NYT’s ombud, Margaret Sullivan, dedicated her column today to whether the NYT should have done a story on The Intercept’s drone package a few weeks back. She concludes that given the NYT’s extensive coverage of this issue, it’s reasonable they gave the story just a mention, though suggests maybe they should give it more than that going forward.
I’m particularly interested in this subject because it says so much that is troubling about how our government functions – and yes, kills — in secret and often without adequate oversight. I’ve written about aspects of it a number of times.
Times journalists have done plenty of worthy coverage of the drone program themselves, with one national security reporter, Scott Shane, writing a significant big-picture story last April, covering some of the same ground that the Intercept is exploring now. He and Jo Becker also wrote a stunning story in 2012 detailing the existence of the president’s “kill list.” Mr. Shane is the author of a well-regarded recent book on the subject, “Objective Troy: A Terrorist, a President, and the Rise of the Drone.”
Since The Times has done so much on this subject, it is understandable that only a brief mention of The Intercept’s scoop has been made so far. Still, given the revelations in the released documents — as well as the mere existence of a major intelligence leaker who is not Edward Snowden — Times journalists might have served readers well to do more on “The Drone Papers.” They also could consider doing so in the future.
I suspect there are two other things going on. Shane seems to still be on book leave, and to cover the Intercept stuff — which in significant part confirms his earlier reporting, most importantly that the government treats males killed in drone attacks as military aged males appropriate for targeting — might be a bit awkward. I think some of the documents — such as the ones showing that JSOC’s targeting was bad because it relied on CIA’s SIGINT, might advance questions about why we decided to build a CIA drone base in Saudi Arabia in 2011. That might be appropriate follow-up reporting from other reporters like Mark Mazzetti (I have long suspected the Saudis were fiddling with the intelligence to force our hand on a drone base, since they had been trying for years to get drones from us), but that would take further time. So, too, would be a report on what these documents say about the CIA versus DOD debate on drones.
Still, underlying the whole question is whether the NYT publishes all the news that’s fit to print anymore.
There was a time when a NYT reader could expect, by reading the NYT, to know everything the elite of this country deemed worth knowing. It promised comprehensiveness, at least for those subjects that the NYT judged important, for better and worse.
Now, I think the NYT (which still plays that agenda setting function, and will still get fed stories to place items in the news agenda) often limits itself to items it can claim a scoop on (though far too often, it borrows these scoops from outlets obscure enough they’ll get away with it). As a result, when another outlet advances the news that’s fit to print in a publicly recognized scoop, or when news comes without an exclusivity agreement, the NYT may not always report it, until such time as it can own it in the future.
I think we’ll probably be better off when the NYT no longer serves as the agenda-setter for the country, in part because there are a lot of stories (like the Iraq War then, and now like anything pertaining to Israel or Ukraine) where other outlets are far more reliable, in part because the NYT’s official perspective is often so jingoistic as to disinform its readers (as with the report that Russia might cut cables into the Middle East, which includes no acknowledgment that this is a tactic we make ample use of). But we’re in a weird place now where the NYT doesn’t claim to be comprehensive, but readers still assume it is. Which means that until something shows up in the NYT it won’t be considered common knowledge, but the NYT will sometimes delay such reports until they can “own” it in some way. That, in turn, delays the time when something can be considered “official” and therefore worthy of debate.
I do expect the NYT to do more coverage on drones that reflects these documents, because both Shane and Mazzetti have already done so much.
But I’m at least as interested by this unacknowledged question about whether the NYT aspires to “print” all the news that’s fit to print anymore.
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
When I first read Scott Shane’s long profile of John Kiriakou, I thought, “how interesting that the NYT is doing a piece that exposes the government’s double standards just in time for the sentencing of Kiriakou, one of their sources.”
That’s not to say I’m not glad to see the piece: the profile did more to raise the scandal of Kiriakou’s prosecution than just about anything short of a 60 Minutes piece might.
And I’m much less interested in Shane’s references to his own role in Kiriakou’s indictment
Mr. Kiriakou first stumbled into the public limelight by speaking out about waterboarding on television in 2007, quickly becoming a source for national security journalists, including this reporter, who turned up in Mr. Kiriakou’s indictment last year as Journalist B.
After Mr. Kiriakou first appeared on ABC, talking with Brian Ross in some detail about waterboarding, many Washington reporters sought him out. I was among them. He was the first C.I.A. officer to speak about the procedure, considered a notorious torture method since the Inquisition but declared legal by the Justice Department in secret opinions that were later withdrawn.
Then I am by this passage.
In 2008, when I began working on an article about the interrogation of Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, I asked him about an interrogator whose name I had heard: Deuce Martinez. He said that they had worked together to catch Abu Zubaydah, and that he would be a great source on Mr. Mohammed, the architect of the Sept. 11 attacks.
He was able to dig up the business card Mr. Martinez had given him with contact information at Mitchell Jessen and Associates, the C.I.A. contractor that helped devise the interrogation program and Mr. Martinez’s new employer.
Mr. Martinez, an analyst by training, was retired and had never served under cover; that is, he had never posed as a diplomat or a businessman while overseas. He had placed his home address, his personal e-mail address, his job as an intelligence officer and other personal details on a public Web site for the use of students at his alma mater. Abu Zubaydah had been captured six years earlier, Mr. Mohammed five years earlier; their stories were far from secret. [my emphasis]
As I have mapped out before, the indictment strongly suggests that Kiriakou was Shane’s source for Martinez’ phone number, and with that suggestion, implies that Shane got Martinez’ identity from Kiriakou rather than one of the 23 other sources he had for the article.
With this passage, Shane rebuts what would have been a key point at trial (and may help Kiriakou in his sentencing). At least according to Shane, he not only learned of Martinez’ identity before he asked Kiriakou about it, but was able to find Martinez’ home address and email on an alumni network site. (Note, Shane doesn’t address whether Kiriakou was the source for the “magic box” technology discussed in the article, about which Kiriakou was also alleged to have lied to CIA’s Publication Review Board.)
In short, the whole article serves as a narrative pre-sentencing memo, offering a range of reasons why Kiriakou should get less than the 30 months his plea deal currently recommends.