DS: I went to them, to the government—I am not going to be any more specific about who in the government—and I said, this is what I have. This is very standard New York Times practice. Exactly what we did when we handled the Wikileaks material in 2010. If there are concerns about ongoing operations, lives that would be endangered, or future operations, we tell them, ‘let’s talk about that now before it’s published.’
PS: I actually hate this amorphous term, “the government.”
DS: I discussed the issues with officials whom I thought would be knowledgeable on the subject. I suspected that there could be some sensitivities. Almost all of their concerns were of a technical nature.
PS: What’s your response to Peggy Noonan—her column saying that there was something “childish” about your disclosures of national-security secrets in the book?
DS: I saw that. I profoundly disagreed with it. There is nothing ‘childish’ about raising issues of great public import, and how we conduct ourselves in overt and covert wars is a central question in any democracy. At the same time, I don’t think that there are any people more aware than reporters covering national security for The Times and elsewhere that whatever is published these days is published around the world. And I was acutely aware that I was writing this book for an international audience.
Let me reinforce a point that I didn’t see in her column. Let’s go to the key disclosure that has people so intently interested, which is Olympic Games. How was it that the Iranians learn that the Natanz enrichment center was under cyber-attack? Did they learn it from David Sanger’s articles? I don’t think so. They learned it in 2010 when the [computer] worm escaped from the Natanz enrichment center and thanks to an error in programming ended up being replicated around the world. At that moment, the whole world knew Iran was the target of a cyber-attack. And the Iranians publicly attributed the attack to the US and to Israel.
PS: The overriding concern of Noonan and others is that Obama administration officials massively leaked to you for this book. I’d like to read you something that C.L. Sulzberger, a former chief foreign correspondent and columnist for The New York Times, once wrote on this very topic. “Rule A for a newspaperman,” Sulzberger said, “is that ‘leaks’ are the food of the trade; and over the years I have found that, as with the best drinks, the leak always fizzes from the top. The desire for indiscretion at the upper level seems compelling.” That’s about right, don’t you think?
DS: It was certainly not my experience in this book. This whole story developed from the bottom up. I don’t like the phrase “leaks,” because it conveys, in some sense, that you’re sitting on your back porch sipping an iced tea and someone calls you up and says, “Do you want to meet in a garage? I have this file for you on this highly classified program.” In 30 years at The New York Times, that has never happened to me. It happens in the movies, and I guess it happened to Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, but it never happened to me.
The best way to report these [stories], I find, is from the very ground level up, so that by the time you end up going to the government, you basically have the entire story, and my experience in the past is that if government officials contribute it is usually to try to deduct things from the story rather than to add to them.
PS: Still, it’s clear that many senior administration officials talked to you. Why?
DS: I think it is pretty self-evident that they are making the argument that the president acted decisively and in their view rightly. I would not say that that is a unique characteristic of the Obama administration. Throughout the Bush administration, how many tick-tocks did you read about decisions to invade Afghanistan, to invade Iraq? It was exactly the same thing.
PS: So it’s basically a sophisticated form of public relations and image building?
DS: Yes, I think it’s a sophisticated form of trying to portray whoever the president is, Democrat or Republican, as a strong leader. If you’re a sophisticated correspondent, and have been doing this for a while, you recognize that for what it is. That isn’t to say that the facts you gather along the way are wrong.