Sympathy for Bill Keller.

Media criticism.
Dec. 27 2005 8:52 PM

Sympathy for Bill Keller

Giving the New York Times executive editor the benefit of the doubt.

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New York Times Executive Editor Bill Keller has gotten a boatload from both the left (Atrios, Daily Kos, et al.) and the right (Michelle Malkin, Tony Blankley, et al.) for his paper's Dec. 16 NSA spying scoop, " Bush Lets U.S. Spy on Callers Without Courts."

The timing of publication, not the substance, is what peeved left-wing critics. The Times delayed publication of the NSA material for a year at the White House's request—something the paper notes in the story's ninth paragraph—and that has lefties calling for Keller and Publisher Arthur Sulzberger Jr. to resign or surmising that the paper held off as a political favor to George W. Bush. On the right, Washington Times Editorial Page Editor Tony Blankley described the article as the "Christmas bombing" of the administration. Malkin ripped it as "dangerous" to national security and an attempt to "move the Iraqi elections off the front pages."

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Even the sensible middle, personified by Edward Wasserman,professor of journalism ethics at Washington and Lee University, knocked the decision to hold, writing in his Miami Herald column that the Times "blew this one."

As an experienced second-guesser and a tireless Times-basher, my first instinct was to hammer the paper, too. But the NSA scoop couldn't be a Christmas gift to the Bush administration and a belated Happy Ramadan card to terrorists. Once I realized that, I set down my mallet and devoted myself instead to conjuring the most sympathetic thoughts I could for Keller and Co.

Imagine yourself in Keller's shoes in the fall of 2004. One of your reporters has discovered the outlines of a super-duper secret NSA surveillance program that appears to exceed the agency's legislated boundaries, but he can't nail down all the particulars. His sources are so hinky about the topic that they won't even let him attribute the information to "former senior officials." You push for more, and the pushing places you into direct contact with the administration.

They push back. Their president is so addicted to his super-duper secret intelligence findings that he'll say anything to deter the press from writing about them. He'll claim through his intermediaries that the program prevented terrorist attacks, and he might even be telling something close to the truth. You just don't know. You argue for the public's right to know about and debate an expanded and potentially illegal surveillance program. The administration argues back that the program is perfectly legal, and it hands you internal legal briefs that say just that. All the president's men also allude to several terrorist attacks that the program allegedly foiled. Then they stick it to you by saying that if the Times goes with this story based on what it's got, the Judith Miller WMD debacle will look like a typographical error in comparison. That really hurts.

According to the New York Observer, this next part is true: The reporter behind the story, James Risen, went on book leave shortly after the Times broached the subject with the administration. When he returned in the summer of 2005, he continued to work the story.

Now, back to my imagined version: A couple of months later, you have some unnamed current and former government officials onboard—but not on the record. When you inform the administration bigwigs of your intent to publish, they explode and cite several specific surveillance operations that are about to reap life-saving intelligence. Run that story and the terrorists will triumph! You have no idea what sort of damage your half-informed story will do! The administration makes soft threats to prosecute you, your reporters, your newspaper, and your sources for violating the Espionage Act. Given the Valerie Plame case, you can almost believe them.

If you were Bill Keller, would you insist on publishing the story as is? Would you keep reporting until you knew as much about the dimensions of the program as the administration and could counter every one of their "what if" conjectures with informed refutations from enough unnamed sources to call the administration's bluff? Backing down before finally publishing is not unprecedented. Even Ben Bradlee, the former executive editor of the Washington Post, who possesses the balls of a Clydesdale, postponed publication of his paper's findings about the super-duper secret "Ivy Bells" program at the Reagan administration's request in 1986. In his memoirs, A Good Life, Bradlee writes that when he showed the CIA's William Casey the story the Post intended to run, Casey vowed to have the paper prosecuted.

It's my hunch that Keller and the Times did as Bradlee did—kept pushing and published once 1) enough of the story was verified and 2) all were confident that the story would not compromise U.S. security. The Times ultimately sourced its scoop to "[n]early a dozen current and former officials," indicating that it constructed an invincible work of journalism. In a time when special prosecutors are hunting down government leakers, the fact that the paper got so many to speak is remarkable. The Times article indicates that a high-level, internal rebellion against the Bush-Cheney team has commenced.