LOS ANGELES—Should the news media be patriotic? When a journalist uncovers a government secret, which comes first—national security or the public's right to know?
In the United States, reporters consider themselves Americans first, journalists second. That means consulting the government before going public with a state secret. "When I was at ABC," James Bamford told Time in 2006, "we always checked with the administration in power when we thought we had something of concern, and there was usually some way to work it out."
In a new book about the Bush administration's efforts to expand the president's powers at the expense of the legislative and judicial branches, the assumption that the press shouldn't publish security sensitive stories is so hard-wired that New York Times reporter Eric Lichtblau accepts it as a given. But it's a very American concept, and one that relies on the presumption that the U.S. government may make mistakes, but is largely a force for good. In other countries, the relationship between rulers and the press is strictly adversarial.
In Bush's Law: The Remaking of American Justice Lichtblau unwittingly relates a depressing parable—his seeming obliviousness to conflict of interest is a bummer—describing the nation's most prominent newspaper's willingness to keep secrets for government officials, who turn out to be (shocker alert) lying. It's a cautionary tale about journalistic nationalism, one of many (Judith Miller, anyone?) in which the Times transformed itself into Bush's political slut.
A whore, at least, would have demanded money.
In 2004 Lichtblau and fellow Times reporter Jim Risen learned that the National Security Agency was spying domestically, on American citizens. The NSA, which uses sophisticated voice-recognition software and computer programs to intercept phone calls, fax transmissions, e-mail and even bank wire transfers, was supposed to limit its activities to foreign countries. Illegally expanding beyond its Congressionally-authorized mandate, Lichtblau writes, "the NSA had essentially gained access to the biggest telecom 'switches' in the country, using the agency's data-mining technology to comb the huge trunks carrying massive volumes of traffic, in order to zero in on suspected dirty numbers and eavesdrop on them without warrants."
It was a big story. Or it would have been, had the newspaper chosen to run it when it learned of it.
Naturally, it triggered alarms in official Washington when another Times reporter called the NSA for comment. Soon the agency's director, Gen. Michael Hayden, was calling the Times, asking it to censor itself. "Don't run this story," administration honchos begged.
"The Times," Lichtblau says, "had been through many contretemps in its long history over whether or not to publish newsworthy stories involving sensitive national security information and, despite the vitriolic charges from its critics, it was never a decision the paper made with reckless abandon. In more than a few cases, it has decided not to publish anything at all."
Suckers. For over a year, Lichtblau explains in an apparent attempt to justify himself and his employer to conservative critics, Times editors and reporters met repeatedly with White House officials to ask them why they shouldn't spill the beans on the NSA's domestic spying operation. That the program was illegal was pretty obvious. (Congress acknowledged as much by later voting to retroactively legalize it.) So was the lameness of the government's argument against making the NSA's activities public.
Declaring the Bush administration "unpersuasive," Lichtblau said: "To me, it was never clear what Osama bin Laden and his henchmen would learn—confirming, really—that the United States spy services were listening to them." But the White House kept calling meetings, playing for time. Meanwhile, every morning, the Times came out without important news that its readers would care about—that their phone calls and e-mails were being monitored.
"Bush and 10 senior advisors in the White House and the intelligence community would make personal pleas not to run the story in a series of meetings spanning 14 months, beginning in October of 2004 weeks before the presidential election," Lichtblau says.
Weeks before the presidential election. You'd think the timing of the administration's pleas for self-censorship might have tipped off the Times' editors that they were being used in order to ensure that Bush and the Republican Party won the election. Moreover, Lichtblau wrote, "We had reason to suspect that the White House was actively misleading us and that its impassioned pleas might have less to do with concern over national security harm than with the legal and political fallout that the story might trigger." Gee, you think? And yet the paper's editors refused to print it.
The Bush administration, he argues, "had not yet suffered the kind of crippling body blows to its credibility that it would [by late 2005]." Yeah, well, not really.
Remember, this was late 2004. The United States had invaded Iraq in March 2003, a year and a half earlier, but the weapons of mass destruction had never turned up. The paper's own editorial page had been ranting on and on about the administration's perfidy. Credibility? What credibility? Besides, it wasn't as if Bush was the first First Fibber. All presidents are serial liars. So are their subordinates. Why would the Times, or anyone else, believe them about anything?
As I read on, I kept thinking about an exchange I'd had with a fellow American reporter in Afghanistan in 2001. "Are you going to the press conference?" he asked me. A local warlord, part of the incoming Karzai regime, was about to give an update on the battle for Kunduz. "What for?" I asked him. "To get news," he replied. "A press conference," I shot back, "is the one place where you're guaranteed not to learn anything. It is a vacuum-packed, perfectly news-free zone." I spent the morning at the bazaar interviewing refugees, figuring they had less reason to lie than the Afghan official.
Anyway, the internal debate over whether to run the NSA domestic surveillance story came to an end in December 2005. Lichtblau, Washington bureau chief Phil Taubman and executive editor Bill Keller went to the White House, where they met with Condoleeza Rice, Gen. Hayden and a few other characters whom, if there's any justice, will soon be in prison. This was followed by another rendezvous between the Big Dog himself, George W. Bush, and Taubman, Keller and publisher Arthur Sulzberger. (Despite the obvious conflict of interest—readers who pay newspapers for the truth vs. government officials paid to lie—there's no evidence that they considered refusing these meetings.) Deciding that they had been played long enough, Sulzberger and his lieutenants green-lit the piece.
By then, of course, Bush had won a second term. To some extent, he owed his victory to the "liberal" New York Times more than to Karl Rove. The Times, Extra! Magazine reported later, had also sat on another late-breaking "October Surprise" story that might have caused enough voters to change their minds to vote for Democrat John Kerry in 2004. That suspicious rectangular bulge in Bush's jacket during his debate with Kerry, a NASA scientist who is an expert on such things had told the Times, was indeed an electronic transmitter that allowed Bush to receive remote coaching from Rove or someone else.
"A Times journalist, who said that Times staffers were 'pretty upset' about the killing of the story, claims the senior editors felt [it] was 'too close' to the election to run such a piece," reported Extra!.
The government doesn't tell the truth to reporters, even on "background." Why shouldn't the media tell the truth to the American people?
Ted Rall is the author of the book Silk Road to Ruin: Is Central Asia the New Middle East?, an in-depth prose and graphic novel analysis of America's next big foreign policy challenge.