The inside drama behind the warrantless wiretapping story.

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March 26 2008 7:08 PM

The Education of a 9/11 Reporter

The inside drama behind the Times' warrantless wiretapping story.

(Continued from Page 1)

Sure enough, the story ran at the top of the front page of the next day's paper. But among my colleagues in the paper's New York metro section, there was much less enthusiasm: The story, our Brooklyn reporter thought, was overblown, the evidence of an actual link between the Brooklyn mosque and al-Qaida thin. His skepticism was borne out: While the Yemeni cleric was ultimately sentenced to 75 years in prison on terrorism charges related to his support of Hamas, the sensational charge that the Brooklyn mosque was used to raise money for al-Qaida and Bin Laden had melted away to all but nothing by the time the case concluded.

For me, the story about the Brooklyn mosque, along with others, like the justice department's wobbly case against "dirty bomber" Jose Padilla, were eye-openers. By 2004, I had gained a reputation, deservedly or not, as one of the administration's toughest critics in the Justice Department press corps; the department even confiscated my press pass briefly after I wrote an unpopular story about the FBI's interest in collecting intelligence on anti-Iraq war demonstrations in the United States. To John Ashcroft and his aides, my coverage reflected a bias. To me, it reflected a healthy, essential skepticism—the kind that was missing from much of the media's early reporting after 9/11, both at home in the administration's war on terror and abroad in the run-up to the war in Iraq.

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That shared skepticism would prove essential in the Times' decision to run the story about Bush's NSA wiretapping program. On that December afternoon in the White House, the gathered officials attacked on several fronts. There was never any serious legal debate within the administration about the legality of the program, Bush's advisers insisted. The Justice Department had always signed off on its legality, as required by the president. The few lawmakers who were briefed on the program never voiced any concerns. From the beginning, there were tight controls in place to guard against abuse. The program would be rendered so ineffective if disclosed that it would have to be shut down immediately.

All these assertions, as my partner Jim Risen and I would learn in our reporting, turned out to be largely untrue. Jim and I had already learned about much of the internal angst within the administration over the legality of the NSA program at the outset of our reporting, more than a year earlier in the fall of 2004. Still, the editors were not persuaded we had enough for a story—not enough, at least, to outweigh the White House's strenuous arguments that running the piece would cripple a vital and perfectly legal national-security program. It was a difficult decision for everyone. I went back to writing about more mundane terrorism and law-enforcement matters, poking around discreetly to find out what had happened to the NSA's eavesdropping program. Risen went on sabbatical to write a book about intelligence matters. Then, one night in the spring of 2005, he called me out to his home in suburban Maryland and sat me down at his computer. There on the computer screen was a draft of a chapter called simply "The Program." It was about the NSA's wiretapping operation. "I'm thinking of putting this in the book," he said. I sat and stared at the screen in silence. "You sure you know what you're doing?" I asked finally. He shrugged.

Risen spoke with our editors about what he was contemplating, and so began weeks of discussions between him and the editors that ultimately helped to set the story back on track. Risen's book was a trigger, but we realized we weren't in the paper yet. We still had to persuade the editors that the reasons to run the story clearly outweighed the reasons to keep it secret. We went back to old sources and tried new ones. Our reporting brought into sharper focus what had already started to become clear a year earlier: The concerns about the program—in both its legal underpinnings and its operations—reached the highest levels of the Bush administration. There were deep concerns within the administration that the president had authorized what amounted to an illegal usurpation of power. The image of a united front we'd been presented a year earlier in meetings with the administration—with unflinching support for the program and its legality—was largely a façade. The administration, it seemed clear to me, had lied to us.And we were coming closer to understanding the cracks. By the time we met with White House officials in December 2005, Keller had all but made up his mind: The legal concerns about the program were too great to justify keeping it out of public view. The only real question now was not whether the story would run, but when.

That decision was helped along by a chance conversation I had soon after our White House meeting. The administration, I was told, had considered seeking a Pentagon Papers-type injunction to block publication of the story. The tidbit was a bombshell. Few episodes in the history of the Times—or, for that matter, in all of journalism—had left as indelible a mark as the courtroom battle over the Pentagon Papers, and now we were learning that the Bush White House had dusted off a Nixon-era relic to consider coming after us again. The editors in New York had already decided they would probably print the story in the newspaper for that Friday, Dec. 16, 2005, but when word of the Pentagon Papers tip reached them, they decided they would also post it on the Internet the night before. That wasn't routinely done at that time on "exclusive" stories because we would risk losing the scoop to our competitors, but the editors felt it was worth the risk. The administration might be able to stop the presses with an injunction, but they couldn't stop the Internet.

Phil Taubman called us into his office to hear the official word: We were publishing the story, Keller told us. Smiles washed over the room. Rebecca Corbett, who edited the story and had been a strong champion of it, inquired about the play it would get. There'd been talk of a modest one-column headline on the front page. She wanted to know whether we might be able to get two columns, maybe even three. This seemed like a story that would have legs. Keller demurred. He wanted the story to speak for itself; we would be discreet without looking as if we were poking the White House in the eye with a big, screaming headline about NSA spying. This wasn't the moment to quibble over the size of the headline. After all this time, after all the White House's efforts to derail it, we were happy to see the story in the paper at all; in the back of the A section, among the bra ads, would have been fine.

Eric Lichtblau is a reporter in the Washington bureau of the New York Times. He covers the Justice Department for the Times.

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