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?

Leaks, Classified Docs, and Tell-Alls

As Washington fumes and demands answers in light of the leak of the destruction of the CIA “torture tapes“, the House, Senate, and Executive are all promising investigations, and are focusing the nation’s attention on the potential CIA abuses of the classification system and national archiving policies. Key texts in understanding the CIA and classification systems include Tim Weiner’s Legacy of Ashes and Ted Gup’s Nation of Secrets (which was subject of a recent discussion).  These developments also come on the heels of more decisions favoring secrecy over transparency, such as the DOJ opinion that the Vice-President’s office is exempt from classification rules, and that the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court’s rulings will remain under seal. Meanwhile, former Nixon aide Egil “Bud” Krogh has released a memoir on “Integrity”, and Daniel Ellsberg is supporting other whistleblowers.

Fall Tour Wraps Up; Government – Press Tension Continues

The Fall 2007 tour of Top Secret, which opened in Hampton, Va., visited universities across the country, including Stanford, and concluded with a performance in Omaha, Nebraska — picking up critical acclaim along the way. Preparations for the 2008 tour are underway, and the kick-off for the second leg of the national tour will be at Wake Forest University on Jan. 17.

But as the tour closed, revelations surfaced about the New York Times, once again withholding information at the request of government officials: “The New York Times has known details of the secret program for more than three years… The newspaper agreed to delay publication of the article after considering a request from the Bush administration, which argued that premature disclosure could hurt the effort to secure the weapons…. Early this week, the White House withdrew its request that publication be withheld, though it was unwilling to discuss details of the program.”

Does this represent another example of the Times holding the story to prevent upsetting a political balance, as it has been accused of doing with the NSA wiretapping story, or is it an example, as piece author David Sanger claims, of the Times holding the story only until as long as necessary for security matters. The discussions around this and other topics will be dynamic as the 2008 tour gets underway.

Release of So-Called “Torture Memos” Shifts Debate

The leak of the latest in the line of “Torture Memos” — written legal opinions in which the Department of Justice tries to give justification for its approving stance on the Orwellian- named ‘enhanced interrogation techniques‘ — has been able to shift the political debate in Washington as the new attorney general nomination is considered. The “Bradbury Memos” , named for the Justice Department official who authorized their promulgation, have created a backdrop that sounds in echo of the anti-totalitarian classic “Farenheit 451″. Neither calls for their release nor the appeal to national conscience has led to transparency or retraction.  Coupled with new disclosures that raise questions about the CIA’s own inspector general and his department, the secrecy that has for years gripped so tightly by the C.I.A., and now encouraged by the White House, is seemingly strangling only itself more strongly than the enemies it is trying to overcome.