News & Politics

The Story Behind the Story

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

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

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
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
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!”

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

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,
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
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
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.”