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Behind the 'Times' Publication of U.S. Spying Story

The New York Times scored a major journalistic coup last Friday with a front-page story about how President Bush had authorized the National Security Agency to do some eavesdropping inside American borders, in possible violation of federal law. But the paper is now on the defensive about the timing of that story, which it withheld for a year.

On Saturday, Texas Republican John Cornyn took to the floor of the Senate to denounce the Times.

"It's perhaps not a coincidence that just before the vote for the cloture on the reauthorization of the Patriot Act, the New York Times released this story," Senator Cornyn said.

He also said there was a second, hidden reason for the timing of the story.

"The author of this article had turned in a book three months ago," Cornyn said, "and the New York Times failed to reveal that the urgent story was tied to a book's release and sale."

Times reporter James Risen's book State of War on intelligence matters is due out next month from Simon & Schuster.

However, several Times journalists told NPR that Cornyn has it backwards. They said the Times published the article reluctantly, and not to promote Risen's book. They would not be identified because the Times won't let editors or reporters comment on the NSA article.

Much of the research for the story had been completed before the November 2004 elections. These journalists told NPR that Risen and his colleague Eric Lichtblau lobbied for the article to be published far earlier than it was.

But the Times held back after government officials said the article would compromise their ability to track terrorists. In a statement, Times Executive Editor Bill Keller said government officials convinced the newspaper that the president had the legal authority to order the wiretaps. Keller said subsequent reporting showed there were deep divisions within the administration about the extent of Bush's authority.

Times journalists told NPR the approaching release of Risen's book forced senior editors to focus grudgingly on the NSA story. They otherwise would have been scooped in a book by one of their own correspondents. (Risen had been on book leave for the first five months of 2005, according to the Times.)

Michael Getler is the ombudsman for PBS and was previously a deputy managing editor, foreign editor and ombudsman at The Washington Post. He says the Times deserves credit for its scoop. But he wonders why it took so long.

"The guideline is that the story gets published when it's ready," Getler said. "And what befuddled people is hearing about the fact that the Times had it and held on to it for so long. It doesn't diminish the impact of the story at all, but it diminishes the messenger."

Newsweek magazine reports that President Bush recently summoned Times Executive Editor Keller and Publisher Arthur Sulzberger, Jr. to the White House to try to talk them out of printing the article. They omitted some details, but ran it.

But Greg Mitchell, editor of the weekly Editor and Publisher, says the year-long delay has provoked critics on the left and the right. Some liberals are now asking whether the Times held the story last year so it would not become a controversy during the election.

"It may turn out that they have very plausible explanations for it and I'd like to give them the benefit of the doubt on that," Mitchell said. "But the point that many people are raising is that they have not explained themselves well. And so these questions remain."

Keller would not be interviewed for this story. In a second statement, he said the publication of the NSA article "was not timed to the Iraqi election, the Patriot Act debate, Jim's forthcoming book or any other event." Keller added: "After listening respectfully to the Administration's objections, we were convinced there was no good reason not to publish it."

President Bush said he expects the Justice Department to investigate who leaked to the Times. That's unwelcome news for a newspaper that just lost its fight to keep former reporter Judith Miller from having to testify about confidential sources in the Valerie Plame-CIA leak case.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

David Folkenflik was described by Geraldo Rivera of Fox News as "a really weak-kneed, backstabbing, sweaty-palmed reporter." Others have been kinder. The Columbia Journalism Review, for example, once gave him a "laurel" for reporting that immediately led the U.S. military to institute safety measures for journalists in Baghdad.