the kicker

Jill Abramson’s flashpoints with the federal government

The former New York Times Executive Editor on her regrets withholding major stories
December 3, 2014

Former New York Times Executive Editor Jill Abramson said Wednesday that she regrets how she handled two high-profile cases where the paper was pushed not to publish national security secrets by the federal government.

“Rather than be too aggressive about publishing these stories, I think we have been too meek. I frankly regret my decision back in 2003 to withhold from publication a story by Jim Risen about Iran’s nuclear program,” she said, speaking at Columbia Journalism School.

Risen’s story, later told in his 2006 book State of War, revealed a botched CIA attempt to undermine Iran’s nuclear program. Then-CIA director George Tenet and National Security Advisor Condoleeza Rice warned the Times that there would be “grave damage” to national security, Abramson said: “I wished I had been more skeptical of their claims.”

When Abramson was managing editor, the Times also held a story by James Risen and Eric Lichtblau on the NSA’s warrantless eavesdropping on US citizens for 13 months. While it won a Pulitzer Prize after publication in 2005, the long delay contributed to Edward Snowden’s decision not to leak NSA information to the Times later, she said.

“I’ve come to believe that unless lives are explicitly in danger… almost all of these stories should be brought out in public,” she said.

She also criticized both the Bush and Obama administrations for their lack of transparency. In six cases during the Bush administration the White House asked the Times to withhold a story. In all but one, they published, in some cases omitting “inessential” details, she said. Meanwhile, Abramson said an Obama aide told her that the president “likes things to be tidy and he won’t tolerate leaks of classified information.”

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Since she was fired from her post at the Times in May, Abramson has made efforts to accentuate her legacy as a First Amendment defender, from her July interview with Fox News’ Greta Van Susteren to her speech Wednesday, which was titled “In Defense of Leaks.”

Abramson said she was disappointed in the media’s loss of interest in NSA practices, and that they “hideously underplayed” the fact that the US shares their data with Israel.

Chris Ip is a CJR Delacorte Fellow. Follow him on Twitter at @chrisiptw.