NPR's David Folkenflik has a revealing new look at what I have long believed is one of the most important journalistic stories of the last decade: The New York Times' 2004 decision, at the behest of George W. Bush himself, to suppress for 15 months (through Bush's re-election) its reporters' discovery that the NSA was illegally eavesdropping on Americans without warrants.
Folkenflik's NPR story confirms what has long been clear: The only reason the Times eventually published that article was because one of its reporters, James Risen, had become so frustrated that he wrote a book that was about to break the story, leaving the paper with no choice (Risen's co-reporter, Eric Lichtblau, is quoted this way: "'He had a gun to their head,' Lichtblau told Frontline. 'They are really being forced to reconsider: The paper is going to look pretty bad' if Risen's book disclosed the wiretapping program before the Times'").
As Folkenflik notes, this episode was one significant reason Edward Snowden purposely excluded the Times from his massive trove of documents. In an interview with Folkenflik, the paper's new executive editor, Dean Baquet, describes the paper's exclusion from the Snowden story as "really painful." But, as I documented in my book and in recent interviews, Baquet has his own checkered history in suppressing plainly newsworthy stories at the government's request, including a particularly inexcusable 2007 decision, when he was the managing editor of The Los Angeles Times, to kill a story based on AT&T whistleblower Mark Klein's revelations that the NSA had built secret rooms at AT&T to siphon massive amounts of domestic telephone traffic.
In his NPR interview, Baquet insists that he has had a serious change of heart on such questions as a result of the last year of NSA revelations:
"[Baquet] says the experience has proved that news executives are often unduly deferential to seemingly authoritative warnings unaccompanied by hard evidence.
"'I am much, much, much more skeptical of the government's entreaties not to publish today than I was ever before,' Baquet said in a wide-ranging interview. ...
Only time will tell whether Baquet's proclamations on this issue result in any actual change for the paper, but it does shed light on an important question I heard many times over the last month as we approached the one-year anniversary of the first NSA story: what has changed as a result of the last year of disclosures?
One should not expect any change to come from the U.S. government itself (which includes Congress), whose strategy in such cases is to enact the pretext of "reform" so as to placate public anger, protect the system from any serious weakening, and allow President Obama to go before the country and the world and give a pretty speech about how the U.S. heard their anger and re-calibrated the balance between privacy and security. Any new law that comes from the radically corrupted political class in DC will either be largely empty, or worse. The purpose will be to shield the NSA from real reform.
There are, though, numerous other avenues with the real potential to engender serious limits on the NSA's surveillance powers, including the self-interested though genuine panic of the U.S. tech industry over how surveillance will impede their future business prospects, the efforts of other countries to undermine U.S. hegemony over the internet, the newfound emphasis on privacy protections from internet companies worldwide, and, most of all, the increasing use of encryption technology by users around the world that poses genuine obstacles to state surveillance. Those are all far, far more promising avenues than any bill Barack Obama, Dianne Feinstein and Saxby Chambliss will let Congress cough up.
But beyond surveillance and privacy, one of the goals of this NSA reporting (at least from my perspective) was to trigger a desperately needed debate about journalism itself, and the proper relationship of journalists to those who wield political and economic power. The question of why The New York Times was excluded from this story led to a serious public examination for the first time of its decision to suppress that NSA story, which in turn led to public recriminations over the generally excessive deference U.S. media outlets have shown the U.S. government.
Obviously, that debate is far from resolved; witness the endless parade of American journalists who, without any apparent embarrassment, cheered Michael Kinsley's decree that for publication questions, "that decision must ultimately be made by the government." But Baquet's very public expression of regret over past suppression decisions, and his observation that "news executives are often unduly deferential to seemingly authoritative warnings unaccompanied by hard evidence" is evidence of the fruits of that debate.