What Can be Learned from Lichtblau?

Reading the NSA tea leaves right

Yesterday, Slate published a 1,733 word adapted-extract from Eric Lichtblau’s upcoming book, Bush’s Law: The Remaking of American Justice. The section, while full of other interesting nuggets, is notable for its insider account of the tense moments leading up to The New York Times’s belated decision to publish Lichtblau and James Risen’s blockbuster December 16, 2005 story on the Bush administration’s warrantless NSA wiretapping program.

Gabe Sherman, who was, at that time, a writer for The New York Observer, is something of an expert on what happened at the Times before publication. That’s why it’s weird that yesterday, in writing on Slate’s excerpt for The New Republic, he overstepped by suggesting that “Bill Keller’s prior public comments on the episode now are contradicted by Lichtblau’s version of events.”

Why does this matter? We still don’t have a complete explanation for why the Times declined to run after a delay of at least a year. There are a lot of possible answers: that they wanted to avoid accusations of an October surprise shortly before the 2004 presidential election; that they were cowed by an atmosphere of fear; that they bought the administration’s claim that disclosing the program would unnecessarily aid and abet terrorism; that the story wasn’t truly ready; or yes, that they finally acted only to forestall being scooped by James Risen’s book. It could be all, none, or some combination of the above.

Lichtblau presumably knows a lot of the story. Yesterday, he offered just a glimpse, which we would be wise to read strictly. But here’s what Sherman offered yesterday on “The Plank”:

A lot of this confirms what we already know. But the most salient disclosure in Lichtblau’s account comes later. Lichtblau writes that Risen’s book was the “trigger” that spurred Times editors to finally run the long-awaited NSA investigation.

“Risen spoke with our editors about what he was contemplating, and so began weeks of discussions between him and the editors that ultimately helped to set the story back on track,” he writes.

But re-reading Lichtblau, there’s a bit more nuance. Take a look:

One night in the spring of 2005, [Risen] called me out to his home in suburban Maryland and sat me down at his computer. There on the computer screen was a draft of a chapter called simply “The Program.” It was about the NSA’s wiretapping operation. “I’m thinking of putting this in the book,” he said. I sat and stared at the screen in silence. “You sure you know what you’re doing?” I asked finally. He shrugged.

Risen spoke with our editors about what he was contemplating, and so began weeks of discussions between him and the editors that ultimately helped to set the story back on track. Risen’s book was a trigger, but we realized we weren’t in the paper yet.

Notice how Lichtblau says that it was “a” trigger, and not, as Sherman wrote, “the” trigger. Also, note how Lichtblau and Risen’s computer-front conversation, as recounted, is remarkably undefinitive: I’m thinking about, you sure?, and then a shrug. That vagueness is only underscored by the next sentence’s use of the word “contemplating.” What, exactly was he contemplating?

It’s not at all clear at that point what Risen had decided to include or not include in his book. And, as Sherman himself reported for the Observer in January 2006, the Times’s editors didn’t even know that “The Program” chapter would be in the book at the time they published the article.

But still, Sherman draws this conclusion:

Lichtblau’s Slate piece is the first time that a Times staffer involved in the proceedings has disclosed publicly that Risen’s book did in fact pressure the Times to revisit the NSA article that was sitting in the hopper. For his part, Bill Keller’s prior public comments on the episode now are contradicted by Lichtblau’s version of events.

Keller said in a statement in late December 2005: “The publication was not timed to the Iraqi election, the Patriot Act debate, Jim [Risen’s] forthcoming book or any other event. We published the story when we did because after much hard work it was fully reported, checked and ready, and because, after listening respectfully to the Administration’s objections, we were convinced there was no good reason not to publish it.”

Keller later told New York’s Joe Hagan that the “conventional wisdom” that Risen’s book influenced the Times to run the NSA piece was “bullshit.”

But take a look at the “bullshit” quote from Hagan’s September 2006 article, along with the piece’s next paragraph. It gives much more texture to Keller’s view:

In a long e-mail about the origins of the spying story, Keller was adamant that the book had not been the “deciding factor” in publishing. The “conventional wisdom” that Risen’s book forced the paper to publish the story, he writes, “is bullshit.”

But he also admits, “I have tried to be careful never to say the Risen book was irrelevant. I’ve said it was a factor in reopening the discussion.” (In fact, Keller has never said that publicly before.)

As you saw, Sherman writes, citing Hagan, that Keller said that the idea that the book “influenced” the publishing decision is “’bullshit.’” But Hagan used “forced,” a different, stronger, word; according to Hagan, Keller was only dismissing the possibility that they were “forced” by the book. And in fact, as Hagan told us in the next paragraph, Keller fessed that they were certainly influenced: “I’ve said it was a factor.”

Hagan claims that that email from Keller was the first time the editor admitted to being influenced by the book. That may be true, but he’s certainly said the book was a factor in other places since—for example, when he was interviewed for Lowell Bergman’s Frontline “News War” project. So Lichtblau has hardly contradicted all of his boss’s prior statements.

Of course Lichtblau has something to say about what went on at the Times. But he, like the other print reporters and editors involved in the story, has been extremely hesitant to delve into the details. These are people who spend their working days dealing with extreme nuances and subtleties of words and phrases. (This could not be more true of people skilled at national security stories, often crafted from anonymous sources and sensitive information.) I’m as eager as anyone to learn what happened here. But while we figure it out piece by piece, it’s best to take their words very precisely.

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Clint Hendler is the managing editor of Mother Jones, and a former deputy editor of CJR.