Mystery solved

The New York Times sat on the NSA warrantless-wiretapping story until it was about to come out in print, in a book by one of its own reporters. So it’s hard to criticize the Times management for having damaged the national security by publishing something that was going to be published anyway.

Why did the New York Times, having decided to spike the NSA-warrantless-wiretapping story last year, decide to print it now? That seemed to me a question which had no answer that didn’t make the Times look bad: either the story should have been published earlier, or it shouldn’t have been published at all.

Duhhhhh….I guess not.

Maybe everyone else already knew the answer, but I’m grateful to Jonathan Schwarz at A Tiny Revolution for making it clear to me, and to Kevin Drum for the pointer. Apparently James Risen, the NYT reporter who dug up the story, tried but failed to get it into the newspaper, so he went ahead and wrote a book State of War. Only when publication of the book was going to break the story anyway did the Times finally publish it.

Now at least that makes sense: the Times higher-ups, persuaded or pressured by the Bush Administration, decided to suppress the story for national-security reasons. But once it was going to appear in print anyway — eliminating the national-security argument for continued secrecy — the Times decided not to keep shielding BushCo from the political consequences of its probably illegal actions.

This, it seems to me, fully clears the Times brass of any wrongdoing in printing the story (leaving open the question of possible wrongdoing in not printing the story earlier, when the voters might have been able to use it). Risen, on the other hand, might still be criticized for not having gone along with the suppression of the facts. It’s possible that revealing the NSA program really did damage national security, and that the Times brass made the right call last year.

But given the stream of lies that has come out of this Administration since before it was even in office (remember all those elderly Jews in Palm Beach who really intended to vote for Pat Buchanan?) its claim that an apparently illegal program was a vital national secret deserved, I think, to be treated with skepticism. And no one that I’m aware of, since the revelation, has come up with a plausible class of communications that the bad guys now know not to make that they would have considered safe before.

Schwarz’s post includes several examples of important items from the book (by its own reporter, mind) that the Times has so far decided aren’t fit to print, including important collateral for the Downing Street Memo and the story about the 30 relatives of Iraqi scientists the CIA sent back into Iraq before the war to find out about WMD acquisition programs. (The punchline of the joke: after the thirty unanimously reported that their relatives told them that the programs were no longer in existence, the CIA never reported the result to the White House.) If the story is good enough for CNN, why not for the Times?

Footnote This seems to me a good illustration of Mike Hiltzik’s wisecrack (in comments) that the right criticizes the press for doing its job, while the left criticizes the press for not doing its job. The wingnuts are throwing around the word “treason” because the Times told its readers something that was about to come out in a book; while Schwarz complains that the Times has not told its readers other facts that came out in the same book.

Second footnote My conclusory comment above that the program was “apparently illegal” rests partly on the text of FISA and partly on what seem to me the wildly implausible claims about the inherent power of the Commander in Chief the Administration has had to come up with to try to defend the program. For a more expert, and more cautions, view, read through Orin Kerr’s excellent series of posts on the topic.

Author: Mark Kleiman

Professor of Public Policy at the NYU Marron Institute for Urban Management and editor of the Journal of Drug Policy Analysis. Teaches about the methods of policy analysis about drug abuse control and crime control policy, working out the implications of two principles: that swift and certain sanctions don't have to be severe to be effective, and that well-designed threats usually don't have to be carried out. Books: Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know (with Jonathan Caulkins and Angela Hawken) When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment (Princeton, 2009; named one of the "books of the year" by The Economist Against Excess: Drug Policy for Results (Basic, 1993) Marijuana: Costs of Abuse, Costs of Control (Greenwood, 1989) UCLA Homepage Curriculum Vitae Contact: