run the story, then it puts them in a very difficult position when it comes time to explain” because the newspaper had determined that it could not reveal many of the details for national security reasons, Jamieson said.

Nonetheless, Jamieson called on the paper to be as transparent as possible to explain the delay because it had an obligation “to make sure all possible information was available to voters before the election, as long as that information did not jeopardize national security.”

Although some Democratic commentators have suggested news of secret, extra-judicial wiretaps would have been a political blow against Bush, Jamieson said too little was known about the surveillance program to draw conclusions.

“It’s possible it plays out in a way that favors the Bush administration too,” she said. “We just can’t know that yet.”