NYT Public Editor Margaret Sullivan attempts to tell the story of why the NYT held the illegal wiretap story before the 2004 election. Amid comments from the main players, she effectively admits that the NYT only published in 2005 because James Risen’s A State of War was about to come out.
Michael V. Hayden, who was the director of the N.S.A. and later the director of the Central Intelligence Agency, told me in an interview that he argued strenuously against publication, right up until the moment when The Times decided to go ahead. His rationale: “That this effort was designed to intercept threatening communication” and to prevent another terrorist attack.
In the end, The Times published the story with a couple of guns held to its head: First, the knowledge that the information in the article was also contained in a book by Mr. Risen, “State of War,” whose publication date was bearing down like a freight train. Second, at the end, the word of a possible injunction against publishing, Mr. Risen said, provided a final push: “It was like a lightning bolt.” (Mr. Hayden said that would not have happened: “Prior restraint was never in the cards.”)
Like a game of chicken played on a high wire, it remains “the most stressful and traumatic time of my life,” Mr. Risen recalls. Although The Times later said that further reporting strengthened the story enough to justify publishing it, few doubt that Mr. Risen’s book was what took an essentially dead story and revived it in late 2005. “Jim’s book was the driving force,” Mr. Lichtblau said.
Sullivan doesn’t mention another part of the story: that shortly after the NYT accused Risen of violating their ethics policy because he did not tell the NYT his book covered topics he had reported on for the paper — not just the illegal wiretap program, but also MERLIN, the attempt to stall the Iranian nuclear program by dealing them faulty blueprints. He had apparently told them he was writing a book on George Tenet.
When that news broke in early 2006, I concluded that Risen probably used the threat of scooping the NYT, and a nondisclosure agreement, to actually get the illegal wiretap program into the paper.
Let’s assume for a moment I’m correct in understanding the NYT spokesperson to be suggesting that Risen violated those ethical guidelines by publishing this book. Here’s the scenario such an accusation seems to spell out. (Speculation alert.) Risen attempted to publish both the NSA wiretap story and the Iran nuclear bomb story in 2004. NYT editors refused both stories. Then, in 2005 Risen takes book leave (and I should say that the NYT’s book leave policy is one of the best benefits it offers its writers), misleading his editors about the content of the book. Once he returns, his editors hear rumors that the book actually features the NSA wiretap story. Only in the face of imminent publication of the book do they reconsider publishing the wiretap story. Continue reading