NYTimes Puts Security “Hold” on News of Taliban Capture

Feb. 16’s New York Times included a front-page article (published online Feb. 15) disclosing that Pakistani and American intelligence forces had recently captured the Taliban’s top military commander, Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar.

In the eighth paragraph of the story, the Times disclosed that its journalists obtained information on this capture on Thursday, Feb. 11, “but delayed reporting it at the request of White House officials, who contended that making it public would end a hugely successful intelligence-gathering effort.”  Speaking on NPR’s The Takeaway, Times Executive Editor Bill Keller explained that Times reporters learned of the capture from sources on the ground in Pakistan and Afghanistan last week, and were asked, when they approached the White House for comment, to hold off on disclosing the information to avoid disrupting ongoing intelligence operations.

Keller’s NPR interview audio:

In the NPR interview, Keller explained the Times‘s decisionmaking this way:

. . . [W]e get asked to withhold information, not often but from time to time sometimes it’s a no-brainer, you know we have reporters embedded in military operations — obviously they don’t file information that would put troops at risk. We’ve had other stories that were much more controversial where we decided that we would publish. This one was not, honestly, a very hard call. Obviously we were eager to break the story, it represented a lot of resourceful reporting by Mark and Dexter, but there was no obvious public interest reason to rush the story into print and you know we are responsible people; we didn’t want to compromise what sounded like a possible intelligence coup.

What does this story tell us about the events depicted in Top Secret?

Top Secret follows the behind-the-scenes decisionmaking at the Washington Post that led to the Post‘s decision to publish information and excerpts from the Pentagon Papers despite knowledge that the White House opposed such publication.  Journalists and editors who participated in the decision argued that, as seasoned journalists experienced in national security matters, they had the knowledge and judgment necessary to decide what was safe to print and when.  With the Pentagon Papers, the newspapers’ decisions conflicted with the position of the Executive Branch.  In this recent Times example, the Times arguably deferred to the White House’s additional knowledge about intelligence efforts that would be threatened by the Times‘s publication.

As Keller stated on NPR “I don’t have spies in the National Security Agency, so knowing whether publishing a story would actually put national security at risk is a harder thing for me to figure out than it would be for somebody who’s actually in the government. . . ”

However, in some cases, as with the Pentagon Papers, a newspaper may decide that its judgment as to what is safe or appropriate to publish differs from the judgment of the Executive Branch.  What factors lead to different results?  Does the decision depend on different relationships between the executive branch and the press under different administrations?  On the urgency of the public’s interest in certain information? Or merely on differences in the political environment and national security interests at stake?

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