The Story Behind the Story

A new paper delves into the conflict surrounding the publication of a 2005 Pulitzer-winning article on warrantless surveillance.

By: Shane Harris

On a snowy December 5, 2005, Arthur Sulzberger, the publisher of the New York Times, sat in the Oval Office listening to what he calls a “stunningly unconvincing” argument that the newspaper shouldn’t publish a story about a secret government program that allowed domestic eavesdropping without warrants. General Michael Hayden, then the deputy director for national intelligence, said the program helped stop a terrorist plot to take down the Brooklyn Bridge using blowtorches.

As Hayden spoke, Sulzberger thought he detected a smirk on the face of President George W. Bush, who had been mostly silent throughout the meeting. Apparently thinking the President also was incredulous, Sulzberger also began to smile. Hayden turned to him and snapped, “It’s not funny!”

That morsel of high drama is one of several contained in a new paper, “Anatomy of a Secret,” by H.D.S. Greenway, a fellow at the Joan Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics and Public Policy at Harvard. Greenway, formerly an editor for the Boston Globe and a foreign correspondent for the Washington Post, interviewed Sulzberger and all the key players from the Times about its 2005 warrantless surveillance exposé, which won the Pulitzer Prize for reporters James Risen and Eric Lichtblau. He also talked to Hayden and other Bush officials, who thought the newspaper’s decision to go with the story was not only imprudent, but also harmful to national security.

Much of the overall narrative about the months-long reporting process, which included a decision to hold off on publishing in 2004, had been previously reported. But Greenway goes deeper, adding new details and candid reflections that make for great reading. He also brings a retrospective analysis on the decision to publish one of the most consequential stories of the post-9/11 era. And he finds that both sides—the journalists and the government officials—think the full story of the warrantless wiretapping program still hasn’t been told.

Some highlights:

In November 2004, Phil Taubman, who had previously reported on intelligence matters for the Times, made an unusual trip to Fort Meade, Maryland, the headquarters of the National Security Agency. Hayden, who was then the agency’s director, along with his general counsel and “several top NSA aides who managed the surveillance program,” Taubman says, argued that it was vital to protecting the United States.

Taubman was against publishing, “at least initially,” he told Greenway. “The administration had persuaded Bill [Keller, the paper’s executive editor] and me at the time that we literally might be putting American lives in danger.”

In 2004, key sources for the story “were pushing us to publish before the general election, threatening to take the story to another paper,” Keller said. “They wanted to hurt Bush, and that set off alarm bells with me. Wait a second! This guy has a political agenda!”

The Times editors decided to hold the story. Risen and Lichtblau opposed the decision, as did Rebecca Corbett, the Washington bureau’s investigative reporting editor. Lichtblau thought Keller and Taubman had been “pretty actively misled by the administration.” (Greenway also drew on Lichtblau’s book for his paper.)

Risen considered publishing the wiretapping story in his forthcoming book, State of War. “There was a certain angst about the decision to hold the story,” Corbett said. She regretted that it had been held in draft form, not a finished story that could be discussed “in light of completion,” Greenway writes.

According to Greenway, “Taubman said that he would still have been willing to withhold publication despite Risen’s book, although that would have made the Times look bad. But Taubman thought the story belonged to the Times, not ‘just to Jim Risen and his agent.’”

Was Risen’s decision to write about the program a catalyst to get the Times moving again? “Jim Risen put the issue back in play by saying he wanted to write about it in his book,” Keller admitted to Greenway. “Jim said he would omit the NSA material if we told him to, but this certainly helped rekindle the discussion.”

When it came time to publish, the White House intervened, calling Sulzberger in for the Oval Office meeting, along with Keller and Taubman. Afraid that three prominent journalists might draw unwanted attention, the White House had the men picked up next door, at the Treasury Building, and then brought into the West Wing through the Rose Garden.

Sulzberger says he went in with an open mind, that this was a big decision. “Not a bet-the-company decision,” but one that could affect the Times's reputation. “You had to go in with an open mind.”

Sulzberger says Bush “was gracious [in the meeting], but silent through most of it.”

Citing Sulzberger, Greenway reports, “There were technical and operational details [of the surveillance program] that the Times was perfectly willing to leave out of the story. It was on the question of whether the NSA had broken the law that Sulzberger would have liked to have taken ‘a deeper dive,’ he recalled. He asked the president and his team if he could speak to three or four other people on the question of legality . . . ‘but I never heard back. They never even called back to say no.’”

Hayden has no recollection of Sulzberger’s request. “I reject the proposition that we closed off the dialogue,” he said. He also said the Times had promised to give the White House notice before publishing the story, but that no one called before the story went up on the Times website. (That was in advance of the story going in the newspaper the next day, on December 16.) “Only when it had been up for a while did Keller call [chief of staff] Andy Card and tell him,” Hayden said. “Sulzberger didn’t listen much [in the meeting], but I think it was Keller’s decision not to publish. Taubman would not have, I believe.” Hayden added that Taubman was the most receptive to the administration’s arguments “by a long shot.”

Greenway concludes: “The New York Times certainly leaned over backward to check the story out and gave the government a chance to present its best arguments. The paper agreed to keep certain details secret. All the parties agree that the whole story of what went on with [the program] has never been revealed.”