As the initial response is showing, the New York Times' report Friday that George W. Bush authorized warrantless spying on American citizens is a story with powerful political repercussions. The Times deserves credit -- and not the scorn the president is heaping on it -- for bringing the story to light. But still, it's fair to ask, why didn't the Times publish the story sooner?
When the Times first broke the spying story Friday, it said that the White House had asked it not to run the story, and in fact that it had "delayed publication for a year to conduct additional reporting." We asked Times spokeswoman Catherine Mathis Friday to tell us whether "delayed publication for a year" meant that the Times had the story before the presidential election last November. She said she'd check into the question and get back to us. She never did.
But in a report in the Los Angeles Times today, unnamed journalists familiar with internal discussions at the New York Times say top editors at the paper "first debated publishing a story about secret eavesdropping on Americans as early as last fall, before the 2004 presidential election." The L.A. Times says the New York Times decided to publish the story earlier this month after it became clear that a new book by Times reporter James Risen would break the story anyway -- a charge that Times executive editor Bill Keller has denied.
What's more, even as the Times prepared to run the story this time around, the White House tried to put the brakes on: Newsweek's Jonathan Alter says that Bush summoned Keller and Times publisher Arthur Sulzberger and Keller to the Oval Office on Dec. 6 in a last-ditch attempt to talk them out of running the story.
Given the backlash already, we can understand why the president wanted to keep his spying program secret. And we can understand how difficult it must have been for the Times' editors to weigh the president's claims about national security against the possibility that he was simply trying to save himself.
But still. When voters went to the polls in November, the New York Times knew -- but didn't tell its readers -- that the Bush administration had been lying about Scooter Libby's role in the outing of Valerie Plame. It now appears that the New York Times also knew -- but didn't tell its readers -- that the Bush administration had been spying on American citizens in violation of an act of Congress. The Times isn't alone in keeping secrets from its readers: Reporters at the Washington Post and Time magazine also knew about White House involvement in Plame's outing, for example, but chose to let Scott McClellan's denials stand through Election Day in favor of protecting their sources.
Would any of it have made a difference in November? We'll never know because journalists decided to keep the news to themselves until long after the voting was over. In the statement he released Friday, Keller said it's not the Times' "place" to "pass judgment on the legal or civil liberties questions" raised by Bush's secret spying plan. But it is the Times' place -- it is a journalist's responsibility -- to report the news, especially when that news involves the possibility that crimes were committed by the highest officials in our nation's government.