Tuesday, December 20, 2005

Critics Question Timing of Surveillance Story

Now some speculation on the New York Times' involvement in the NSA wiretapping. This is actually from the Los Angeles Times, titled Critics Question Timing of Surveillance Story:

The New York Times first debated publishing a story about secret eavesdropping on Americans as early as last fall, before the 2004 presidential election.

But the newspaper held the story for more than a year and only revealed the secret wiretaps last Friday, when it became apparent a book by one of its reporters was about to break the news, according to journalists familiar with the paper's internal discussions.

The Times report has created a furor in Washington, with politicians in both parties and civil libertarians saying that President Bush was wrong to authorize the surveillance by the National Security Agency without permission from a special court.

Bush and his supporters have fired back, saying that the eavesdropping was needed to protect Americans after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. On Monday, the president called the public reports on the once-secret surveillance "shameful."

Politicians, journalists and Internet commentators have feverishly aired the debate over the timing of the New York Times story in the last four days — with critics on the left wondering why the paper waited so long to publish the story and those on the right wondering why it was published at all.

So now the Times may have known about the illegal wiretapping before the November presidential elections. This brings up a whole new host of questions--what did the Times reporters know about the wiretaps, and when exactly did they know of it? When did the Times reporters place a call to the White House for their comment on the story? What did the White House use to keep the Times story under wraps? Who was involved, on the Times editorial board, in making this decision to hold the story?

There's more to the LA Times story:

The initial Times statements did not say that the paper's internal debate began before the Nov. 2, 2004, presidential election — in which Iraq and national security questions loomed large — or make any reference to Risen's book, due out Jan. 16.

But two journalists, who declined to be identified, said that editors at the paper were actively considering running the story about the wiretaps before Bush's November showdown with Democratic Sen. John F. Kerry of Massachusetts.

Top editors at the paper eventually decided to hold the story. But the discussion was renewed after the election, with Risen and coauthor of the story, reporter Eric Lichtblau, joining some of the paper's editors in pushing for publication, according to the sources, who said they did not want to be identified because the Times had designated only Keller and a spokeswoman to address the matter.

"When they realized that it was going to appear in the book anyway, that is when they went ahead and agreed to publish the story," said one of the journalists. "That's not to say that was their entire consideration, but it was a very important one of them."

Both of the journalists said they thought that Times editors were overly cautious in holding the story for more than a year. But they said they thought the delays appeared to be in good faith, with the editors taking to heart the national security concerns raised by the Bush administration.

So there was dissent between the Times editors -- who wanted to hold the story out of "national security concerns raised by the Bush administration" -- and the reporters, who wanted to bring this story out before a book publication. How long did this conflict take place in the Times offices?

There are so many unanswered questions here, but what I can say is that the New York Times got hold of a story where the NSA was domestically wiretapping American citizens. They got this information sometime before the November 2005 presidential elections. The Times probably got much of the story out by November 2004, considering that the reporters are going to release a book next month on the NSA wiretapping. The Times called the White House for their comments. Now here is where the story gets vague. The question here isn't whether the Bush administration was engaged in wiretaps against American citizens on domestic soil, but rather who are those American citizens that have been wiretapped by the NSA? And what type of electronic eavesdropping is the NSA involved with these wiretappings. Joshua Marshall, over at Talking Points Memo, provides an interesting theory that the NSA was involved in datamining phone and email conversations, looking for key words and phrases. Marshall gets his information from The Washington Monthly's Kevin Drum. Could it be that the Bush White House was on a "fishing expedition" for suspected terrorists, reasoning they couldn't go through the FISA courts for search warrants since they had no "probable cause?" And if the NSA was involved in these data minings of cell phone conversations and emails of domestic Americans, who is to say that the White House wasn't just looking into Americans with suspected ties to terrorism--or even anti-war demonstrators, environmentalists, or other liberal groups opposed to the Bush administration? We certainly know politics plays a central role in every decision the White House makes. What if Bush administration officials--i.e. Karl Rove--decided to use, or even consider using, the NSA data mining technology to spy on Kerry campaign cell phone conversations and email messages? If the Times story came out before the November elections, it certainly would have been devastating to the Bush White House campaign of being "tough on terrorism." Would moderates and independents who voted for Bush in 2004 on the basis of his message "don't change a horse in the middle of a stream," would consider voting for Bush if they knew the president was trampling on American citizens Fourth Amendment rights. Lord knows what the Kerry campaign could have done with this story! In other words, the White House "concerns" regarding the possible publication of the Times' story could have been based on political interests, rather than national security interests. The Bush administration didn't want this embarrassing and illegal story to come out before the elections, thus possibly influencing the elections towards a Kerry victory.

And yet, by not publishing the story, the New York Times may have also influenced the elections towards the Bush victory. It is the greatest problem with speculating on this issue, this story--the variables of this story can tilt it either way. We don't know exactly what exactly the Times reporters and editors knew about the NSA wiretaps before the November 2004 elections--we just know that the reporters and editors knew of the wiretaps. The LA Times continues, saying:

Daniel Okrent, the former public editor at the New York Times, said the disclosure of wiretaps without court authority was an important story and one the newspaper deserved plaudits for bringing into the public debate.

But the story also put the newspaper in a difficult position, he said.

"You are damned if you do and damned if you don't," said Okrent, who often wrote critical reviews of the Times before leaving in May to write a book. "For the right, this information never should have come out. And for the left, it never could have come out early enough."

Kathleen Hall Jamieson, director of the Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania, said readers would like to have more information to judge why the paper waited more than a year to publish the story.

"If the concerns were strong enough they didn't run the story, then it puts them in a very difficult position when it comes time to explain" because the newspaper had determined that it could not reveal many of the details for national security reasons, Jamieson said.

Nonetheless, Jamieson called on the paper to be as transparent as possible to explain the delay because it had an obligation "to make sure all possible information was available to voters before the election, as long as that information did not jeopardize national security."

I certainly want to know more on this issue.

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