How long did the Times hold its news?

The paper says it waited "a year" before publishing a story on the president's secret spying plan. Did it know the truth before the 2004 election?

Published December 16, 2005 5:53PM (EST)

As we noted earlier today, the New York Times is out with a story in which it says the Bush administration has been monitoring -- without warrants -- telephone calls and e-mail messages originated in the United States. What we didn't mention, and should have, is this snippet from the piece: "The White House asked The New York Times not to publish this article, arguing that it could jeopardize continuing investigations and alert would-be terrorists that they might be under scrutiny. After meeting with senior administration officials to hear their concerns, the newspaper delayed publication for a year to conduct additional reporting."

Our question: When did the White House make its request, and what does "a year" mean? The Times is awfully light on details here, leaving itself open for speculation from the left as to whether the Times sat on the story through last year's presidential election. At the same time, the right is free to speculate about the Times' decision to run the story now, just as the Senate was about to take up and -- as it turns out -- vote down the reauthorization of the PATRIOT Act.

We put the question of timing to Times reporters Eric Lichtblau and James Risen, whose names appear at the top of the story. Lichtblau's response: "I'm afraid we're referring all calls to Catherine Mathis in corporate PR." So we put the question to Mathis' office, which faxed us a long statement from Times editor Bill Keller in response. It doesn't answer the question of timing -- Mathis said she'd look into that and get back to us -- but here's what it does say about the delay in publishing more generally:

"We start with the premise that a newspaper's job is to publish information that is a matter of public interest. Clearly a secret policy reversal that gives an American intelligence agency discretion to monitor communications within the country is a matter of public interest. From the outset, the question was not why we would publish it, but why we would not.

"A year ago, when this information first became known to Times reporters, the administration argued strongly that writing about this eavesdropping program would give terrorists clues about the vulnerability of their communications and would deprive the government of an effective tool for the protection of the country's security. Officials also assured senior editors of the Times that a variety of legal checks had been imposed that satisfied everyone involved that the program raised no legal questions. As we have done before in rare instances when faced with a convincing national security argument, we agreed not to publish at that time.

"We also continued reporting, and in the ensuing months two things happened that changed our thinking.

"First, we developed a fuller picture of the concerns and misgivings that had been expressed during the life of the program. It is not our place to pass judgment on the legal or civil liberties questions involved in such a program, but it became clear those questions loomed larger within the government than we had previously understood.

"Second, in the course of subsequent reporting we satisfied ourselves that we could write about this program -- withholding a number of technical details -- in a way that would not expose any intelligence-gathering methods or capabilities that are not already on the public record. The fact that the government eavesdrops on those suspected of terrorist connections is well-known. The fact that the NSA can legally monitor communications within the United States with a warrant from the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court is also public information. What is new is that the N.S.A. has for the past three years had the authority to eavesdrop on Americans and others inside the United States without a warrant. It is that expansion of authority -- not the need for a robust anti-terror intelligence operation -- that prompted debate within the government, and that is the subject of the article."

We'll post more when we hear more from the Times.

By Tim Grieve

Tim Grieve is a senior writer and the author of Salon's War Room blog.

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