What the Times knew, and when it knew it

Bill Keller admits that the paper decided to hold its story on the warrantless spying program on the "eve" of the 2004 presidential election.

Published August 14, 2006 12:58PM (EDT)

Maybe it's just us, but when a newspaper comes up with information suggesting that the president of the United States has been engaged in illegal surveillance of American citizens, that's a story that ought to be told. And when the information is available to the newspaper in time for an election -- which is to say, in time for the American people to incorporate it into their thinking about whether to reelect said president -- well, it seems to us that the newspaper has a special obligation to get it into print promptly.

But then, we're not the New York Times.

When the Times reported on Dec. 15, 2005, that George W. Bush had authorized a plan for warrantless spying on American citizens, we -- and a lot of other people -- noticed a circumspect little sentence deep in the story. "After meeting with senior administration officials to hear their concerns," James Risen and Eric Lichtblau wrote, "the newspaper delayed publication for a year to conduct additional reporting."

Did a year mean "365 days", or did it mean "about 365 days"? And if it was the latter, did it mean that the Times knew about the warrantless wiretapping before the presidential election in November 2004? We put that question to Times spokeswoman Catherine Mathis at the time, but she never answered it. The Times' public editor, Byron Calame, pursued the question with the Times' executive editor, Bill Keller, but he declined to comment, too.

To his credit, Calame never gave up. Troubled by what seemed to be shifting language about the delay -- the initial story and a statement issued over Keller's name said the paper had held the story for "a year," but Keller later seemed to acknowledge implicitly that the delay had been longer -- Calame kept asking for details, and Keller has now provided them: Drafts of the article were written weeks before the presidential election, Keller says, and "the climactic discussion about whether to publish was right on the eve of the election."

Why was the story held? That's a little hard to decipher. Keller has said that he can't get into too much detail without exposing anonymous sources -- and that the administration had assured the Times initially that everyone thought the program was legal. Now, as Calame reports, Keller is saying that the paper's sources before the election weren't "'well-placed and credible' enough to convince him that questions about the program's legality and oversight were serious enough to make it 'responsible to publish.'"

Keller also says that there was a matter of fairness involved -- a point with which Calame agrees. "Candidates affected by a negative article deserve to have time -- several days to a week -- to get their response disseminated before voters head to the polls," Calame says.

We're not so sure about that one. Maybe you can make that argument about some personal scandal that's only remotely related to the candidate's fitness for office. But when the subject of the story is the way in which a candidate -- no, a president -- has turned his back on the Constitution and abused his office, when the story is about a president who has authorized even arguably illegal spying on the very voters he's asking to reelect him, it seems to us that the fairness at issue is the fairness owed to the readers.

Americans went to the polls in November 2004 not knowing that the president they'd be reelecting was spying on some of them. They went to the polls in November not knowing that the president's men had outed a CIA agent for political gain. New York Times reporters knew better on both counts. Would the outcome of the election have been any different if the Times' reporters had reported what they knew? We don't know; as Keller has said, the political reaction to the wiretapping news has been so mixed that it's possible the story would have helped Bush rather than hurt him.

But that's not the call Keller and his colleagues had to make on the "eve of the election." What they had to decide then was whether their readers should be allowed to know what they did in time to do something about it. They decided that the answer was no.

By Tim Grieve

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

MORE FROM Tim Grieve

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Espionage George W. Bush The New York Times War Room