Analysis

Keeping the NSA Spy Story a Secret

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For a year, The New York Times held a story that President Bush had authorized domestic wiretaps without a warrant. Former Times reporter Alex Jones, now director of the Joan Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics and Public Policy and the Kennedy School of Government, comments on the paper's decision.

LIANE HANSEN, host:

This past week, when The New York Times published a story disclosing that President Bush had allowed domestic wiretapping without a warrant, the paper noted that it had held the story for a year at the request of the White House. The Times explained that the Bush administration argued that publication would disclose important anti-terrorist methods and that legal checks had been instituted to protect civil liberties. The paper said it finally chose to publish the story because it became convinced that the story could be told without compromising critical intelligence-gathering techniques, and that it had learned that misgivings within the government about possible violations of civil liberties were more considerable than it had understood.

Alex Jones is director of the Joan Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics and Public Policy at the Kennedy School of government at Harvard University. He's also a former reporter for The New York Times. We spoke with Alex Jones yesterday, and when asked about past instances when the government had sought for a story to be withheld, Jones pointed to 1961, when the Kennedy administration asked The Times not to publish a story about plans for the Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba.

Mr. ALEX JONES (Joan Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics and Public Policy): The New York Times reporter in Florida found out that an invasion of Cuba by Cuban exiles, trained by the CIA, was just about to happen. He sent a story to The New York Times, and the people at The New York Times news desk, which controlled the front page, recognized it as a blockbuster and planned to have it spread all over the top of the front page with, you know--the way The Times says something is really, really important is to have a big headline. This was going to have a big headline.

The editors, of course, were concerned, because we were talking about something that involved military action. And so it went up the chain of command; it went down to Scotty Reston, who was the Washington bureau chief. He got in touch with Alan Dulles, who was the head of the CIA, and Alan Dulles said, `You must not, absolutely must not, publish it.' And Scottie Reston also thought we should not publish it, meaning The New York Times shouldn't.

But the decision was that it should be published, and it was published, but it was altered slightly. Instead of having a huge headline, it led the paper, but with a one-column headline.

HANSEN: But we're talking about--this was a military operation that could have been jeopardized. I mean, the wiretapping story--you know, there's less immediate arguments for that one, and there's the potential for political embarrassment, since we're talking constitutional questions. And do you think that those factors should have made The Times less willing to agree to hold off on publishing that--the wiretapping story?

Mr. JONES: I think The Times should have done what they did with the Bay of Pigs. They should have gone ahead and published and they should have withheld certain specific information that might have been endangering, but I do not really understand, and have not from The Times' explanations been led to understand, why they elected to hold this story for a year if they knew that unwarranted--or wiretaps without warrants were being used by the security organizations inside the United States. That is something that you can tell from the impact the story had on Friday is a huge, huge thing, and the fact that they did not disclose it for a year is something I'm rather perplexed about.

HANSEN: We've been talking about specifics of this particular story. Talk a little bit more in an abstract way. Where do you think a news organization's patriotic obligation starts, or ends, and where journalistic obligations intersect?

Mr. JONES: I think that the clearest way that I've ever found to explain this to myself is to think of journalists--and I mean journalism institutions in the same way--as having three roles. They are journalists and they have a set of values and priorities and principles that accord with their professional obligations. They are citizens, and I think that it would be foolish to think that we are not citizens of our countries and of our societies when we function as journalists and journalistic institutions, and also as human beings. And I think one of the critical decisions that you have to make in a situation is which one of those hats you're wearing and which trumps.

I mean, in a situation in which a rape victim is available to be identified, your journalistic principle says you publish everything, but the human dimension trumps it. And I think that the decision has been widely observed throughout most of the media not to identify rape victims by name. That is a human choice. It is not a journalistic one--in other words, putting the journalistic principles second to the human ones.

I think in the cases of real secrets, the citizenship role is the one that trumps, because you do not do things that are going to be terribly destructive to your country's interests. On the other hand, I think that there are situations in which information is embarrassing but is not politically or genuinely a military secret, in the case of such a situation, I think, as we're in right now. And these are judgment calls. Does the damage overwhelm the importance of the information? Is the citizenship role more important, or is the journalistic one?

In my estimation, in this particular case, the journalistic responsibility was to get this information before the public and do it in a way that did not jeopardize the national interests, and they did that on Friday by leaving a lot of technical information out. But they were acting on journalistic principles, and journalistic principles had trumped the citizenship ones in the sense that the weight of the argument was on getting the information out rather than protecting a secret that the government didn't want disclosed.

HANSEN: Alex Jones is the director of the Joan Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics and Public Policy at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University, and he spoke with us from his home in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

Thank you so much for your time.

Mr. JONES: You're welcome, Liane.

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