a citizen’s journal by Thomas Nephew

Risen and Lichtblau vs. Keller vs. Bush

Posted by Thomas Nephew on January 5th, 2009

On the occasion of Mark Felt’s (a.k.a. “Deep Throat” of Watergate) recent death, the Washington Post’s former executive editor Leonard Downie pondered whether breaking another Watergate story “could happen again,” and confidently concluded — what with prepaid cell phones, bloggers, whistleblower protection laws and all — that it could, and faster than ever: “Nixon was re-elected five months after the burglary in 1972, and Watergate was not much of an issue during the campaign. That would not happen today.”

But it did.

The NSA warrantless surveillance story —  lawbreaking arguably even more serious than Watergate, and also directly at presidential command — was ready to go before the 2004 election, but far from becoming the critical election issue it deserved to be, it was delayed for more than a year.

My timeline* of the events related to the NSA warrantless surveillance program and its reporting, and my rereading of a lot of secondary reporting, convince me that while there were many contributing factors to the Times’s failure, the most important ones boiled down to one thing: the news leadership at the  New York Times — executive editor Bill Keller, Washington bureau chief Philip Taubman — put an appeasing, fearful kind of politics ahead of reporting a critically important story.  Their own statements and actions indicate they were more concerned — much more concerned — with adapting to and accommodating events than in reporting them.

“There’s more there”

“There’s more there…. There’s talk of indictments over at the Justice Department. Whatever’s going on, there’s even talk that Ashcroft could be indicted.”
— Eric Lichtblau, “Bush’s Law,” p. 186-187,

Eric Lichtblau
Eric Lichtblau (standing, center), DCDL/firedoglake
“Bush’s Law”book discussion, 5/13/08.
Originally uploaded by Thomas Nephew.

Times reporter Eric Lichtblau says a tipster told him the above sometime in 2004; assuming that the tipster is in fact former Thomas Tamm, a recent Newsweek story by Michael Isikoff (“The Fed Who Blew the Whistle“) pinpoints the timing to “spring 2004” and “eighteen months before the [mid December, 2005] Times report.” While his name has been in the news at least since an FBI raid in 2007, Michael Isikoff’s December Newsweek story  confirmed Tamm was Lichtblau’s whistleblower; with elements of Isikoff’s story matching elements of both James Risen’s and Eric Lichtblau’s accounts.

As the “eighteen months” figure indicates, though, Tamm’s risky whistle-blowing took a long, long, long time to turn into the “Bush Lets U.S. Spy on Callers Without Courts” story Lichtblau and Risen published to the Internet on the evening of December 15, 2005.

It’s one of those interesting but unknowable questions how different things might have been if Tamm had known how to reach the man Isikoff reports was his first intended journalist — Seymour Hersh — instead of Lichtblau and the New York Times.  Maybe not much: by Lichtblau’s own fascinating account of the story (“Bush’s Law”), it also took fellow reporter James Risen’s insights and intelligence contacts and, ironically, details gleaned from interviews with high level administration officials for the two reporters to put a viable story before their editors by October, 2004.

If Hersh had been able to get those or similar high-level interviews, though, it seems likely he would have published a great deal sooner than those two reporters were able to.  That wasn’t Risen and Lichtblau’s fault, but that of their editors at the New York Times, who — in one of several stories put forward after publication — accepted the administration’s claim that national security would be compromised if the story went forward, without fully understanding that the legality of the NSA program was in question.  In a September 2006 New York Magazine article (“The United States v. Bill Keller“),  Joe Hagan describes an e-mail from the Times executive editor Bill Keller on the subject:

“Perhaps [the legality of the wiretaps] should have struck me earlier, perhaps it was clear to the reporters,” he writes. “In its original incarnation, I saw it as essentially a story about the methodology of counter terrorism.” In other words, Keller maintains that he did not originally grasp what the reporters considered the essence of their scoop.

“Benefit of the doubt”
Why did it take so long for the NSA warrantless surveillance story to be published?  Bill Keller also made this admission to Joe Hagan:

In one of our many conversations about the NSA story, [Keller] offered a highly unusual rationale for why it took fourteen months for the story to find its way into the paper: “There was an erosion of the administration’s credibility, not just with us, but with the public,” he said, “as more and more was revealed—including in the Times, by the way—about the use of intelligence in the run-up to the war.

“As time passed,” he added, “they’ve demonstrated that they’re entitled to somewhat less benefit of the doubt.”

But the case against the pre-war Iraq intelligence was clear much earlier than late 2005 — in fact, it was clear well before Keller spiked Lichtblau and Risen’s story before the 2004 election:  David Kay had quit looking for WMD in January of that year.  While a bitterly divided country would, in the aggregate, give Bush a temporary pass on the issue in November of 2004, Bush’s credibility was already severely eroded, whether on that topic or any other related to the “global war on terror,” “homeland security,” human rights, or civil liberties.

Keller has also hinted that the basis of the story was too thin in October 2004 — specifically, that by December, 2005, as he told New York Times Public Editor Byron Calame, Lichtblau and Risen “now had some new people who could in no way be characterized as disgruntled bureaucrats or war-on-terror doves saying we should publish. That was a big deal.”

Assuming, again, that Keller is referring to Tamm, it’s true Tamm was no “loyal Bushie” in the in the mold of other Dept. of Justice officials like Sara Taylor.  But he was also an ex-federal prosecutor, he was cleared to work in the highly sensitive OIPR.  And it’s important to remember he was right.  According to Isikoff, he stepped forward in May or June of 2004 without precise knowledge of but after the program’s March 2004 crisis, with its Godfather-like scene between Ashcroft, Gonzales, Comey, and Card in a Washington hospital.  So it’s plausible now that Tamm knew of rumblings at the Justice Department about the NSA program — rumblings that Lichtblau or Risen might have confirmed elsewhere.

Also, regardless of Tamm’s immediate credibility, he was not the only clue Risen and Lichtblau had.  Both in “Bush’s Law” and in comments to a book signing event last May, Lichtblau confirms that Risen had independently concluded there was a story involving new NSA surveillance methods; the reporting finally accelerated when the two journalists surmised that they were following the same story.

Four meetings in October
Moreover, Keller’s and (Times Washington bureau chief) Phil Taubman’s own actions in the run-up to spiking the story before the 2004 election show they knew they had a real story on their hands.  The two senior New York Times officials met no less than four times with senior White House and intelligence agency staff between the beginning of October, 2004 and the election.  Joe Hagan documents three of those meetings:

General Hayden, the NSA director, took [Taubman] on a personal tour of the agency’s headquarters and tried to impress upon him the importance of its secret programs. Taubman also met personally with then–national-security adviser Condoleezza Rice, a close friend of his for more than twenty years. Six months before the 2004 election, Taubman had thrown a lavish dinner party for Rice at his house in Washington.

Shortly after Taubman was briefed by the Bush administration, Keller himself met with Rice, Hayden, and others.

Why these three pre-election 2004 meetings if Keller and Taubman didn’t fully believe their own story?

The fourth meeting is less well known — even Lichtblau didn’t know about it when I asked him about it last May.  Keller and Taubman arranged to meet with Karl Rove and communications chief Dan Bartlett in Florida in late October of 2004, as reported in the February 2005 New Yorker article”Fear and Favor” by Nicholas Lemann.

To be sure, Rove may well not have been “read in” to the highly secret NSA program, and there’s no indication it was discussed per se at the Florida meeting.  But it didn’t need to be.  According to Lemann, Keller asked Rove “what he thought of the Times’ coverage” — and to Keller’s professed surprise, Rove had come to read the Times editors the riot act, ostensibly about campaign coverage and the quality of the Republican “ground game.”  Keller admitted to Lemann that

Your initial reaction, especially in someone as ferocious as Rove, is to drop into a defensive crouch. But I try not to do that. I listened, with a fair measure of skepticism, because a lot of it is calculated. But there was some genuineness to it. He went through a long litany of complaints. I do think he was channelling a feeling about the New York Times that’s out there in the land, that we should be concerned about, or at least aware of.

Whether or not Rove was in on the campaign by Hayden, Rice and others to squelch the NSA program story, whoever was quarterbacking that effort could not have been displeased with the result.  Whether by design or not, Rove (and his apparently silent witness Bartlett) may have landed the most effective punch of all against Lichtblau, Risen, and a nation’s right to know its laws and its Bill of Rights were being violated.  And Keller and Taubman, far from insulating their journalists from political pressure, had sought out their own verbal beatings by an acknowledged master of sharp-elbowed campaigning and dirty tricks.

Keller must also have been impressed with Rove’s preternatural confidence in the GOP 2004 campaign.  He could not have failed to calculate the consequences of publishing a story — just before a Bush win that now seemed more possible than it had a few hours earlier — that was much more politically explosive than the one the Times published three days later (“Huge Cache of Explosives Vanished From Site in Iraq“).

At any rate, the Times caved before the election, and on reconsideration immediately after the election still decided not to publish the story.  Over a year later, the Times finally published Risen and Lichtblau’s scoop on the NSA warrantless surveillance program.  Yet Keller’s numerous subsequent accounts notwithstanding, Hagan reports:

Colleagues describe Risen and Lichtblau as vehement that the story okayed in 2005 was not fundamentally different from the one that had been rejected in 2004.

“Probably inelegant”
What had really changed in the between November 2004 and December 2005?  There were two factors, one incontrovertible, the other more speculative.

James Risen
James Risen at DCDL/firedoglake
“Bush’s Law” book discussion by
Eric Lichtblau, 5/13/08.
Originally uploaded by Thomas Nephew.

First was the looming publication of a book by James Risen, eventually titled “State of War,” that would scoop the Times on the story, further tarnishing a news brand already reeling from Jayson Blair and Judith Miller. While Keller has gone back and forth on this, he told Hagan “I have tried to be careful never to say the Risen book was irrelevant. I’ve said it was a factor in reopening the discussion.” In interviews conducted with Frontline in mid- to late 2006,  Keller confirmed, “[Risen’s book] was a factor in the sense that it got the reporting going again.” For his part, Lichtblau characterizes Risen’s pending book as “a trigger” in prompting revival of the NSA program story — and after all, how many triggers does it take.

The second factor, I think, was Hurricane Katrina, its inundation of a great American city, the permanent collapse of the Bush administration’s approval ratings — and a “new feeling in the land” to channel, a “benefit of the doubt” that could finally be safely withheld.

Even so, the Times dithered so long over its decision — after renewed lobbying by figures including Bush himself — that it took a tip to Lichtblau that the White House was considering a “Pentagon Papers style injunction” against publishing the story for the Times to get off the dime and promptly publish to the Internet the same evening (December 15, 2005).

Thus, Keller’s and the Times’s many earlier statements to the contrary notwithstanding —

  • “The newspaper did additional reporting and eventually decided to publish the article despite the continuing objections of President Bush and other top officials.” (Scott Shane, New York Times, December 30, 2005)
  • “The publication was not timed to the Iraqi election, the Patriot Act debate, Jim’s forthcoming book or any other event.” (Keller, late December 2005 statement cited by Gabriel Sherman in The New Republic)
  • “…a complete answer to [why the story was delayed] would entail violating our promise to keep sources and conversations confidential.” (Keller, “Talk to the Newsroom,” April 14, 2006)

— the timing of publication of the NSA program story was more of a political estimate and a business choice than a news decision.

Add to that the original description of the delay, in the December 15/16 publication of “Bush Lets U.S. Spy on Callers Without Courts“: “the newspaper delayed publication for a year.” This was, of course, deceptive in that any reader would calculate the story had come to the Times after the election, when it had been ready to go at latest in the week before the election.  By mid 2006, Keller was finally ready to own up to that, too; in his own August 6, 2006 look at the issue, Times Public Editor Byron Calame wrote that Keller took responsibility for the “delayed for a year” wording, but allowed only that it was “probably inelegant.”

In remarks to a book discussion audience I attended in May, 2008 (see photos), Eric Lichtblau struck an almost resigned note about political pressures on big time journalism: “There’s a reason it’s called mainstream media; [it] doesn’t do well in periods of rapid change.” The established media’s role was more about “setting a global agenda,” Lichtblau explained.  When “everything changed” after an event like 9/11 — with its executive branch power grabs and enraged, shocked public opinion swings — those changes redefined the scope and range of what was investigated… and more importantly, what was published.

Four hundred days late and a free press short
The stories of the New York Times v. the Bush administration and Keller et al v. Lichtblau and Risen are located at a very specific intersection of personalities, politics, and institutions, and are sprinkled with at least a pinch of sheer random chance.  So maybe Downie is right — the Post, the LA Times, the other great American newspapers still publishing today would have got the story on our doorsteps if and when they had got it, not over a year later.

Or maybe he isn’t; it seems to me that the most damaging Bush administration news stories Downie can point to at his newspaper — Dana Priest’s published CIA “dark site” and Walter Reed scandal reporting, Barton Gellman’s Cheney series — were all published post-Katrina, when taking on the Bush administration was safe and fun for an executive editor to contemplate again.

But even if those stories were published without delay, the delay in publishing Lichtblau and Risen’s blockbuster story shows we can’t take that for granted. “A day late and a dollar short” doesn’t begin to cover it; 400 days late, untold tens of thousands of lawless, warrantless, unchecked pen register traces, phone log downloads, assorted unknown other wholesale invasions of privacy, and a timely, untrammeled free press short is more like it.  We may wish that good reporting and journalism could triumph again, as they once did for the Watergate scandal.  But when the chips were down in 2004, they didn’t — with untold consequences for an election, a democracy, American journalism, and a muted, mooted Constitution.

* In that timeline, press-related events are color coded tan (for reporting) and light green (for post-publication statements by editors).  For more on the timeline, see “FISA in the Bush years — a timeline“; for all timeline-related posts, see “fisatimeline.”

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