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Last Friday The New York Times on Page One revealed that President Bush had authorized the National Security Agency to eavesdrop on people who are in the US. Next month Congress will examine whether that action violated federal law, but for now it's the newspaper that's under scrutiny. NPR's David Folkenflik reports that the paper faces questions about why it held that story for a year.
DAVID FOLKENFLIK reporting:
On Saturday, Texas Republican John Cornyn took to the floor of the Senate to denounce The New York Times.
(Soundbite of Senate proceedings)
Senator JOHN CORNYN (Republican, Texas): It's perhaps not a coincidence that just before the vote for cloture on the reauthorization of the Patriot Act that The New York Times released this story.
FOLKENFLIK: And Senator Cornyn said there was a second, hidden reason.
(Soundbite of Senate proceedings)
Sen. CORNYN: The author of this article had turned in a book three months ago, and The New York Times failed to reveal that the urgent story was tied to a book release and its sale.
FOLKENFLIK: Times reporter James Risen's book "State of War" on intelligence matters is due out next month. However, several Times journalists told NPR Cornyn has it backwards, that The Times published the article reluctantly, 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 the ability to track terrorists. In a statement, executive editor Bill Keller said government officials convinced him the president had the legal authority to order the wiretaps. Keller said subsequent reporting showed there were deep divisions within the administration.
But The 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. Michael Getler is the ombudsman for PBS and was a senior editor at The Washington Post. He says The Times deserves credit for its scoop, but he wonders why it took so long.
Mr. MICHAEL GETLER (Ombudsman, PBS): The guideline is that the story gets published when it's ready, 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.
FOLKENFLIK: Newsweek reports President Bush recently summoned Times executive editor Keller and publisher Arthur Sulzberger Jr. to the White House to talk them out of printing the article. They omitted some details but ran it. But Greg Mitchell of Editor and Publisher says the yearlong 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.
Mr. GREG MITCHELL (Editor and Publisher): 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. But the point that many people are raising is that they have not explained themselves well, and so these questions remain.
FOLKENFLIK: Keller would not be interviewed for this story. In another statement, he said the publication of the NSA article, quote, "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 paper that just lost its fight to keep a reporter from testifying about confidential sources in the Valerie Plame CIA leak case. David Folkenflik, NPR News, Washington.
MICHELE NORRIS (Host): This is NPR, National Public Radio.
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